Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool: George Orwell. A yr 13 discussion exercise

Below I have copied Orwell’s polemic on Tolstoy’s response to Shakespeare and particularly King Lear.  It is widely available elsewhere on the internet.  I will be asking my Year 13 students to comment on the post and develop discussion.  Please feel free to ask any students of yours to do the same.  I have also tried this idea with a recent post on Paradise Lost, which is working slowly, but effectively. https://jwpblog.wordpress.com/2015/04/06/frailty-thy-name-is-eve/

George Orwell

Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool

[A 'Fool']

Tolstoy’s pamphlets are the least-known part of his work, and his attack on Shakespeare(1) is not even an easy document to get hold of, at any rate in an English translation. Perhaps, therefore, it will be useful if I give a summary of the pamphlet before trying to discuss it.

Tolstoy begins by saying that throughout life Shakespeare has aroused in him ‘an irresistible repulsion and tedium’. Conscious that the opinion of the civilized world is against him, he has made one attempt after another on Shakespeare’s works, reading and re-reading them in Russian, English and German; but ‘I invariably underwent the same feelings; repulsion, weariness and bewilderment’. Now, at the age of seventy-five, he has once again re-read the entire works of Shakespeare, including the historical plays, and

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

Shakespeare, Tolstoy adds, is not merely no genius, but is not even ‘an average author’, and in order to demonstrate this fact he will examine King Lear, which, as he is able to show by quotations from Hazlitt, Brandes and others, has been extravagantly praised and can be taken as an example of Shakespeare’s best work.

Tolstoy then makes a sort of exposition of the plot of King Lear, finding it at every step to be stupid, verbose, unnatural, unintelligible, bombastic, vulgar, tedious and full of incredible events, ‘wild ravings’, ‘mirthless jokes’, anachronisms, irrelevaricies, obscenities, worn-out stage conventions and other faults both moral and aesthetic. Lear is, in any case, a plagiarism of an earlier and much better play, King Leir, by an unknown author, which Shakespeare stole and then ruined. It is worth quoting a specimen paragraph to illustrate the manner in which Tolstoy goes to work. Act III, Scene 2 (in which Lear, Kent and the Fool are together in the storm) is summarized thus:

Lear walks about the heath and says word which are meant to express his despair: he desires that the winds should blow so hard that they (the winds) should crack their cheeks and that the rain should fiood everything, that lightning should singe his white bead, and the thunder flatten the world and destroy all germs ‘that make ungrateful man’! The fool keeps uttering still more senseless words. Enter Kent: Lear says that for some reason during this storm all criminals shall be found out and convicted. Kent, still unrecognized by Lear, endeavours to persuade him to take refuge in a hovel. At this point the fool utters a prophecy in no wise related to the situation and they all depart.

Tolstoy’s final verdict on Lear is that no unhypnotized observer, if such an observer existed, could read it to the end with any feeling except ‘aversion and weariness’. And exactly the same is true of ‘all the other extolled dramas of Shakespeare, not to mention the senseless dramatized tales, Pericles, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, Cymbeline, Troilus and Cressida.’

Having dealt with Lear Tolstoy draws up a more general indictment against Shakespeare. He finds that Shakespeare has a certain technical skill which is partly traceable to his having been an actor, but otherwise no merits whatever. He has no power of delineating character or of making words, and actions spring naturally out of situations, Us language is uniformly exaggerated and ridiculous, he constantly thrusts his own random thoughts into the mouth of any character who happens to be handy, he displays a ‘complete absence of aesthetic feeling’, and his words ‘have nothing whatever in common with art and poetry’.

‘Shakespeare might have been whatever you like,’ Tolstoy concludes, ‘but he was not an artist.’ Moreover, his opinions are not original or interesting, and his tendency is ‘of the lowest and most immoral’. Curiously enough, Tolstoy does not base this last judgement on Shakespeare’s own utterances, but on the statements of two critics, Gervinus and Brandes. According to Gervinus (or at any, rate Tolstoy’s reading of Gervinus) ‘Shakespeare taught… that one may be too good’, while according to Brandes: ‘Shakespeare’s fundamental principle… is that the end justifies the means.’ Tolstoy adds on his own account that Shakespeare was a jingo patriot of the worst type, but apart from this he considers that Gervinus and Brandes have given a true and adequate description of Shakespeare’s view of life.

Tolstoy then recapitulates in a few paragraphs the theory of art which he had expressed at greater length elsewhere. Put still more shortly, it amounts to a demand for dignity of subject matter, sincerity, and good craftsmanships. A great work of art must deal with some subject which is ‘important to the life of mankind’, it must express someting which the author genuinely feels, and it must use such technical methods as will produce the desired effect. As Shakespeare is debased in outlook, slipshod in execution and incapable of being sincere even for a moment, he obviously stands condemned.

