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.