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George Orwell > Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool > Essay

Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool


Tolstoy's pamphlets are the least-known part of his work, and his attack
on Shakespeare [Note, below] is not even an easy document to get hold of,
at any rate in an English translation. Perhaps, therefore, it will be
useful if I give a summary of the pamphlet before trying to discuss it.

[Note: SHAKESPEARE AND THE DRAMA. Written about 1903 as an introduction to
another pamphlet, SHAKESPEARE AND THE WORKING CLASSES, by Ernest Crosby.
(Author's footnote)]

Tolstoy begins by saying that throughout life Shakespeare has aroused in
him "an irresistible repulsion and tedium". Conscious that the opinion of
the civilized world is against him, he has made one attempt after another
on Shakespeare's works, reading and re-reading them in Russian, English
and German; but "I invariably underwent the same feelings; repulsion,
weariness and bewilderment". Now, at the age of seventy-five, he has once
again re-read the entire works of Shakespeare, including the historical
plays, and

I have felt with an 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 aesthetic and ethical understanding--is a great evil, as is every

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

Having dealt with Lear Tolstoy draws up a more general indictment against
Shakespeare. He finds that Shakespeare has a certain technical skill
which is partly traceable to his having been an actor, but otherwise no
merits whatever. He has no power of delineating character or of making
words, and actions spring naturally out of situations, Us language is
uniformly exaggerated and ridiculous, he constantly thrusts his own
random thoughts into the mouth of any character who happens to be handy,
he displays a "complete absence of aesthetic feeling", and his words
"have nothing whatever in common with art and poetry".

"Shakespeare might have been whatever you like," Tolstoy concludes, "but
he was not an artist." Moreover, his opinions are not original or
interesting, and his tendency is "of the lowest and most immoral".
Curiously enough, Tolstoy does not base this last judgement on
Shakespeare's own utterances, but on the statements of two critics,
Gervinus and Brandes. According to Gervinus (or at any, rate Tolstoy's
reading of Gervinus) "Shakespeare taught. . . THAT ONE MAY BE TOO GOOD",
while according to Brandes: "Shakespeare's fundamental principle. . . is
that THE END JUSTIFIES THE MEANS." Tolstoy adds on his own account that
Shakespeare was a jingo patriot of the worst type, but apart from this he
considers that Gervinus and Brandes have given a true and adequate
description of Shakespeare's view of life.

Tolstoy then recapitulates in a few paragraphs the theory of art which he
had expressed at greater length elsewhere. Put still more shortly, it
amounts to a demand for dignity of subject matter, sincerity, and good
craftsmanships. A great work of art must deal with some subject which is
"important to the life of mankind", it must express someting which the
author genuinely feels, and it must use such technical methods as will
produce the desired effect. As Shakespeare is debased in outlook,
slipshod in execution and incapable of being sincere even for a moment,
he obviously stands condemned.

But here there arises a difficult question. If Shakespeare is all that
Tolstoy has shown him to be, how did he ever come to be so generally
admired? Evidently the answer can only lie in a sort of mass hypnosis, or
"epidemic suggestion". The whole civilized world has somehow been deluded
into thinking Shakespeare a good writer, and even the plainest
demonstration to the contrary makes no impression, because one is not
dealing with a reasoned opinion but with something akin to religious
faith. Throughout history, says Tolstoy, there has been an endless series
of these "epidemic suggestions"--for example, the Crusades, the search
for the Philosopher's Stone, the craze for tulip growing which once swept
over Holland, and so on and so forth. As a contemporary instance he
cites, rather significantly, the Dreyfus case, over which the whole world
grew violently excited for no sufficient reason. There are also sudden
short-lived crazes for new political and philosophical theories, or for
this or that writer, artist or scientist--for example, Darwin who (in
1903) is "beginning to be forgotten". And in some cases a quite worthless
popular idol may remain in favour for centuries, for "it also happens
that such crazes, having arisen in consequence of special reasons
accidentally favouring their establishment correspond in such a degree to
the views of life spread in society, and especially in literary circles,
that they are maintained for a long time". Shakespeare's plays have
continued to be admired over a long period because "they corresponded to
the irreligious and unmoral frame of mind of the upper classes of his
time and ours".

