An introduction to the criticism of Shakespeare by one of the world’s greatest novelists, Count Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy.
Count Lev (Leo) Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) was one of the greatest of Russian novelists. Russian literature at its greatest is characterised by its wide vision of humanity, its interest in both the political and spiritual worlds and, also, by its ability to unite humanism with ideology. These characteristics were explored fully by Tolstoy in his greatest works, including War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
As Tolstoy aged, he became increasingly interested in spiritual concepts – he was in some ways similar to Dostoyevsky in this as both reacted to the political ferment of the times (leading up to the unsuccessful Revolution of 1905 and the ultimately successful 1917 Bolshevik Revolution) by withdrawing into increasingly unworldly, reactionary isolationism. In common with many people with religious or spiritual beliefs, he spent a great deal of time trying to stop other people doing many of the kinds of things that they wanted to do and justifying this interference. In Tolstoy’s case, this also manifested itself in his writing and, particularly his criticism of Shakespeare. He describes, in a famous essay, how he read and reread Shakespeare’s works several times throughout the course of his life and with increasing sense of distaste and, indeed, disgust. Most notably, he characterised the work as a ‘lie’ and, ‘like all lies, a great evil.’
What was his motivation for doing this? In the first place, the criticism is not intended to be taken at the literal level because Shakespeare was writing works primarily of fiction, as indeed Tolstoy was. What he really was complaining about was what he considered to be the disconnection between the nature of reality as he considered it to be and the nature of reality as he discerned it was portrayed by Shakespeare. In the first case, Tolstoy believed that certain modes of behaviour were intrinsically preferable to others and these were privileged by God above all others; those who behaved in this way received benefits (i.e. going to heaven) while others did not (i.e. going to hell). However, in the play King Lear above all others, the analysis of which was the central part of Tolstoy’s criticism, certain characters were punished for good or ethical behaviour while others appeared to be rewarded for unethical behaviour. Again, this should not be seen simply on face value because King Lear, like most tragedies, ends up with a fairly hefty body count. It is necessary to penetrate to a deeper level of understanding of who is being rewarded and who is not.