Shakespeare Or Death

Leo Tolstoy had a life-long feud with Shakespeare:

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, and doubted as to whether I was senseless in feeling works regarded as the summit of perfection by the whole of the civilized world to be trivial and positively bad, or whether the significance which this civilized world attributes to the works of Shakespeare was itself senseless.

Naturally, after all, Tolstoy discovered that “the significance which this civilized world attributes to the works of Shakespeare was itself senseless.” The reason was:

Until the end of the eighteenth century Shakespeare not only failed to gain any special fame in England, but was valued less than his contemporary dramatists: Ben Jonson, Fletcher, Beaumont, and others. His fame originated in Germany, and thence was transferred to England. […] These men, German esthetic critics, for the most part utterly devoid of esthetic feeling, without that simple, direct artistic sensibility which, for people with a feeling for art, clearly distinguishes esthetic impressions from all others, but believing the authority which had recognized Shakespeare as a great poet, began to praise the whole of Shakespeare indiscriminately, especially distinguishing such passages as struck them by their effects, or which expressed thoughts corresponding to their views of life, imagining that these effects and these thoughts constitute the essence of what is called art.

On Shakespeare, [103–114]

The hypothesis in bold is easy to check. The mentions of Shakespeare in the 19th century books:

Google N-grams
Google N-grams

(Bacon and Chaucer included for controls.)

Shakespeare’s rating is flat since 1564, though the early data is noisier. His mentions in German books increase alongside with those in English literature.

So, Shakespeare indeed was rediscovered 300 years after his birth. Is Tolstoy correct about the quality? In a typical rebuttal, George Orwell says it’s not up to Tolstoy to judge because “there is no test of literary merit except survival.”

But I think Orwell is missing the point. By the end of his life, Tolstoy became an overwhelmingly social—not literary—critic, and so his piece is about “the significance which this civilized world attributes to the works of Shakespeare.” The poet turned out to be a useful illustration that the civilized world saw nothing in Shakespeare for three centuries, then suddenly woke up and made him the number-one celebrity in the nomination (like here). Tolstoy attacks not the poetry but the idolatry, promoted by the likes of Harold Bloom, himself an authority, who put Shakespeare in the “Center of the Western Canon” in 1994.

How can we separate quality from reputation in this case? Well, schools and universities remain the major marketing channel for Shakespeare. For a good writer, getting into a mandatory reading list shouldn’t be a great deal since he’s always in demand. But for Shakespeare, popularity depends on the schooling cycle:

Google Trends
Google Trends, US only

Red peaks show how students buy textbooks in January and August. Shakespeare’s popularity peaks in April and vanishes by the summer break. Is summer a bad time for reading? On the contrary, kids have more free time. For example, publishers released all Harry Potter books in either June or July—just to get into the reading season. The graph says Shakespeare loses when people read books they like. And since it’s a blasphemy to compare the poet to popular authors, can we understand what attracts free people to Shakespeare?

Instead of getting into value judgements of his readers, I’d make a couple of economic guesses about his popularity. First, the McDonald’s hypothesis. Despite its bad reputation, McDonald’s provides certain quality and menu everywhere, and the client gets exactly what he expected (which may be better than having seafoods in tropics and ending up with intoxication). Similarly, wherever you happen to be, Shakespeare is on stage of the nearest theater. They had Shakespeare in London and New York, in Soviet Moscow, and on screens adapted by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Hitler personally excluded Shakespeare from the list of authors banned by the Nazi. Maybe the only big historical case of Shakespeare deprivation was China during the Cultural Revolution.

The second version is industrial. As performing arts got more complex, theater professionals needed a yardstick that separates performers from authors. If you saw something good on stage, you might be puzzled whether actors were good or the stuff was well written. And you could easily separate performance out if you keep the writings constant. Shakespeare is a perfect candidate for his cartoonish characters and stories. If you saw ten Hamlets in action, you can pick the favorite one. It’s like running 100 meters: everyone runs in the same conditions. Here, Shakespeare survived because he became the industry standard.

These versions are difficult to check, of course. And here I like Tolstoy’s approach more because his appraisal is not about proofs. As an Enlightenment guy, Tolstoy only encourages to question the quality of Shakespeare’s writings, instead of rationalizing his popularity. That’s a good exercise to try on contemporary authors and their works.

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