Tolstoy on Shakespeare

by Leo Tolstoy

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Part VI

But, perhaps, the height of Shakespeare's conception of life is such that, tho he does not satisfy the esthetic demands, he discloses to us a view of life so new and important for men that, in consideration of its importance, all his failures as an artist become imperceptible. So, indeed, say Shakespeare's admirers. Gervinus says distinctly that besides Shakespeare's significance in the sphere of dramatic poetry in which, according to his opinion, Shakespeare equals "Homer in the sphere of Epos, Shakespeare being the very greatest judge of the human soul, represents a teacher of most indisputable ethical authority and the most select leader in the world and in life."

In what, then, consists this indisputable authority of the most select leader in the world and in life? Gervinus devotes the concluding chapter of his second volume, about fifty pages, to an explanation of this.

The ethical authority of this supreme teacher of life consists in the following: The starting point of Shakespeare's conception of life, says Gervinus, is that man is gifted with powers of activity, and therefore, first of all, according to Gervinus, Shakespeare regarded it as good and necessary for man that he should act (as if it were possible for a man not to act):

"Die thatkräftigen Männer, Fortinbras, Bolingbroke, Alcibiades, Octavius spielen hier die gegensätzlichen Rollen gegen die verschiedenen thatlosen; nicht ihre Charaktere verdienen ihnen Allen ihr Glück und Gedeihen etwa durch eine grosse Ueberlegenheit ihrer Natur, sondern trotz ihrer geringeren Anlage stellt sich ihre Thatkraft an sich über die Unthätigkeit der Anderen hinaus, gleichviel aus wie schöner Quelle diese Passivität, aus wie schlechter jene Thätigkeit fliesse."

I.e., active people, like Fortinbras, Bolingbroke, Alcibiades, Octavius, says Gervinus, are placed in contrast, by Shakespeare, with various characters who do not exhibit energetic activity. And happiness and success, according to Shakespeare, are attained by individuals possessing this active character, not at all owing to the superiority of their nature; on the contrary, notwithstanding their inferior gifts, the capacity of activity itself always gives them the advantage over inactivity, quite independent of any consideration whether the inactivity of some persons flows from excellent impulses and the activity of others from bad ones. "Activity is good, inactivity is evil. Activity transforms evil into good," says Shakespeare, according to Gervinus. Shakespeare prefers the principle of Alexander (of Macedonia) to that of Diogenes, says Gervinus. In other words, he prefers death and murder due to ambition, to abstinence and wisdom.

According to Gervinus, Shakespeare believes that humanity need not set up ideals, but that only healthy activity and the golden mean are necessary in everything. Indeed, Shakespeare is so penetrated by this conviction that, according to Gervinus's assertion, he allows himself to deny even Christian morality, which makes exaggerated demands on human nature. Shakespeare, as we read, did not approve of limits of duty exceeding the intentions of nature. He teaches the golden mean between heathen hatred to one's enemies and Christian love toward them (pp. 561, 562). How far Shakespeare was penetrated with this fundamental principle of reasonable moderation, says Gervinus, can be seen from the fact that he has the courage to express himself even against the Christian rules which prompt human nature to the excessive exertion of its powers. He did not admit that the limits of duties should exceed the biddings of Nature. Therefore he preached a reasonable mean natural to man, between Christian and heathen precepts, of love toward one's enemies on the one hand, and hatred toward them on the other.

That one may do too much good (exceed the reasonable limits of good) is convincingly proved by Shakespeare's words and examples. Thus excessive generosity ruins Timon, while Antonio's moderate generosity confers honor; normal ambition makes Henry V. great, whereas it ruins Percy, in whom it has risen too high; excessive virtue leads Angelo to destruction, and if, in those who surround him, excessive severity becomes harmful and can not prevent crime, on the other hand the divine element in man, even charity, if it be excessive, can create crime.

Shakespeare taught, says Gervinus, that one may be too good.

He teaches that morality, like politics, is a matter in which, owing to the complexity of circumstances and motives, one can not establish any principles (p. 563), and in this he agrees with Bacon and Aristotle—there are no positive religious and moral laws which may create principles for correct moral conduct suitable for all cases.

Gervinus most clearly expresses the whole of Shakespeare's moral theory by saying that Shakespeare does not write for those classes for whom definite religious principles and laws are suitable (i.e., for nine hundred and ninety-nine one-thousandths of men) but for the educated:

"There are classes of men whose morality is best guarded by the positive precepts of religion and state law; to such persons Shakespeare's creations are inaccessible. They are comprehensible and accessible only to the educated, from whom one can expect that they should acquire the healthy tact of life and self-consciousness by means of which the innate guiding powers of conscience and reason, uniting with the will, lead us to the definite attainment of worthy aims in life. But even for such educated people, Shakespeare's teaching is not always without danger. The condition on which his teaching is quite harmless is that it should be accepted in all its completeness, in all its parts, without any omission. Then it is not only without danger, but is the most clear and faultless and therefore the most worthy of confidence of all moral teaching" (p. 564).

