Joho the Blog » Tolstoy and the Shakespeare meme

Tolstoy and the Shakespeare meme

Tolstoy really really doesn’t like Shakespeare. His polemic is a wonderful literary rant, taking him on for putting undifferentiated characters into ridiculous plots, speaking language no one would ever actually say, and betraying Christian values and virtues. His opening recounting of King Lear shows just how absurd the plot is, and he moves on from there.

So why is Shakespeare universally acclaimed? He thinks the Germans — Goethe, in particular — started it, and it became what would today call a meme:

With the development of the press, it has now come to pass that so soon as any event, owing to casual circumstances, receives and especially prominent significance, immediately the organs of 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 press 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, 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.”

His example of a story without merit is, alas, the Dreyfus Affair. Indeed, Tolstoy does a pretty bad job picking which of the current celebs would last. Among those he thinks are flashes in the pan are George Sand, Charles Darwin, and Hegel.

Now, I still like Shakespeare, although of course I wouldn’t be able to convince Tolstoy. The artificiality Tolstoy points to for me serves a greater realism.

So, Tolstoy is right that Shakespeare’s plays often begin by asking us to accept a ridiculous premise. Othello is both so in love and so untrusting that he won’t be persuaded away from the flimsiest of evidence. Lear so misjudges his daughters that he disowns Cordelia even though she could have explained herself over half a goblet of wine. Hamlet’s plot is put in motion by a ghost. But I don’t mind. I know I’m swallowing the premise so I can be put into a special space where a person — not a type, not a canned virtue or vice — will behave in a particularly human way. Shakespeare defines humans by their weaknesses, and those weaknesses are outside the simple categories of vice and sin, unlike in the morality plays that preceded Shakespeare. Othello’s weakness cannot be comprehended by the traditional vices, nor can the allure of Richard III’s evil. How else do you explain Hamlet’s coldness toward Ophelia? How do you explain Shylock except by his unique mix of avarice, justice, fatherly love…? Shakespeare redefines us as uniquely weak, flawed, and impossible to understand in the old categories.

To do so, he puts humans into unrealistic situations in which they speak in iambic pentameter, and occasionally voice thoughts only newly recognized as inner. Tolstoy makes his case clearly, but it only makes it clearer to me why Shakespeare’s standing is no mere meme.

9 Responses to “Tolstoy and the Shakespeare meme”

  1. Without reading Tolstoy’s essay yet, I already know that I must disagree with his appraisal of Shakespeare.

    I refer you to the critics who do a much better job of explicating his genius: Coleridge, Harley Granville-Barker, A.C. Bradley, G. Wilson Knight, and more recently: Harold Goddard, Marjorie Garber (Harvard), and Harold Bloom.

    Shakespeare defines human character by its conflicts.

    Hamlet is torn by the expectations of his father’s wishes (not merely that he revenge his murder, but more importantly that he become King himself) in conflict with his own suppressed desire to become an artist (as evidenced by his very rapid rewriting of the play within the play, The Mousetrap, by his acting experience, and by the fact that he remains in school in Germany into his late twenties rather than following a course of preparation that would allow him to claim the throne of Denmark).

    The tragedy arises because he finally chooses his father’s expectations over his own wishes. And it takes him the entire play to act because he does not wish to become the King, he wishes to become the Artist. Or one could say he chooses the way of the expectations of the world over his inner intuitions as to his own destiny.

    This conflict is not a peculiarly Elizabethan one but a Universal one. Hamlet’s conflict is our conflict.

    More than iambic pentameter or Elizabethan English, Shakespeare speaks the language of the archetypal human soul.

    It would be a mistake to view Shakespearean characters as anything more than characters. A literary character is not an actual human being. No human being could be capable of Iago’s remorseless evil actions. Literary characters are created to allow us to reflect upon our own humanity. Effective characters are not merely biographical sequences but archetypal constellations.

    Shakespeare’s genius resides in his ability to convince us that we are witnessing human beings in the throes of realistic events whereas in fact we are witnessing the archetypal dramas inherent within our own souls.

