Archive for Tolstoy

Great Writers Who for Some Reason Hated Shakespeare

Posted in Shakespeareana with tags , , , on 2014/02/08 by mattermind

Tolstoy

Old Tolstoy Found Religion – But No Love for Shakespeare

While I spend the weekend hanging out at the California Antiquarian Book Fair, I thought you might enjoy a sampling of contrarian points of view to my heavy doses of Bardology.

This all began when I discovered tp my amazement that no less than the eminent Leo Tolstoy detested Shakespeare with a white-hot passion. I plan to read an ebook of his essay graciously made available for free by the Guttenberg Project.

Tolstoy on Shakespeare

In the meantime, this sent me on a most bizarre odyssey as I googled one shocking tale after another of famous people who could not stand either Shakespeare or his work. Surely there must be some professional jealousy going on here.

If there is any truth to professor Harold Bloom’s theory in the “agon” of the ages, that great artists inherit an obligation to absorb the accomplishments of their predecessors, this must quite naturally lead to enormous anxiety when you face the daunting challenge of having to follow upon the likes of Homer, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton. Better to draw a mustache on the Mona Lisa than attempt to top it.

That could, in part, explain these:

Voltaire called Shakespeare’s works an “enormous dunghill.”

Tolstoy was equally unimpressed, calling Will’s writing “Crude, immoral, vulgar and senseless.”

George Bernard Shaw really waxed poetic about how much he hated Shakespeare. “There is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare,” he said. “It would be positively a relief to me to dig him up and throw stones at him.”

I wish I could post this shocking listing from Brianpickings in full. But I offer this smattering of quotes as an appetizer and an invitation to bang the LINK for more.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

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Shakespeare & the King James Bible

Posted in Context, Language, Shakespeareana with tags , , on 2014/01/19 by mattermind

King James

 

Anyone even vaguely familiar with the Christian Bible knows that there has never been a translation yet that surpassed the King James.

What nobody ever mentions – and something I had never before considered – is that the KJV Bible was created and produced at the very pinnacle of Shakespeare’s career. Not by him, of course. Though there are legends about his alleged involvement.

But how many people, when they praise the unmatched linguistic beauty of that bible, know it sprang from the very same time and place as Shakespeare?

This is from Wikipedia:

The King James Version (KJV), commonly known as the Authorized Version (AV) or King James Bible (KJB), is an English translation of the Christian Bible for the Church of England begun in 1604 and completed in 1611.

Now that I know this, it makes me wonder how much of Shakespeare’s eloquence was “in the air” during that momentous decade of literary achievement… not to take anything away from him, but rather to better understand the context of early 17th century England.

UPDATE: Thanks to Karla Tipton for alerting me to a documentary called The Story of English. The following is an excerpt from episode 3 titled “Muse of Fire” dealing specifically with the English language around Shakespeare’s time:

The documentary in its entirety may be viewed HERE.

Who knows how destiny ultimately works, or why certain people happen to be born at just the right moment in time. Such questions are not mere idle speculation. Famous authors and philosophers such as Hegel and Leo Tolstoy famously pondered whether great individuals make history or whether history makes great individuals.

It’s fun (and unnerving) to consider such possibilities as: had William Shakespeare never been born, would history have invented somebody else just like him? Or: if William Shakespeare had written in any other age, how would his work have sounded?

With the coincidence of Shakespeare’s career high point occurring exactly during production of the King James Bible, it’s tempting to imagine that Shakespeare had a hand in the KJV. And it turns out that such legends exist.

From Wikipedia:

For several decades a popular rumor has persisted that William Shakespeare placed his mark on the translated text of Psalm 46 that appears in the King James Bible, although scholars view this as unlikely. By coincidence, the 46th word from the beginning of Psalm 46 is “shake” and the 46th word from the end (omitting the liturgical mark “Selah”) is “spear”. Shakespeare was in King James’ service during the preparation of the King James Bible, and he was 46 years old in 1611 when the translation was completed.

I need to investigate further. But now and forevermore, Shakespeare and the King James Bible will be linked together in my head and heart, if only by a bizarre coincidence of time and space.

In a related note, I do not believe in coincidence!

A Horned Man’s a Monster and a Beast

Posted in Othello with tags , , , , , , on 2014/01/05 by mattermind

Image

Othello, Act IV

I may end up breaking this into two posts, so please bear with me.  But since each is related to the other, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to bring them together without making this entry too long.  We shall see.

Throughout the play, the terms DEVIL and HELL have occurred on numerous occasions, too many to be a mere accident by so careful a writer as Shakespeare.  I believe it may have to do with an intent on Shakespeare’s part to address the very nature of evil – which in itself may explain why he wraps the tale around the metaphorical character of Othello.

