Tolstoy on Shakespeare

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Tolstoy on Shakespeare
by Leo Tolstoy

Written in 1906.




Mr. Crosby's article[1] on Shakespeare's attitude toward the working classes suggested to me the idea of also expressing my own long-established opinion about the works of Shakespeare, in direct opposition, as it is, to that established in all the whole European world. Calling to mind all the struggle of doubt and self-deceit,—efforts to attune myself to Shakespeare—which I went through owing to my complete disagreement with this universal adulation, and, presuming that many have experienced and are experiencing the same, I think that it may not be unprofitable to express definitely and frankly this view of mine, opposed to that of the majority, and the more so as the conclusions to which I came, when examining the causes of my disagreement with the universally established opinion, are, it seems to me, not without interest and significance.

My disagreement with the established opinion about Shakespeare is not the result of an accidental frame of mind, nor of a light-minded attitude toward the matter, but is the outcome of many years' repeated and insistent endeavors to harmonize my own views of Shakespeare with those established amongst all civilized men of the Christian world.

I remember the astonishment I felt when I first read Shakespeare. I expected to receive a powerful esthetic pleasure, but having read, one after the other, works regarded as his best: "King Lear," "Romeo and Juliet," "Hamlet" and " Macbeth," not only did I feel no delight, but I felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium, and doubted as to whether I was senseless in feeling works regarded as the summit of perfection by the whole of the civilized world to be trivial and positively bad, or whether the significance which this civilized world attributes to the works of Shakespeare was itself senseless. My consternation was increased by the fact that I always keenly felt the beauties of poetry in every form; then why should artistic works recognized by the whole world as those of a genius,—the works of Shakespeare,—not only fail to please me, but be disagreeable to me? For a long time I could not believe in myself, and during fifty years, in order to test myself, I several times recommenced reading Shakespeare in every possible form, in Russian, in English, in German and in Schlegel's translation, as I was advised. Several times I read the dramas and the comedies and historical plays, and I invariably underwent the same feelings: repulsion, weariness, and bewilderment. At the present time, before writing this preface, being desirous once more to test myself, I have, as an old man of seventy-five, again read the whole of Shakespeare, including the historical plays, the "Henrys," "Troilus and Cressida," the "Tempest," "Cymbeline," and I have felt, with even greater force, the same feelings,—this time, however, not of bewilderment, but of firm, indubitable conviction that the unquestionable glory of a great genius which Shakespeare enjoys, and which compels writers of our time to imitate him and readers and spectators to discover in him non-exislent merits,—thereby distorting their esthetic and ethical understanding,—is a great evil, as is every untruth.

Altho I know that the majority of people so firmly believe in the greatness of Shakespeare that in reading this judgment of mine they will not admit even the possibility of its justice, and will not give it the slightest attention, nevertheless I will endeavor, as well as I can, to show why I believe that Shakespeare can not be recognized either as a great genius, or even as an average author.

For illustration of my purpose I will take one of Shakespeare's most extolled dramas, "King Lear," in the enthusiastic praise of which, the majority of critics agree.

"The tragedy of Lear is deservedly celebrated among the dramas of Shakespeare," says Dr. Johnson. "There is perhaps no play which keeps the attention so strongly fixed, which so much agitates our passions, and interests our curiosity."

"We wish that we could pass this play over and say nothing about it," says Hazlitt, "all that we can say must fall far short of the subject, or even of what we ourselves conceive of it. To attempt to give a description of the play itself, or of its effects upon the mind, is mere impertinence; yet we must say something. It is, then, the best of Shakespeare's plays, for it is the one in which he was the most in earnest."

"If the originality of invention did not so much stamp almost every play of Shakespeare," says Hallam, "that to name one as the most original seems a disparagement to others, we might say that this great prerogative of genius, was exercised above all in "Lear." It diverges more from the model of regular tragedy than "Macbeth," or "Othello," and even more than "Hamlet," but the fable is better constructed than in the last of these and it displays full as much of the almost superhuman inspiration of the poet as the other two."

"'King Lear' may be recognized as the perfect model of the dramatic art of the whole world," says Shelley.