But here there arises a difficult question. If Shakespeare is all that Tolstoy has shown him to be, how did he ever come to be so generally admired? Evidently the answer can only lie in a sort of mass hypnosis, or ‘epidemic suggestion’. The whole civilized world has somehow been deluded into thinking Shakespeare a good writer, and even the plainest demonstration to the contrary makes no impression, because one is not dealing with a reasoned opinion but with something akin to religious faith. Throughout history, says Tolstoy, there has been an endless series of these ‘epidemic suggestions’ — for example, the Crusades, the search for the Philosopher’s Stone, the craze for tulip growing which once swept over Holland, and so on and so forth. As a contemporary instance he cites, rather significantly, the Dreyfus case, over which the whole world grew violently excited for no sufficient reason. There are also sudden short-lived crazes for new political and philosophical theories, or for this or that writer, artist or scientist — for example, Darwin who (in 1903) is ‘beginning to be forgotten’. And in some cases a quite worthless popular idol may remain in favour for centuries, for ‘it also happens that such crazes, having arisen in consequence of special reasons accidentally favouring their establishment correspond in such a degree to the views of life spread in society, and especially in literary circles, that they are maintained for a long time’. Shakespeare’s plays have continued to be admired over a long period because ‘they corresponded to the irreligious and unmoral frame of mind of the upper classes of his time and ours’.

As to the manner in which Shakespeare’s fame started, Tolstoy explains it as having been ‘got up’ by German professors towards the end of the eighteenth century. His reputation ‘originated in Germany, and thence was transferred to England’. The Germans chose to elevate Shakespeare because, at a time when there was no German drama worth speaking about and French classical literature was beginning to seem frigid and artificial, they were captivated by Shakespeare’s ‘clever development of scenes’ and also found in him a good expression of their own attitude towards life. Goethe pronounced Shakespeare a great poet, whereupon all the other critics flocked after him like a troop of parrots, and the general infatuation has lasted ever since. The result has been a further debasement of the drama — Tolstoy is careful to include his own plays when condemning the contemporary stage — and a further corruption of the prevailing moral outlook. It follows that ‘the false glorification of Shakespeare’ is an important evil which Tolstoy feels it his duty to combat.

This, then, is the substance of Tolstoy’s pamphlet. One’s first feeling is that in describing Shakespeare as a bad writer he is saying something demonstrably untrue. But this is not the case. In reality there is no kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or any other writer, is ‘good’. Nor is there any way of definitely proving that — for instance — Warwick Beeping is ‘bad’. Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion. Artistic theories such as Tolstoy’s are quite worthless, because they not only start out with arbitrary assumptions, but depend on vague terms (‘sincere’, ‘important’ and so forth) which can be interpreted in any way one chooses. Properly speaking one cannot answer Tolstoy’s attack. The interesting question is: why did he make it? But it should be noticed in passing that he uses many weak or dishonest arguments. Some of these are worth pointing out, not because they invalidate his main charge but because they are, so to speak, evidence of malice.

To begin with, his examination of King Lear is not ‘impartial’, as he twice claims. On the contrary, it is a prolonged exercise in misrepresentation. It is obvious that when you are summarizing King Lear for the benefit of someone who has not read it, you are not really being impartial if you introduce an important speech (Lear’s speech when Cordelia is dead in his arms) in this manner: ‘Again begin Lear’s awful ravings, at which one feels’ ashamed, as at unsuccessful jokes.’ And in a long series of instances Tolstoy slightly alters or colours the passages he is criticizing, always in such a way as to make the plot appear a little more complicated and improbable, or the language a little more exaggerated. For example, we are told that Lear ‘has no necessity or motive for his abdication’, although his reason for abdicating (that he is old and wishes to retire from the cares of state) has been clearly indicated in the first scene. It will be seen that even in the passage which I quoted earlier, Tolstoy has wilfully misunderstood one phrase and Slightly changed this meaning of another, making nonsense of a remark which is reasonable enough in its context. None of these misreadings is very gross in itself, but their cumulative effect is to exaggerate the psychological incoherence of the play. Again, Tolstoy is not able to explain why Shakespeare’s plays were still in print, and still on the stage, two hundred years after his death (before the ‘epidemic suggestion’ started, that is); and his whole account of Shakespeare’s rise to fame is guesswork punctuated by outright misstatements. And again, various of his accusations contradict one another: for example, Shakespeare is a mere entertainer and ‘not in earnest’, but on the other hand he is constantly putting his own thoughts into the mouths of his characters. On the whole it is difficult to feel that Tolstoy’s criticisms are uttered in good faith. In any case it is impossible that he should fully have believed in his main thesis — believed, that is to say, that for a century or more the entire civilized world had been taken in by a huge and palpable lie which he alone was able to see through. Certainly his dislike of Shakespeare is real enough, but the reasons for it may be different, or partly different, from what he avows; and therein lies the interest of his pamphlet.

