Shakespeare’s writing—all of it, poetry and plays—was repulsive to Tolstoy, who claimed in a pamphlet attacking him that whenever he read Shakespeare he was overcome by “repulsion, weariness, and bewilderment.” As for King Lear, ranked among Shakespeare’s four greatest tragedies, he found it “at every step,” according to George Orwell, “stupid, verbose, unnatural, unintelligible, bombastic, vulgar, tedious and full of incredible events, ‘wild ravings,’ ‘mirthless jokes,’ anachronisms, irrelevancies, obscenities, worn-out stage conventions and other faults both moral and aesthetic.” Furthermore, Tolstoy regarded it as “a plagiarism of an earlier and much better play, King Leir, by an unknown author, which Shakespeare stole and then ruined.”
Orwell disagreed mightily with Tolstoy. In his famous essay, “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool,” he critiqued Tolstoy’s arguments as “self-contradictory or even doubtfully honest.” His conclusion? Here ‘tiz:
Finally the most striking thing is how little difference it all makes. As I said earlier, one cannot answer Tolstoy’s pamphlet, at least on its main counts. There is no argument by which one can defend a poem. It defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible. And if this test is valid, I think the verdict in Shakespeare’s case must be “not guilty.” Like every other writer, Shakespeare will be forgotten sooner or later, but it is unlikely that a heavier indictment will ever be brought against him. Tolstoy was perhaps the most admired literary man of his age, and he was certainly not its least able pamphleteer. He turned all his power of denunciation against Shakespeare, like all the guns of a battleship roaring simultaneously. And with what result? 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.