As to the manner in which Shakespeare's fame STARTED, Tolstoy explains it
as having been "got up" by German professors towards the end of the
eighteenth century. His reputation "originated in Germany, and thence was
transferred to England". The Germans chose to elevate Shakespeare
because, at a time when there was no German drama worth speaking about
and French classical literature was beginning to seem frigid and
artificial, they were captivated by Shakespeare's "clever development of
scenes" and also found in him a good expression of their own attitude
towards life. Goethe pronounced Shakespeare a great poet, whereupon all
the other critics flocked after him like a troop of parrots, and the
general infatuation has lasted ever since. The result has been a further
debasement of the drama--Tolstoy is careful to include his own plays
when condemning the contemporary stage--and a further corruption of the
prevailing moral outlook. It follows that "the false glorification of
Shakespeare" is an important evil which Tolstoy feels it his duty to

This, then, is the substance of Tolstoy's pamphlet. 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

To begin with, his examination of KING LEAR is not "impartial", as he
twice claims. On the contrary, it is a prolonged exercise in
misrepresentation. It is obvious that when you are summarizing KING LEAR
for the benefit of someone who has not read it, you are not really being
impartial if you introduce an important speech (Lear's speech when
Cordelia is dead in his arms) in this manner: "Again begin Lear's awful
ravings, at which one feels ashamed, as at unsuccessful jokes." And in a
long series of instances Tolstoy slightly alters or colours the passages
he is criticizing, always in such a way as to make the plot appear a
little more complicated and improbable, or the language a little more
exaggerated. For example, we are told that Lear "has no necessity or
motive for his abdication", although his reason for abdicating (that he
is old and wishes to retire from the cares of state) has been clearly
indicated in the first scene. It will be seen that even in the passage
which I quoted earlier, Tolstoy has wilfully misunderstood one phrase and
Slightly changed this meaning of another, making nonsense of a remark
which is reasonable enough in its context. None of these misreadings is
very gross in itself, but their cumulative effect is to exaggerate the
psychological incoherence of the play. Again, Tolstoy is not able to
explain why Shakespeare's plays were still in print, and still on the
stage, two hundred years after his death (BEFORE the "epidemic
suggestion" started, that is); and his whole account of Shakespeare's
rise to fame is guesswork punctuated by outright misstatements. And
again, various of his accusations contradict one another: for example,
Shakespeare is a mere entertainer and "not in earnest", but on the other
hand he is constantly putting his own thoughts into the mouths of his
characters. On the whole it is difficult to feel that Tolstoy's
criticisms are uttered in good faith. In any case it is impossible that
he should fully have believed in his main thesis--believed, that is to
say, that for a century or more the entire civilized world had been taken
in by a huge and palpable lie which he alone was able to see through.
Certainly his dislike of Shakespeare is real enough, but the reasons for
it may be different, or partly different, from what he avows; and therein
lies the interest of his pamphlet.

At this point one is obliged to start guessing. However, there is one
possible clue, or at least there is a question which may point the way to
a clue. It is: 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.

