Some would think that to defy Shakespeare would mean to shake the pillars of literature. Yet, when another great writer does so, how can it be justified, or, rather, should it be justified at all? Leo Tolstoy, one of the greatest Russian writers, did exactly that. Upon contemplating it for a long time and after thorough research, he decided to compile one of the most notorious accusations ever levelled at the Bard. Point by point, he tore apart one of Shakespeare’s most beloved tragedies – King Lear. Could anyone think of any better grounds for explaining Shakespeare’s magnificence than by turning the clepsydra upside down?
When I first saw the programme for the conference, I thought that it was not too great an idea to walk this path. It seemed to me that it was all too easy a task, that all misunderstandings lay only in the different environments and cultural backgrounds – it was self-explanatory. Still, while preparing for the conference, I was becoming less and less certain. What if Tolstoy was right? I recall reaching out for the tragedy itself and going through the passages which moved me deeply and made me think of Shakespeare as one of the greatest. They still had the same impact, provoked the same sentiment. So, could it be that I was conditioned and brainwashed to react on a well-trained impulse or was there something more to it?
After we had entered the Bard’s shrine and listened to the first lecture, we became once again lulled in the peaceful bay of bardolatry. Not talking much about Shakespeare himself, but indirectly talking about nothing but Shakespeare, Ewan Fernie stirred in us the love that was securely tucked away. What ensued was a wake-up call.
The expected did not happen. What I had imagined was that Ewan Fernie would do his best just to refute everything said without trying to accredit any of Tolstoy’s accusations, but that failed to come to fruition. Instead, he said that Tolstoy’s attack did more good to Shakespeare than idolizing the Bard (or, bardolatry, if you will) could ever do and, however shocking, it made perfect sense. By pinpointing ‘the weak sides’, what he actually did was enhance the beauty of what was already shining very brightly. Shakespeare’s fools, Tom’s insanity, Hamlet’s indecisiveness, it all made perfect sense in the wide world full of differences. This hotbed of variations illuminates all the shades of one’s character, by letting them shine and capture a bit of the essence that we all represent. By highlighting the ‘Achilles’ heel’ of Shakespeare’s works, Tolstoy magnificently called for free thought which cannot stand the fetters of any system or imposing authority, but liberates itself by penetrating the walls of false grandeur, and seeks to find out what lies in its core. What Tolstoy unintentionally managed to point out is just how much Shakespeare’s works can be inviting, how impossible it is to remain silent once you have read them and to what extent this strange English contraption is there for interpreting and using however somebody sees it fit.
Shakespeare is not a polygon for exchanging witty remarks only there for interpreters to purport justices. Shakespeare is not a white elephant to be set aside and cherished without even trying to be understood. No one has an exclusive right to ‘execute’ criticism which everyone has to abide by. Shakespeare is everyone’s and no one’s, he is there not to be put on a pedestal and never be iterated, but to be called into question until every single one of us becomes aware why he is important to us personally. That is one of the great liberating thoughts that emerged as a leitmotif of this conference. Egalité is what we should strive for, but in order to be equal, we need to understand who we are so that we can disentangle this delicate net called life, and see in its centre, shining brightly, the truth of our existence. Shakespeare is yet another torch at our disposal for that task. If we let the light fade out, how shall we bear the eternal darkness?