Tolstoy Calls Shakespeare an “Insignificant, Inartistic Writer”; 40 Years Later, George Orwell Weighs in on the Debate

shakespeare tolstoy orwell

After his rad­i­cal con­ver­sion to Chris­t­ian anar­chism, Leo Tol­stoy adopt­ed a deeply con­trar­i­an atti­tude. The vehe­mence of his attacks on the class and tra­di­tions that pro­duced him were so vig­or­ous that cer­tain crit­ics, now most­ly obso­lete, might call his strug­gle Oedi­pal. Tol­stoy thor­ough­ly opposed the patri­ar­chal insti­tu­tions he saw oppress­ing work­ing peo­ple and con­strain­ing the spir­i­tu­al life he embraced. He cham­pi­oned rev­o­lu­tion, “a change of a people’s rela­tion towards Pow­er,” as he wrote in a 1907 pam­phlet, “The Mean­ing of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion”: “Such a change is now tak­ing place in Rus­sia, and we, the whole Russ­ian peo­ple, are accom­plish­ing it.”

In that “we,” Tol­stoy aligns him­self with the Russ­ian peas­antry, as he does in oth­er pam­phlets like the 1909-10 jour­nal, “Three Days in the Vil­lage.” These essays and oth­ers of the peri­od rough out a polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy and cul­tur­al crit­i­cism, often aimed at affirm­ing the rud­dy moral health of the peas­antry and point­ing up the deca­dence of the aris­toc­ra­cy and its insti­tu­tions. In keep­ing with the theme, one of Tolstoy’s pam­phlets, a 1906 essay on Shake­speare, takes on that most hal­lowed of lit­er­ary fore­fa­thers and express­es “my own long-estab­lished opin­ion about the works of Shake­speare, in direct oppo­si­tion, as it is, to that estab­lished in all the whole Euro­pean world.”

After a lengthy analy­sis of King Lear, Tol­stoy con­cludes that the Eng­lish playwright’s “works do not sat­is­fy the demands of all art, and, besides this, their ten­den­cy is of the low­est and most immoral.” But how had all of the West­ern world been lead to uni­ver­sal­ly admire Shake­speare, a writer who “might have been what­ev­er you like, but he was not an artist”? Through what Tol­stoy calls an “epi­dem­ic sug­ges­tion” spread pri­mar­i­ly by Ger­man pro­fes­sors in the late 18th cen­tu­ry. In 21st-cen­tu­ry par­lance, we might say the Shake­speare-as-genius meme went viral.

Tol­stoy also char­ac­ter­izes Shake­speare-ven­er­a­tion as a harm­ful cul­tur­al vac­ci­na­tion admin­is­tered to every­one with­out their con­sent: “free-mind­ed indi­vid­u­als, not inoc­u­lat­ed with Shake­speare-wor­ship, are no longer to be found in our Chris­t­ian soci­ety,” he writes, “Every man of our soci­ety and time, from the first peri­od of his con­scious life, has been inoc­u­lat­ed with the idea that Shake­speare is a genius, a poet, and a drama­tist, and that all his writ­ings are the height of per­fec­tion.”

In truth, Tol­stoy pro­claims, the ven­er­at­ed Bard is “an insignif­i­cant, inartis­tic writer…. The soon­er peo­ple free them­selves from the false glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of Shake­speare, the bet­ter it will be.”

I have felt with… 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 aes­thet­ic and eth­i­cal under­stand­ing — is a great evil, as is every untruth.

What could have pos­sessed the writer of such cel­e­brat­ed clas­sics as War and Peace and Anna Karen­i­na (find them in our col­lec­tion of Free eBooks) to so force­ful­ly repu­di­ate the author of King Lear? Forty years lat­er, George Orwell respond­ed to Tolstoy’s attack in an essay titled “Lear, Tol­stoy and the Fool” (1947). His answer? Tolstoy’s objec­tions “to the ragged­ness of Shakespeare’s plays, the irrel­e­van­cies, the incred­i­ble plots, the exag­ger­at­ed lan­guage,” are at bot­tom an objec­tion to Shakespeare’s earthy human­ism, his “exu­ber­ance,” or—to use anoth­er psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic term—his juis­sance. “Tol­stoy,” writes Orwell, “is not sim­ply try­ing to rob oth­ers of a plea­sure he does not share. He is doing that, but his quar­rel with Shake­speare goes fur­ther. It is the quar­rel between the reli­gious and the human­ist atti­tudes towards life.”

Orwell grants that “much rub­bish has been writ­ten about Shake­speare as a philoso­pher, as a psy­chol­o­gist, as a ‘great moral teacher’, and what-not.” In real­i­ty, he says, the play­wright, was not “a sys­tem­at­ic thinker,” nor do we even know “how much of the work attrib­uted to him was actu­al­ly writ­ten by him.” Nonethe­less, he goes on to show the ways in which Tolstoy’s crit­i­cal sum­ma­ry of Lear relies on high­ly biased lan­guage and mis­lead­ing meth­ods. Fur­ther­more, Tol­stoy “hard­ly deals with Shake­speare as a poet.”