  2. “In the plays of Shakespeare every man sees himself, without knowing he does so.” S.T. Coleridge

    Perhaps Tolstoy’s essay is more of a revelation concerning the merits of his own writing than it is an interpretation of the flaws of Shakespearean Drama.

    “In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species.” Samuel Johnson

    Both these quotations are excerpted from Marjorie Garber’s excellent introduction to her epic, Shakespeare After All.

    Tolstoy is following an old prejudice wherein “stage plays were not generally regarded as ‘literature’ “(Garber 8). In fact “Thomas Bodley, the founder of the Bodleian Library , the main research library at the University of Oxford, called them ‘riff-raff’…and ordained that no plays be shelved in his grand new space” (Garber 12).

    Garber also touches upon copyright and the dilemmas of Shakespearean textual criticism. “It is not that we have no authentic Shakespeare texts, but rather that we have several” (Garber 14).

    “In these years before copyright, first introduced in England in 1709, authors did not control the printing of their plays. The printer or bookseller took the profit, and the author sometimes had little or no opportunity to review or affect what was published” (Garber 8).

    I must side with Marjorie Garber over Tolstoy when she claims that Hamlet is ” a play that from the Romantic era on has been established as the premier Western performance of consciousness” (Garber 4).

  3. I think George Orwell was right in his criticism of Tolstoy’s criticism. Consider these two essays: http://www.george-orwell.org/Lear,_Tolstoy_and_the_Fool/0.html and http://orwell.ru/library/reviews/tolstoy/english/e_tas
    In my opinion, they are still the best answer to Tolstoy’s inability to come to terms with Shakespeare’s universal force.

  4. I’m not deeply committed to this by stylometrics increasingly indicate that “Shakespeare” …was Bacon; there are lots of enciphered texts in “Shakespeare’s” work. I have no seen any particular adulation of Shakespeare in German or in Germany; no more than, say, Moliere. And I’m fairly sure Anglo readers at least have heard of Goethe, e.g. “Dr. Faustus”.

    One aspect of modernism was the creation of “national heroes”: the national literary heroe, the national scientific hero, the national epic poet etc. as part of the process of political and cultural unifications in the 18th and 19th centuries.

    Shakespeare is worth reading and studying as an example of the interplay of Aristotelian moral and political theory with the emerging bourgeois economy of mercantile proto-capitalism. Merchant of Venice isn’t just about jews and gentiles, it is about competing moral theories (feudalism versus mercantile capitalism). While there might be things worth deciphering here, the fact is: 1) Tolstoy probably overstates his case 2) Sorry, Shakespeare isn’t big due to Goethe — both Goethe and Shakespeare were anointed as part of the process of nationalism in early modernity.

    This is one of the few areas incidently where one could make a credible pro-postmodernist argument; about the only good thing pomo does is enable one to get out of stupid nationalist conflicts — but replaces them with conflicts over “identity” :/

  5. I am quite surprised by the essay of Tolstoy. He makes several incredibly basic errors ignoring the use of weird situations to present wider specter of reactions and analysis of the reasons behind those reactions.

    And about Othello… I think that there are more than enough examples on the topic of jealousy and incoherent behavior in real life, to say that he is not realistic.
    In conclusion, I really liked Orwell’s essay response. ;)

  6. Thanks, Alessandro. I look forward to reading the Orwell links.

    Raymond, I’m with you in liking the Garber book.

    Dr. Engle, I’m not expert enough to engage in a discussion of authorship, but I greatly enjoyed James Shapiro’s Contested Will. Laura Miller has an excellent essay about it in Salon: http://www.salon.com/books/laura_miller/2010/03/28/contested_will

    Eneya, in the great performances of Othello I’ve seen, his jealous and his love are inseparable, although for most of us (at least in this age), love implies a trust that subdues jealousy. I suppose I react to Othello as an exploration of a counterfactual: Suppose love and jealousy are not opposed but are concomitant? I read the opening of Lear in a closely related way. Once you accept the hypothesis, the plays unfold with a merciless logic.

  7. Hey! I just found this discussion because I myself am writing a blog post on this trio. I thought it would fit into this discussion nicely. Here is it: http://michaellavers.blogspot.com/2011/07/russian-doll-edition-me-on-orwell-on.html

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