"I am not minded to say much of Shakespeare's Arthur," says Swinburne. "There are one or two figures in the world of his work of which there are no words that would be fit or good to say. Another of these is Cordelia. The place they have in our lives and thoughts is not one for talk. The niche set apart for them to inhabit in our secret hearts is not penetrable by the lights and noises of common day. There are chapels in the cathedrals of man's highest art, as in that of his inmost life, not made to be set open to the eyes and feet of the world. Love, and Death, and Memory, keep charge for us in silence of some beloved names. It is the crowning glory of genius, the final miracle and transcendent gift of poetry, that it can add to the number of these and engrave on the very heart of our remembrance fresh names and memories of its own creation."

"Lear is the occasion for Cordelia," says Victor Hugo. "Maternity of the daughter toward the father; profound subject; maternity venerable among all other maternities, so admirably rendered by the legend of that Roman girl, who, in the depths of a prison, nurses her old father. The young breast near the white beard! There is not a spectacle more holy. This filial breast is Cordelia. Once this figure dreamed of and found, Shakespeare created his drama. . . . Shakespeare, carrying Cordelia in his thoughts, created that tragedy like a god who, having an aurora to put forward, makes a world expressly for it."

"In 'King Lear,' Shakespeare's vision sounded the abyss of horror to its very depths, and his spirit showed neither fear, nor giddiness, nor faintness, at the sight, says Brandes." "On the threshold of this work, a feeling of awe comes over one, as on the threshold of the Sistine Chapel, with its ceiling of frescoes by Michael Angelo,—only that the suffering here is far more intense, the wail wilder, and the harmonies of beauty more definitely shattered by the discords of despair."

Such are the judgments of the critics about this drama, and therefore I believe I am not wrong in selecting it as a type of Shakespeare's best.

As impartially as possible, I will endeavor to describe the contents of the drama, and then to show why it is not that acme of perfection it is represented to be by critics, but is something quite different.


The drama of "Lear" begins with a scene giving the conversation between two courtiers, Kent and Gloucester. Kent, pointing to a young man present, asks Gloucester whether that is not his son. Gloucester says that he has often blushed to acknowledge the young man as his son, but has now ceased doing so. Kent says he "can not conceive him." Then Gloucester in the presence of this son of his says: "The fellow's mother could, and grew round-wombed, and had a son for her cradle ere she had a husband for her bed." "I have another, a legitimate son," continues Gloucester, "but altho this one came into the world before he was sent for, his mother was fair and there was good sport at his making, and therefore I acknowledge this one also."

Such is the introduction. Not to mention the coarseness of these words of Gloucester, they are, farther, out of place in the mouth of a person intended to represent a noble character. One can not agree with the opinion of some critics that these words are given to Gloucester in order to show the contempt for his illegitimacy from which Edmund suffers. Were this so, it would first have been unnecessary to make the father express the contempt felt by men in general, and, secondly, Edmund, in his monolog about the injustice of those who despise him for his birth, would have mentioned such words from his father. But this is not so, and therefore these words of Gloucester at the very beginning of the piece, were merely intended as a communication to the public—in a humorous form—of the fact that Gloucester has a legitimate son and an illegitimate one.

After this, trumpets are blown, and King Lear enters with his daughters and sons-in-law, and utters a speech to the effect that, owing to old age, he wishes to retire from the cares of business and divide his kingdom between his daughters. In order to know how much he should give to each daughter, he announces that to the one who says she loves him most he will give most. The eldest daughter, Goneril, says that words can not express the extent of her love, that she loves her father more than eyesight, space, and liberty, loves him so much that it "makes her breath poor." King Lear immediately allots his daughter on the map, her portion of fields, woods, rivers, and meadows, and asks the same question of the second daughter. The second daughter, Regan, says that her sister has correctly expressed her own feelings, only not strongly enough. She, Regan, loves her father so much that everything is abhorrent to her except his love. The king rewards this daughter, also, and then asks his youngest, the favorite, in whom, according to his expression, are "interess'd the vines of France and the milk of Burgundy," that is, whose hand is being claimed by the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy,—he asks Cordelia how she loves him. Cordelia, who personifies all the virtues, as the eldest two all the vices, says, quite out of place, as if on purpose to irritate her father, that altho she loves and honors him, and is grateful to him, yet if she marries, all her love will not belong to her father, but she will also love her husband.

Hearing these words, the King loses his temper, and curses this favorite daughter with the most dreadful and strange maledictions, saying, for instance, that he will henceforth love his daughter as little as he loves the man who devours his own children.