But why, Orwell asks, does Tol­stoy pick on Lear, specif­i­cal­ly? Because of the character’s strong resem­blance to Tol­stoy him­self. “Lear renounces his throne,” he writes, “but expects every­one to con­tin­ue treat­ing him as a king.”

But is it not also curi­ous­ly sim­i­lar to the his­to­ry of Tol­stoy him­self? There is a gen­er­al resem­blance which one can hard­ly avoid see­ing, because the most impres­sive event in Tolstoy’s life, as in Lear’s, was a huge and gra­tu­itous act of renun­ci­a­tion. In his old age, he renounced his estate, his title and his copy­rights, and made an attempt — a sin­cere attempt, though it was not suc­cess­ful — to escape from his priv­i­leged posi­tion and live the life of a peas­ant. But the deep­er resem­blance lies in the fact that Tol­stoy, like Lear, act­ed on mis­tak­en motives and failed to get the results he had hoped for. Accord­ing to Tol­stoy, the aim of every human being is hap­pi­ness, and hap­pi­ness can only be attained by doing the will of God. But doing the will of God means cast­ing off all earth­ly plea­sures and ambi­tions, and liv­ing only for oth­ers. Ulti­mate­ly, there­fore, Tol­stoy renounced the world under the expec­ta­tion that this would make him hap­pi­er. But if there is one thing cer­tain about his lat­er years, it is that he was NOT hap­py. 

Though Orwell doubts the Russ­ian nov­el­ist was aware of it—or would have admit­ted it had any­one said so—his essay on Shake­speare seems to take the lessons of Lear quite per­son­al­ly. “Tol­stoy was not a saint,” Orwell writes, “but he tried very hard to make him­self into a saint, and the stan­dards he applied to lit­er­a­ture were oth­er-world­ly ones.” Thus, he could not stom­ach Shakespeare’s “con­sid­er­able streak of world­li­ness” and “ordi­nary, bel­ly-to-earth self­ish­ness,” in part because he could not stom­ach these qual­i­ties in him­self. It’s a com­mon, sweep­ing, charge, that a critic’s judg­ment reflects much of their per­son­al pre­oc­cu­pa­tions and lit­tle of the work itself. Such psy­chol­o­giz­ing of a writer’s motives is often uncalled-for. But in this case, Orwell seems to have laid bare a gen­uine­ly per­son­al psy­cho­log­i­cal strug­gle in Tolstoy’s essay on Shake­speare, and per­haps put his fin­ger on a source of Tolstoy’s vio­lent reac­tion to King Lear in par­tic­u­lar, which “points out the results of prac­tic­ing self-denial for self­ish rea­sons.”

Orwell draws an even larg­er point from the philo­soph­i­cal dif­fer­ences Tol­stoy has with Shake­speare: “Ulti­mate­ly it is the Chris­t­ian atti­tude which is self-inter­est­ed and hedo­nis­tic,” he writes, “since the aim is always to get away from the painful strug­gle of earth­ly life and find eter­nal peace in some kind of Heav­en or Nir­vana…. Often there is a seem­ing truce between the human­ist and the reli­gious believ­er, but in fact their atti­tudes can­not be rec­on­ciled: one must choose between this world and the next.” On this last point, no doubt, Tol­stoy and Orwell would agree. In Orwell’s analy­sis, Tolstoy’s polemic against Shakespeare’s human­ism fur­ther “sharp­ens the con­tra­dic­tions,” we might say, between the two atti­tudes, and between his own for­mer human­ism and the fer­vent, if unhap­py, reli­gios­i­ty of his lat­er years.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Leo Tolstoy’s 17 “Rules of Life:” Wake at 5am, Help the Poor, & Only Two Broth­el Vis­its Per Month

Leo Tolstoy’s Masochis­tic Diary: I Am Guilty of “Sloth,” “Cow­ardice” & “Sissi­ness” (1851)

George Orwell’s Five Great­est Essays (as Select­ed by Pulitzer-Prize Win­ning Colum­nist Michael Hiltzik)

Down­load 55 Free Online Lit­er­a­ture Cours­es: From Dante and Mil­ton to Ker­ouac and Tolkien

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (16)
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  • Chung,unJe says:

    I remem­ber, accord­ing to his the­o­ry of art, Tol­stoy thought Charles Dick­ens was art and Shake­speare was not. Accord­ing­ly Vic­tor Hugo was, Moli­er and Goethe were not. Even igno­rant peas­ant old­man should’ve been absorbed to feel human­i­tar­i­an. Which I could not agree. It was my fresh­man sum­mer vaca­tion days that I read his whole the­o­ries in 1974.

  • Gordon Goede says:

    In the end of all this blath­er, it’s what his words mean to the read­er or what they mean to the tick­et hold­er.

