Shakespeare and the Drama by Leo Tolstoy (1906) reviewed

This long essay was written towards the end of the career of Tolstoy. By then, the great writer had developed firm ideas with regard to the purpose of literature. In this text, he claimed that Shakespeare was not a poetic artist of the first rank. To make this claim, Tolstoy focused on ‘King Lear’ in particular. However, Tolstoy also made several points about the way cultural values are transmitted in society.

It is not necessary to agree with Tolstoy with regard to the tragedy of ‘King Lear’ to appreciate that his essay made some valid points. Tolstoy correctly pointed out that the work of Shakespeare has gone in and out of fashion down the centuries. He accurately indicated that certain influential critics had played a big role in this. Furthermore, he was right to look at the original tales from which Shakespeare had drawn.

Nonetheless, while Shakespeare might have been excessively patriotic as Tolstoy alleged, the rest of the long argument has a few weaknesses. Tolstoy’s antipathy was primarily based on reading the plays. His moral and aesthetic objections will not convince every person who visits the theatre. Ultimately, this thought-provoking essay makes the reader think that Tolstoy was possibly too prescriptive in what he wanted from art.

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