Much ado about someone

All Shakespeare conspirators are alike; each unhappy Shakespeare conspirator is unhappy in its own way*. (*This is a paraphrase from Leo Tolstoy’s book Anna Karenina first line which reads: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”.)

Since I have been working on the Shakespeare cataloguing project, I have collected such a huge amount of anecdotes, conspiracy feelings, and ghosts’ legends on William Shakespeare that it would be enough for a dramatic script. 

In June 2015 I started working at Senate House Library as the Shakespeare Project Cataloguer on a heterogeneous collection of modern books. At the heart of the Library’s Shakespeare collections is the personal library of Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence (1837-1914) who based his acquisitions mainly on the Bacon-Shakespeare theory. Bequeathed by his widow in 1929 to the University of London, the collection encouraged the Library to aggressively acquire a very wide range of material of Shakespeare, from standard editions and critical works to souvenir pamphlets and further works on all aspects of the authorship controversy. Fittingly enough in this anniversary year, these books have been moved into Sir Edwin’s bookcases in the Durning-Lawrence Library, for recataloguing.

Bacon as Shakespeare
“You see a man, evidently Bacon giving his writing to a Spearman who is dressed in actor's boots… This man is Shake-Spear.” (Bacon is Shake-Speare, by Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence, New York, The John McBride, 1910, plate XXVII, XXVIII, and p. 125).

Working on cataloguing these modern collections is an evocative journey into the past, and encountering the theatricality of the Shakespearian controversies has been an immersion into the Elizabethan theatrical scene. I have counted 10 different Shakespearean authorship theories, but there might be more, and each of them with an as incredible and hilarious vein of creativity. After all, as the power of the historical research method can grow and develop prejudices or die for lack of watering in the absence of indisputable biographical data, in the present case of the Bard, an alarming number of authorship theories have blossomed like primroses in spring. We now have the Baconian theory, the Burghley theory, the Burton theory and again, the Chapman, Green, Marlow, Neville, Oxford, Rutland and the Southampton theory. There might be something real in each of them, there might be just idola specus as Sir Francis Bacon in person would say.

I personally trust Shakespeare, the one from Stratford-upon-Avon and of course, I love the fact there is so much of Italian grandeur in his poetic consciousness but above all I like the poet who is “not of an age, but for all time!”[1], a poet who was able to discern and touch on most of the social, religious and moral debates of his times, the same issues which are still discussed on the contemporary  stage, but among all that I have heard and read on Shakespeare there is an argument which literally traumatised me and undermined a little some of my Olympian Gods. 

It wasn't a sunny day when I randomly bumped into a book to be catalogued arguing with Tolstoy's position on Shakespeare whose works, according to the Russian authority "do not satisfy the demands of all art, and, besides this, their tendency is the lowest and most immoral.”[2].

Probably, most of you already know about Tolstoy's pamphlet on Shakespeare which he wrote in 1906; well I didn't and I am here to sort out my feelings about it.

Shakespeare and TolstoyLeo Tolstoy must have been among the unhappy Shakespeare conspirators according to his unhappy thoughts on the Bard, but as every human being is just a child of his times, we should avoid criticising Tolstoy’s considerations if they are just the product of his own century.

My personal admiration for Tolstoy is strongly influenced by what is considered one of the greatest works of art of all times, Anna Karenina. I think that if we can shake the mental clothes soaked in the fights for feminism and social justice, we can just enjoy the pleasure of reading a nineteenth century Russian historical drama. However, if we consider that the author let Karenina die at the end of the story in a sort of punishment for having been such a socially transgressive heroine, that pleasure would turn in part into something upsetting and we would read the story of a fight between faith and infidelity, which in this case is not only a matter of adultery but of subversion of the social laws.

But let’s talk about Tolstoy’s considerations on Shakespeare as subversive of social laws.

There was a profound political debate going on at the advent of the Twentieth century, at least according to what the press has reported to us, that was more concerned with political propaganda in terms of consent, than of a proper critical investigation in terms of literary analysis.