I say Othello, in the way that Moby Dick revolves around Ahab and not the whale, for the whale stands as a symbol against which Ahab’s diabolical nature is revealed.  It seems to me that Shakespeare wants to toy with the audience, provide it hints and suggestions, dangle tantalizing possibilities only to snatch them away again and tease, “Not so fast. The issues simmering in my play are anything but simple.”  You might even say, not as easy as black and white.

In the fourth act, I hear a Bach fugue in my head, a profusion of voices and meanings that clash and clang into the purest music in the world.  Small wonder that Harold Bloom raves.  I too howl at the moon, tickled by such shadings of wit and wisdom while Shakespeare’s characters speak at me from all directions.  Good, bad, right, wrong.  Who is to blame?  What is to be done?  Why should such problems as this one exist?

There used to be a popular cultural meme that went: “The Devil made me do it.”  It seems like Iago is such a miscreant who might utter such a line in his defense, even as he counsels others that their fate lies in their own hands.  Such twists and turns that even such a character as Desdemona, the purest lady and true tragic center of the play, does not present herself as a simple snow-white Disney princess.  Not because she has sinned, the thought of which she hardly can conceive.  But because she feels a guilt and a doom as if she had, as if the mere presentment of death were deserved for some reason, even if she can’t come up with why.

Is it because she didn’t listen to her father’s counsel?  Because she abandoned all in her love of Othello?  She states in no uncertain language that she lacks regret for her choice and loves Othello despite his relentless fury.

And what are we to make of that rage?  I love, love, love how Shakespeare subtly inserts clever backstory into Act IV that makes Iago all the more complex.  Here we discover that Iago himself has suspected his own wife of having slept with Othello behind his back.  What a tremendous “aha” moment this is, for we realize that in exactly the same manner that Iago has used jealousy to corrupt Othello, he too was corrupted by somebody else, either a knave like himself or his own suspicious nature.

Might this be how the Devil operates?  How evil propagates itself from Eve’s first bite of the apple to this very day?  It is a poison working its dark arts from one corrupted soul to the next unsuspecting victim, much like a zombie or vampire whose bite transforms the recipient  into one of its own kind.

This may be the key that unlocks how I can feel so little for Othello, yet my heart yearns and breaks for Desdemona.  Othello does not need hard evidence of his wife’s alleged crime to work up the passion for a revenge that would strangle his beloved in their own bed – and leave his loyal lieutenant to the devious devices of Iago.  Where is the trust and compassion?

And yet, for Desdemona, she loves Othello even in his fits of unjust rage, considers herself to be guilty of a crime she cannot name, and allows herself to go willingly to a demise she can foresee but not forestall.  OMG – here is your heroic heart and center of the play.

As for the dialogue between Desdemona and Emilia, the connected bit I had thought perhaps to save for another day: I invite you to read this short, two-person dialogue as further, shattering proof of how in total command Shakespeare is not only of plot and character, but of the overarching, underlying, and through-lining theme.

Books and movies are commonly divided into those driven by plot and those driven by character.  Many an action movie presents moviegoers a cast so paper-thin as to hardly remain memorable at all.  For that reason, people still cite Lethal Weapon and Die Hard as exceptions to the typical, mind-numbing, CGI bombast.  Shoot shoot, explode.  Kiss kiss, bang bang.

On the other hand, character-driven pieces make us think of Masterpiece Theater, the BBC and movies we were forced to watch in grade school, novels that win prestigious prizes but serve only as functional doorstops and hefty paperweights long after we buy them.  Must it always come down to a choice between Dan Brown or Jonathan Franzen?  Might it not be possible to marry the best of both worlds?

I suspect that herein lies a great deal of the reason why Shakespeare remains now forevermore the greatest single writer humanity has ever witnessed.  For if he doesn’t, take this tiny, quiet scene between Emilia and Desdemona and find me a better one.  Find one even close.  And then find one hiding in a twisted story about love and lust, betrayal, revenge and murder.  You want character?  Check.  Action?  Check!  Theme?  Check, and mate.

What’s going on in the mind of Emilia as she answers the heartfelt queries of her mistress?  Desdemona can’t conceive of a woman anywhere who would do the things that her own husband accuses her of.  Emilia, the wife of Iago, can.  What these two reveal – and suggest – about the nature of women, of evil, of betrayal – and of human motivation in general – is so mind-bending that you could squeeze War & Peace within these same slender pages and make it the concluding scene from Othello, Act IV.

Call me a disciple of Mr. Bloom, fine.  But I really do believe that Shakespeare is that good.