Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool by George Orwell: reviewed

This interesting essay was published in 1947. It is a polemical attempt to demolish the criticism which Tolstoy had made about the work of Shakespeare. Tolstoy had developed a conception of the purpose of art which clashed with the values of the famous Elizabethan dramatist. Orwell, a patriotic advocate for the English playwright, engages in an ad hominem assault on Tolstoy, focusing negatively on his age, his anarchism, and his personality.

Orwell depicts Tolstoy as having a character similar to that of King Lear and his withering look at the contentions of the great writer is arguably lacking in balance. The essay apparently shows the reader more about Orwell than Tolstoy, illustrating the intolerant and reactionary side of the imaginative political writer. A lack of nuance and a shortage of appreciation haunt the text; there is too little acknowledgement of the valuable questioning which Tolstoy had undertaken.

The conclusion of the essay, which is intended to be decisive, seems to cast doubt on the motivation Orwell must have had for responding to Tolstoy in the first instance:

“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 anyone has read, and which would be forgotten altogether if Tolstoy had not also been the author of ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Anna Karenina’.”

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