5 Writers Who Really Hated Shakespeare

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

Quibik, Wikimedia Commons 

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." 

3. VOLTAIRE

Nicolas de Largillière, Wikimedia Commons

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

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

Upload Bot (Magnus Manske), Wikimedia Commons

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.

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10 Facts About Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian
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Marvel Entertainment

Nearly every sword-wielding fantasy hero from the 20th century owes a tip of their horned helmet to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Set in the fictional Hyborian Age, after the destruction of Atlantis but before our general recorded history, Conan's stories have depicted him as everything from a cunning thief to a noble king and all types of scoundrel in between. But beneath that blood-soaked sword and shield is a character that struck a nerve with generations of fantasy fans, spawning adaptations in comics, video games, movies, TV shows, and cartoons in the eight decades since he first appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. So thank Crom, because here are 10 facts about Conan the Barbarian.

1. THE FIRST OFFICIAL CONAN STORY WAS A KULL REWRITE.

Conan wasn’t the only barbarian on Robert E. Howard’s resume. In 1929, the writer created Kull the Conqueror, a more “introspective” brand of savage that gained enough interest to eventually find his way onto the big screen in 1997. The two characters share more than just a common creator and a general disdain for shirts, though: the first Conan story to get published, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was actually a rewrite of an earlier rejected Kull tale titled “By This Axe I Rule!” For this new take on the plot, Howard introduced supernatural elements and more action. The end result was more suited to what Weird Tales wanted, and it became the foundation for future Conan tales.

2. BUT A “PROTO-CONAN” STORY PRECEDED IT.

A few months before Conan made his debut in Weird Tales, Howard wrote a story called "People of the Dark" for Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror about a man named John O’Brien who seemed to relive his past life as a brutish, black-haired warrior named … Conan of the reavers. Reave is a word from Old English meaning to raid or plunder, which is obviously in the same ballpark as barbarian. And in the story, there is also a reference to Crom, the fictional god of the Hyborian age that later became a staple of the Conan mythology. This isn't the barbarian as we know him, and it's certainly not an official Conan tale, but the early ideas were there.

3. ROBERT E. HOWARD NEVER INTENDED TO WRITE THESE STORIES IN ORDER.

Howard was meticulous in his world-building for Conan, which was highlighted by his 8600-word history on the Hyborian Age the character lived in. But the one area the creator had no interest in was linearity. Conan’s first story depicted him already as a king; subsequent stories, though, would shift back and forth, chronicling his early days as both a thief and a youthful adventurer.

There’s good reason for that, as Howard himself once explained: “In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That's why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”

4. THERE ARE NUMEROUS CONNECTIONS TO THE H.P. LOVECRAFT MYTHOS.

For fans of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, one of the only names bigger than Robert E. Howard was H.P. Lovecraft. The two weren’t competitors, though—rather, they were close friends and correspondents. They’d often mail each other drafts of their stories, discuss the themes of their work, and generally talk shop. And as Lovecraft’s own mythology was growing, it seems like their work began to bleed together.

In “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard made reference to “vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones,” which could be seen as a reference to the ancient, godlike “Old Ones” from the Lovecraft mythos. In the book The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, editor Patrice Louinet even wrote that Howard’s earlier draft for the story name-dropped Lovecraft’s actual Old Ones, most notably Cthulhu.

In Lovecraft’s “The Shadow of Time,” he describes a character named Crom-Ya as a “Cimmerian chieftain,” which is a reference to Conan's homeland and god. These examples just scratch the surface of names, places, and concepts that the duo’s work share. Whether you want to read it all as a fun homage or an early attempt at a shared universe is up to you.

5. SEVERAL OF HOWARD’S STORIES WERE REWRITTEN AS CONAN STORIES POSTHUMOUSLY.

Howard was only 30 when he died, so there aren’t as many completed Conan stories out in the world as you’d imagine—and there are even less that were finished and officially printed. Despite that, the character’s popularity has only grown since the 1930s, and publishers looked for a way to print more of Howard’s Conan decades after his death. Over the years, writers and editors have gone back into Howard’s manuscripts for unfinished tales to doctor up and rewrite for publication, like "The Snout in the Dark," which was a fragment that was reworked by writers Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. There were also times when Howard’s non-Conan drafts were repurposed as Conan stories by publishers, including all of the stories in 1955's Tales of Conan collection from Gnome Press.

6. FRANK FRAZETTA’S CONAN PAINTINGS REGULARLY SELL FOR SEVEN FIGURES.

Chances are, the image of Conan you have in your head right now owes a lot to artist Frank Frazetta: His version of the famous barbarian—complete with rippling muscles, pulsating veins, and copious amounts of sword swinging—would come to define the character for generations. But the look that people most associate with Conan didn’t come about until the character’s stories were reprinted decades after Robert E. Howard’s death.

“In 1966, Lancer Books published new paperbacks of Robert E. Howard's Conan series and hired my grandfather to do the cover art,” Sara Frazetta, Frazetta's granddaughter owner and operator of Frazetta Girls, tells Mental Floss. You could argue that Frazetta’s powerful covers were what drew most people to Conan during the '60s and '70s, and in recent years the collector’s market seems to validate that opinion. In 2012, the original painting for his Lancer version of Conan the Conqueror sold at auction for $1,000,000. Later, his Conan the Destroyer went for $1.5 million.

Still, despite all of Frazetta’s accomplishments, his granddaughter said there was one thing he always wanted: “His only regret was that he wished Robert E. Howard was alive so he could have seen what he did with his character.”

