Tolstoy on Shakespeare

The following passage is from the concluding section of Tolstoy’s critical essay on Shakespeare, which is worth reading in its entirety. Having gone into considerable detail on why he finds Shakespeare wanting as an artist, Tolstoy discusses the pernicious effects of bardolatry:

If people wrote of Shakespeare that for his time he was a good writer, that he had a fairly good turn for verse, was an intelligent actor and good stage manager—even were this appreciation incorrect and somewhat exaggerated—if only it were moderately true, people of the rising generation might remain free from Shakespeare’s influence. But when every young man entering into life in our time has presented to him, as the model of moral perfection, not the religious and moral teachers of mankind, but first of all Shakespeare, concerning whom it has been decided and is handed down by learned men from generation to generation, as an incontestable truth, that he was the greatest poet, the greatest teacher of life, the young man can not remain free from this pernicious influence. When he is reading or listening to Shakespeare the question for him is no longer whether Shakespeare be good or bad, but only: In what consists that extraordinary beauty, both esthetic and ethical, of which he has been assured by learned men whom he respects, and which he himself neither sees nor feels? And constraining himself, and distorting his esthetic and ethical feeling, he tries to conform to the ruling opinion. He no longer believes in himself, but in what is said by the learned people whom he respects. I have experienced all this. Then reading critical examinations of the dramas and extracts from books with explanatory comments, he begins to imagine that he feels something of the nature of an artistic impression. The longer this continues, the more does his esthetical and ethical feeling become distorted. He ceases to distinguish directly and clearly what is artistic from an artificial imitation of art. But, above all, having assimilated the immoral view of life which penetrates all Shakespeare’s writings, he loses the capacity of distinguishing good from evil. And the error of extolling an insignificant, inartistic writer—not only not moral, but directly immoral—executes its destructive work.

Great art, at least for me, has nearly always been an acquired taste. Only a few of the masters — Sophocles, Euripides, Byron, Milton, Rembrandt — moved me deeply the first time I encountered them. For most of the top-tier names in literature (the Bible, Homer, Virgil, Dante, Goethe and, yes, Shakespeare), I was underwhelmed the first time around, coming to appreciate them only after rereading, sometimes several rereadings. And what motivated me to reread books which hadn’t particularly impressed me? It’s just as Tolstoy says: the desire to find “that extraordinary beauty, both esthetic and ethical, of which he has been assured by learned men whom he respects, and which he himself neither sees nor feels.” In that I was successful — the beauty was found, the taste was acquired — but Tolstoy poses the unsettling question of just what mechanisms effected that acquirement. “Distorting his esthetic and ethical feeling, he tries to conform to the ruling opinion.” Is learning to love Dante really something I should feel proud of?

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