Shakespeare Sucks! by Leo Tolstoy

in Classic Articles on Writing/Historic Articles by Authors

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. My consternation was increased by the fact that I always keenly felt the beauties of poetry in every form; then why should artistic works recognized by the whole world as those of a genius—the works of Shakespeare—not only fail to please me, but be disagreeable to me! For a long time I could not believe in myself, and during fifty years, in order to test myself, I several times recommenced reading Shakespeare in every possible form, in Russian, in English, in German and in Schlegel’s translation, as I was advised. Several times I read the dramas and the comedies and historical plays, and I invariably underwent the same feelings: repulsion, weariness, and bewilderment. At the present time, being desirous once more to test myself, I have, as an old man of seventy-five, again read the whole of Shakespeare, including the historical plays, the “Henrys,” “Troilus and Cressida,” the “Tempest,” “Cymbeline,” and I have felt, with even greater force, the same feelings—this time, however, not of bewilderment, but of firm, indubitable conviction that the unquestionable glory of a great genius which Shakespeare enjoys, and which compels writers of our time to imitate him and readers and spectators to discover in him non-existent merits—thereby distorting their esthetic and ethical understanding—is a great evil, as is every untruth.

Altho I know that the majority of people so firmly believe in the greatness of Shakespeare that in reading this judgment of mine they will not admit even the possibility of its justice, and will not give it the slightest attention, nevertheless I will endeavor, as well as I can, to show why I believe that Shakespeare can not be recognized either as a great genius, or even as an average author….

However hopeless it may seem, I will endeavor to demonstrate in the selected drama—”King Lear”—all those faults equally characteristic also of all the other tragedies and comedies of Shakespeare, on account of which he not only is not representing a model of dramatic art, but does not satisfy the most elementary demands of art recognized by all.

Dramatic art, according to the laws established by those very critics who extol Shakespeare, demands that the persons represented in the play should be, in consequence of actions proper to their characters, and owing to a natural course of events, placed in positions requiring them to struggle with the surrounding world to which they find themselves in opposition, and in this struggle should display their inherent qualities.

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 can not produce on the reader the illusion which represents the essential condition of art.

Lear has no necessity or motive for his abdication; also, having lived all his life with his daughters, has no reason to believe the words of the two elders and not the truthful statement of the youngest; yet upon this is built the whole tragedy of his position.

Similarly unnatural is the subordinate action: the relation of Gloucester to his sons. The positions of Gloucester and Edgar flow from the circumstance that Gloucester, just like Lear, immediately believes the coarsest untruth and does not even endeavor to inquire of his injured son whether what he is accused of be true, but at once curses and banishes him. The fact that Lear’s relations with his daughters are the same as those of Gloucester to his sons makes one feel yet more strongly that in both cases the relations are quite arbitrary, and do not flow from the characters nor the natural course of events. Equally unnatural, and obviously invented, is the fact that all through the tragedy Lear does not recognize his old courtier, Kent, and therefore the relations between Lear and Kent fail to excite the sympathy of the reader or spectator. The same, in a yet greater degree, holds true of the position of Edgar, who, unrecognized by any one, leads his blind father and persuades him that he has leapt off a cliff, when in reality Gloucester jumps on level ground.

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 sufferings but even to be interested in what he reads or sees. This in the first place.

Secondly, in this, as in the other dramas of Shakespeare, all the characters live, think, speak, and act quite unconformably with the given time and place. The action of “King Lear” takes place 800 years b.c., and yet the characters are placed in conditions possible only in the Middle Ages: participating in the drama are kings, dukes, armies, and illegitimate children, and gentlemen, courtiers, doctors, farmers, officers, soldiers, and knights with vizors, etc. It is possible that such anachronisms (with which Shakespeare’s dramas abound) did not injure the possibility of illusion in the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth, but in our time it is no longer possible to follow with interest the development of events which one knows could not take place in the conditions which the author describes in detail. The artificiality of the positions, not flowing from the natural course of events, or from the nature of the characters, and their want of conformity with time and space, is further increased by those coarse embellishments which are continually added by Shakespeare and intended to appear particularly touching. The extraordinary storm during which King Lear roams about the heath, or the grass which for some reason he puts on his head—like Ophelia in “Hamlet”—or Edgar’s attire, or the fool’s speeches, or the appearance of the helmeted horseman, Edgar—all these effects not only fail to enhance the impression, but produce an opposite effect. “Man sieht die Absicht und man wird verstimmt,” as Goethe says. It often happens that even during these obviously intentional efforts after effect, as, for instance, the dragging out by the legs of half a dozen corpses, with which all Shakespeare’s tragedies terminate, instead of feeling fear and pity, one is tempted rather to laugh.