One of the first things an English reader would notice in Tolstoy's
pamphlet is that it hardly deals with Shakespeare as a poet. Shakespeare
is treated as a dramatist, and in so far as his popularity is not
spurious, it is held to be due to tricks of stagecraft which give good
opportunities to clever actors. Now, so far as the English-speaking
countries go, this is not true; Several of the plays which are most
valued by lovers of Shakespeare (for instance, TIMON OF ATHENS) are
seldom or never acted, while some of the most actable, such as
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, are the least admired. Those who care most for
Shakespeare value him in the first place for his use of language, the
"verbal music" which even Bernard Shaw, another hostile critic, admits to
be "irresistible". Tolstoy ignores this, and does not seem to realize
that a poem may have a special value for those who speak the language in
which it was written. However, even if one puts oneself in Tolstoy's
place and tries to think of Shakespeare as a foreign poet it is still
clear that there is something that Tolstoy has left out. Poetry, it
seems, is NOT solely a matter of sound and association, and valueless
outside its own language-group: otherwise how is it that some poems,
including poems written in dead languages, succeed in crossing frontiers?
Clearly a lyric like "To-morrow is Saint Valentine's Day" could not be
satisfactorily translated, but in Shakespeare's major work there is
something describable as poetry that can be separated from the words.
Tolstoy is right in saying that LEAR is not a very good play, as a play.
It is too drawn-out and has too many characters and sub-plots. One wicked
daughter would have been quite enough, and Edgar is a superfluous
character: indeed it would probably be a better play if Gloucester and
both his sons were eliminated. Nevertheless, something, a kind of
pattern, or perhaps only an atmosphere, survives the complications and
the LONGUEURS. LEAR can be imagined as a puppet show, a mime, a ballet, a
series of pictures. Part of its poetry, perhaps the most essential part,
is inherent in the story and is dependent neither on any particular set
of words, nor on flesh-and-blood presentation.

Shut your eyes and think of KING LEAR, if possible without calling to
mind any of the dialogue. What do you see? Here at any rate is what I
see; a majestic old man in a long black robe, with flowing white hair and
beard, a figure out of Blake's drawings (but also, curiously enough,
rather like Tolstoy), wandering through a storm and cursing the heavens,
in company with a Fool and a lunatic. Presently the scene shifts and the
old man, still cursing, still understanding nothing, is holding a dead
girl in his arms while the Fool dangles on a gallows somewhere in the
background. This is the bare skeleton of the play, and even here Tolstoy
wants to cut out most of what is essential. He objects to the storm, as
being unnecessary, to the Fool, who in his eyes is simply a tedious
nuisance and an excuse for making bad jokes, and to the death of
Cordelia, which, as he sees it, robs the play of its moral. According to
Tolstoy, the earlier play. KING LEIR, which Shakespeare adapted

terminates more naturally and more in accordance with the moral demands
of the spectator than does Shakespeare's; namely, by the King of the
Gauls conquering the husbands of the elder sisters, and by Cordelia,
instead of being killed, restoring Leir to his former position.

In other words the tragedy ought to have been a comedy, or perhaps a
melodrama. It is doubtful whether the sense of tragedy is compatible with
belief in God: at any rate, it is not compatible with disbelief in human
dignity and with the kind of "moral demand" which feels cheated when
virtue fails to triumph. A tragic situation exists precisely when virtue
does NOT triumph but when it is still felt that man is nobler than the
forces which destroy him. It is perhaps more significant that Tolstoy
sees no justification for the presence of the Fool. The Fool is integral
to the play. He acts not only as a sort of chorus, making the central
situation clearer by commenting on it more intelligently than the other
characters, but as a foil to Lear's frenzies. 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. He objects, with some justification, to
the raggedness of Shakespeare's plays, the irrelevancies, the incredible
plots, the exaggerated language: but what at bottom he probably most
dislikes is a sort of exuberance, a tendency to take--not so much a
pleasure as simply an interest in the actual process of life. It is a
mistake to write Tolstoy off as a moralist attacking an artist. He never
said that art, as such, is wicked or meaningless, nor did he even say
that technical virtuosity is unimportant. But his main aim, in his later
years, was to narrow the range of human consciousness. One's interests,
one's points of attachment to the physical world and the day-to-day
struggle, must be as few and not as many as possible. Literature must
consist of parables, stripped of detail and almost independent of
language. The parables--this is where Tolstoy differs from the average
vulgar puritan--must themselves be works of art, but pleasure and
curiosity must be excluded from them. Science, also, must be divorced
from curiosity. The business of science, he says, is not to discover what
happens but to teach men how they ought to live. So also with history and
politics. Many problems (for example, the Dreyfus case) are simply not
worth solving, and he is willing to leave them as loose ends. Indeed his
whole theory of "crazes" or "epidemic suggestions", in which he lumps
together such things as the Crusades and the Dutch passion of tulip
growing, shows a willingness to regard many human activities as mere
ant-like rushings to and fro, inexplicable and uninteresting. Clearly he
could have no patience with a chaotic, detailed, discursive writer like
Shakespeare. His reaction is that of an irritable old man who is being
pestered by a noisy child. "Why do you keep jumping up and down like
that? Why can't you sit still like I do?" In a way the old man is in the
right, but the trouble is that the child, has a feeling in its limbs
which the old man has lost. And if the old man knows of the existence of
this feeling, the effect is merely to increase his irritation: he would
make children senile, if he could. Tolstoy does not know, perhaps, just
WHAT he misses in Shakespeare, but he is aware that he misses something,
and he is determined that others shall be deprived of it as well. By
nature he was imperious as well as egotistical. Well after he was grown
up he would still occasionally strike his servant in moments of anger,
and somewhat later, according to his English biographer, Derrick Leon, he
felt "a frequent desire upon the slenderest provocation to slap the faces
of those with whom he disagreed". One docs not necessarily get rid of
that kind of temperament by undergoing religious conversion, and indeed
it is obvious that the illusion of having been reborn may allow one's
native vices to flourish more freely than ever, though perhaps in subtler
forms. Tolstoy was capable of abjuring physical violence and of seeing
what this implies, but he was not capable of tolerance or humility, and
even if one knew nothing of his other writings, one could deduce his
tendency towards spiritual bullying from this single pamphlet.

