chapter  14
32 Pages

TOLSTOY’S ATTACK ON SHAKESPEARE

(1934)

The proper study of Shakespeare’s work is only beginning. Appreciation has been granted in full measure; praise has reverberated down the centuries; but understanding has kept no pace with applause. And, indeed, applause has often been misdirected. The splendours of Shakespeare are vast and inexhaustible; but there are some elements in his work which are not, which, by its very nature, cannot be, the fine pieces of realistic exactitude to which his idolaters have raised them. The Shakespearian world does not exactly reflect the appearances of human or natural life. The events in his world are often strange to the point of impossibility. Whoever knew the sun go out? What man has ever acted as did King Lear, what woman as Hermione? Shakespeare has been praised to excess for ‘characterization’. The term is vague. If however we take it in its most usual and popular sense, as photographic verisimilitude to life, depending on clear differentiation of each person in the play or novel, we find ‘characterization’ not only not the

Shakespearian essence, but actually the most penetrable spot to adverse criticism that may be discovered in his technique. Thence two great minds have directed their hostility: Tolstoy and Bridges. Here I shall show that those attacks on Shakespeare, often perfectly justifiable within limits, are yet based on a fundamental misunderstanding of his art; but that such misunderstanding is nevertheless extremely significant and valuable, since it forces our appreciation and interpretation from excessive psychologies of ‘character’, which run to waste over a wide expanse of theory, into legitimate channels of inquiry into the true substance and solidity of Shakespeare’s dramatic poetry. We shall then see, too, that Tolstoy’s further objection to Shakespeare’s lack of any religious essence in his work is also quite without foundation.