Posted by: cochinblogger | October 12, 2012

Of Spousal Wars and Literary Criticism

Tolstoy wrote a famous essay (Shakespeare Sucks!) in which he claimed that Shakespeare was not even a mediocre writer. My father was astonished by this essay, given Shakespeare’s exalted reputation. And every time he meets a student or teacher of English literature, he asks what they think of Tolstoy’s essay. Most of them were blissfully unaware of the existence of such an essay.

George Orwell mounted a spirited defense of Shakespeare in an essay titled “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool” (Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool). According to him, Tolstoy’s diatribe against Shakespeare has its roots in “the quarrel between the religious and the humanist attitude towards life.”

I, on the other hand, have a radically different theory. I believe Tolstoy disliked Shakespeare for the simple reason that his wife, Sofia, with whom he had a difficult relationship, liked Shakespeare. This seems absurd on the face of it: could the greatest novelist of all time have based his literary criticism on such a base, commonplace emotion as the desire to spite his wife? Absurd, you say? Well, I have found irrefutable proof in the pages of The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy.

Here is Sofia venting against her husband in the book:

I felt outraged when I read his condemnation of Beethoven. Not long ago I read Beethoven’s biography and learnt to love and appreciate this genius more than ever. But my love is always quick to arouse his loathing, even for the dead. I remember when I read Seneca and was so enchanted by him, and he told me Seneca was a pompous Roman fool with a fondness for fine phrases. One must conceal one’s feelings.

Are you seeing what I’m driving at? It must be mentioned here that Sofia was friends (in fact, it seems to have been a platonic affair) with a musician and composer called Taneev, of whom Tolstoy was extremely jealous. This was yet another reason for him to dislike music and musicians in general. Sofia, on the other hand, was a lover of music.

But where’s Shakespeare in all this, you ask?

Back to Sofia Tolstoy:

Masha is ill, and I have been reading King Lear to her. I love Shakespeare, even though he sometimes doesn’t know where to draw the line — all those brutal murders and deaths.

It is noteworthy that the play Tolstoy makes an example of in his essay is none other than — King Lear!

So, here it is: Sofia Tolstoy loves Beethoven; her husband hates Beethoven. Sofia loves Seneca; her husband hates Seneca. Sofia loves Shakespeare; her husband hates Shakespeare. It’s clinching evidence, I think.

I think there’s enough material here for a PhD thesis or even a book on the theme of the impact of spousal wars on literary criticism. There must be many more Tolstoys out there.

And the next time you read a bad review, whether of a book or a movie, perhaps it’s just that the reviewer’s spouse loves the book or movie. 🙂



  1. Grist for a book or dissertation — yes! Psychologically it seems very plausible. So often we conceive a visceral liking or loathing of something, then come up with all sorts of well-supported rational arguments to justify it. Tolstoy was intelligent and articulate enough to persuade most people that black was white and vice versa. Now I’m curious about his anti-Shakespeare essay, and about Orwell’s response, neither of which I’ve read.

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