However, Tolstoy is not simply trying to rob others of a pleasure he does
not share. He is doing that, but his quarrel with Shakespeare goes
further. It is the quarrel between the religious and the humanist
attitudes towards life. Here one comes back to the central theme of KING
LEAR, which Tolstoy does not mention, although he sets forth the plot in
some detail.

Lear is one of the minority of Shakespeare's plays that are unmistakably
ABOUT something. As Tolstoy justly complains, much rubbish has been
written about Shakespeare as a philosopher, as a psychologist, as a
"great moral teacher", and what-not. Shakespeare was not a systematic
thinker, his most serious thoughts are uttered irrelevantly or
indirectly, and we do not know to what extent he wrote with a "purpose"
or even how much of the work attributed to him was actually written by
him. In the sonnets he never even refers to the plays as part of his
achievement, though he does make what seems to be a half-ashamed allusion
to his career as an actor. It is perfectly possible that he looked on at
least half of his plays as mere pot-boilers and hardly bothered about
purpose or probability so long as he could patch up something, usually
from stolen material, which would more or less hang together on the
stage. However, that is not the whole story. To begin with, as Tolstoy
himself points out, Shakespeare has a habit of thrusting uncalled-for
general reflections into the mouths of his characters. This is a serious
fault in a dramatist, but it does not fit in with Tolstoy's picture of
Shakespeare as a vulgar hack who has no opinions of his own and merely
wishes to produce the greatest effect with the least trouble. And more
than this, about a dozen of his plays, written for the most part later
than 1600, do unquestionably have a meaning and even a moral. They
revolve round a central subject which in some cases can be reduced to a
single word. For example, MACBETH is about ambition, Othello is about
jealousy, and TIMON OF ATHENS is about money. The subject of LEAR is
renunciation, and it is only by being wilfully blind that one can fail to
understand what Shakespeare is saying.

Lear renounces his throne but expects everyone to continue treating him
as a king. He does not see that if he surrenders power, other people will
take advantage of his weakness: also that those who flatter him the most
grossly, i.e. Regan and Goneril, are exactly the ones who will turn
against him. The moment he finds that he can no longer make people obey
him as he did before, he falls into a rage which Tolstoy describes as
"strange and unnatural", but which in fact is perfectly in character. In
his madness and despair, he passes through two moods which again are
natural enough in his circumstances, though in one of them it is probable
that he is being used partly as a mouthpiece for Shakespeare's own
opinions. One is the mood of disgust in which Lear repents, as it were,
for having been a king, and grasps for the first time the rottenness of
formal justice and vulgar morality. The other is a mood of impotent fury
in which he wreaks imaginary revenges upon those who have wronged him.
"To have a thousand with red burning spits come hissing in upon 'em!",

It were a delicate stratagem to shoe
A troop of horse with felt; I'll put't in proof;
And when I have stol'n upon these sons-in-law,
Then kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!

