Tolstoy on Shakespeare

by Leo Tolstoy

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Part VII

Shakespeare's works do not satisfy the demands of all art, and, besides this, their tendency is of the lowest and most immoral. What then signifies the great fame these works have enjoyed for more than a hundred years?

Many times during my life I have had occasion to argue about Shakespeare with his admirers, not only with people little sensitive to poetry, but with those who keenly felt poetic beauty, such as Turgenef, Fet, and others, and every time I encountered one and the same attitude toward my objection to the praises of Shakespeare. I was not refuted when I pointed out Shakespeare's defects; they only condoled with me for my want of comprehension, and urged upon me the necessity of recognizing the extraordinary supernatural grandeur of Shakespeare, and they did not explain to me in what the beauties of Shakespeare consisted, but were merely vaguely and exaggeratedly enraptured with the whole of Shakespeare, extolling some favorite passages: the unbuttoning of Lear's button, Falstaff's lying, Lady Macbeth's ineffaceable spots, Hamlet's exhortation to his father's ghost, "forty thousand brothers," etc.

"Open Shakespeare," I used to say to these admirers, "wherever you like, or wherever it may chance, you will see that you will never find ten consecutive lines which are comprehensible, unartificial, natural to the character that says them, and which produce an artistic impression." (This experiment may be made by any one. And either at random, or according to their own choice.) Shakespeare's admirers opened pages in Shakespeare's dramas, and without paying any attention to my criticisms as to why the selected ten lines did not satisfy the most elementary demands of esthetic and common sense, they were enchanted with the very thing which to me appeared absurd, incomprehensible, and inartistic. So that, in general, when I endeavored to get from Shakespeare's worshipers an explanation of his greatness, I met in them exactly the same attitude which I have met, and which is usually met, in the defenders of any dogmas accepted not through reason, but through faith. It is this attitude of Shakespeare's admirers toward their object—an attitude which may be seen also in all the mistily indefinite essays and conversations about Shakespeare—which gave me the key to the understanding of the cause of Shakespeare's fame. There is but one explanation of this wonderful fame: it is one of those epidemic "suggestions" to which men constantly have been and are subject. Such "suggestion" always has existed and does exist in the most varied spheres of life. As glaring instances, considerable in scope and in deceitful influence, one may cite the medieval Crusades which afflicted, not only adults, but even children, and the individual "suggestions," startling in their senselessness, such as faith in witches, in the utility of torture for the discovery of the truth, the search for the elixir of life, the philosopher's stone, or the passion for tulips valued at several thousand guldens a bulb which took hold of Holland. Such irrational "suggestions" always have been existing, and still exist, in all spheres of human life—religious, philosophical, political, economical, scientific, artistic, and, in general, literary—and people clearly see the insanity of these suggestions only when they free themselves from them. But, as long as they are under their influence, the suggestions appear to them so certain, so true, that to argue about them is regarded as neither necessary nor possible. With the development of the printing press, these epidemics became especially striking.

With the development of the press, it has now come to pass that so soon as any event, owing to casual circumstances, receives an especially prominent significance, immediately the organs of the press announce this significance. As soon as the press has brought forward the significance of the event, the public devotes more and more attention to it. The attention of the public prompts the press to examine the event with greater attention and in greater detail. The interest of the public further increases, and the organs of the press, competing with one another, satisfy the public demand. The public is still more interested; the press attributes yet more significance to the event. So that the importance of the event, continually growing, like a lump of snow, receives an appreciation utterly inappropriate to its real significance, and this appreciation, often exaggerated to insanity, is retained so long as the conception of life of the leaders of the press and of the public remains the same. There are innumerable examples of such an inappropriate estimation which, in our time, owing to the mutual influence of press and public on one another, is attached to the most insignificant subjects. A striking example of such mutual influence of the public and the press was the excitement in the case of Dreyfus, which lately caught hold of the whole world.