7. CONAN’S FIRST MARVEL COMIC WAS ALMOST CANCELED AFTER SEVEN ISSUES.

The cover to Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #21
Marvel Entertainment

Conan’s origins as a pulp magazine hero made him a natural fit for the medium’s logical evolution: the comic book. And in 1970, the character got his first high-profile comic launch when Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian hit shelves, courtesy of writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith.

Though now it’s hailed as one of the company’s highlights from the ‘70s, the book was nearly canceled after a mere seven issues. The problem is that while the debut issue sold well, each of the next six dropped in sales, leading Marvel’s then editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, to pull the book from production after the seventh issue hit stands.

Thomas pled his case, and Lee agreed to give Conan one last shot. But this time instead of the book coming out every month, it would be every two months. The plan worked, and soon sales were again on the rise and the book would stay in publication until 1993, again as a monthly. This success gave way to the Savage Sword of Conan, an oversized black-and-white spinoff magazine from Marvel that was aimed at adult audiences. It, too, was met with immense success, lasting from 1974 to 1995.

8. OLIVER STONE WROTE A FOUR-HOUR, POST-APOCALYPTIC CONAN MOVIE.

John Milius’s 1982 Conan movie is a classic of the sword and sorcery genre, but its original script from Oliver Stone didn’t resemble the final product at all. In fact, it barely resembled anything related to Conan. Stone’s Conan would have been set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where the barbarian would do battle against a host of mutant pigs, insects, and hyenas. Not only that, but it would have also been just one part of a 12-film saga that would be modeled on the release schedule of the James Bond series.

The original producers were set to move ahead with Stone’s script with Stone co-directing alongside an up-and-coming special effects expert named Ridley Scott, but they were turned down by all of their prospects. With no co-director and a movie that would likely be too ambitious to ever actually get finished, they sold the rights to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who helped bring in Milius.

9. BARACK OBAMA IS A FAN (AND WAS TURNED INTO A BARBARIAN HIMSELF).

When President Barack Obama sent out a mass email in 2015 to the members of Organizing for Action, he was looking to get people to offer up stories about how they got involved within their community—their origin stories, if you will. In this mass email, the former Commander-in-Chief detailed his own origin, with a shout out to a certain barbarian:

“I grew up loving comic books. Back in the day, I was pretty into Conan the Barbarian and Spiderman.

Anyone who reads comics can tell you, every main character has an origin story—the fateful and usually unexpected sequence of events that made them who they are.”

This bit of trivia was first made public in 2008 in a Daily Telegraph article on 50 facts about the president. That led to Devil’s Due Publishing immortalizing the POTUS in the 2009 comic series Barack the Barbarian, which had him decked out in his signature loincloth doing battle against everyone from Sarah Palin to Dick Cheney.

10. J.R.R. TOLKIEN WAS ALSO A CONAN DEVOTEE.

The father of 20th century fantasy may always be J.R.R. Tolkien, but Howard is a close second in many fans' eyes. Though Tolkien’s work has found its way into more scholarly literary circles, Howard’s can sometimes get categorized as low-brow. Quality recognizes quality, however, and during a conversation with Tolkien, writer L. Sprague de Camp—who himself edited and touched-up numerous Conan stories—said The Lord of the Rings author admitted that he “rather liked” Howard’s Conan stories during a conversation with him. He didn’t expand upon it, nor was de Camp sure which Conan tale he actually read (though it was likely “Shadows in the Moonlight”), but the seal of approval from Tolkien himself goes a long way toward validation.

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Why a Readily Available Used Paperback Is Selling for Thousands of Dollars on Amazon
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iStock

At first glance, getting ahold of a copy of One Snowy Knight, a historical romance novel by Deborah MacGillivray, isn't hard at all. You can get the book, which originally came out in 2009, for a few bucks on Amazon. And yet according to one seller, a used copy of the book is worth more than $2600. Why? As The New York Times reports, this price disparity has more to do with the marketing techniques of Amazon's third-party sellers than it does the market value of the book.

As of June 5, a copy of One Snowy Knight was listed by a third-party seller on Amazon for $2630.52. By the time the Times wrote about it on July 15, the price had jumped to $2800. That listing has since disappeared, but a seller called Supersonic Truck still has used copy available for $1558.33 (plus shipping!). And it's not even a rare book—it was reprinted in July.

The Times found similar listings for secondhand books that cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars more than their market price. Those retailers might not even have the book on hand—but if someone is crazy enough to pay $1500 for a mass-market paperback that sells for only a few dollars elsewhere, that retailer can make a killing by simply snapping it up from somewhere else and passing it on to the chump who placed an order with them.

Not all the prices for used books on Amazon are so exorbitant, but many still defy conventional economic wisdom, offering used copies of books that are cheaper to buy new. You can get a new copy of the latest edition of One Snowy Knight for $16.99 from Amazon with Prime shipping, but there are third-party sellers asking $24 to $28 for used copies. If you're not careful, how much you pay can just depend on which listing you click first, thinking that there's not much difference in the price of used books. In the case of One Snowy Knight, there are different listings for different editions of the book, so you might not realize that there's a cheaper version available elsewhere on the site.

An Amazon product listing offers a mass-market paperback book for $1558.33.
Screenshot, Amazon

Even looking at reviews might not help you find the best listing for your money. People tend to buy products with the most reviews, rather than the best reviews, according to recent research, but the site is notorious for retailers gaming the system with fraudulent reviews to attract more buyers and make their way up the Amazon rankings. (There are now several services that will help you suss out whether the reviews on a product you're looking at are legitimate.)

For more on how Amazon's marketplace works—and why its listings can sometimes be misleading—we recommend listening to this episode of the podcast Reply All, which has a fascinating dive into the site's third-party seller system.

[h/t The New York Times]

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