Only at the end does he realize, as a sane man, that power, revenge and
victory are not worth while:

No, no, no, no! Come, let's away to prison. . .
. . . . . . . . and we'll wear out,
In a wall'd prison, packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by the moon.

But by the time he makes this discovery it is too late, for his death and
Cordelia's are already decided on. That is the story, and, allowing for
some clumsiness in the telling, it is a very good story.

But is it not also curiously similar to the history of Tolstoy himself?
There is a general resemblance which one can hardly avoid seeing, because
the most impressive event in Tolstoy's life, as in Lear's, was a huge and
gratuitous act of renunciation. In his old age, he renounced his estate,
his title and his copyrights, and made an attempt--a sincere attempt,
though it was not successful--to escape from his privileged position and
live the life of a peasant. But the deeper resemblance lies in the fact
that Tolstoy, like Lear, acted on mistaken motives and failed to get the
results he had hoped for. According to Tolstoy, the aim of every human
being is happiness, and happiness can only be attained by doing the will
of God. But doing the will of God means casting off all earthly pleasures
and ambitions, and living only for others. Ultimately, therefore, Tolstoy
renounced the world under the expectation that this would make him
happier. But if there is one thing certain about his later years, it is
that he was NOT happy. On the contraty he was driven almost to the edge
of madness by the behaviour of the people about him, who persecuted him
precisely BECAUSE of his renunciation. Like Lear, Tolstoy was not humble
and not a good judge of character. He was inclined at moments to revert
to the attitudes of an aristocrat, in spite of his peasant's blouse, and
he even had two children whom he had believed in and who ultimately
turned against him--though, of course, in a less sensational manner than
Regan and Goneril. His exaggerated revulsion from sexuality was also
distinctly similar to Lear's. Tolstoy's remark that marriage is "slavery,
satiety, repulsion" and means putting up with the proximity of "ugliness,
dirtiness, smell, sores", is matched by Lear's well-known outburst:

But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiends;
There's hell, there's darkness, there's the sulphurous pit,
Burning, scalding, stench, consumption, etc., etc.

And 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.

Of course, one cannot assume that Tolstoy was aware of this resemblance,
or would have admitted it if it had been pointed out to him. But his
attitude towards the play must have been influenced by its theme.
Renouncing power, giving away your lands, was a subject on which he had
reason to feel deeply; Probably, therefore, he would be more angered and
disturbed by the moral that Shakespeare draws than he would be in the
case of some other play--MACBETH, for example--which did not touch so
closely on his own life. But what exactly is the moral of LEAR? Evidently
there are two morals, one explicit, the other implied in the story.

Shakespeare starts by assuming that to make yourself powerless is to
invite an attack. This does not mean that EVERYONE will turn against you
(Kent and the Fool stand by Lear from first to last), but in all
probability SOMEONE will. If you throw away your weapons, some less
scrupulous person will pick them up. If you turn the other cheek, you
will get a harder blow on it than you got on the first one. This docs not
always happen, but it is to be expected, and you ought not to complain if
it does happen. The second blow is, so to speak, part of the act of
turning the other cheek. First of all, therefore, there is the vulgar,
common-sense moral drawn by the Fool: "Don't relinquish power, don't give
away your lands." But there is also another moral. Shakespeare never
utters it in so many words, and it does not very much matter whether he
was fully aware of it. It is contained in the story, which, after all, he
made up, or altered to suit his purposes. It is: "Give away your lands if
you want to, but don't expect to gain happiness by doing so. Probably you
won't gain happiness. If you live for others, you must live FOR OTHERS,
and not as a roundabout way of getting an advantage for yourself."