The suspicion arose that some captain of the French staff was guilty of treason. Whether because this particular captain was a Jew, or because of some special internal party disagreements in French society, the press attached a somewhat prominent interest to this event, whose like is continually occurring without attracting any one's attention, and without being able to interest even the French military, still less the whole world. The public turned its attention to this incident, the organs of the press, mutually competing, began to describe, examine, discuss the event; the public was yet more interested; the press answered to the demand of the public, and the lump of snow began to grow and grow, till before our eyes it attained such a bulk that there was not a family where controversies did not rage about "l'affaire." The caricature by Caran d'Ache representing at first a peaceful family resolved to talk no more about Dreyfus, and then, like exasperated furies, members of the same family fighting with each other, quite correctly expressed the attitude of the whole of the reading world to the question about Dreyfus. People of foreign nationalities, who could not be interested in the question whether a French officer was a traitor or not—people, moreover, who could know nothing of the development of the case—all divided themselves for and against Dreyfus, and the moment they met they talked and argued about Dreyfus, some asserting his guilt with assurance, others denying it with equal assurance. Only after the lapse of some years did people begin to awake from the "suggestion" and to understand that they could not possibly know whether Dreyfus was guilty or not, and that each one had thousands of subjects much more near to him and interesting than the case of Dreyfus.

Such infatuations take place in all spheres, but they are especially noticeable in the sphere of literature, as the press naturally occupies itself the more keenly with the affairs of the press, and they are particularly powerful in our time when the press has received such an unnatural development. It continually happens that people suddenly begin to extol some most insignificant works, in exaggerated language, and then, if these works do not correspond to the prevailing view of life, they suddenly become utterly indifferent to them, and forget both the works themselves and their former attitude toward them.

So within my recollection, in the forties, there was in the sphere of art the laudation and glorification of Eugène Sue, and Georges Sand; and in the social sphere Fourier; in the philosophical sphere, Comte and Hegel; in the scientific sphere, Darwin.

Sue is quite forgotten, Georges Sand is being forgotten and replaced by the writings of Zola and the Decadents, Beaudelaire, Verlaine, Maeterlinck, and others. Fourier with his phalansteries is quite forgotten, his place being taken by Marx. Hegel, who justified the existing order, and Comte, who denied the necessity of religious activity in mankind, and Darwin with his law of struggle, still hold on, but are beginning to be forgotten, being replaced by the teaching of Nietzsche, which, altho utterly extravagant, unconsidered, misty, and vicious in its bearing, yet corresponds better with existing tendencies. Thus sometimes artistic, philosophic, and, in general, literary crazes suddenly arise and are as quickly forgotten. But it also happens that such crazes, having arisen in consequence of special reasons accidentally favoring to 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. As far back as in the time of Rome, it was remarked that often books have their own very strange fates: consisting in failure notwithstanding their high merits, and in enormous undeserved success notwithstanding their triviality. The saying arose: "pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli"—i.e., that the fate of books depends on the understanding of those who read them. There was harmony between Shakespeare's writings and the view of life of those amongst whom his fame arose. And this fame has been, and still is, maintained owing to Shakespeare's works continuing to correspond to the life concept of those who support this fame.

Until the end of the eighteenth century Shakespeare not only failed to gain any special fame in England, but was valued less than his contemporary dramatists: Ben Jonson, Fletcher, Beaumont, and others. His fame originated in Germany, and thence was transferred to England. This happened for the following reason:

Art, especially dramatic art, demanding for its realization great preparations, outlays, and labor, was always religious, i.e., its object was to stimulate in men a clearer conception of that relation of man to God which had, at that time, been attained by the leading men of the circles interested in art.

So it was bound to be from its own nature, and so, as a matter of fact, has it always been among all nations—Egyptians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks—commencing in some remote period of human life. And it has always happened that, with the coarsening of religious forms, art has more and more diverged from its original object (according to which it could be regarded as an important function—almost an act of worship), and, instead of serving religious objects, it strove for worldly aims, seeking to satisfy the demands of the crowd or of the powerful, i.e., the aims of recreation and amusement. This deviation of art from its true and high vocation took place everywhere, and even in connection with Christianity.

