Tolstoy on Shakespeare

[Posted to commemorate the 185th anniversary of Leo Tolstoy’s birthday]

Tolstoy was a bona fide iconoclast, who was not afraid to think and speak for himself, and did so with the force of reason and conviction, as is evident in his critical essay on Shakespeare.

Comparing Shakespeare with Homer

However distant Homer is from us, we can, without the slightest effort, transport ourselves into the life he describes,…because he believes in what he says and speaks seriously, and therefore he never exaggerates, and the sense of measure never abandons him. This is the reason why, not to speak of the wonderfully distinct, lifelike, and beautiful characters of Achilles, Hector, Priam, Odysseus, and the eternally touching scenes of Hector’s leave-taking, of Priam’s embassy, of Odysseus’s return, and others–the whole of the “Iliad” and still more the “Odyssey” are so humanly near to us that we feel as if we ourselves had lived, and are living, among its gods and heroes.

Not so with Shakespeare. From his first words, exaggeration is seen: the exaggeration of events, the exaggeration of emotion, and the exaggeration of effects. One sees at once that he does not believe in what he says, that it is of no necessity to him, that he invents the events he describes, and is indifferent to his characters–that he has conceived them only for the stage and therefore makes them do and say only what may strike his public; and therefore we do not believe either in the events, or in the actions, or in the sufferings of the characters.

Nothing demonstrates so clearly the complete absence of esthetic feeling in Shakespeare as comparison between him and Homer. The works which we call the works of Homer are artistic, poetic, original works, lived through by the author or authors; whereas the works of Shakespeare–borrowed as they are, and, externally, like mosaics, artificially fitted together piecemeal from bits invented for the occasion–have nothing whatever in common with art and poetry.

Having read Homer myself, I can agree completely with Tolstoy’s approbation. However, I can’t say whether his criticism applies to all of Shakespeare’s works, though I see it in those I have read. Shakespearean characters seldom self-reflect, ISTM. Everyone reflects and comments on other people and the society at large, as if he/she were a spectator off the world stage, not actively living in it. Perhaps that’s partly why he is accessible to the audience, i.e., he identifies with them as a spectator and commentator.

Samuel Johnson wrote in his annotated edition of Shakespeare’s Plays, “Shakespeare is …the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirrour of manners and of life. His characters…are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find…In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species.”

If the poet “holds up to his readers a faithful mirror”, then the mirror image should reflect the individual faithfully, because that is what one sees in the mirror, not “a species” which is abstract, but a concrete and lifelike individual.

Unlike Johnson who looked upon the “general nature” of Shakespearean characters favorably, Tolstoy regarded it as a complete lack of artistry. Great art is universal and unites all man, but it achieves universality by possessing individuality, “as the fruit of the life [the artist] has lived”. Each individual character should speak and act in accord with his life, not as a mere mouthpiece of the playwright.

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