At this point one is obliged to start guessing. However, there is one possible clue, or at least there is a question which may point the way to a clue. It is: why did Tolstoy, with thirty or more plays to choose from, pick out King Lear as his especial target? True, Lear is so well known and has beeen so much praised that it could justly be taken as representative of Shakespeare’s best work; still, for the purpose of a hostile analysis Tolstoy would probably choose the play he-disliked most. Is it not possible that he bore an especial enmity towards this particular play because he was aware, consciously or unconsciously, of the resemblance between Lear’s story and his own? But it is better to approach this clue from the opposite direction — that is, by examining Lear itself, and the qualities in it that Tolstoy fails to mention.

One of the first things an English reader would notice in Tolstoy’s pamphlet is that it hardly deals with Shakespeare as a poet. Shakespeare is treated as a dramatist, and in so far as his popularity is not spurious, it is held to be due to tricks of stagecraft which give good opportunities to clever actors. Now, so far as the English-speaking countries go, this is not true; Several of the plays which are most valued by lovers of Shakespeare (for instance, Timon of Athens) are seldom or never acted, while some of the most actable, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, are the least admired. Those who care most for Shakespeare value him in the first place for his use of language, the ‘verbal music’ which even Bernard Shaw, another hostile critic, admits to be ‘irresistible’. Tolstoy ignores this, and does not seem to realize that a poem may have a special value for those who speak the language in which it was written. However, even if one puts oneself in Tolstoy’s place and tries to think of Shakespeare as a foreign poet it is still clear that there is something that Tolstoy has left out. Poetry, it seems, is not solely a matter of sound and association, and valueless outside its own language-group: otherwise how is it that some poems, including poems written in dead languages, succeed in crossing frontiers? Clearly a lyric like ‘To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s Day’ could not be satisfactorily translated, but in Shakespeare’s major work there is something describable as poetry that can be separated from the words. Tolstoy is right in saying that 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. Nevertheless, something, a kind of pattern, or perhaps only an atmosphere, survives the complications and the longueurs. Lear can be imagined as a puppet show, a mime, a ballet, a series of pictures. Part of its poetry, perhaps the most essential part, is inherent in the story and is dependent neither on any particular set of words, nor on flesh-and-blood presentation.

Shut your eyes and think of King Lear, if possible without calling to mind any of the dialogue. What do you see? Here at any rate is what I see; a majestic old man in a long black robe, with flowing white hair and beard, a figure out of Blake’s drawings (but also, curiously enough, rather like Tolstoy), wandering through a storm and cursing the heavens, in company with a Fool and a lunatic. Presently the scene shifts and the old man, still cursing, still understanding nothing, is holding a dead girl in his arms while the Fool dangles on a gallows somewhere in the background. This is the bare skeleton of the play, and even here Tolstoy wants to cut out most of what is essential. He objects to the storm, as being unnecessary, to the Fool, who in his eyes is simply a tedious nuisance and an excuse for making bad jokes, and to the death of Cordelia, which, as he sees it, robs the play of its moral. According to Tolstoy, the earlier play. King Leir, which Shakespeare adapted

terminates more naturally and more in accordance with the moral demands of the spectator than does Shakespeare’s; namely, by the King of the Gauls conquering the husbands of the elder sisters, and by Cordelia, instead of being killed, restoring Leir to his former position.