Obviously neither of these conclusions could have been pleasing to
Tolstoy. The first of them expresses the ordinary, belly-to-earth
selfishness from which he was genuinely trying to escape. The other
conflicts with his desire to eat his cake and have it--that is, to
destroy his own egoism and by so doing to gain eternal life. Of course,
LEAR is not a sermon in favour of altruism. It merely points out the
results of practising self-denial for selfish reasons. Shakespeare had a
considerable streak of worldliness in him, and if he had been forced to
take sides in his own play, his sympathies would probably have lain with
the Fool. But at least he could see the whole issue and treat it at the
level of tragedy. Vice is punished, but virtue is not rewarded. The
morality of Shakespeare's later tragedies is not religious in the
ordinary sense, and certainly is not Christian. Only two of them, HAMLET
and OTHELLO, are supposedly occurring inside the Christian era, and even
in those, apart from the antics of the ghost in HAMLET, there is no
indication of a "next world" where everything is to be put right. All of
these tragedies start out with the humanist assumption that life,
although full of sorrow, is worth living, and that Man is a noble animal
--a belief which Tolstoy in his old age did not share.

Tolstoy was not a saint, but he tried very hard to make himself into a
saint, and the standards he applied to literature were other-worldly
ones. It is important to realize that the difference between a saint and
an ordinary human being is a difference of kind and not of degree. That
is, the one is not to be regarded as an imperfect form of the other. The
saint, at any rate Tolstoy's kind of saint, is not trying t6 work an
improvement in earthly life: he is trying to bring it to an end and put
something different in its place. One obvious expression of this is the
claim that celibacy is "higher" than marriage. If only, Tolstoy says in
effect, we would stop breeding, fighting, struggling and enjoying, if we
could get rid not only of our sins but of everything else that binds us
to the surface of the earth--including love, then the whole painful
process would be over and the Kingdom of Heaven would arrive. But a
normal human being does not want the Kingdom of Heaven: he wants life on
earth to continue. This is not solely because he is "weak", "sinful" and
anxious for a "good time". Most people get a fair amount of fun out of
their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or
the very foolish imagine otherwise. Ultimately it is the Christian
attitude which is self-interested and hedonistic, since the aim is
always to get away from the painful struggle of earthly life and find
eternal peace in some kind of Heaven or Nirvana. The humanist attitude is
that the struggle must continue and that death is the price of life. "Men
must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither: Ripeness is
all"--which is an un-Christian sentiment. Often there is a seeming truce
between the humanist and the religious believer, but in fact their
attitudes cannot be reconciled: one must choose between this world and
the next. And the enormous majority of human beings, if they understood
the issue, would choose this world. They do make that choice when they
continue working, breeding and dying instead of crippling their faculties
in the hope of obtaining a new lease of existence elsewhere.

We do not know a great deal about Shakespeare's religious beliefs, and
from the evidence of his writings it would be difficult to prove that he
had any. But at any rate he was not a saint or a would-be saint: he was a
human being, and in some ways not a very good one. It is clear, for
instance, that he liked to stand well with the rich and powerful, and was
capable of flattering them in the most servile way. He is also noticeably
cautious, not to say cowardly, in his manner of uttering unpopular
opinions. Almost never does he put a subversive or sceptical remark into
the mouth of a character likely to be identified with himself. Throughout
his plays the acute social critics, the people who are not taken in by
accepted fallacies, are buffoons, villains, lunatics or persons who are
shamming insanity or are in a state of violent hysteria. LEAR is a play
in which this tendency is particularly well marked. It contains a great
deal of veiled social criticism--a point Tolstoy misses--but it is all
uttered either by the Fool, by Edgar when he is pretending to be mad, or
by Lear during his bouts of madness. In his sane moments Lear hardly ever
makes an intelligent remark. And yet the very fact that Shakespeare had
to use these subterfuges shows how widely his thoughts ranged. He could
not restrain himself from commenting on almost everything, although he
put on a series of masks in order to do so. If one has once read
Shakespeare with attention, it is not easy to go a day without quoting
him, because there are not many subjects of major importance that he does
not discuss or at least mention somewhere or other, in his unsystematic
but illuminating way. Even the irrelevancies that litter every one of his
plays--the puns and riddles, the lists of names, the scraps of
"reportage" like the conversation of the carriers in HENRY IV the bawdy
jokes, the rescued fragments of forgotten ballads--are merely the
products of excessive vitality. Shakespeare was not a philosopher or a
scientist, but he did have curiosity, he loved the surface of the earth
and the process of life--which, it should be repealed, is NOT the same
thing as wanting to have a good time and stay alive as long as possible.
Of course, it is not because of the quality of his thought that
Shakespeare has survived, and he might not even be remembered as a
dramatist if he had not also been a poet. His main hold on us is through
language. How deeply Shakespeare himself was fascinated by the music of
words can probably be inferred from the speeches of Pistol. What Pistol
says is largely meaningless, but if one considers his lines singly they
are magnificent rhetorical verse. Evidently, pieces of resounding
nonsense ("Let floods o'erswell, and fiends for food howl on", etc.) were
constantly appearing in Shakespeare's mind of their own accord, and a
half-lunatic character had to be invented to use them up.

