Friday, June 24, 2011

Tolstoy on Shakespeare

While looking at Tolstoy's wikipedia page I saw this quote:

During his life, Tolstoy came to the conclusion that William Shakespeare was a bad dramatist and not a true artist at all. Tolstoy explained his views in a critical essay on Shakespeare written in 1903: "I remember the astonishment I felt when I first read Shakespeare. I expected to receive a powerful aesthetic 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.."

I showed it to my father, English major and his response was:

"well a lot of american students have a similar reaction. It's not enought to read the plays. You really need to see them acted. Perhaps tolstoy was reading a bad translation, or , if he was reading in english, had difficulty with the language."

What interested me was how subjective art is. Nobody can really dispute that Michael Jordan was a great basketball player. They can quibble about whether he was better than Magic Johnson, but nobody would call him mediocre. But even the absolute most popular man from western literature, Shakesepeare, can be discounted by a great mind like Tolstoy.

Of course you can measure the popularity of art. And that's exactly what Charles Murray did in his book Human Accomplishment.

But in art, as in business, success breeds success. So there's a real question between how well popularity correlates with quality.

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