In other words the tragedy ought to have been a comedy, or perhaps a melodrama. It is doubtful whether the sense of tragedy is compatible with belief in God: at any rate, it is not compatible with disbelief in human dignity and with the kind of ‘moral demand’ which feels cheated when virtue fails to triumph. A tragic situation exists precisely when virtue does not triumph but when it is still felt that man is nobler than the forces which destroy him. It is perhaps more significant that Tolstoy sees no justification for the presence of the Fool. The Fool is integral to the play. He acts not only as a sort of chorus, making the central situation clearer by commenting on it more intelligently than the other characters, but as a foil to Lear’s frenzies. His jokes, riddles and scraps of rhyme, and his endless digs at Lear’s high-minded folly, ranging from mere derision to a sort of melancholy poetry (‘All thy other titles thou hast given away, that thou wast born with’), are like a trickle of sanity running through the play, a reminder that somewhere or other in spite of the injustices, cruelties, intrigues, deceptions and misunderstandings that are being enacted here, life is going on much as usual. In Tolstoy’s impatience with the Fool one gets a glimpse of his deeper quarrel with Shakespeare. He objects, with some justification, to the raggedness of Shakespeare’s plays, the irrelevancies, the incredible plots, the exaggerated language: but what at bottom he probably most dislikes is a sort of exuberance, a tendency to take — not so much a pleasure as simply an interest in the actual process of life. It is a mistake to write Tolstoy off as a moralist attacking an artist. He never said that art, as such, is wicked or meaningless, nor did he even say that technical virtuosity is unimportant. But his 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. The parables — this is where Tolstoy differs from the average vulgar puritan — must themselves be works of art, but pleasure and curiosity must be excluded from them. Science, also, must be divorced from curiosity. The business of science, he says, is not to discover what happens but to teach men how they ought to live. So also with history and politics. Many problems (for example, the Dreyfus case) are simply not worth solving, and he is willing to leave them as loose ends. Indeed his whole theory of ‘crazes’ or ‘epidemic suggestions’, in which he lumps together such things as the Crusades and the Dutch passion of tulip growing, shows a willingness to regard many human activities as mere ant-like rushings to and fro, inexplicable and uninteresting. 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?’ In a way the old man is in the right, but the trouble is that the child, has a feeling in its limbs which the old man has lost. And if the old man knows of the existence of this feeling, the effect is merely to increase his irritation: he would make children senile, if he could. Tolstoy does not know, perhaps, just what he misses in Shakespeare, but he is aware that he misses something, and he is determined that others shall be deprived of it as well. By nature he was imperious as well as egotistical. Well after he was grown up he would still occasionally strike his servant in moments of anger, and somewhat later, according to his English biographer, Derrick Leon, he felt ‘a frequent desire upon the slenderest provocation to slap the faces of those with whom he disagreed’. One docs not necessarily get rid of that kind of temperament by undergoing religious conversion, and indeed it is obvious that the illusion of having been reborn may allow one’s native vices to flourish more freely than ever, though perhaps in subtler forms. Tolstoy was capable of abjuring physical violence and of seeing what this implies, but he was not capable of tolerance or humility, and even if one knew nothing of his other writings, one could deduce his tendency towards spiritual bullying from this single pamphlet.

However, Tolstoy 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. Here one comes back to the central theme of King Lear, which Tolstoy does not mention, although he sets forth the plot in some detail.

Lear is one of the minority of Shakespeare’s plays that are unmistakably about something. As Tolstoy justly complains, much rubbish has been written about Shakespeare as a philosopher, as a psychologist, as a ‘great moral teacher’, amd what-not. Shakespeare was not a systematic thinker, his most serious thoughts are uttered irrelevantly or indirectly, and we do not know to what extent he wrote with a ‘purpose’or even how much of the work attributed to him was actually written by him. In the sonnets he never even refers to the plays as part of his achievement, though he does make what seems to be a half-ashamed allusion to his career as an actor. It is perfectly possible that he looked on at least half of his plays as mere pot-boilers and hardly bothered about purpose or probability so long as he could patch up something, usually from stolen material, which would more or less hang together on the stage. However, that is not the whole story. To begin with, as Tolstoy himself points out, Shakespeare has a habit of thrusting uncalled-for general reflections into the mouths of his characters. This is a serious fault in a dramatist, but it does not fit in with Tolstoy’s picture of Shakespeare as a vulgar hack who has no opinions of his own and merely wishes to produce the greatest effect with the least trouble. And more than this, about a dozen of his plays, written for the most part later than 1600, do unquestionably have a meaning and even a moral. They revolve round a central subject which in some cases can be reduced to a single word. For example, Macbeth is about ambition, Othello is about jealousy, and Timon of Athens is about money. The subject of Lear is renunciation, and it is only by being wilfully blind that one can fail to understand what Shakespeare is saying.

