One of the best things about hitting the Roaring Forties is becoming more and more comfortable about the things that I don’t like, or don’t understand, and being completely and utterly open about it. Whilst I’ll defend to the hilt for these things to exist, I’m no fan of opera, I don’t like traditional country music (Johnny Cash is as far as I can get in that direction, and even then it’s only when he’s covering contemporary songs), and, well, uncooked celery is just plain wrong. However, one part of the arts that I’ve never liked or understood is dear old William Shakespeare, which is a little problematic for someone who loves putting words together to make sentences and paragraphs, to tell stories in the written form.
Every year or so I take myself to see some Shakespeare production or other, thinking it will be this time that I’ll get it, a light will come on, and, as if I was blind but could now see, I’d get what all the fuss is about. And there is a heck of a lot of fuss about this bloke – can anyone think of a more revered writer in the English language? Except, for me, no lights come on; I don’t discover any kind of insight. Five minutes into the production I’m lost: I can’t follow which character is trying to screw over which other character, and quite frankly I don’t care who’s about to kick the bucket. And all the supposedly brilliant words rush from the stage as if trying to escape from the actors’ mouths. I can do nothing but hurriedly retreat to my happy place, which is either sitting on the couch with He Who Also Can’t Stand The Bard and knocking off a bottle of Verdelho, or recalling sepia-toned images of a village in the Blue Mountains that’s so special to me I won’t even share its name.
Not long ago, after yet another disastrous Shakespeare sojourn, a friend emailed me an article titled ‘Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool’ written by George Orwell in 1947. Orwell tries to develop an argument against a ‘pamphlet’ (which I’m assuming is some kind of prehistoric blog post) written by Leo Tolstoy in 1903 in which the Russian literary giant quite summarily heaps so much scorn on Shakespeare that it makes for hilarious reading.
Here are some of the tastiest bits.
Tolstoy begins by saying that throughout life Shakespeare has aroused in him ‘an irresistible repulsion and tedium’. Conscious that the opinion of the civilised 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.
In case you’re wondering when Tolstoy will actually form an opinion on the matter, Orwell goes on to report, 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, irrelevancies, obscenities, worn-out stage conventions and other faults both moral and aesthetic.
Although Orwell tries his hardest to pick a fight with Tolstoy, he does find points of agreement. For example, Orwell states that 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’…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 as he could patch up something, usually from stolen material, which would more or less hang together on stage. Furthermore – and I really like this bit – [Shakespeare] was 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 in a state of violent hysteria.
Orwell, however, still concludes, [The] most striking thing is how little difference it all [meaning Tolstoy’s bloody brilliant tirade] makes. 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 by ‘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 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 any has read.
Except, thanks to the internet and a learned friend, Tolstoy’s pamphlet has informed at least this humble little blogger and made him very, very happy indeed. All I can say is, thank God for Leo Tolstoy, for being the great big literary punk that he is, and for making me feel so damn good about not getting the Old Bard, for not liking what the man wrote, for wanting to run a mile whenever a Shakespeare play starts.
Of course, I say again that I’ll fervently defend the right for anyone to put on a Shakespeare play, but, for me, in terms of actually sitting in the audience, I’d rather spend the evening hacking out my eyeballs with a rusty nail.
Or read The Death of Ivan Ilyich over and over.