Knock Knock! Who’s there?


Writer and editor Pooja Pande revels in the Bard’s wordplay that resonates in our everyday life

My first brush with the Bard occurred in some sub-conscious zone. Growing up in a land where English was a first language (or a by-default-first language since it was the only language common to all races, the other top contenders for the spot being Arabic and Malayalam), I was amidst bookish teachers spouting phrases that were originally coined by Shakespeare, on a daily basis. A whole lot of what used to be called “sayings” in a bygone era would be bandied about.(If you mention the term ‘sayings’ to a Digital Native today, the poor thing will just be like– “Saying? What are you saying?”, before plugging the earphones back in, somewhere wondering why he/she wastes time speaking to these old people who like to think of themselves as Digital Immigrants).

So, if I was careless in doing my sums again, my Math teacher, a Mrs. Thomas, would tell me that “careless mistakes” would be my ‘be-all and end-all’. Or if we sighed at the girl-in-the-birthday-dress because we were looking so lousy in our lousy uniforms, my Social Sciences teacher (who had some French connection) would admonish us by saying, ‘Do not be the…how you say it…green-eyed monster.’ For our umpteen toffee-coins barter exercises (“Today I have coin, you have toffee – so let’s trade”), we would be advised, ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be.’ ‘But the other two options are to beg and steal, Miss?,’ some smart aleck too high on toffees would dare to argue back. And my personal favorite from those days of learning about life, the world and its ways while trying to figure out yours, especially in hindsight, since I’m so out of that phase is the curious, lovely phrase – ‘salad days’. Not a saying, no. But a term that just sums it up so, wraps its meaning around the letters to make the words. Because a salad is a first course, a salad is kachchi mitti, and in those days of being formed and shaped, you are raw, you’re a project-just-about-to-take-off, and there are endless ingredients that will get you there. Or could.

And that’s the magic of Shakespeare, isn’t it? The power that rests, hidden, in each and every word, every single letter of the alphabet , which can be unlocked to its potential and set free only by a master.

And not some high-falutin master!

When I officially encountered Shakespeare as a student of English Literature now in the city of Delhi, I mistook him, like so many others, for “a literary genius”. While this is certainly true, the term unfortunately comes burdened with the weight of deadly gravitas. It implies a sobriety, a sombre understanding, a position of superiority. I recall judging people as “philistines” because they never bothered reading their Shakespeare. But the joy in reading Shakespeare lay waiting for me behind the high walls of pretentiousness – walls that I thankfully did scale over the years, getting sucked into wild goose chases at times, and succumbing to one too many fool’s paradises at others.

Because it is no mere fluke that Shakespeare is still talked about today, that he is still taught, read, analysed, staged, adapted in brave new world after brave new world – it is precisely because he was the right kind of Master, a literary genius precisely because he was pop! A trickster who could fool you into an illusion, a word player who could set meaning soaring high or falling-flat-on-its-face as he liked it, a complete language flirt in a roaring affair with the word itself.

Once I got to this point in my relationship with Shakespeare, the fake haze cleared up, I was hooked!

When we put up improv scenes of Much Ado about Nothing back in college – Ah! A tutorial in a gazebo! – we were not only having fun saying the sayings, we were also learning and not only about the workings and peculiarities of Elizabethan England. When Benedick wishes to end yet another argument with Beatrice, he proceeds to ‘stop her mouth with a kiss’, and I still remember the moment in the play as a lesson in both gender politics and love. (‘Benedick is such a dick’ was a popular too-cool-for-school attitude to carry around on your sleeve in those days). And once again, sub-consciously, as I made my way through the tragedies and comedies and the histories through my post-graduation, I imbibed so much about the importance of weighing your words,the workings of narratives, the intricate playing of plots, sub-plots, devices, characters and characterizations, interjections and monologues, negative spaces and dramatic ironies. How thought and word can come together in an attempt to grapple with the meaning of love, life, the universe, money, power, politics, human nature.

And also what stichomythia really means!

Recently, my 6-year-old came up to me with a Knock Knock joke – she’s thrilled at this whole new business of telling jokes even though she sometimes forgets the punchline is essential – and as soon as I’d played it, I ran to my Collected Works of William Shakespeare and frantically went through one of my favorites of all time, Macbeth. There they were the words, sitting with such dread and mystery and anticipation in that moment: ‘Knock Knock! Who’s there?’


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