The first manifestations of Christian art were services in churches: in the administration of the sacraments and the ordinary liturgy. When, in course of time, the forms of art as used in worship became insufficient, there appeared the Mysteries, describing those events which were regarded as the most important in the Christian religious view of life. When, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the center of gravity of Christian teaching was more and more transferred, the worship of Christ as God, and the interpretation and following of His teaching, the form of Mysteries describing external Christian events became insufficient, and new forms were demanded. As the expression of the aspirations which gave rise to these changes, there appeared the Moralities, dramatic representations in which the characters were personifications of Christian virtues and their opposite vices.

But allegories, owing to the very fact of their being works of art of a lower order, could not replace the former religious dramas, and yet no new forms of dramatic art corresponding to the conception now entertained of Christianity, according to which it was regarded as a teaching of life, had yet been found. Hence, dramatic art, having no foundation, came in all Christian countries to swerve farther and farther from its proper use and object, and, instead of serving God, it took to serving the crowd (by crowd, I mean, not simply the masses of common people, but the majority of immoral or unmoral men, indifferent to the higher problems of human life). This deviation was, moreover, encouraged by the circumstance that, at this very time, the Greek thinkers, poets, and dramatists, hitherto unknown in the Christian world, were discovered and brought back into favor. From all this it followed that, not having yet had time to work out their own form of dramatic art corresponding to the new conception entertained of Christianity as being a teaching of life, and, at the same time, recognizing the previous form of Mysteries and Moralities as insufficient, the writers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, in their search for a new form, began to imitate the newly discovered Greek models, attracted by their elegance and novelty.

Since those who could principally avail themselves of dramatic representations were the powerful of this world: kings, princes, courtiers, the least religious people, not only utterly indifferent to the questions of religion, but in most cases completely depraved—therefore, in satisfying the demands of its audience, the drama of the fifteenth and sixteenth and seventeenth centuries entirely gave up all religious aim. It came to pass that the drama, which formerly had such a lofty and religious significance, and which can, on this condition alone, occupy an important place in human life, became, as in the time of Rome, a spectacle, an amusement, a recreation—only with this difference, that in Rome the spectacles existed for the whole people, whereas in the Christian world of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries they were principally meant for depraved kings and the higher classes. Such was the case with the Spanish, English, Italian, and French drama.

The dramas of that time, principally composed, in all these countries, according to ancient Greek models, or taken from poems, legends, or biographies, naturally reflected the characteristics of their respective nationalities: in Italy comedies were chiefly elaborated, with humorous positions and persons. In Spain there flourished the worldly drama, with complicated plots and historical heroes. The peculiarities of the English drama were the coarse incidents of murders, executions, and battles taking place on the stage, and popular, humorous interludes. Neither the Italian nor the Spanish nor the English drama had European fame, but they all enjoyed success in their own countries. General fame, owing to the elegance of its language and the talent of its writers, was possessed only by the French drama, distinguished by its strict adherence to the Greek models, and especially to the law of the three Unities.

So it continued till the end of the eighteenth century, at which time this happened: In Germany, which had not produced even passable dramatic writers (there was a weak and little known writer, Hans Sachs), all educated people, together with Frederick the Great, bowed down before the French pseudo-classical drama. Yet at this very time there appeared in Germany a group of educated and talented writers and poets, who, feeling the falsity and coldness of the French drama, endeavored to find a new and freer dramatic form. The members of this group, like all the upper classes of the Christian world at that time, were under the charm and influence of the Greek classics, and, being utterly indifferent to religious questions, they thought that if the Greek drama, describing the calamities and sufferings and strife of its heroes, represented the highest dramatic ideal, then such a description of the sufferings and the struggles of heroes would be a sufficient subject in the Christian world, too, if only the narrow demands of pseudo-classicalism were rejected. These men, not understanding that, for the Greeks, the strife and sufferings of their heroes had a religious significance, imagined that they needed only to reject the inconvenient law of the three Unities, without introducing into the drama any religious element corresponding to their time, in order that the drama should have sufficient scope in the representation of various moments in the lives of historical personages and, in general, of strong human passions. Exactly this kind of drama existed at that time among the kindred English people, and, becoming acquainted with it, the Germans decided that precisely such should be the drama of the new period.

