On Monday, September 29, 1662, the English diarist Samuel Pepys attended a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in London—and he left far from impressed. He wrote:
". . . We saw Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life. I saw, I confess, some good dancing and some handsome women, which was all my pleasure."
And in his dislike of Shakespeare, Pepys was by no means alone. Despite being widely seen as one of the greatest English writers, a number of literary giants have also expressed their hatred of his work.
1. LEO TOLSTOY
One of Shakespeare’s most notorious critics was War and Peace novelist Leo Tolstoy, whose non-fiction work includes a 100-page critique of Shakespeare’s plays and his reputation as a writer. In the essay, published as On Shakespeare and Drama in 1906, Tolstoy called Shakespeare’s plays “trivial and positively bad,” labeled his enduring popularity “pernicious,” and dismissed Shakespeare himself as “an insignificant, inartistic writer” who was “not only not moral, but immoral.” He also mentioned reading King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Macbeth ("works regarded as his best”) for the first time in his youth, but recalled feeling nothing more than “an irresistible repulsion and tedium.” But was that just the kneejerk reaction of a young and inexperienced reader? Apparently not. In the introduction to On Shakespeare, a then-75-year-old Tolstoy admitted to rereading Shakespeare’s complete works to see whether his tastes or opinions had changed over time. Never one to pull any punches, he concluded:
"I have felt, with even greater force, the same feelings—this time, however, not of bewilderment, but of firm, indubitable conviction that the unquestionable glory of a great genius, which Shakespeare enjoys and which compels writers of our time to imitate him and readers and spectators to discover in him non-existent merits (thereby distorting their aesthetic and ethical understanding)—is a great evil, as is every untruth."
2. GEORGE BERNARD SHAW
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In the late 1890s, George Bernard Shaw spent three years as theater critic of the London newspaper Saturday Review. During his tenure, he reviewed 19 Shakespeare works and made his opinions about the Bard perfectly clear: “With the single exception of Homer,” he once wrote, “there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I despise so entirely as I despise Shakespear [sic] when I measure my mind against his.”
Although he occasionally praised the playwright’s wordplay and linguistic inventiveness in his reviews, Shaw labeled Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing as “potboilers,” dismissed Othello as “melodramatic,” and admitted to preferring Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Falstaff to The Merry Wives of Windsor, the play on which it was based. Though Shaw’s opinion of Shakespeare slightly mellowed as his own reputation as a playwright grew, it always remained sour: Later editions of Tolstoy’s essay even included a letter written by Shaw to its publishers, in which he wrote:
"I have striven hard to open English eyes to the emptiness of Shakespeare's philosophy, to the superficiality and second-handedness of his morality, to his weakness and incoherence as a thinker, to his snobbery, his vulgar prejudices, his ignorance, his disqualifications of all sorts for the philosophic eminence claimed for him."
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Shaw’s letter goes on to name-check French writer Voltaire, whose criticisms of Shakespeare “are the more noteworthy,” he explained, “because Voltaire began with an extravagant admiration for Shakespeare, and got more and more bitter against him as he grew older and less disposed to accept artistic merit as a cover for philosophic deficiencies.” It’s true that while exiled in Britain in the 1720s, Voltaire gained a genuine interest in and appreciation for Shakespeare (who at the time was still relatively unknown on the continent) and sought to emulate his style and dramatic set pieces on his return to France in 1728. He even went on to adapt a number of Shakespeare’s works for French theater, among them La Mort de César (based on Julius Caesar, 1731), Zaïre (based on Othello, 1733), and Sémiramis (based on Hamlet, 1748).
However, Voltaire’s opinion worsened as Shakespeare’s popularity in Europe began to grow and the bard was repeatedly lauded over contemporary French writers. “He was a savage … with some imagination,” he wrote in a letter his friend, the lawyer Bernard-Joseph Saurin, in 1765. “He has written many happy lines; but his pieces can please only at London and in Canada. It is not a good sign for the taste of a nation when that which it admires meets with favor only at home.”
And, as time continued to go by, his opinion grew ever more sour:
"France has not insults, fool’s-caps, and pillories enough for such a scoundrel. My blood boils in my own veins while I speak to you about him … And the terrible thing is that … it is I myself who was the first to speak about this Shakespeare [in France]. I was the first who showed to the French a few pearls which I had found in his enormous dunghill."
4. J.R.R. TOLKIEN
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While a member of a school debating society in the early 1900s, a teenage J.R.R. Tolkien reportedly delivered a lengthy speech in which, according to his biographer Humphrey Carpenter, he “poured a sudden flood of unqualified abuse upon Shakespeare, upon his filthy birthplace, his squalid surroundings, and his sordid character.” Opinion is divided over whether or not Tolkien upheld these opinions as an adult, but his letters offer up a number of clues: In one, dated 1944, he dismissed reading and analyzing Shakespeare’s works as “folly,” while in another from 1955, he recalls that he “disliked cordially” studying his work at school.
As a professor of both Anglo-Saxon and English, however, it seems that much of Tolkien’s distaste for Shakespeare was driven by the enormous amount of lesson-time dedicated to his work (at the expense of older and what he saw as more worthwhile texts), as well as the bard’s lasting effect on the English language—and in particular, his commandeering of the word “elf” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
In a 1951 letter to his editor Milton Waldman, Tolkien wrote that he had recently invented two new languages to be spoken by the elves in his novels, before adding in a footnote that he intends “the word [elves] to be understood in its ancient meanings, which continued as late as Spenser—a murrain on Will Shakespeare and his damned cobwebs.”
5. ROBERT GREENE
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Predictably, Shakespeare faced his fair share of detractors during his own lifetime—perhaps none more so than the Elizabethan playwright and author Robert Greene. Although he published dozens of poems, plays, short stories, and essays during his lifetime, today Greene is best known for a pamphlet published posthumously in 1592, entitled Greene’s Groats-Worth of Wit, Bought With A Million of Repentance. The book comprises a short moral fable about two brothers, Roberto and Luciano, who drift apart after Roberto finds fame as a successful playwright and Luciano falls in love with a courtesan, Lamilia. Luciano is eventually left penniless when Lamilia walks out on him, while Roberto squanders all his new-found wealth and success until he is left with only one remaining groat. In the conclusion, Roberto implores the reader to learn from his mistakes and to live an honorable life—and finally warns three of his playwright friends to beware of a literary new kid on the block, whom he describes as:
"an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his 'Tiger’s heart wrapt in a Player’s hide”'supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and … is, in his own conceit, the only shake-scene in the country."
Roberto, it is eventually revealed, is Greene himself, while the three playwright friends he addresses are now believed to be his fellow dramatists Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Lodge, and George Peele. The “upstart crow” and “shake-scene” he warns them to be wary of is, unsurprisingly, William Shakespeare, while Greene’s allusion to the line “O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide” from Henry VI: Part 3 is said to imply that he was unhappy that Shakespeare, who began his career as merely an actor, now had the audacity to attempt to make a career writing plays.