Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool by George Orwell.

William Shakespeare by an unknown artist (1609).
In 1909, a year before his death, Leo Tolstoy's Shakespeare and the Drama was published. It was a response to another article, Shakespeare's Attitude Toward the Working Classes by Ernest Crosby (1903), and Tolstoy in his article proved, to put it mildly, he was no fan of our William Shakespeare. In one of the first paragraphs he wrote,
I remember the astonishment I felt when I first read Shakespeare. I expected to receive a powerful aesthetic 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-existent merits,—thereby distorting their esthetic and ethical understanding,—is a great evil, as is every untruth. [the article can be read in full here]
Some thirty-eight years later George Orwell (in Polemic) wrote his response to Tolstoy's essay, Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool (1947). It begins with a summary; as Orwell notes, Tolstoy's essay "is not even an easy document to get hold of, at any rate in an English translation." He goes on to write,
Shakespeare, Tolstoy adds, is not merely no genius, but is not even ‘an average author’, and in order to demonstrate this fact he will examine King Lear, which, as he is able to show by quotations from Hazlitt, Brandes and others, has been extravagantly praised and can be taken as an example of Shakespeare's best work.
Tolstoy then makes a sort of exposition of the plot of King Lear, finding it at every step to be stupid, verbose, unnatural, unintelligible, bombastic, vulgar, tedious and full of incredible events, ‘wild ravings’, ‘mirthless jokes’, anachronisms, irrelevaricies, obscenities, worn-out stage conventions and other faults both moral and aesthetic. Lear is, in any case, a plagiarism of an earlier and much better play, King Leir, by an unknown author, which Shakespeare stole and then ruined. It is worth quoting a specimen paragraph to illustrate the manner in which Tolstoy goes to work. Act III, Scene 2 (in which Lear, Kent and the Fool are together in the storm) is summarized thus:
Lear walks about the heath and says word which are meant to express his despair: he desires that the winds should blow so hard that they (the winds) should crack their cheeks and that the rain should fiood everything, that lightning should singe his white bead, and the thunder flatten the world and destroy all germs ‘that make ungrateful man’! The fool keeps uttering still more senseless words. Enter Kent: Lear says that for some reason during this storm all criminals shall be found out and convicted. Kent, still unrecognized by Lear, endeavours to persuade him to take refuge in a hovel. At this point the fool utters a prophecy in no wise related to the situation and they all depart.”
Tolstoy's final verdict on Lear is that no unhypnotized observer, if such an observer existed, could read it to the end with any feeling except ‘aversion and weariness’. And exactly the same is true of ‘all the other extolled dramas of Shakespeare, not to mention the senseless dramatized tales, Pericles, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, Cymbeline, Troilus and Cressida.’
Leo Tolstoy.
Rather that concentrate on Shakespeare's complete works, or indeed the above mentioned Pericles, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, Cymbeline, and Troilus and Cressida, Orwell chooses to keep his focus on Shakespeare's 1606 tragedy King Lear. Tolstoy had referred to King Lear, mentioning "the pompous, characterless language of King Lear, the same in which all Shakespeare's Kings speak", it's "strife... quite arbitrarily established by the author, and therefore can not produce on the reader the illusion which represents the essential condition of art", and the very damning "instead of feeling fear and pity, one is tempted rather to laugh." Orwell first points out that Shakespeare is so well-loved and enjoyed by so many, one must ask; is Shakespeare a good writer (who some may not enjoy) or was there "a sort of mass hypnosis, or ‘epidemic suggestion’." Tolstoy had suggested this himself, referring to the Dreyfus Case of 1894 - 1906:
A striking example of such mutual influence of the public and the press was the excitement in the case of Dreyfus, which lately caught hold of the whole world.
As Orwell points out this, in the grand scheme of things, was short-lived. At the time of publication, Tolstoy's essay was over 300 years older than King Lear. Tolstoy went on to suggest that it was the Germans who glorified Shakespeare in the 18th Century, dissatisfied with their own drama and the French's "pseudo-classical drama" (a quote from Tolstoy's essay), and ultimately, says Tolstoy, Shakespeare was a bad writer.

