Give the devil his due
May 16 2016
Although Shakespeare is a staple of classroom syllabi across India, the irony is, he has become a classic, revered and respected but not read
Shakespeare is naturally and understandably a staple part of English literature syllabi across India. However, there have been ups and downs in his ‘academic’ life which are interesting because they are also reflections of the changes in our socio-cultural perceptions.
Shakespeare was introduced to India as part of the colonial project of ‘educating’ Indians about the treasures of English literature. It is an interesting coincidence that the year of his death (1616) also marks the arrival of the Elizabethan diplomat Sir Thomas Roe in the Mughal Emperor Jehangir’s court, which was the innocuous harbinger of the centuries long colonisation to follow. Shakespeare was, of course, introduced much later as the epitome of literary excellence or the model which native imaginations could aspire to. This was around the time when the white man thought it his ‘burden’ to enlighten and uplift the uncultured minds of India with exemplary writers and writings from his land. In fact, it is a less well known fact that Shakespeare became the legendary figure that he is today only by the 18th century when England embarked on colonisation in earnest. For instance, Thomas Rymer the 17th century English critic rather harshly dismissed Othello as “the tragedy of the handkerchief”.
Notwithstanding such unkind cuts from his own countrymen, Shakespeare was presented to the Indians as the genius. He had the honour of having a complete paper to himself in many Indian universities where the students were supposed to have an overall understanding of all his 37 plays, 156 sonnets and two long poems. It was quite common knowledge that he “knew little Latin and less Greek” and that he plagiarised unashamedly for the themes of all his major works.
What was less well known was the fact that the classroom Shakespeare was a bowdlerised version. Bowdlerise is another term for editing out words or sentences, derived from Thomas Bowdler. He was an 18th century physician who thought that Shakespeare was occasionally a bit indecent to suit the tastes of cultured ladies. So he sanitised most of his plays to make them fit for ‘family reading’, omitting words and expressions or even characters he thought to be unfit for ladies and children. Iago might have been the one who was most affected due to bowdlerisation because Shakespeare had given many colourful Elizabethan expletives and coarse expressions to him. Bowdler would not have any of that. Henry IV Part II did not have the prostitute Doll Tearsheet at all. It was this bowdlerised Shakespeare that made his way into the Indian classrooms and the Iago that most Indian students got to know was much more of a gentleman than what he actually is.
Very soon Shakespeare ruled the literary scene and if you claimed an interest in literature you were expected to know at least a few of his famous lines; to be acknowledged as a good speaker one had to recite “To be or not to be” or “Out, out, brief candle” with good enunciation and pronunciation.
However, the scene changed with the rise of postcolonial theory and criticism in the 1980s when we began to look at all things British with utmost suspicion, Shakespeare being no exception. The former emperor of the literary realm appeared to be distorted when looked at through the postcolonial lens. His plays were read and re-read, often yielding variant readings. For instance, Aime Cesaire’s French play A Tempest had Caliban as the central character. Prospero took on the ominous appearance of the coloniser who with his characteristic arrogance claims authority of the island which gives him refuge and enslaves the native inhabitants. Caliban the uncouth barbarian who earlier used to be the clownish villain of the play became the defiant rebel who unlike the servile Ariel refuses to be “tamed” and “domesticated”. Feminist approaches debated Lady Macbeth, Gertrude and Ophelia. New historicist critics like Stephen Greenblatt unearthed the political underpinnings of the plays while pointing out how Shakespeare might have contributed unintentionally to the imperialist expansionism of the British.
Shakespeare was mercilessly deconstructed by that king of deconstruction Jacques Derrida, and he took on meanings that he could not have ever dreamt of. The sonnets also took on interesting turns. The romantic allure of “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” took on different shades by the revelation that the beloved in most of the sonnets was a he and not a she.
Postcolonial awareness managed to dethrone William Shakespeare and nudge him towards the margins of the syllabus. Gone were the days when he lorded over the B A and MA syllabi; very soon he became just one of those playwrights of the Elizabethan age like Webster or Ben Jonson. He was passé as a research topic; there are few things which could now be said originally about him, and even if there were, it could be only a critique. O, what a fall was there!
Shakespeare has unfortunately become a classic, revered and respected but not read. This is a supreme irony of fate to have befallen this upstart from Stratford who made it big in the theatres of London, much to the chagrin of more educated contemporaries. For Shakespeare was the writer for the masses, the one writer who catered completely to the tastes of his audience especially the groundlings who crowded around the stage in the Globe Theatre. He is the Elizabethan ancestor of present day Bollywood formula film directors, adding all the right ingredients in the right proportion to attract the viewer. His greatness lies in the fact that he was able to combine unparallelled literary brilliance with exemplary business sense; besides being critically acclaimed, his plays were huge commercial successes as well. The biggest tribute to him would be to bring him down from the pedestal that he has been put on and allow the youngsters to enjoy his irreverent and sometimes indecent humour besides the dark ruminations about life and death.
(The writer is professor, humanities and social sciences department, IIT Kanpur)