Thereupon, because of the clever development of scenes which constituted Shakespeare's peculiarity, they chose Shakespeare's dramas in preference to all other English dramas, excluding those which were not in the least inferior, but were even superior, to Shakespeare. At the head of the group stood Goethe, who was then the dictator of public opinion in esthetic questions. He it was who, partly owing to a desire to destroy the fascination of the false French art, partly owing to his desire to give a greater scope to his own dramatic writing, but chiefly through the agreement of his view of life with Shakespeare's, declared Shakespeare a great poet. When this error was announced by an authority like Goethe, all those esthetic critics who did not understand art threw themselves on it like crows on carrion and began to discover in Shakespeare beauties which did not exist, and to extol them. These men, German esthetic critics, for the most part utterly devoid of esthetic feeling, without that simple, direct artistic sensibility which, for people with a feeling for art, clearly distinguishes esthetic impressions from all others, but believing the authority which had recognized Shakespeare as a great poet, began to praise the whole of Shakespeare indiscriminately, especially distinguishing such passages as struck them by their effects, or which expressed thoughts corresponding to their views of life, imagining that these effects and these thoughts constitute the essence of what is called art. These men acted as blind men would act who endeavored to find diamonds by touch among a heap of stones they were fingering. As the blind man would for a long time strenuously handle the stones and in the end would come to no other conclusion than that all stones are precious and especially so the smoothest, so also these esthetic critics, without artistic feeling, could not but come to similar results in relation to Shakespeare. To give the greater force to their praise of the whole of Shakespeare, they invented esthetic theories according to which it appeared that no definite religious view of life was necessary for works of art in general, and especially for the drama; that for the purpose of the drama the representation of human passions and characters was quite sufficient; that not only was an internal religious illumination of what was represented unnecessary, but art should be objective, i.e., should represent events quite independently of any judgment of good and evil. As these theories were founded on Shakespeare's own views of life, it naturally turned out that the works of Shakespeare satisfied these theories and therefore were the height of perfection.

It is these people who are chiefly responsible for Shakespeare's fame. It was principally owing to their writings that the interaction took place between writers and public which expressed itself, and is still expressing itself, in an insane worship of Shakespeare which has no rational foundation. These esthetic critics have written profound treatises about Shakespeare. Eleven thousand volumes have been written about him, and a whole science of Shakespearology composed; while the public, on the one hand, took more and more interest, and the learned critics, on the other hand, gave further and further explanations, adding to the confusion.

So that the first cause of Shakespeare's fame was that the Germans wished to oppose to the cold French drama, of which they had grown weary, and which, no doubt, was tedious enough, a livelier and freer one. The second cause was that the young German writers required a model for writing their own dramas. The third and principal cause was the activity of the learned and zealous esthetic German critics without esthetic feeling, who invented the theory of objective art, deliberately rejecting the religious essence of the drama.

"But," I shall be asked, "what do you understand by the word's religious essence of the drama? May not what you are demanding for the drama, religious instruction, or didactics, be called 'tendency,' a thing incompatible with true art?" I reply that by the religious essence of art I understand not the direct inculcation of any religious truths in an artistic guise, and not an allegorical demonstration of these truths, but the exhibition of a definite view of life corresponding to the highest religious understanding of a given time, which, serving as the motive for the composition of the drama, penetrates, to the knowledge of the author, through all of his work. So it has always been with true art, and so it is with every true artist in general and especially the dramatist. Hence—as it was when the drama was a serious thing, and as it should be according to the essence of the matter—that man alone can write a drama who has something to say to men, and something which is of the greatest importance for them: about man's relation to God, to the Universe, to the All, the Eternal, the Infinite. But when, thanks to the German theories about objective art, the idea was established that, for the drama, this was quite unnecessary, then it is obvious how a writer like Shakespeare—who had not got developed in his mind the religious convictions proper to his time, who, in fact, had no convictions at all, but heaped up in his drama all possible events, horrors, fooleries, discussions, and effects—could appear to be a dramatic writer of the greatest genius.

But these are all external reasons. The fundamental inner cause of Shakespeare's fame was and is this: that his dramas were "pro captu lectoris," i.e., they corresponded to the irreligious and immoral frame of mind of the upper classes of his time.

Return to the Tolstoy on Shakespeare Summary Return to the Leo Tolstoy Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson