In reading War and Peace, I have become more and more interested in Tolstoy’s life as a writer. It is always exciting to analyze the influences on an author’s writing style, and it is evident that Shakespeare didn’t influence Tolstoy. My teacher from high school loves ‘War and Peace’, and when I told her that I was reading it, she sent me George Orwell’s essay entitled ‘Lear, Tolstoy and the fool’.
In his essay, Orwell briefly summarizes Tolstoy’s pamphlet criticizing Shakespeare, and then goes on to discuss what he thinks of Tolstoy’s opinion that “Shakespeare might have been whatever you like, but he was not an artist.”
I think it is interesting to observe Tolstoy’s writing of ‘War and Peace’ in the context of his hatred of Shakespeare. Orwell argues in his essay that if Shakespeare is all that Tolstoy sees him to be, how did he become so widely admired? Orwell suggests that Tolstoy’s argument must be based on the ‘epidemic suggestion’ or on the idea that certain political events or artists become popular at intervals of time, and gain fame like a sporadic uprising.
“Goethe pronounced Shakespeare a great poet, whereupon all the other critics flocked after him like a troop of parrots, and the general infatuation has lasted ever since. The result has been a further debasement of the drama — Tolstoy is careful to include his own plays when condemning the contemporary stage — and a further corruption of the prevailing moral outlook. It follows that ‘the false glorification of Shakespeare’ is an important evil which Tolstoy feels it his duty to combat.”
“However, Tolstoy is not simply trying to rob others of a pleasure he does not share. He is doing that, but his quarrel with Shakespeare goes further. It is the quarrel between the religious and the humanist attitudes towards life. Here one comes back to the central theme of King Lear, which Tolstoy does not mention, although he sets forth the plot in some detail.”
Orwell also points out the similarity between the lives of King Lear and Tolstoy. He especially points out the act of renunciation, which marked both their old ages. Orwell tells us that “Tolstoy, like Lear, acted on mistaken motives and failed to get the results he had hoped for.” Going into the rest of the novel with this perspective on Tolstoy’s opinions and lives should definitely make reading ‘War and Peace’ a more fulfilling experience.
 Orwell, George, Sonia Orwell, and Ian Angus. The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. London: Secker & Warburg, 1968. Print.
The essay can also be found online here: http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/lear/english/e_ltf