"The barbarous Scythian,
Or he that makes his generation messes
To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom
Be as well neighbour'd, pitied, and relieved.
As thou, my sometime daughter."

The courtier, Kent, defends Cordelia, and desiring to appease the King, rebukes him for his injustice, and says reasonable things about the evil of flatten . Lear, unmoved by Kent, banishes him under pain of death, and calling I to him Cordelia's two suitors, the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France, proposes to them in turn to take Cordelia without dowry. The Duke of Burgundy frankly says that without dowry he will not take Cordelia, but the King of France takes her without dowry and leads her away. After this, the elder sisters, there and then entering into conversation, prepare to injure their father who had endowed them. Thus ends the first scene.

14 TOLSTOY ON SHAKESPEARE Not to mention the pompous, characterless language of King Lear, the same in which all Shakespeare's Kings speak, the reader, oi spectator, can not conceive that a King, how ever old and stupid he may be, could believe the words of the vicious daughters, with whom he had passed his whole life, and not believe his favorite daughter, but curse and banish her; and therefore the spectator, or reader, ca not share the feelings of the persons partic^*- pating in this unnatural scene. The second scene opens with Edmunt, Gloucester's illegitimate son, soliloquizing an the injustice of men, who concede rights and respect to the legitimate son, but deprive the illegitimate son of them, and he determines to ruin Edgar, and to usurp his place. For this purpose, he forges a letter to himself as from Edgar, in which the latter expresses a desire to murder his father. Awaiting his father's approach, Edmund, as if against his will, shows him this letter, and the father imme- diately believes that his son Edgar, whom he tenderly loves, desires to kill him. The father goes away, Edgar enters and Edmund per-

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Such is this celebrated drama. However absurd it may appear in my rendering (which I have endeavored to make as impartial as possible), I may confidently say that in the original it is yet more absurd. For any man of our time—if he were not under the hypnotic suggestion that this drama is the height of perfection—it would be enough to read it to its end (were he to have sufficient patience for this) to be convinced that far from being the height of perfection, it is a very bad, carelessly composed production, which, if it could have been of interest to a certain public at a certain time, can not evoke among us anything but aversion and weariness. Every reader of our time, who is free from the influence of suggestion, will also receive exactly the same impression from all the other extolled dramas of Shakespeare, not to mention the senseless, dramatized tales, "Pericles," "Twelfth Night," Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/61 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/62 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/63 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/64 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/65


But it is not enough that Shakespeare's characters are placed in tragic positions which are impossible, do not flow from the course of events, are inappropriate to time and space—these personages, besides this, act in a way which is out of keeping with their definite character, and is quite arbitrary. It is generally asserted that in Shakespeare's dramas the characters are specially well expressed, that, notwithstanding their vividness, they are many-sided, like those of living people; that, while exhibiting the characteristics of a given individual, they at the same time wear the features of man in general; it is usual to say that the delineation of character in Shakespeare is the height of perfection.

This is asserted with such confidence and repeated by all as indisputable truth; but however much I endeavored to find confirmation of this in Shakespeare's dramas, I always Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/67 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/68 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/69 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/70 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/71 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/72 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/73 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/74 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/75 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/76 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/77 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/78 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/79 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/80 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/81 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/82 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/83 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/84 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/85 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/86 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/87 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/88 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/89 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/90


"Well, but the profound utterances and sayings expressed by Shakespeare's characters," Shakespeare's panegyrists will retort. "See Lear's monolog on punishment, Kent's speech about vengeance, or Edgar's about his former life, Gloucester's reflections on the instability of fortune, and, in other dramas, the famous monologs of Hamlet, Antony, and others."

Thoughts and sayings may be appreciated, I will answer, in a prose work, in an essay, a collection of aphorisms, but not in an artistic dramatic production, the object of which is to elicit sympathy with that which is represented. Therefore the monologs and sayings of Shakespeare, even did they contain very many deep and new thoughts, which they do not, do not constitute the merits of an artistic, poetic production. On the contrary, these speeches, expressed in unnatural conditions, can only spoil artistic works.