Born in 1828; educated at the University of Kazan; served in the army and commander of a battery in the Crimea in 1855, being present at the storming of Sebastopol; sent as a special courier to St. Petersburg; lived on his estate after the liberation of the serfs, working with the peasants and devoting himself to literary work; published “War and Peace” in 1865-68, “Anna Karenina” in 1875-78, “Sebastopol” in 1853-55, “Childhood, Boyhood and Youth,” and “The Kreutzer Sonata” in 1890, and “War” in 1892.

Richard Edwards has a BFA in Creative Writing and Journalism from Bowling Green State University and an M.S. in Education from the University of Akron. Managing editor of Drunk Duck, poetry editor for Prairie Margins, reporter for Miscellany, Akron Journal, Lorain Journal...check our About Us page for more. Also here is info on our On Classic Articles


  1. I could never bring myself to read any of Shakespeare’s plays. Drop dead boring although I was continually forced to listen to Macbeth in school. How dreary. He does have fine poetic talent evident in his sonnets and a couple of long poems. He has a great vocabulary. But he is mostly boring and his themes are too worldly. A great poet must think heavenly thoughts, truth and beauty must be the theme.

    Did you know a person can be a great poet, but not be known? A person can also be a famous poet and be depressing. Here is a boast, but not in arrogant pride, I have written better things than Shakespeare, by far.

  2. Hi Everyone,

    Without looking it up, name me just one quote that you remember from even one book by Tolstoy, other than a book title. As for Shakespeare, his quotes role off our tongues, as they were meant to do. He was the playwright of his times. He enriched our lives with literally hundreds of quotes in his plays. Right off the top of my head, Shakespeare’s most famous line comes to mind, “All the World’s a stage and we are mere actors upon it.” So you may know the titles of Tolstoy’s novels, but with Shakespeare you know his words for we use them everyday without realizing it. There is a world of difference between Shakespeare and Tolstoy.

    So I Strongly Disagree with Tolstoy!Yes both were great writers, and it is not all that easy to read novels by Tolstoy than it is to enjoy a play by Shakespeare. Shakespeare never wrote a novel, his plays were meant to be spoken with meaning and performed Live.

    The sad thing about Tolstoy was that strict Greek Orthodox-ism was the state religion,under the TSAR and as Tolstoy got older, he became more intolerant of everyone’s religious beliefs, and he viciously attacked any and all writings opposed to his strict religious beliefs. Many in Russia thought he had gone mad! He even attacked his own earlier novels, such as “Anna Karenina” as being to decadent.

  3. There was never a better reader of Shakespeare than Tolstoy. He studied his works in russian, german and english. I think Shakespeare would rather have a devoted detractor like Tolstoy than a snob that glorifies him but never read his works.

  4. Things I actually do like and think I should: War and Peace

    Things that I think I should like, but do not like: King Lear

    Things I think that I should not like, but do like: South Park.

