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Shakespeare in Nineteenth-Century Russia

NCH London | October 28, 2019

Tolstoy’s very negative view of Shakespeare’s plays was not typical of Russian writers of the period.

The Ottoline Club met on 5 th March 2019 in the Vault to hear a talk by Dr. Catherine Brown. Those present were: Catherine Brown and Charlotte Grant (Faculty of English), Naomi Goulder, David Mitchell, Christoph Schuringa and Ioannis Votsis (Faculty of Philosophy), Melanie Gibson (formerly Faculty of Art History), and Anthony Grayling (Master).

Tolstoy’s essay “On Shakespeare and Drama”, published in 1906 after a gestation of several decades, delivers an almost unmitigatedly negative verdict on Shakespeare’s plays. Catherine in the latter part of her talk offered some ideas to help us to understand that verdict, having first provided an outline of the prior Russian reception of Shakespeare’s works. She brought out how comparatively bardolatrous Russian literary circles had been between around 1820 and 1880, illustrating the point with several works that refer to Shakespearean characters in their titles – short stories and literary criticism by Turgenev and a novella by Leskov. These several works share the striking feature of treating those characters (Hamlet, Lear and Lady Macbeth) as archetypes, capable of being exemplified in many times and places. The most remarkable of them, in Catherine’s judgement, is Turgenev’s “King Lear of the Steppes”, and it was King Lear also which Tolstoy took as his main target in the 1906 essay.

The charges against the play which Catherine reported were many and various: an unrealistic plot, artificial and pretentious language; the play is carelessly composed, anachronistic, in parts ludicrous, and indeed immoral or amoral, lacking in religious significance, jingoistic, and despising of the masses. This onslaught of Tolstoy’s has been regretted or deplored by most of the critics and biographers. But Catherine noted that there were some partial precedents for it in the early socialist writers Chernyshevsky and Dobrolyubov, that Shaw went along with at least some of it, and particularly that Pasternak’s later version of the play avowedly aims at a Tolstoyan simplicity and realism.

Certainly, said Catherine, Tolstoy’s own commitment to realism, along with the increased simplicity of diction and the intense moral engagement of his later writings, does partly account for his fierce opposition to Shakespeare. She also agreed with the many critics who have imputed further, more biographical reasons for the particular shape this essay takes. Many have linked it to Tolstoy’s 1891 division of his estate, and the consequent tensions with his family: there may have been a sense in which his passionate condemnation of the dramatist was fed by some deep-seated repudiation of the thought of himself being, after the manner of the earlier literature, the King Lear of Yasnaya Polyana. But the best illumination of Tolstoy’s reasons, Catherine argued, comes from considering the essay alongside his play The Light Shines in the Darkness, which like the essay was first conceived in the 1880s but finished (though with a last Act only in sketch) in the 1900s. The Tolstoy-like central character of that play, whose
radical ideas about how to live cause many around him to think him  unhinged, dies, according to the projected last lines, serene and joyful at having maintained his integrity and understood the meaning of his life. This play, Catherine proposed, was Tolstoy’s best response to King Lear, and provides the best key to interpreting his Shakespeare essay.

Naomi and Charlotte both emphasised how Tolstoy’s dissent from conventional readings of Shakespeare appeared to be a dissent specifically in values, rather than in how he read him: it was largely the same qualities which so many readers prize – the Keatsian negative capability, for example – that Tolstoy found lamentable. In reply to Melanie’s and Christoph’s enquiries about performance – how much there was and how much Tolstoy might have seen – , Catherine acknowledged that it would be useful to know more than she had been able to discover. Charlotte connected that issue with the question of cultural westernisation at this period, and prompted the Google-guided discovery that the ‘districts’ mentioned in the Turgenev and Leskov titles (Shigrov and Mtsensk) are very much in European Russia. Christoph took up a passing mention Catherine had made of Wittgenstein, as confessing difficulties with appreciating Shakespeare, to point out a number of Tolstoyan links and affinities in his life. This was one of many excellent points of information emerging in the discussion, not the least of which was Catherine’s in an aside, that Crime and Punishment and War and Peace were published concurrently, in serialised form, in one and the same periodical.