Leo Tolstoy and King Lear

Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.
                                  —The Fool, The Tragedy of King Lear

In 1906, aged seventy-five, Leo Tolstoy once again decided to read all of William Shakespeare’s plays. Left still unimpressed, he penned the essay On Shakespeare and Drama, in which he questioned the dramatist’s “universal adulation” and lamented that “free-minded individuals, not inoculated with Shakespeare-worship, are no longer to be found”. He further explained that, despite his own “repeated and insistent endeavours to harmonise his own views with those of others”, he could still not help but be at odds with the likes of Percy Bysshe Shelley, who had insisted that Shakespeare’s plays represented “the perfect model of the dramatic art of the whole world”.

Tolstoy’s essay scrutinises The Tragedy of King Lear (1606) in particular. Here, an ageing king who wishes to retire from the cares of office decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. The division is not to be equal, since he has the foolhardy idea of carving up the kingdom based on each daughter’s competitive expression of her degree of love for him. As it happens, the youngest daughter Cordelia (despite possessing the most genuine love for her father) is not up for such games and is consequently banished. Hereafter, the family as a whole falls prey to a catastrophe of political manoeuvrings and Lear himself becomes, for a period, mad. Tolstoy is aggravated by every aspect of the play: its historicity is inexact with events that take place in about 800 BC being set in the Middle Ages, and the characters, in his view, are puppets that all speak the same Shakespearean language. Lear is pompous and inept by any measure, and moreover, his Fool’s jokes, says Tolstoy, are humourless. Add to this that too often we are asked to suspend our disbelief—why is it for instance that no one in the play can recognise the flimsily-disguised characters of Kent and Edgar? The entire play lacks credibility.

This essay appears in June’s Quadrant.
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The critical literature has been largely underwhelmed by Tolstoy’s misgivings and few agree with his insistence that there is more literary value in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Harold Bloom, for one, cites the likelihood that Tolstoy was not only disinclined towards the play’s “profound nihilism”, but had also fallen prey to a dose of “creative envy”. There is profound irony then, that from middle age onwards, Tolstoy’s own life should reverberate so singularly with that of Shakespeare’s Lear and that he should become, in Bloom’s words again, “a kind of mortal god … the image of male authority, perhaps the ultimate representation of the Dead White European Male”.

Some background: 1877 was a crisis year for Tolstoy. Forty-nine years old and deeply superstitious that a life was defined in blocks of seven years, he had sought an audience with Elder Ambrose at the Optina Pustyn Monastery, a man whom Fyodor Dostoevsky described as “an earthly angel and a heavenly man”. He also wrote to the philosopher Nikolay Strakhov, “If I was on my own, I wouldn’t be a monk, I would be a holy fool—that is, I wouldn’t cherish anything in life, and do no one any harm.”

The “holy fool”, or yoródivy, describes an Eastern Orthodox ascetic figure who displays inanity or feebleness of mind, speaks in riddles and often claims the powers of clairvoyancy. Such individuals were held to have been especially blessed by God. Basil the Blessed, who went naked in all weathers and weighed himself down by chains, is the one best remembered; he was canonised as St Basil in 1588. Tolstoy’s autobiographical trilogy Childhood, Boyhood, Youth (1852 to 1856) pays tribute to one such yoródivy, a fellow named Grisha:

He was an awesome figure: emaciated, barefoot and in rags, with eyes that “looked right through you” and long shaggy hair. He always wore chains around his neck … Neighbourhood children would sometimes run after him, laughing and calling out his name. Older persons, as a rule, viewed Grisha with respect and a little fear … they believed that the Holy Spirit was working through him.

In 1881 Tolstoy returned to the monastery again. By now he was in the habit of dressing as a peasant and walking everywhere in the woven shoes made for him by the peasants in a village near his rural estate, Yasnaya Polyana. By 1883 he had decided to divest himself of all his worldly goods, and true to his word, he sold his livestock at another property he owned at Samara, divided the land into five plots and let these out to those to whom he had preached the notion of equality, the evils of private ownership and a rejection of the tsarist government. Naturally this was of concern to the police, and he was placed under constant surveillance. It also worried the Church; so much so that Konstantin Pobedonostev, Chief Procurator of the Holy Synod, informed the Minister of Internal Affairs:

In recent times, Count Tolstoy’s fantasies have suddenly changed once again, and he has succumbed to religious mania. This has resulted in his complete estrangement from Christianity … [since] he has put together a retelling of the Gospels in his own words with a commentary, full of cynicism, in which he preaches Christian morality in the rational sense, rejecting the teaching of a personal God and the divinity of Christ the saviour. He had intended to publish this work abroad, but refrained after earnest pleading from his wife (his last child has not been christened, despite his wife’s entreaties), and it is now circulating in manuscript.

