Leo Tolstoy strove for something few artists attempt. He tried to live a moral life — so much so that in his later years he renounced his earlier novels, novels considered by many to be the finest ever written. He spent the latter half of his career primarily writing essays on religion and morals, along with plainly written stories with a clear lesson on morality.
A bitter critic of organized religion, Tolstoy believed that those institutions, in league with governments and cultural elites, had altered and corrupted the teachings of Jesus as a means to maintain control over the masses.
Tolstoy fought hard against what he perceived as this anti-Christian collaboration among religious institutions, governments and cultural elites. One of the most interesting manifestations of his pushback was his essay, “A Critical Essay on Shakespeare,” published in 1906, when Tolstoy was 78 years old. Very few people have the credentials to attack the literary prowess of the Bard of Avon, but Tolstoy was one of them, and wow, did he ever!
His basic line of attack is to establish King Lear as the Bard’s best work, and then dissect it act by act, scene by scene, to demonstrate the play’s absurdity in terms of plot and character, as well as Shakespeare’s technical bungling as a playwright. In addition and more importantly, Tolstoy makes the point over and over that thematically, the play teaches the wrong moral lessons, that it debases rather than uplifts the soul.
Tolstoy then addresses the question of how Shakespeare came to be so popular despite the shoddy quality and immorality of his work. Part of the answer is groupthink. But more significantly, Tolstoy lays blame on the audience — and it ain’t us. Here’s what he says:
“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.”
He goes on at some length to explain that Shakespeare wrote for the court, whose morals were low or non-existent. Entertaining them meant the plays were to teach no moral lesson, or at least no consistent moral lesson. In doing so, Tolstoy argues that such art violates its primary purpose, which is to morally instruct and uplift the people. In his words:
“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.”
If you want to plow through the entire essay, you can read it online here. It’s quite challenging if you’ve put Shakespeare on a pedestal, as most of us have. But it will make you think.
What Can We Learn from Tolstoy’s Criticism of Shakespeare?
Groupthink. The groupthink Tolstoy talks about in relation to Shakespeare’s idolization is an issue we have to be wary of at all times. As a practical matter we must assume a great many things simply to get through the day — but what are the bases of our assumptions? On who’s authority do we take something to be true? Perhaps it’s worthwhile to dig into these questions this from time to time as they apply to our sacred cows.
Nurture your dramatic diet. It’s great how people are spending more time researching the foods they eat — the additives, the production processes, the nutrition, etc. Healthier food makes for healthier bodies and a healthier ecosystem. The same applies to the art we consume. If we paid as much attention to our cultural diet as we do to our bodily diet, can you imagine how much healthier our souls would, and by extension, how much healthier our cultures would be?
If Tolstoy’s essay shows us anything, it is that discernment is critical at all times, even for seemingly trivial decisions about what to watch on TV tonight.
Entertainment does more than entertain, it shapes our beliefs. In shaping our beliefs, it sets us on a road of action that could be constructive or destructive. This is the warning Tolstoy gives us in his essay on Shakespeare. It’s a message that will never get old.
(Image Credit – Wikimedia Commons)