But Orwell cannot let that one pass by;
One's first feeling is that in describing Shakespeare as a bad writer he is saying something demonstrably untrue. But this is not the case. In reality there is no kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or any other writer, is ‘good’. Nor is there any way of definitely proving that — for instance — Warwick Beeping is ‘bad’. Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion. Artistic theories such as Tolstoy's are quite worthless, because they not only start out with arbitrary assumptions, but depend on vague terms (‘sincere’, ‘important’ and so forth) which can be interpreted in any way one chooses. Properly speaking one cannot answer Tolstoy's attack. The interesting question is: why did he make it? But it should be noticed in passing that he uses many weak or dishonest arguments. Some of these are worth pointing out, not because they invalidate his main charge but because they are, so to speak, evidence of malice.
Next, he addresses Tolstoy's so-called impartiality, claiming that Tolstoy's essay is "a prolonged exercise in misrepresentation" and pointing to Tolstoy's summary of the play, calling it unnecessarily complicated and wilfully misunderstanding certain elements. Why Tolstoy has done this is a question that must be asked.
... why did Tolstoy, with thirty or more plays to choose from, pick out King Lear as his especial target? True, Lear is so well known and has beeen so much praised that it could justly be taken as representative of Shakespeare's best work; still, for the purpose of a hostile analysis Tolstoy would probably choose the play he-disliked most. Is it not possible that he bore an especial enmity towards this particular play because he was aware, consciously or unconsciously, of the resemblance between Lear's story and his own? But it is better to approach this clue from the opposite direction — that is, by examining Lear itself, and the qualities in it that Tolstoy fails to mention.
Orwell first suggests the language barrier, drawing attention to the beauty of Shakespeare's language that may be unappreciated by someone who is not a native speaker. From here he writes on the Fool of the play, which, Orwell writes, is an integral part, serving the purpose of the Chorus we see in the Ancient Greek plays:
His jokes, riddles and scraps of rhyme, and his endless digs at Lear's high-minded folly, ranging from mere derision to a sort of melancholy poetry (‘All thy other titles thou hast given away, that thou wast born with’), are like a trickle of sanity running through the play, a reminder that somewhere or other in spite of the injustices, cruelties, intrigues, deceptions and misunderstandings that are being enacted here, life is going on much as usual. In Tolstoy's impatience with the Fool one gets a glimpse of his deeper quarrel with Shakespeare.
George Orwell.
This raises the difference in Tolstoy's art from Shakespeare's, and, furthermore, represents "the quarrel between the religious and the humanist attitudes towards life." Shakespeare was more holistic in his approach to writing and Tolstoy more austere. And then there is the plot: Orwell notes, "though Tolstoy could not foresee it when he wrote his essay on Shakespeare, even the ending of his life — the sudden unplanned flight across country, accompanied only by a faithful daughter, the death in a cottage in a strange village — seems to have in it a sort of phantom reminiscence of Lear." For this King Lear may be especially disturbing and even distressing to Tolstoy than the average reader.