  • Theo Silva says:

    Poor Tol­stoi. He was crazy. Shake­speare, Rafae­lo Sanzio, Beethoven and oth­ers genius

  • Todd says:

    If Tol­stoy attacked Goethe and Moliere then it seems pret­ty clear he object­ed to human­ist authors who imi­tat­ed pagan Greece and Rome.

  • John pyle says:

    Shake­speare was the Steven King of his time. The estab­lish­ment could­n’t stand it!

  • Marc says:

    Just read Tol­stoy.

  • Salomon Akessoul says:

    I don’t think Tol­stoi read Shake­speare, and if he read Shake­speare he sure­ly did­n’t under­stand him, and in what lan­guage did he read Shake­speare, I tried to read him in Fre­anch it was­n’t the same as in Eng­lish. Of course we should­n’t judge an old com­mu­nist for being a genuise but also a shmock…

  • To call shake­spear “insignif­i­cant and inartis­tic writer” does sim­ply mean a poor judge­ment of his works. As shake­spears’ almost all works are replete with shim­mer­ing artestry,but i get con­fused to pon­der over what the para­me­ters Tolystoi took to judge the works of shake­spear.

  • Sam says:

    Tol­stoi was a com­mu­nist?! You are an idiot, he died in 1910, in Russ­ian Empire. Try to learn a lit­tle bit his­to­ry before ter­ri­ble com­mu­nists will come to con­quer your coun­try

  • JV says:

    From what I remem­ber, Tol­stoy believed art’s pri­ma­ry pur­pose to be a moral one, to reveal injus­tice and offer spir­i­tu­al guid­ance. Hence, to Tol­stoy, Hugo was art and Shake­speare was not. It’s a ridicu­lous cri­teri­um for art, in my view, but luck­i­ly we don’t have to share it, and can sim­ply be enriched by Tol­stoy’s fic­tion, which is as close in rich­ness and depth to Shake­speare’s plays and poems as any writer I can think of.

  • thorozeen says:

    how tru­ly iron­ic

  • Salomon Akessoul says:

    Sami sor­ry to have made so angry, but I read Tol­stoi’s com­plete works and I think that he was one of the best writ­ers in the world, but as they wrote in this arti­cle: He cham­pi­oned rev­o­lu­tion, “a change of a people’s rela­tion towards Pow­er,” as he wrote in a 1907 pam­phlet, “The Mean­ing of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion”: “Such a change is now tak­ing place in Rus­sia, and we, the whole Russ­ian peo­ple, are accom­plish­ing it.” What do you think does that mean?

    I real­ly don’t know what my coun­try has to do with this!!!

  • Colin says:

    Tol­stoy is a mas­ter sto­ry­teller. S. deals not in sto­ry but in the hum­ming swarm of per­son­al­i­ties fight­ing to out-exist each oth­er.

  • Eric Luther says:

    Tol­stoy did read Shake­speare’s plays. He specif­i­cal­ly lists King Lear,” “Romeo and Juli­et,” “Ham­let,” “Mac­beth,” “Hen­rys,” “Troilus and Cres­si­da,” the “Tem­pest,” and “Cym­be­line.” He read them in Russ­ian, Ger­man, and Eng­lish. He read them sev­er­al times through­out his life and made a very strong attempt to under­stand them. Say what you will, but you can’t say that he was igno­rant of the mate­r­i­al.

  • Scholiast says:


    Also, it seems nobody reads Tol­stoy’s crit­i­cism piece prop­er­ly.
    The idea that Tol­stoy is crit­i­cis­ing Shake­speare on reli­gious or moral grounds miss­es what the Russ­ian says right at the start:

    “For a long time I could not believe in myself, and dur­ing fifty years, in order to test myself, I sev­er­al times recom­menced read­ing Shake­speare in every pos­si­ble form, in Russ­ian, in Eng­lish, in Ger­man and in Schlegel’s trans­la­tion, as I was advised.”

    Fifty years. That means he was repelled by Shake­speare even before he had pub­lished War & Peace, long before his Great Change of Heart in lit­er­a­ture.

    To dis­miss this as Tol­stoy’s moral­ism and to assume he dis­liked Shake­speare’s human­ism is anachro­nis­tic.
    The Russ­ian held this opin­ion when his own work was an exer­cise in human­ism and manysided depic­tion of life and char­ac­ter.

    Even if we do not wish to agree with Tol­stoy’s con­dem­na­tion of Shake­speare, I think we have to recog­nise that prob­a­bly there is a per­spec­tive, and a human­ist one at that, which finds some aspect of Shake­speare seri­ous­ly flawed.
    Not just flawed.
    Seri­ous­ly emp­ty.
    What that aspect is and why most lit­er­ary minds are blind to it is a much wor­thi­er sub­ject for a rejoin­der than what Orwell had to offer.

  • Debal Deb says:

    Tol­stoy of course read Shake­speare in Eng­lish, Moliere and Hugo in French, and Goethe in Ger­man. He was, like most old aris­to­crats, poly­glot. His knowl­edge of French and Eng­lish were impec­ca­ble.

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