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George Orwell was a great fan of Shakespeare, and he wrote an essay[1] in response to Tolstoy's strong dislike of Shakespeare[2]. These quotes are from Orwell, the fan:

- "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."

- "Shakespeare has a habit of thrusting uncalled-for general reflections into the mouths of his characters. This is a serious fault in a dramatist"

- "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."

Tolstoy:

- "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"

[1] http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/lear/english/e_ltf ("Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool, by George Orwell)

[2] http://www.gutenberg.org/files/27726/27726-h/27726-h.htm ("Tolstoy on Shakespeare", by Leo Tolstoy)




This is one of my favorite essays, it also has a great aside about how the appetite for power is more dangerous than the capacity for violence, which has always stuck with me as a particularly astute observation.

The essay is also particularly good because it recognizes that Shakespeare pre-identified faults in Tolstoy's philosophy, in King Lear.

I've also long thought that a lot of the subtlety of language touched on in this essay would have likely escaped Tolstoy in translation.


Very astute indeed, this is my first time hearing about it.

Copy pasted below:

> 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.

My two cents is that the vast majority of people likely have the similar capacities for violence, their expression only changes in different contexts and for different reasons. Orwelles articulates that in the political context, the most likely reason for violence is to attain power, so those who care less for power have less reason and therefore less-seeming capacity for violence.

I quite like how he establishes that the reason for violence comes before the capacity of violence when considering if someone will be violent/express violence.

That man had a window into the political soul.


Great essay (Orwell) takes me back. I remember learning Lear (and the other 'tragedies') at Rutgers in a night class in a basement of one of those impersonal brutalist buildings that sprung up in the 70s to replace 'quonset' huts in central Jersey by the Raritan. Inauspicious looking place to learn Shakespeare but was a class that really stuck with me.

The language and structure of "Lear" spin out of control and loose meaning - so by the end one of the more sympathetic characters becomes speechless after saying something to the effect of - "Is this the promised end/ or the image of that destruction?/ fall and cease". IOW: 'is this the apocalypse? there is nothing more to say or do...'

It doesn't bother me that Tolstoy thought Lear was garbage. I can see his point from his perspective. He had a different mind and different education from anything I could imagine. And he was fundamentally smarter than I am so I respect that. I think though I respect Shakespeare more and part of what he is doing in "Lear" is showing the heartbreaking limits of the mind when facing a reality that no longer makes sense.

I realize even from the relatively privileges perspective of one educated in dank basements of a decent US public university that I know much less about literature and philosophy than a comparably educated compatriot of Tolstoy (and much, much less than Tolstoy himself). Even in my reading he is nto wrong. Lear in the tradition of tragedy is a broken play. I am not sure that makes it bad...

The end of Lear renders everyone in the play dead or shattered, mute. We as the audience, receive that and go on. That gulf is awesome. Much is lost and it is almost magical that we go on. And this fracturing and re-wholing goes on.

An old story - the "Tower of Babel", etc

This gets rewritten - Huidobro, Faulkner, Julio Cortazar, and Beckett come to mind but I am lazy and years away from lit study. Writers that see a epoch passing (for better or worse) and are in the lacunae where meaning is exhausted and we are speechless and exhausted.

Like Beckett ends his trilogy

``` It will be I? It will be the silence, where I am? I don't know, I'll never know: in the silence you don't know.

            You must go on.
           
            I can't go on.
 
            I'll go on.
```

There are echos of Lear everywhere.

I hate the weakness of relativism but I feel a humbleness wrt the greats - I reach into the bag of marbles and pull out a Sappho, LaoTze, TSEliot, Hegel and read something out of context and in translation. In the back of my mind I realize there is much I would never understand the gulf of experience. They are all failures: most drunk or unstable, leaving fragments that we puzzle over.


I'm with Tolstoy. Have never liked Shakespeare, since high school.




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