The Tolstoyan version of the Gospels must have also miffed Elder Ambrose back in the crisis year of 1877, since he had observed of Tolstoy: “He suffers from a great deal of pride, spiritual pride. He will cause a lot of harm with his arbitrary and empty interpretation of the Gospels, which in his opinion no one has understood before him.”

Translation of the Four Gospels alongside A Confession, Investigation of Dogmatic Theory, What I Believe and The Kingdom of God is Within You (all written between 1879 and 1894) all established Tolstoy as a fervent Christian anarchist. In them he denounced both church and state as being idolatrous as well as purveyors of violence and inequality.

When word spread that Tolstoy was to address the Russian Literature Society, the Minister of Internal Affairs was once again warned: “Tolstoy is a lunatic. You can expect anything from him; he may say incredible things and there will be a huge scandal.” The address was cancelled.

Time passed and Tolstoy now ceased to eat meat, drink wine and hunt (he had been a keen huntsman, particularly for elk and wolf). And while he found abstinence from tobacco and sex difficult, he concentrated on developing the skills to make his own shoes and voraciously read Confucius and Lao Tzu. He decided that the cooks at Yasnaya Polyana were no longer required, caretakers were let go because they no longer had any tasks to perform and his stables of fine horses were moved on. In What I Believe (1884) he wrote:

Everything which used to seem good and noble to me—ambition, fame, education, wealth, a complex and sophisticated lifestyle, environment, food, clothes, and formal manners—has become bad and sordid. Everything which seemed bad and sordid—the peasant lifestyle, obscurity, poverty, crudity, simple surroundings, food, clothes, manners—has become good and noble.

In April 1891 (two seven-year blocks on from 1877), Tolstoy summoned the entire family to Yasnaya Polyana so that he could allocate his properties on an equal basis to his eight surviving children, who were aged between three and twenty-five years old. He explained that he could no longer endure what he saw as his hypocrisy in owning property. In a letter to all the major Russian newspapers he formally announced the relinquishing of all copyright holdings on his published works. Interestingly enough, he instructed his offspring (other than the three-year-old), if they had not already done so, to read King Lear. It is not difficult to imagine the stress that Tolstoy’s obsessional behaviour placed on family harmony, particularly with regard to his needfully pragmatic wife, Sophia. Her diaries reveal her frustration:

He pushes everything off onto me, everything without exception: the children, the management of his property, relations with other people, business affairs, the house, publishers. Then he despises me for soiling my hands with them all, retreats into his selfishness and complains about me incessantly … [he] goes for walks, rides his horse, writes a little, goes wherever he pleases, does absolutely nothing for his family … His biographers will tell how he went to draw water for the porter, but no one will know how he never gave his wife one moment’s rest.

Tolstoy’s cult status both within and outside Russia continued to rise. Tolstoyan communes had been established in the Caucasus and fanatical followers of all sorts—communists, anarchists, pacifists, vegetarians, anti-vivisectionists and anti-vaccinationists—continued to beat a steady path to Yasnaya Polyana’s doors.

The influential Konstantin Pobedonostsev wrote soon after Tsar Alexander’s death in 1894:

It’s terrible to think of Lev Tolstoy, as he’s spreading a terrible infection of anarchy and atheism throughout the whole of Russia! It’s as if he was possessed by the devil—but what should be done with him? Obviously, he is an enemy of the church, an enemy of the government and any civil order. There is a suggestion in the Synod that he be excommunicated from the church to avoid any doubts and confusion amongst the people, who see and hear that the entire intelligentsia worships Tolstoy. Probably, after the coronation [of Nicholas II] the question will arise: what should be done with Tolstoy?

Oblivious to these ruminations, the figure in question had taken up the new craze of bicycle-riding, and at sixty-five had gained a licence which enabled him to tear along Moscow streets. His friend, and fellow rider, the composer Sergei Taneyev, declared the fad so invigorating that “the experiences of newly-weds on their wedding night cannot compare with the sensations experienced by a bicyclist”. Tolstoy—who had also taken to walking, twice a year, the one hundred and twenty miles from Moscow to Yasnaya Polyana—would be, as Pobedonostsev had predicted, excommunicated from the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1901.