On the eve of Tolstoy’s pamphlet there was a prolific production of chronicles attacking Shakespeare, the poet who, according to many, dared to use the art of poetry to subvert those social laws which should rather guarantee a correct and democratic balance between social classes. 

Tolstoy on ShakespeareIn Tolstoy on Shakespeare, there is also contained a collection of cuttings from some of the most important newspapers of the time accusing Shakespeare’s works of being against the working class.[3] Of 7 quotes taken from newspapers collected in the brief article The press against Shakespeare, none of them gives any lucid or methodical criticism merely of Shakespeare’s art, except in an attempt to demonise his drama, and none of them, in just a few lines of quotation, can avoid using expressions like “labouring class”, “common people”, “masses”, “lower classes”, or “labouring multitude”, as if Shakespeare had read and denied Marx.

Here is a sample of these comments showing the stage of the literary debate in the early 1900s:

Did Shakespeare ridicule the working classes?” Was a question sprung upon Mr. Beerbohm Tree with quite uncanny suddenness yesterday afternoon, when he went to Poplar Town Hall to address Mr Will Crooks’ Sunday afternoon meeting on ‘The humanity of Shakespeare.

“The hall was crowded to the very last inch of standing room … Altogether there was little doubt that Mr. Tree had in front of him a purely representative audience of London’s working class ...”

“All … was listened to with rapt attention, and applauded vigorously … and then a young man rose quietly in the middle of the hall and asked if he might put a question to Mr. Tree. “Is it about Shakespeare?” said Mr. Crooks. “About Shakespeare”, answered the young man. “Then you may”, said Mr Crook. “Did he, or did he not, ridicule the working classes?”

Here Mr. Crooks interposed. He disallowed the question. “Have you not been hearing of the ‘humanity of Shakespeare’ all the afternoon?” he said. The young man persisted. He said he only wanted an answer from Mr. Tree. On this Mr. Will Crooks commended the young man to the free library, and fell back on his authority as chairman, and broke up the meeting. Mr. Tree remained silent.

As was natural, the incident caused no little wondering discussion among the audience, who gathered in knots outside and debated … There were some, indeed, who contended that both Mr. Crook and Mr. Tree had been wise in not answering, for the simple reason that Shakespeare, according to them, did ridicule the working classes– “and worse.” “You wouldn’t believe,” said one. “The nasty things he says in that there play!” –The Daily Chronicle, December 18th, 1905.[4]

But my favourite one is:

“ ...When, in his (Shakespeare’s) two or three and thirty plays we find no single sympathetic reference to the common people in any political capacity, and abundant jeers, gibes, and insults in plays of every period of his life, we are justified in declaring, to put it in mildly, that modern doctrines on the rights and wrongs on the masses were foreign to his conception...

A democratic state was, in Shakespeare’s eyes, literally preposterous... He held that it was and must be to the end of time, the business of the upper classes to rule, and of the lower classes to be ruled...” – The Morning Leader, December 30th, 1905.[5]

This collection of firm statements against Shakespeare was gathered with the aim of rectifying the “enormous accumulation of literature in praise of Shakespeare”, and again “there has as yet appeared in the British Press such an infinitesimal fraction of adverse comment that the following few recent instances may be welcomed as the possible precursor of an awakening from the Shakespeare hypnotism referred to by Tolstoy.”[6].

In his critical essay on Shakespeare, Tolstoy analyses King Lear in a very detailed way, first he dismantles and crumbles the text of the tragedy; then, in the second part, he opens this dissected body to destroy any presumption of literary or artistic merit it contains. In his process of demolition, Tolstoy sews such a dense embroidery of disapproval, that it makes you love Shakespeare even more, if that is possible. In the attempt to demonise Shakespeare’s art, he appeals to the unnatural course of events in King Lear, in fact,  we can count the words ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ used five times to refer to the scenes and characters, in just a couple of pages:

“These positions, into which the characters are placed quite arbitrarily, are so unnatural that the reader or spectator is unable not only to sympathize with their suffering but even to be interested in what he reads or sees. This in the first place.”[7].