Lear renounces his throne but expects everyone to continue treating him as a king. He does not see that if he surrenders power, other people will take advantage of his weakness: also that those who flatter him the most grossly, i.e. Regan and Goneril, are exactly the ones who will turn against him. The moment he finds that he can no longer make people obey him as he did before, he falls into a rage which Tolstoy describes as ‘strange and unnatural’, but which in fact is perfectly in character. In his madness and despair, he passes through two moods which again are natural enough in his circumstances, though in one of them it is probable that he is being used partly as a mouthpiece for Shakespeare’s own opinions. One is the mood of disgust in which Lear repents, as it were, for having been a king, and grasps for the first time the rottenness of formal justice and vulgar morality. The other is a mood of impotent fury in which he wreaks imaginary revenges upon those who have wronged him. ‘To have a thousand with red burning spits come hissing in upon ‘em!’, and:

It were a delicate stratagem to shoe
A troop of horse with felt; I’ll put’t in proof;
And when I have stol’n upon these sons-in-law,
Then kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!

Only at the end does he realize, as a sane man, that power, revenge and victory are not worth while:

No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison…
………………… and we’ll wear out
In a wali’d prison, packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by th’ moon.

But by the time he makes this discovery it is too late, for his death and Cordelia’s are already decided on. That is the story, and, allowing for some clumsiness in the telling, it is a very good story.

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. On the contraty he was driven almost to the edge of madness by the behaviour of the people about him, who persecuted him preciselybecause of his renunciation. Like Lear, Tolstoy was not humble and not a good judge of character. He was inclined at moments to revert to the attitudes of an aristocrat, in spite of his peasant’s blouse, and he even had two children whom he had believed in and who ultimately turned against him — though, of course, in a less sensational manner than Regan and Goneril. His exaggerated revulsion from sexuality was also distinctly similar to Lear’s. Tolstoy’s remark that marriage is ‘slavery, satiety, repulsion’ and means putting up with the proximity of ‘ugliness, dirtiness, smell, sores’, is matched by Lear’s well-known outburst:

But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiends’;
There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the sulphurous pit,
Burning, scalding, stench, consumption, etc., etc.

And though Tolstoy could not foresee it when he wrote his essay on Shakespeare, even the ending of his life — the sudden unplanned flight across country, accompanied only by a faithful daughter, the death in a cottage in a strange village — seems to have in it a sort of phantom reminiscence of Lear.

Of course, one cannot assume that Tolstoy was aware of this resemblance, or would have admitted it if it had been pointed out to him. But his attitude towards the play must have been influenced by its theme. Renouncing power, giving away your lands, was a subject on which he had reason to feel deeply; Probably, therefore, he would be more angered and disturbed by the moral that Shakespeare draws than he would be in the case of some other play — Macbeth, for example — which did not touch so closely on his own life. But what exactly is the moral of Lear? Evidently there are two morals, one explicit, the other implied in the story.

Shakespeare starts by assuming that to make yourself powerless is to invite an attack. This does not mean that everyone will turn against you (Kent and the Fool stand by Lear from first to last), but in all probability someone will. If you throw away your weapons, some less scrupulous person will pick them up. If you turn the other cheek, you will get a harder blow on it than you got on the first one. This docs not always happen, but it is to be expected, and you ought not to complain if it does happen. The second blow is, so to speak, part of the act of turning the other cheek. First of all, therefore, there is the vulgar, common-sense moral drawn by the Fool: ‘Don’t relinquish power, don’t give away your lands.’ But there is also another moral. Shakespeare never utters it in so many words, and it does not very much matter whether he was fully aware of it. It is contained in the story, which, after all, he made up, or altered to suit his purposes. It is: ‘Give away your lands if you want to, but don’t expect to gain happiness by doing so. Probably you won’t gain happiness. If you live for others, you must live for others, and not as a roundabout way of getting an advantage for yourself.’

Obviously neither of these conclusions could have been pleasing to Tolstoy. The first of them expresses the ordinary, belly-to-earth selfishness from which he was genuinely trying to escape. The other conflicts with his desire to eat his cake and have it — that is, to destroy his own egoism and by so doing to gain eternal life. Of course, Lear is not a sermon in favour of altruism. It merely points out the results of practising self-denial for selfish reasons. Shakespeare had a considerable streak of worldliness in him, and if he had been forced to take sides in his own play, his sympathies would probably have lain with the Fool. But at least he could see the whole issue and treat it at the level of tragedy. Vice is punished, but virtue is not rewarded. The morality of Shakespeare’s later tragedies is not religious in the ordinary sense, and certainly is not Christian. Only two of them, Hamlet and Othello, are supposedly occurring inside the Christian era, and even in those, apart from the antics of the ghost in Hamlet, there is no indication of a ‘next world’ where everything is to be put right. All of these tragedies start out with the humanist assumption that life, although full of sorrow, is worth living, and that Man is a noble animal — a belief which Tolstoy in his old age did not share.

