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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



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