Tolstoy's native tongue was not English, and one cannot blame him for
being unmoved by Shakespeare's verse, nor even, perhaps, for refusing to
believe that Shakespeare's skill with words was something out of the
ordinary. But he would also have rejected the whole notion of valuing
poetry for its texture--valuing it, that is to say, as a kind of music.
If it could somehow have been proved to him that his whole explanation of
Shakespeare's rise to fame is mistaken, that inside the English-speaking
world, at any rate, Shakespeare's popularity is genuine, that his mere
skill in placing one syllable beside another has given acute pleasure to
generation after generation of English-speaking people--all this would
not have been counted as a merit to Shakespeare, but rather the contrary.
It would simply have been one more proof of the irreligious, earthbound
nature of Shakespeare and his admirers. Tolstoy would have said that
poetry is to be judged by its meaning, and that seductive sounds merely
cause false meanings to go unnoticed. At every level it is the same
issue--this world against the next: and certainly the music of words is
something that belongs to this world.

A sort of doubt has always hung around the character of Tolstoy, as round
the character of Gandhi. He was not a vulgar hypocrite, as some people
declared him to be, and he would probably have imposed even greater
sacrifices on himself than he did, if he had not been interfered with at
every step by the people surrounding him, especially his wife. But on the
other hand it is dangerous to take such men as Tolstoy at their
disciples' valuation. There is always the possibility--the probability,
indeed--that they have done no more than exchange one form of egoism for
another. Tolstoy renounced wealth, fame and privilege; he abjured
violence in all its forms and was ready to suffer for doing so; but it is
not easy to believe that he abjured the principle of coercion, or at
least the DESIRE to coerce others. There are families in which the father
will say to his child, "You'll get a thick car if you do that again",
while the mother, her eyes brimming over with tears, will take the child
in her arms and murmur lovingly, "Now, darling, IS it kind to Mummy to do
that?" And who would maintain that the second method is less tyrannous
than the first? The distinction that really matters is not between
violence and non-violence, but between having and not having the appetite
for power. There are people who are convinced of the wickedness both of
armies and of police forces, but who are nevertheless much more
intolerant and inquisitorial in outlook than the normal person who
believes that it is necessary to use violence in certain circumstances.
They will not say to somebody else, "Do this, that and the other or you
will go to prison", but they will, if they can, get inside his brain and
dictate his thoughts for him in the minutest particulars. Creeds like
pacifism and anarchism, which seem on the surface to imply a complete
renunciation of power, rather encourage this habit of mind. For if you
have embraced a creed which appears to be free from the ordinary
dirtiness of politics--a creed from which you yourself cannot expect to
draw any material advantage--surely that proves that you are in the
right? And the more you are in the right, the more natural that everyone
else should be bullied into thinking likewise.

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

But finally the most striking thing is how little difference it all
makes. As I said earlier, one cannot ANSWER Tolstoy's pamphlet, at least
on its main counts. There is no argument by which one can defend a poem.
It defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible. And if this test
is valid, I think the verdict in Shakespeare's case must be "not guilty".
Like every other writer, Shakespeare will be forgotten sooner or later,
but it is unlikely that a heavier indictment will ever be brought against
him. Tolstoy was perhaps the most admired literary man of his age, and he
was certainly not its least able pamphleteer. 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.

Index Index

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> Charles Darwin
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> William Shakespeare

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