    Things I think that I should not like, And do not like: Donald Trump

  5. This is a wonderfully silly bauble by the great Tolstoy. Adjudging Shakespeare by 19th century narrative standards is a little like saying medieval painting is dreadful because there is no perspective. Shakespeare’s dramatic genius lies in, among other things, his development of character interiority, a character having an interior life, something Tolstoy made brilliant use of in his work. Nobody had done it since the Greeks and nobody not even the Greeks as richly as Shakespeare. Lear’s genius as a play is in, in part, it’s use of madness as a means of self-reflection. The king who is not introspective when “sane” in madness gets a cold sobering look into his own heart on the beach at Dover. Kent & Edgar’s feeble disguises, Gloucester’s easy duping, the older sister’s dissembling all require a suspension of disbelief the Elizabethans would have found as easy as the forth wall is for contemporary audiences (a convention Elizabethans would have found strange). I’m not a fan of King Lear overall but the scene at Dover is, when done right, a scene of devastating harsh beauty and humanity. Finally, the greatest disappointment of Tolstoy’s argument is his tacit insisting on reading but not seeing the plays. Tolstoy’s shallow adjudging of a playwright by the standards of a novelist bespeaks an arrogance of form and a cowardice of consideration.

  6. The Shakespeare plays were written by a young team of writers headed by Francis Bacon, an intellectual genius,but designed to elucidate the masses in the revival of Greek and Latin and Renaissance dramas and comedy. They were never intended for those who considered themselves of high literary command, such as it seems Tolstoy saw himself.
    Plays were written to be seen, not read, and it would seem that Tolstoy never saw them.

  7. I find dramas lugubrious to read. My mind just doesn’t seem to have a natural aptitude for it and hasn’t been trained for it. Seeing a play which I have previously read on the page performed on the stage is a revelation for me. Every time. It seems magical to me that anyone could make entertainment out of what’s been written down in dramatic dialogue interspersed with stage directions. I suspect that Tolstoy had a similar impediment. His analysis is stilted, if you ask me. Beside the fact that we’ve lost a huge amount of understanding about Shakespeare’s plays through the passage of time and changes in the cultural assumptions. Shakespeare played to the masses in the cheap seats with great effect. Now one needs an ivory-tower scholar to unwind and explain most of the bawdy jokes and word-play employed to keep the audience’s interest. The distancing of context, temporal and geographic, does damage to that native understanding. And yet much of the writing is so damn superb that even someone as disinterested in dramatic writing as I can quote huge swathes of it. So many of the monologues stand alone as timeless encapsulations of human experience that they buoy all the other faults the writings may have. In spite of myself, I like Willy the Shake.

  8. How one can’t notice the swindler cheap of Tolstoy in distorting Lear? How one can believe in Tolstoy saying “Lear has no necessity or motive for his abdication” when it is explained in first scene of play!!?
    Tolstoy is so swindler that it ignores one aspect of Shakespeare’s glory: his poetry. Tolstoy in its laterlife become a moral critic and not a aesthetical critic. Shakespeare to he was an immoral writer, but Shakespeare was a humanist and is where your moral and your thought system must be sought.
    Now Tolstoy is right to say that King Lear is unlikely, let’s face it, what father’s 80 years old disinherit his daughter just because of one word? But notice, without it there would be no story at all. Lear’s improbability is not a defect, Shakespeare writes the story so. Tolstoy is also right to say that Shakespeare has a lot of skill in the construction of scenes (in Lear more than any other play) the development of scenes and characters, the poetry, the effusiveness of his invention, the psychological realism, his politic and philosophic intelect, which Orwell calls excessive vitalicty, is simply the literary perfection! so much that no great critic, even the great philosophers (Nietzsche, Marx, Coleridge) contest it in 400 years.

  9. I agree with Tolstoy, even though I have to say Shakespeare does have many beautiful quotes and speeches and witty saying in his works. However, neither I did like King Lear much, especially how everyone is killed in the end (” the dragging out by the legs of half a dozen corpses, with which all Shakespeare’s tragedies terminate”). Was it so necessary for, say, Edgar, or Gloucester, or Cordelia, to die? What is the point? That good triumphs evil? No, rather the opposite. Such plays are depressing and disappointing, and even pointless. Shakespeare seems to have been writing for the money. Although the language is very beautiful, as are also many passages, overall I am not a great fan of Shakespeare and would rather agree with Tolstoy (whose “How Much Land Does a Man Need”, for example, has a very good point).

  10. I agree although I didn’t want to. King Lear makes no sense. In college my teachers defended the play by saying the drama was absurdest. Most absurdest drama makes no sense. It’s what I said before about art if it has to be explained then it isn’t art.

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