Tolstoy was not a saint, but he tried very hard to make himself into a saint, and the standards he applied to literature were other-worldly ones. It is important to realize that the difference between a saint and an ordinary human being is a difference of kind and not of degree. That is, the one is not to be regarded as an imperfect form of the other. The saint, at any rate Tolstoy’s kind of saint, is not trying t6 work an improvement in earthly life: he is trying to bring it to an end and put something different in its place. One obvious expression of this is the claim that celibacy is ‘higher’ than marriage. If only, Tolstoy says in effect, we would stop breeding, fighting, struggling and enjoying, if we could get rid not only of our sins but of everything else that binds us to the surface of the earth — including love, then the whole painful process would be over and the Kingdom of Heaven would arrive. But a normal human being does not want the Kingdom of Heaven: he wants life on earth to continue. This is not solely because he is ‘weak’, ‘sinful’ and anxious for a ‘good time’. Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise. Ultimately it is the Christian attitude which is self-interested and hedonistic, 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. The humanist attitude is that the struggle must continue and that death is the price of life. ‘Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither: Ripeness is all’ — which is an un-Christian sentiment. 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. And the enormous majority of human beings, if they understood the issue, would choose this world. They do make that choice when they continue working, breeding and dying instead of crippling their faculties in the hope of obtaining a new lease of existence elsewhere.

We do not know a great deal about Shakespeare’s religious beliefs, and from the evidence of his writings it would be difficult to prove that he had any. But at any rate he was not a saint or a would-be saint: he was a human being, and in some ways not a very good one. It is clear, for instance, that he liked to stand well with the rich and powerful, and was capable of flattering them in the most servile way. He is also noticeably cautious, not to say cowardly, in his manner of uttering unpopular opinions. Almost never does he put a subversive or sceptical remark into the mouth of a character likely to be identified with himself. Throughout his plays the acute social critics, the people who are not taken in by accepted fallacies, are buffoons, villains, lunatics or persons who are shamming insanity or are in a state of violent hysteria. Lear is a play in which this tendency is particularly well marked. It contains a great deal of veiled social criticism — a point Tolstoy misses — but it is all uttered either by the Fool, by Edgar when he is pretending to be mad, or by Lear during his bouts of madness. In his sane moments Lear hardly ever makes an intelligent remark. And yet the very fact that Shakespeare had to use these subterfuges shows how widely his thoughts ranged. He could not restrain himself from commenting on almost everything, although he put on a series of masks in order to do so. If one has once read Shakespeare with attention, it is not easy to go a day without quoting him, because there are not many subjects of major importance that he does not discuss or at least mention somewhere or other, in his unsystematic but illuminating way. Even the irrelevancies that litter every one of his plays — the puns and riddles, the lists of names, the scraps of ‘reportage’ like the conversation of the carriers in Henry IV the bawdy jokes, the rescued fragments of forgotten ballads — are merely the products of excessive vitality. Shakespeare was not a philosopher or a scientist, but he did have curiosity, he loved the surface of the earth and the process of life — which, it should be repealed, is not the same thing as wanting to have a good time and stay alive as long as possible. Of course, it is not because of the quality of his thought that Shakespeare has survived, and he might not even be remembered as a dramatist if he had not also been a poet. His main hold on us is through language. How deeply Shakespeare himself was fascinated by the music of words can probably be inferred from the speeches of Pistol. What Pistol says is largely meaningless, but if one considers his lines singly they are magnificent rhetorical verse. Evidently, pieces of resounding nonsense (‘Let floods o’erswell, and fiends for food howl on’, etc.) were constantly appearing in Shakespeare’s mind of their own accord, and a half-lunatic character had to be invented to use them up.

Tolstoy’s native tongue was not English, and one cannot blame him for being unmoved by Shakespeare’s verse, nor even, perhaps, for refusing to believe that Shakespeare’s skill with words was something out of the ordinary. But he would also have rejected the whole notion of valuing poetry for its texture — valuing it, that is to say, as a kind of music. If it could somehow have been proved to him that his whole explanation of Shakespeare’s rise to fame is mistaken, that inside the English-speaking world, at any rate, Shakespeare’s popularity is genuine, that his mere skill in placing one syllable beside another has given acute pleasure to generation after generation of English-speaking people — all this would not have been counted as a merit to Shakespeare, but rather the contrary. It would simply have been one more proof of the irreligious, earthbound nature of Shakespeare and his admirers. Tolstoy would have said that poetry is to be judged by its meaning, and that seductive sounds merely cause false meanings to go unnoticed. At every level it is the same issue — this world against the next: and certainly the music of words is something that belongs to this world.

