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Ira Rosofsky, Ph.D.
Ira Rosofsky Ph.D.

Battle of the Titans: Tolstoy Disses Shakespeare

Tolstoy hates Shakespeare.

I just read The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and was thinking about posting on it. Ilyich is a slender volume at only 25,000 words-quite a drop from Anna Karenina's 350,000 words or her big brother's War and Peace t 550,000. But Tolstoy, in Ilyich, gets right to the heart of the matter. It is the story of an unreflective careerist who suddenly finds out he's dying. In his focus on ambition, he never counted on death-and at an early age-would be part of his life. It's not real. It's happening to someone else. But yes it is real and happening to him. Oh the horror!

But I got sidetracked when I looked up Tolstoy's bio in Wikipedia. Imagine my surprise when I read his thoughts on Shakespeare:

I remember the astonishment I felt when I first read Shakespeare. I expected to receive a powerful esthetic pleasure, but having read, one after the other, works regarded as his best: "King Lear", "Romeo and Juliet", "Hamlet" and "Macbeth," not only did I feel no delight, but I felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium...

Several times I read the dramas and the comedies and historical plays, and I invariably underwent the same feelings: repulsion, weariness, and bewilderment. At the present time, before writing this preface, being desirous once more to test myself, I have, as an old man of seventy-five, again read the whole of Shakespeare, including the historical plays, the "Henrys," "Troilus and Cressida," the "Tempest," "Cymbeline," and I have felt, with even greater force, the same feelings,-this time, however, not of bewilderment, but of firm, indubitable conviction that the unquestionable glory of a great genius which Shakespeare enjoys, and which compels writers of our time to imitate him and readers and spectators to discover in him non-existent merits,-thereby distorting their esthetic and ethical understanding,-is a great evil, as is every untruth.

Who can deny the right of arguably the greatest novelist to say what he likes about the greatest dramatist? Is this just the clash of gigantic egos? Is the uber-pacifist saying no more Mr. Nice Guy?

As much as Tolstoy was "repulsed" by Shakespeare, to confirm his opinion, he read again and again and again every one of the plays. Tolstoy seems a bit obsessed here-"I hate these plays, but I can't stop reading them!"-which somehow reminds me of the Annie Hall restaurant joke: "The food's terrible, and the portions are so small."

In his critique of Shakespeare, encapsulated in his essay, "King Lear," Tolstoy tosses around bombs that characterize Lear as filled with "incredible events," "mirthless jokes," "wild ravings," and that a dispassionate observer couldn't read it without "aversion and weariness."

Letting us know how he really feels, Tolstoy summarizes Shakespeare as not even "an average author," and that his words "have nothing whatever in common with art and poetry."

He concludes: "Shakespeare might have been whatever you like, but he was not an artist."

George Orwell, as a writer, not chicken liver himself, took a look at this clash of the titans in "Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool."

Orwell agrees in part with Tolstoy's observation that, as drama, the plays are sometimes lacking.

"Lear is not a very good play, as a play. It is too drawn-out and has too many characters and sub-plots. One wicked daughter would have been quite enough, and Edgar is a superfluous character: indeed it would probably be a better play if Gloucester and
both his sons were eliminated."

But aside from possibly missing the poetry-Tolstoy read the plays in Russian translation-Orwell argues that in his later years as Tolstoy was evolving his ideas of Christian pacifism, which had an almost Buddhist sense of abnegation, he had little patience for art that did not have a moral outlook: "[Tolstoy's] main aim, in his later years, was to narrow the range of human consciousness. One's interests, one's points of attachment to the physical world and the day-to-day struggle, must be as few and not as many as possible. Literature must consist of parables, stripped of detail and almost independent of language...Clearly he could have no patience with a chaotic, detailed, discursive writer like Shakespeare. His reaction is that of an irritable old man who is being pestered by a noisy child. ‘Why do you keep jumping up and down like that? Why can't you sit still like I do?'"

Or to put it bluntly, Tolstoy in his later years was fixated on the transcendental, while Shakespeare was looking at life as the mess that it is.

Perhaps he saw Shakespeare having a touch of the unreflective careerist attitudes of Ivan Ilyich. Shakespeare was a spending and getting business man who-as far as we can tell-retired to his cottage after he made his fortune.

Orwell concedes that there is no way to prove a poem or play good or bad. Perhaps it's only the test of time that is the judge-but even literary survival is more a test of opinion that aesthetic merit.

Or as I like to say: De Gustibus non disputatum est.

There also, as we psychologists like to say, a bit of projection. Tolstoy-who earlier in life had been a soldier and man of the world-in his old age was intent on renouncing his material possessions. He, like Lear, was bitterly disappointed in his family. As he became the supposedly saintly personage, his wife was annoyed at his lay-about, freeloading, low-life friends and disciples tracking their peasant mud over the carpet. Mr. Pacifist Tolstoy did not hesitate to get into shouting matches with his wife, Sophia. Finally, at age 82, realizing the hypocrisy of remaining on his noble estate, while espousing Christ-like ascetic principles, he hit the mendicant road with his Aleksandra, the daughter that he still loved. But this Lear like move had the trappings of a safety net. It was kind of like when your five-year-old runs away from home, but you follow him right behind. His doctor went too-in an ironic parallel to Lear hitting the road with Cordelia and The Fool-and presaging the tabloid mentality of today's media, their wanderings were followed in the international press until he died of pneumonia at a train station in Astapovo.

Today it would make reality TV show: The Final Days of Leo Tolstory.

Pondering all this, I imagine a play in which Leo and Will find themselves on adjacent bar stools and go from shouting to fisticuffs. Apologies to Wallace Shawn, I'd call it My Bar Fight with Leo.


My book, Nasty, Brutish, and Long: Adventures in Old Age and the World of Eldercare (Avery/Penguin, 2009) provides a unique, insider's perspective on aging in America. It is an account of my work as a psychologist in nursing homes, the story of caregiving to my frail, elderly parents--all to th accompaniment of ruminations on my own mortality. Thomas Lynch, author of The Undertaking calls it "A book for policy makers, caregivers, the halt and lame, the upright and unemcumbered: anyone who ever intends to get old."

About the Author
Ira Rosofsky, Ph.D.

Ira Rosofsky, Ph.D., is a psychologist in Connecticut who works in eldercare facilities and the author of Nasty, Brutish, and Long: Adventures in Old Age and the World of Eldercare.

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