The character of Lear in Shakespeare is essentially the personification of the legend of the King of Britannia, who lived, according to folklore, around the seventh century B.C. This tale lends itself very well to illustrating the topòs of the hibrys, a recurring theme in Greek tragedy used to describe vainglory of men in their vain attempt to get closer to God, an attempt that often ends in foolery and death. To effectively use this topòs in dramatic writing, it is necessary, therefore, that the entire representation is uncanny and, in the hands of a pure genius, also has an unnatural theatrical effect.

“In ‘King Lear’ the persons represented are indeed placed externally in opposition to the outward world, and they struggle with it. But their strife does not flow from the natural course of events nor from their own characters, but is quite arbitrarily established by the author, and therefore cannot produce on the reader the illusion which represents the essential condition of art.”[8].

In the second place, the accusation that Tolstoy makes against Shakespeare is that of drawing characters without personality and soul, suggesting that they are estranged from the space-time context: “individuality of language, i.e., the style of speech of every person being natural to his character. This is absent from Shakespeare. All his characters speak, not their own, but always one and the same Shakespearian, pretentious, and unnatural language, in which not only they could not speak, but in which no living man ever has spoken or does speak.”[9].

In Shakespeare, in essence, there isn’t anything new: all his characters are borrowed from the past, from somebody else’s work, from dramas, chronicles, and romances prior to him. It seems that what we call Shakespearian style is based on the historical epic tale, and was only a lack of literary personality and composition method for Tolstoy and certain of his contemporaries. When he tries to examine Shakespeare’s Cordelia he cannot avoid finding that the character was used in the worst way, reduced from the best examples of older drama; Tolstoy speaks of “Cordelia’s unnecessary murder” in Shakespeare, and argues that the way Lear and Cordelia are depicted by other writers in older tales is more natural and more in line with the “moral demands of the spectator”. For Tolstoy, everything is wrong in Shakespeare and he suggests a better ending, that Cordelia lives “instead of being killed”, and where the action moves to “restoring Leir [sic] to his former position.”[10].

Tolstoy himself might have subconsciously employed the topòs of hibrys, for in an attempt to reach a supreme judgment says against the godlike Shakespeare he says that “This is why I think that the sooner people free themselves from the false glorification of Shakespeare, the better it will be;”[11] regretfully for Tolstoy we are all still here celebrating the Quater-Centenary of Shakespeare’s death with a jubilee of theatrical representations, exhibitions and performances of all kinds. God bless the Bard!

by Dr Annalisa Ricciardi


[1] Ben Jonson’s praise and eulogy of his close friend William Shakespeare on the Preface to the First Folio (1623): “To the memory of my beloved Mr William Shakespeare and what he hath left to us.”

See also: “Not of an age, but for all time.”. Shakespearean’s Thoughts on Shakespeare’s Permanence, by Roland Mushat Frye, in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 132, n. 3 (Sep., 1988), pp. 223-236.

[2] Shakespeare and the drama, by Leo Tolstoy, translated by V. Tchertkoff, in Tolstoy on Shakespeare, Christchurch, Hants and London, Everett & Co., (1906-1907), pp. 1-81, especially, p. 63.

[3] The press against Shakespeare, and Shakespeare and the working classes, by Ernest H. Crosby, in Tolstoy on Shakespeare…, pp.117-120; pp. 82-113.

[4] The press against Shakespeare…, pp. 119-120.

[5] Id., p. 118-119.

[6] Id., p. 117.

[7] Shakespeare and the drama…, p. 36.

[8] Id., p. 35.

[9] Shakespeare and the drama…, pp. 37-38.

[10] Id., pp. 43-44.

[11] Id., p. 80.

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  • 26 Jul 2016

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