A sort of doubt has always hung around the character of Tolstoy, as round the character of Gandhi. He was not a vulgar hypocrite, as some people declared him to be, and he would probably have imposed even greater sacrifices on himself than he did, if he had not been interfered with at every step by the people surrounding him, especially his wife. But on the other hand it is dangerous to take such men as Tolstoy at their disciples’ valuation. There is always the possibility — the probability, indeed — that they have done no more than exchange one form of egoism for another. Tolstoy renounced wealth, fame and privilege; he abjured violence in all its forms and was ready to suffer for doing so; but it is not easy to believe that he abjured the principle of coercion, or at least the desire to coerce others. There are families in which the father will say to his child, ‘You’ll get a thick car if you do that again’, while the mother, her eyes brimming over with tears, will take the child in her arms and murmur lovingly, ‘Now, darling, is it kind to Mummy to do that?’ And who would maintain that the second method is less tyrannous than the first? The distinction that really matters is not between violence and non-violence, but between having and not having the appetite for power. There are people who are convinced of the wickedness both of armies and of police forces, but who are nevertheless much more intolerant and inquisitorial in outlook than the normal person who believes that it is necessary to use violence in certain circumstances. They will not say to somebody else, ‘Do this, that and the other or you will go to prison’, but they will, if they can, get inside his brain and dictate his thoughts for him in the minutest particulars. Creeds like pacifism and anarchism, which seem on the surface to imply a complete renunciation of power, rather encourage this habit of mind. For if you have embraced a creed which appears to be free from the ordinary dirtiness of politics — a creed from which you yourself cannot expect to draw any material advantage — surely that proves that you are in the right? And the more you are in the right, the more natural that everyone else should be bullied into thinking likewise.

If we are to believe what he says in his pamphlet, Tolstoy has never been able to see any merit in Shakespeare, and was always astonished to find that his fellow-writers, Turgenev, Fet and others thought differently. We may be sure that in his unregenerate days Tolstoy’s conclusion would have been: ‘You like Shakespeare — I don’t. Let’s leave it at that.’ Later, when his perception that it takes all ‘sorts to make a world had deserted him, he came to think of Shakespeare’s writings as something dangerous to himself. The more pleasure people took in Shakespeare, the less they would listen to Tolstoy. Therefore nobody must be allowed to enjoy Shakespeare, just as nobody must be allowed to drink alcohol or smoke tobacco. True, Tolstoy would not prevent them by force. He is not demanding that the police shall impound every copy of Shakespeare’s works. But he will do dirt on Shakespeare, if he can. He will try to get inside the mind of every lover of Shakespeare and kill his enjoyment by every trick he can think of, including — as I have shown in my summary of his pamphlet — arguments which are self-contradictory or even doubtfully honest.

But finally the most striking thing is how little difference it all makes. As I said earlier, one cannot answer Tolstoy’s pamphlet, at least on its main counts. There is no argument by which one can defend a poem. It defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible. And if this test is valid, I think the verdict in Shakespeare’s case must be ‘not guilty’. Like every other writer, Shakespeare will be forgotten sooner or later, but it is unlikely that a heavier indictment will ever be brought against him. Tolstoy was perhaps the most admired literary man of his age, and he was certainly not its least able pamphleteer. He turned all his powers of denunciation against Shakespeare, like all the guns of a battleship roaring simultaneously. And with what result? Forty years later Shakespeare is still there completely unaffected, and of the attempt to demolish him nothing remains except the yellowing pages of a pamphlet which hardly anyone has read, and which would be forgotten altogether if Tolstoy had not also been the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina.



1) Shakespeare and the Drama. Written about 1903 as an introduction to another pamphlet, Shakespeare and the Working Classes, by Ernest Crosby. [back]


George Orwell: ‘Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool’
First published: Polemic, No. 7. — GB, London. — March 1947.

— ‘Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays’. — 1950.
— ‘The Orwell Reader, Fiction, Essays, and Reportage’ — 1956.
— ‘Selected Essays’. — 1957.
— ‘Collected Essays’. — 1961.
— ‘The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell’. — 1968.

Machine-readable version: O. Dag
Last modified on: 2013-08-30

[The book cover page]
George Orwell in
© 1945-1947



Filed under OCR A level, OCR English Literature, Shakespeare

5 responses to “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool: George Orwell. A yr 13 discussion exercise

  1. Armand Pellett

    Orwell’s comparisons of Tolstoy and Lear’s lives create interesting ideas, as both ended their lives with their last and loyal daughter, and furthermore he had given away land in his life and perhaps would have seen echoes of Lear in himself. It could be seen that perhaps Tolstoy has such a dislike for the tragic play, it represents his self-loathing for his own similar mistakes and criticising Lear could be his only way to see the mistakes in his own life. On the other hand he could be utterly unaware of these comparisons and criticises King Lear so much as it is Shakespeares’ best play in the eyes of some and so he wishes to truly criticise it, in every place and way.