The state, under Nicholas II, felt it best to continue to avoid a direct confrontation with Tolstoy for fear of making a martyr of him. This surprised some. Anton Chekhov, for one, compared the great man to Diogenes: “Diogenes spat in people’s beards knowing nothing would come of it; Tolstoy … is another Diogenes whom no one will arrest or criticise.” The Church, however, took a more vigilant stance. In 1902 the populist priest Father Ioann of Kronstadt offered:

For Tolstoy there is no supreme spiritual perfection in the sense of achievements of Christian virtues—simplicity, humility, purity of heart, chastity, repentance, faith, hope, love in the Christian sense … he laughs at holiness and sacred things—it is he himself he adores, and he bows down before himself, like an idol, like a superman; I, and no one else but me, muses Tolstoy—you are all wrong; I have revealed the truth! The Gospel according to Tolstoy is an invention and a fairy tale. So, Orthodox people, who is Lev Tolstoy? He is a lion roaring, looking for someone to devour. And how many has he devoured with his flattering pages! Watch out for him.

In a personal note to Tolstoy, he wrote: “You ought to have a stone hung around your neck and be lowered into the depths of the sea.”

Nothing if not persistent, in 1908, amidst the celebrations of Tolstoy’s eightieth birthday, Father Ioann composed a prayer that expressed the hope that the celebrated writer would soon die. Others saw the milestone differently: over two thousand telegrams were delivered to Yasnaya Polyana and gifts were received from all corners of the globe. The American inventor Thomas Edison went as far as to send a phonograph.

Despite this worldwide adulation, tensions were still high at Yasnaya Polyana, and it was left to Sophia to insist that the peasants who had illegally felled oaks in the estate forests should face the courts, so too those groups who had been responsible for the endless theft of cabbages and fruit from the substantial kitchen gardens and orchards. Such moves sparked heated arguments, as did accusations of her jealousy regarding the various Tolstoyan secretaries and troops of hangers-on. Fearing impending poverty given her husband’s insistence on relinquishing earnings from his writing, she became increasingly prone to episodes of hysteria and paranoia. When Tolstoy suspected her of rifling through personal papers in his study one evening in 1910, he decided that he had cause for action.

Despite bitterly cold October weather, the eighty-two-year-old took to the road and set off, Lear-like, with the intention of once more visiting the Optina Pustyn Monastery and then heading south to the Caucasus. This was Sophia’s version of these events:

at 5 in the morning … [he] slipped out of the house … His excuse for leaving was that I had been rummaging through his papers the previous night. I had gone into his study for a moment, but I did not touch one paper—indeed there weren’t any papers on his desk. In his letter to me [written for the entire world] the pretext he gave was our luxurious life and his desire to be alone and live in a hut, like the peasants … I jumped into the pond of despair.

She was not speaking figuratively. After a panic attack she made an ineffectual attempt to drown herself in the Yasnaya Polyana pond and had to be rescued by family members.

Tolstoy’s quest for freedom was short-lived. Falling ill on a train, he was taken to the stationmaster’s cabin at the remote Astropovo railway station in Ryazan province. Here he was made comfortable in the railwayman’s iron-framed bed and Sophia, who had travelled by a special train from Tula, was restrained from seeing him. (“They held me by force. They locked the door. They tormented my heart.”) He died a week later. There was no attempt at reconciliation with the Church and extreme unction was neither requested nor given. Enormous crowds gathered at the Tula station and on the day of the funeral thousands made the three-hour walk to the graveside at Yasnaya Polyana. As Tolstoy had requested, no speeches were made. No priests were present. Nor were there prayers.

Sophia’s fears were justified. The family’s fortunes inevitably slid. Yasnaya Polyana steadily fell into a state of disrepair and by 1917, the year of the February and October revolutions, the situation was grim. After the February uprising it was estimated that an astonishing 16,500 kilograms of apples had been stolen from the property orchards by the local peasant women and children. After the events of October, the belts for the property’s threshing machines were stolen. By this time the remaining inhabitants of Yasnaya Polyana relied on the money earned by knitting scarves or selling honey. Sophia was also forced to apply to the Ministry of Internal Affairs for assistance, since gangs and demobbed soldiers had begun inciting the local citizenry to reap havoc on the property itself. A Red Army unit was mobilised to ease the problem.