In order thus to accept all, one should understand that, according to his teaching, it is stupid and harmful for the individual to revolt against, or endeavor to overthrow, the limits of established religious and state forms. "Shakespeare," says Gervinus, "would abhor an independent and free individual who, with a powerful spirit, should struggle against all convention in politics and morality and overstep that union between religion and the State which has for thousands of years supported society. According to his views, the practical wisdom of men could not have a higher object than the introduction into society of the greatest spontaneity and freedom, but precisely because of this one should safeguard as sacred and irrefragable the natural laws of society—one should respect the existing order of things and, continually verifying it, inculcate its rational sides, not overlooking nature for the sake of culture, or vice versa" (p. 566). Property, the family, the state, are sacred; but aspiration toward the recognition of the equality of men is insanity. Its realization would bring humanity to the greatest calamities. No one struggled more than Shakespeare against the privileges of rank and position, but could this freethinking man resign himself to the privileges of the wealthy and educated being destroyed in order to give room to the poor and ignorant? How could a man who so eloquently attracts people toward honors, permit that the very aspiration toward that which was great be crushed together with rank and distinction for services, and, with the destruction of all degrees, "the motives for all high undertakings be stifled"? Even if the attraction of honors and false power treacherously obtained were to cease, could the poet admit of the most dreadful of all violence, that of the ignorant crowd? He saw that, thanks to this equality now preached, everything may pass into violence, and violence into arbitrary acts and thence into unchecked passion which will rend the world as the wolf does its prey, and in the end the world will swallow itself up. Even if this does not happen with mankind when it attains equality—if the love of nations and eternal peace prove not to be that impossible "nothing," as Alonso expressed it in "The Tempest"—but if, on the contrary, the actual attainment of aspirations toward equality is possible, then the poet would deem that the old age and extinction of the world had approached, and that, therefore, for active individuals, it is not worth while to live (pp. 571, 572).

Such is Shakespeare's view of life as demonstrated by his greatest exponent and admirer.

Another of the most modern admirers of Shakespeare, George Brandes, further sets forth:

"No one, of course, can conserve his life quite pure from evil, from deceit, and from the injury of others, but evil and deceit are not always vices, and even the evil caused to others, is not necessarily a vice: it is often merely a necessity, a legitimate weapon, a right. And indeed, Shakespeare always held that there are no unconditional prohibitions, nor unconditional duties. For instance, he did not doubt Hamlet's right to kill the King, nor even his right to stab Polonius to death, and yet he could not restrain himself from an overwhelming feeling of indignation and repulsion when, looking around, he saw everywhere how incessantly the most elementary moral laws were being infringed. Now, in his mind there was formed, as it were, a closely riveted ring of thoughts concerning which he had always vaguely felt: such unconditional commandments do not exist; the quality and significance of an act, not to speak of a character, do not depend upon their enactment or infringement; the whole substance lies in the contents with which the separate individual, at the moment of his decision and on his own responsibility, fills up the form of these laws."

In other words, Shakespeare at last clearly saw that the moral of the aim is the only true and possible one; so that, according to Brandes, Shakespeare's fundamental principle, for which he extols him, is that the end justifies the means—action at all costs, the absence of all ideals, moderation in everything, the conservation of the forms of life once established, and the end justifying the means. If you add to this a Chauvinist English patriotism, expressed in all the historical dramas, a patriotism according to which the English throne is something sacred, Englishmen always vanquishing the French, killing thousands and losing only scores, Joan of Arc regarded as a witch, and the belief that Hector and all the Trojans, from whom the English came, are heroes, while the Greeks are cowards and traitors, and so forth,—such is the view of life of the wisest teacher of life according to his greatest admirers. And he who will attentively read Shakespeare's works can not fail to recognize that the description of this Shakespearian view of life by his admirers is quite correct.

The merit of every poetic work depends on three things:

(1) The subject of the work: the deeper the subject, i.e., the more important it is to the life of mankind, the higher is the work.

(2) The external beauty achieved by technical methods proper to the particular kind of art. Thus, in dramatic art, the technical method will be a true individuality of language, corresponding to the characters, a natural, and at the same time touching plot, a correct scenic rendering of the demonstration and development of emotion, and the feeling of measure in all that is represented.

(3) Sincerity, i.e., that the author should himself keenly feel what he expresses. Without this condition there can be no work of art, as the essence of art consists in the contemplation of the work of art being infected with the author's feeling. If the author does not actually feel what he expresses, then the recipient can not become infected with the feeling of the author, does not experience any feeling, and the production can no longer be classified as a work of art.

The subject of Shakespeare's pieces, as is seen from the demonstrations of his greatest admirers, is the lowest, most vulgar view of life, which regards the external elevation of the lords of the world as a genuine distinction, despises the crowd, i.e., the working classes—repudiates not only all religious, but also all humanitarian, strivings directed to the betterment of the existing order.

The second condition also, with the exception of the rendering of the scenes in which the movement of feelings is expressed, is quite absent in Shakespeare. He does not grasp the natural character of the positions of his personages, nor the language of the persons represented, nor the feeling of measure without which no work can be artistic.

The third and most important condition, sincerity, is completely absent in all Shakespeare's works. In all of them one sees intentional artifice; one sees that he is not in earnest, but that he is playing with words.

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