In short, there are, as Orwell points out, some problems with Tolstoy's analysis (some of which I've mentioned, there are more in Orwell's interesting and rather complex essay: it can be read in full here), but the upshot is Orwell objects not only to Tolstoy's words but his bias which is used (and denied) in order to essentially ruin Shakespeare for everyone else:
If we are to believe what he says in his pamphlet, Tolstoy has never been able to see any merit in Shakespeare, and was always astonished to find that his fellow-writers, Turgenev, Fet and others thought differently. We may be sure that in his unregenerate days Tolstoy's conclusion would have been: ‘You like Shakespeare — I don't. Let's leave it at that.’ Later, when his perception that it takes all ‘sorts to make a world had deserted him, he came to think of Shakespeare's writings as something dangerous to himself. The more pleasure people took in Shakespeare, the less they would listen to Tolstoy. Therefore nobody must be allowed to enjoy Shakespeare, just as nobody must be allowed to drink alcohol or smoke tobacco. True, Tolstoy would not prevent them by force. He is not demanding that the police shall impound every copy of Shakespeare's works. But he will do dirt on Shakespeare, if he can. He will try to get inside the mind of every lover of Shakespeare and kill his enjoyment by every trick he can think of, including — as I have shown in my summary of his pamphlet — arguments which are self-contradictory or even doubtfully honest.
The effect of Tolstoy's essay however was minimal: as the essay concludes,
He turned all his powers of denunciation against Shakespeare, like all the guns of a battleship roaring simultaneously. And with what result? Forty years later Shakespeare is still there completely unaffected, and of the attempt to demolish him nothing remains except the yellowing pages of a pamphlet which hardly anyone has read, and which would be forgotten altogether if Tolstoy had not also been the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
This is a very forceful essay: I saw Tolstoy's essay on Shakespeare referred to as the 'clash of the Titans', and throwing Orwell into the equation makes it all the more so. Orwell, as ever, is very accessible and one can always see with Orwell he writes to be understood, not to mystify. There is something rather intimidating about it: Tolstoy writing on Shakespeare and in turn being written about by Orwell. Unlike Tolstoy's essay, which I've skimmed through, Orwell provokes discussion and though he may argue forcefully it's not unkind. Tolstoy on the other hand: one feels one would dare not engage with the essay; one would simply read it and try to forget about it, which was I suppose one of Orwell's points!

And that was my fourth title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week: Old Maids and Bachelors by Oliver Goldsmith.


  1. i had heard of The Tolstoy/Shakspeare contretemps, but wasn't aware that Orwell wrote an essay about it... many tx for studying it... it's hard to believe that T, an intelligent (presumably) and literate author, could work up such dislike against a known genius on any strictly analytical grounds unless he was just jealous... a more than peculiar example of how even the most talented of us has blind spots and/or unalterable habits of thought...

    1. I don't know, but personally I've never been fond of the suggestion that because writer A speaks or writes disparagingly of writer B, it must be jealousy- that, to me, is too simplistic. The way I see it, each writer has their own vision, their own aesthetics, their own ideas about art, and sometimes there's such a clash that 1 writer is simply unable to appreciate the other.
      Regarding George Orwell's essay, I don't really like it. Instead of writing about the greatness of Shakespeare, Orwell seems to be attacking Tolstoy as a person, which in a sense works but...

    2. Di - yes, I see what you mean and as a general argument one should approach with caution, but Tolstoy really did seem to twist the knife in. I'm not saying I think he *was* jealous, but like Mudpuddle said it's not without the realms of possibility... It is, as you say, a case of being unable to appreciate an author so different, but at the same time one can't help but feel Tolstoy would have had that in his mind and not been as quick to be so critical of Shakespeare... I don't know, I really don't, I know nothing of Tolstoy the man! It's an interesting question.

      I do like Orwell's essay, I think the point was to write about Tolstoy attacking Shakespeare as opposed to just on Shakespeare. I wonder why Orwell objected so strongly though, and why he didn't just let it go. I suppose he was angry at the idea of someone, i.e. Tolstoy, trying to 'ruin' Shakespeare.

      Whatever the case they make for an odd pair of essays! I should read that Crosby essay too and see what that's like!

    3. What I mean is, in the essay disparaging Shakespeare, Tolstoy writes that he asked lots of people about the greatness of Shakespeare but nobody told him, and in the response, George Orwell doesn't write that, doesn't expand on that. He focuses on Tolstoy the person, which now and then looks like ad hominem attacks to me.

    4. Yes, I do see elements of that. It's odd, how irritated Orwell was with Tolstoy I mean. I'd love to know why exactly he felt the need to write it all those years later.


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