In 1919, the youngest Tolstoy daughter, Alexandra, now in her early thirties, was appointed Commissar of Yasnaya Polyana and commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture to oversee the farming there. Despite a further position as commissar within the Ministry of People’s Enlightenment, she was arrested that year for fraternising with White Russians. She was released but soon arrested again; this time accused of counter-revolutionary activities and held in a rat-infested cell in the Lubyanka prison. A three-year sentence was handed down, to be spent in the Novospassky Monastery in Moscow, which was being run by the Bolsheviks in the manner of a concentration camp. Intervention by those with influence led to her serving only two months, but she was arrested once more for attending a lecture by Tolstoy’s last secretary, Valentin Bulgakov, an event to mark the tenth anniversary of her father’s death. Again, she was released after a few months—but then arrested again. At one point she drafted a letter to Vladimir Lenin:

Vladimir Illich! If I am harmful to Russia, send me abroad. If I am harmful there, then in acknowledgment of the right of a person to deprive another of life, kill me as a harmful member of the Soviet republic. But do not force me to lead the miserable existence of a parasite, locked up in four walls with prostitutes, thieves and bandits.

Alexandra ended her days in the United States, where she became a citizen in 1941. In 1974, at the age of ninety, she told the New York Times:

I don’t believe in everything the Orthodox Church says, I don’t believe in miracles, but want the people to go to church. Maybe my father could live without church and without God, but we weaker people need something to support us.

In 1908, the novelist Dmitri Merezhkovsky had spoken of Tolstoy’s eightieth birthday festivities in glowing terms, and had seen the celebrations as a symbol of the dawn of what he foresaw as a “Russian revolution”. He claimed that Tolstoy had “turned out to be the radiant focal point of Russian freedom”. After the revolution he had a radical change of heart and described Bolshevism as marking the beginning of what he called “the suicide of Europe”. His summation? “Tolstoy began it and Lenin finished it off.”

Tolstoy’s 1908 diary relates the following:

The day before yesterday a blind man came and abused me. Yesterday I went to see him … and told him I loved him (1) because he was seeking God’s truth, (2) because he—as a man who hated and gave offence—ought to be loved and (3) because he might perhaps need me, and as I said goodbye I shook his hand … He said: I didn’t mean to shake your hand, I can’t shake hands with a scoundrel, a villain, a pharisee, a hypocrite.

While Tolstoy’s idealism had doubtless been one of the linchpins from which the idea of a new Russian dawn had emanated, it is counterbalanced by Shakespeare’s Lear, who, despite a fit of madness, retained a grasp of the real when he asked a question of the brutalised and cruelly blinded former Earl of Gloucester: “Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar? And the creature run from the cur?” Whan Gloucester answers in the affirmative, Lear makes his salient point: “There thou mightst behold the great image of authority: a dog’s obeyed in office.”

Barry Gillard lives in Geelong. He wrote on Pontius Pilate in the April issue.


One thought on “Leo Tolstoy and King Lear

  • Ian MacKenzie says:

    In “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool”, George Orwell identifies Tolstoy’s chief quarrel with Shakespeare as “the quarrel between the religious and the humanist attitude towards life.” He notes that what Tolstoy probably most dislikes about Shakespeare “is a sort of exuberance, a tendency to take — not so much a pleasure as simply an interest in the actual process of life. It is a mistake to write Tolstoy off as a moralist attacking an artist. He never said that art, as such, is wicked or meaningless, nor did he even say that technical virtuosity is unimportant. But his main aim, in his later years, was to narrow the range of human consciousness. One’s interests, one’s points of attachment to the physical world and the day-to-day struggle, must be as few and not as many as possible.” Shakespeare’s “tragedies start out with the humanist assumption that life, although full of sorrow, is worth living, and that Man is a noble animal — a belief which Tolstoy in his old age did not share.”
    What Tolstoy appears to have resented about King Lear in particular however was that his renunciation of the material world, like Lear’s renunciation of power, was not successful. “Tolstoy, like Lear, acted on mistaken motives and failed to get the results he had hoped for. According to Tolstoy, the aim of every human being is happiness, and happiness can only be attained by doing the will of God. But doing the will of God means casting off all earthly pleasures and ambitions, and living only for others. Ultimately, therefore, Tolstoy renounced the world under the expectation that this would make him happier. But if there is one thing certain about his later years, it is that he was not happy. On the contrary he was driven almost to the edge of madness by the behaviour of the people about him, who persecuted him precisely because of his renunciation.”
    In the end, Orwell notes that “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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