Dr. Ananya Guha taught English Literature at St. Edmund’s College, Shillong and is currently the Regional Director, IGNOU.
Remembering Shakespeare on his 400th anniversary is not simply to remember the plays that one read but simply to marvel at his genius, his deep probing into the human psyche, his manipulations of good and evil and above all his sheer pulsating poetry and rhetoric.
While defending the motion on pros and cons of semester system in Indian universities, as a student I remember saying, ” It is because of the semester system I read almost all the plays of Shakespeare…”. But that was a fact. Each semester was packed with comedies, tragedies, tragic comedies, and histories.
It was a ” kingdom for a horse” as Richard the third would say. Whether it was Antony’s susceptibility to the wiles of Cleopatra or ” I am dying Egypt dying/ give me some wine and let me live a little” the plays’ tragedy or supposed comedy were all suffused with pathos. ” Egypt versus Rome” thundered the teacher while expounding on the debate in ” Antony and Cleopatra”.
In school we read ” Julius Caesar ” and came to know about the oracular Ides Of March. Mark Antony, the biased teacher told us was cleverly pacifying an agitated mob. ”See how clever he is gentlemen, look how his tone changes, from respect for Brutus, to a wild defense of Caesar”. And we fourteen year old listened in breathtaking silence and discovered at the end of the play that indeed Mark Antony was a power hungry person quite unlike what he projected himself at the beginning. . Then he would make us listen to the long play record and compel us to watch the movie, which is still etched on my mind, especially the scene of the murder of Caesar. So Shakesperare’s plays had an impelling visual power and the teacher who taught us ” Julius Caesar” could bring that power with force, with his delightful oratory on the flawed character of Mark Antony, the double faced power monger, the teacher complementing his oratorical skills ( much like Antony’s) with auditory provisions of the long play record, where voices boomed and one could invent a Rome of those days.
What one learnt more while reading Shakespeare were the attributes of flawed evil, innate goodness as in Desdemona, the flawed vulnerability of Othello, his incredulity and the amazing worlds of the ” Fools” who were no fools but prophetic wise men! The comedies, the tragic comedies as I would like to call them had all paths of a tragedy as well the histories. In the Sonnets I found stories within a story whether it be the conflict of love including homosexual love or the two men vying for a woman. But each sonnet had a ‘ story ‘ and perhaps Shakespeare was exploiting his early fictive resources. This is what I argued when I wrote a paper on the Sonnets over a decade back.
This is not meant to be an article on scholarship. I am no Shakespearean scholar. I wish I were one. But even in sorrow Shakespeare was unbounded joy, and in mirth in his plays, there was sadness and pathos. ” Comedies of sadness and tragedies of dissolution and anarchy”.
My first encounter with Shakespeare was in school when we had to read an extract from ” As You Like It”. The world is a stage and we are all actors! My infantile imagination thought that the writer was stating the obvious. Later as I grew on in years the wisdom and profundity notwithstanding the fatalism struck me and grew within me. While writing a paper on his sonnets as an academic, as I mentioned earlier I also realized how he could recreate a fabulous world. Two men fighting over a woman or a woman fighting over a man! Leaving aside the gay theories, a teacher at the university told us albeit somberly that this was a conflict between love and friendship! I was not sure at that time that minus the bisexual part of it whether it was plausible!
Coming back to the teacher of ” Julius Caesar” I realize today, working in a Distance and Open University, that he was without much ado a progenitor of Distance Education. That is because he used as teaching aids, the long play record and the movie. Audio visuals have always considered to be part and parcel of Distance Education. Making us view the movie or listening to Mark Antony’s rhetoric, in comparison he said Brutus’s speech was marked by sobriety; the teacher, an Irish Christian Brother was salivating our auditory and visual powers! That was simply great.
The Shakespeare that I read and understood was largely confined to the four walls of a classroom. Yet in plays like ” Julius Caesar” or ” The Merchant Of Venice” or ” Antony and Cleopatra” I could decipher, as Stephen Spender would put it- ” world within worlds”. And those worlds have inched me on to life’s crises and precipices. Even if there is one more Shakespeare, which seems impossible, considering his range, vision and virtuosity, his uncanny insights into human nature, his use of magic, the supernatural and the surreal, his technical mastery of the sonnet as a literary and art form, this person will have to prove himself, not with a bestseller (like he did!) but by craft, technical skill, mastery of language, sense of history, geography, prosody, poetry and all the literary resources that are there in the world- including psychology and philosophy.