    • David Hubbard

      I would argue that it seems that Tolstoy is approaching Shakespeare under a guise of objectivity while trying and failing to hide his own personal agenda underneath it. He criticises Lear for the loose roles of the characters like Edgar and for Shakespeare’s way of heavy handedly putting his own voice into certain lines which are valid points but what he fails to mention is the interconnected nature of the play. These heavy handed lines are often required to further certain ideas in the play and to raise questions among the audience such as Edgar/Albany’s “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”. However, I will concede there are instances of very questionable writing like the Fool’s reference to Merlin.

      On his point about the death of Cordelia robbing the play of morality, I would argue that this is the essential point of the play. A play like King Lear should not end happily because, even though the characters may have grown and developed into better people, that is not the point of the play. Shakespeare did not write Lear to have a portrayal of forgiveness and redemption, he wrote it as a dark twisted examination of power and its corruptive forces. To this end, there should not be a happy moment where Lear or Cordelia is given the crown because it would undo all of the bloodshed and suffering of the play. The ultimate sense of morality that Tolstoy craves would not make sense in the context of who the characters are and what has happened to them.

      • Ethan Peters

        I cannot disagree with what both of you have said. From my reading I feel that Orwell seems to think that Tolstoy’s harsh criticism of the play stems from his being confronted with too many ‘home truths’ in witnessing the fall of King Lear. Orwell’s argument is rather strong, making references to Tolstoy’s desire later in life to give up his “… privileged position and live the life of a peasant.” However, whilst this argument may be compelling, I feel that at times it leans too far into conjecture and personal attacks in discrediting Tolstoy.

        Orwell’s defence of ‘King Lear’ is a strong one, nevertheless, as David has pointed out. I just wanted to draw attention to a couple of key, short quotations from Orwell that I thought would be useful to remember for our exam. He describes the Fool’s rhymes and poetry as “Like a trickle of sanity running through the play,” which I think is a profound insight that would be useful in discussions surrounding ideas such as the role of the Fool as well as sanity/madness. Orwell also states that “The subject of ‘Lear’ is renunciation,” with the notion of King Lear having chosen to “Divide in three” his kingdom so he can “Unburdened crawl towards death” being the catalyst for all of the action of the play; so I feel Orwell has, as probably many other critics have, picked up on a key idea within the play.

  2. Henry Kidney

    I would agree with Orwell that Tolstoy has seemed to of missed the purpose of Shakespeare’s work, notably King Lear. He has instead condemned the play [King Lear] for not aligning with his own morality, however he does make some valid arguments about some of the glaring plot-holes within the play itself.
    I believe, from Orwell’s interpretation, that Tolstoy fails to remain objective within his review of Shakespeare’s work, therefore hindering the veracity of his arguments. Much like Lear, Tolstoy is ‘blind’, seeing only his own agenda.
    Additionally, I found it interesting when Tolstoy criticised Lear for its untraditional ending. He complains Cordelia’s death “robs the play of its morals”, therefore showing Tolstoy’s overarching concern with morality, therefore missing Shakespeare’s very purposeful lack of reconciliation. (It would be much harder for Shakespeare to make the ending believable without Cordelia dying).
    Therefore, my overall opinions of Tolstoy’s arguments, as reviewed by Orwell, are that Tolstoy has forfeited a balanced examination of King Lear, concerning himself and his readers with how he would have liked King Lear to have been written, rather than reviewing how Shakespeare had written it.

    • Jack Reeves

      I disagree with you Henry, I think that Tolstoy’s views would resonate with the average audience of King Lear. I would argue that Tolstoy is naïve in his criticisms, but they are by no means invalid. Tolstoy is right in saying that the Fool utters ‘senseless words’, and so does Poor Tom. It is only when one begins to immerse himself in Shakespeare’s text that we begin to appreciate the writing. However, the average audience coming to watch King Lear in the 17th century would have definitely agreed with Tolstoy. Orwell himself states that it took over two-hundred years for Shakespeare to become as infamous as he is today, which draws me to the conclusion that perhaps modern literary critics are looking too much at the text, and therefore drawing conclusions that Shakespeare himself was unaware of, thus giving him undeserved credit.
      However, it is hard to overlook the underlying bias that Tolstoy may have had, which likened him to Lear, and thus his criticism of the play was simply a criticism of his own life choices.

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