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But, perhaps, the height of Shakespeare's conception of life is such that, tho he does not satisfy the esthetic demands, he discloses to us a view of life so new and important for men that, in consideration of its importance, all his failures as an artist become imperceptible. So, indeed, say Shakespeare's admirers. Gervinus says distinctly that besides Shakespeare's significance in the sphere of dramatic poetry in which, according to his opinion, Shakespeare equals "Homer in the sphere of Epos, Shakespeare being the very greatest judge of the human soul, represents a teacher of most indisputable ethical authority and the most select leader in the world and in life."

In what, then, consists this indisputable authority of the most select leader in the world and in life? Gervinus devotes the concluding chapter of his second volume, about fifty pages, to an explanation of this.

Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/98 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/99 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/100 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/101 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/102 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/103 that, thanks to this equality now preached, everything may pass into violence, and violence into arbitrary acts and thence into unchecked passion which will rend the world as the wolf does its prey, and in the end the world will swallow itself up. Even if this does not happen with mankind when it attains equality—if the love of nations and eternal peace prove not to be that impossible "nothing," as Alonso expressed it in "The Tempest"—but if, on the contrary, the actual attainment of aspirations toward equality is possible, then the poet would deem that the old age and extinction of the world had approached, and that, therefore, for active individuals, it is not worth while to live (pp. 571, 572).

Such is Shakespeare's view of life as demonstrated by his greatest exponent and admirer. Another of the most modern admirers of Shakespeare, George Brandes, further sets forth:[2]

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Shakespeare's works do not satisfy the demands of all art, and, besides this, their tendency is of the lowest and most immoral. What then signifies the great fame these works have enjoyed for more than a hundred years?

Many times during my life I have had occasion to argue about Shakespeare with his admirers, not only with people little sensitive to poetry, but with those who keenly felt poetic beauty, such as Turgenef, Fet,[3] and others, and every time I encountered one and the same attitude toward my objection to the praises of Shakespeare. I was not refuted when I pointed out Shakespeare's defects; they only condoled with me for my want of comprehension, and urged upon me the necessity of recognizing the extraordinary supernatural grandeur of Shakespeare, and they did not explain to me Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/110 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/111 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/112 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/113 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/114 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/115 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/116 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/117 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/118 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/119 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/120 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/121 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/122 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/123 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/124 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/125 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/126 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/127 the Infinite. But when, thanks to the German theories about objective art, the idea was established that, for the drama, this was quite unnecessary, then it is obvious how a writer like Shakespeare—who had not got developed in his mind the religious convictions proper to his time, who, in fact, had no convictions at all, but heaped up in his drama all possible events, horrors, fooleries, discussions, and effects—could appear to be a dramatic writer of the greatest genius.

But these are all external reasons. The fundamental inner cause of Shakespeare's fame was and is this: that his dramas were "pro captu lectoris," i.e., they corresponded to the irreligious and immoral frame of mind of the upper classes of his time.


At the beginning of the last century, when Goethe was dictator of philosophic thought and esthetic laws, a series of casual circumstances made him praise Shakespeare. The esthetic critics caught up this praise and took to writing their lengthy, misty, learned articles, and the great European public began to be enchanted with Shakespeare. The critics, answering to the popular interest, and endeavoring to compete with one another, wrote new and ever new essays about Shakespeare; the readers and spectators on their side were increasingly confirmed in their admiration, and Shakespeare's fame, like a lump of snow, kept growing and growing, until in our time it has attained that insane worship which obviously has no other foundation than "suggestion."

Shakespeare finds no rival, not even approximately, either among the old or the new Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/130 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/131 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/132 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/133 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/134 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/135 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/136 Page:Tolstoy on Shakespeare.djvu/137 First, having freed themselves from this deceit, men will come to understand that the drama which has no religious element at its foundation is not only not an important and good thing, as it is now supposed to be, but the most trivial and despicable of things. Having understood this, they will have to search for, and work out, a new form of modern drama, a drama which will serve as the development and confirmation of the highest stage of religious consciousness in men.

Secondly, having freed themselves from this hypnotic state, men will understand that the trivial and immoral works of Shakespeare and his imitators, aiming merely at the recreation and amusement of the spectators, can not possibly represent the teaching of life, and that, while there is no true religious drama, the teaching of life should be sought for in other sources.

  1. This essay owes its origin to Leo Tolstoy's desire to contribute a preface to the article he here mentions by Ernest Crosby, which latter follows in this volume.—(Trans.)
  2. "Shakespeare and His Writings," by George Brandes.
  3. A Russian poet, remarkable for the delicacy of his works.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).