Intro: My students enjoyed Shakespeare’s plays, especially his tragedies, much more than anything else. Guided by me and in the light of the insightful criticism offered by the famous Shakespearean scholars, they had a true comprehension of his tragedies and tragic heroes like Brutus, Hamlet and Macbeth. They came to know that in a Shakespearean tragedy, character is destiny though accidents may happen. They understood that each Shakespearean hero had a flaw that spelt his doom in spite of his great merits. They also enjoyed his comedies like As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night. They were fascinated by Falstaffian wit and humour; they liked his disposition for pun, fun and frolic. His indefatigable energy, his undying charm, and, above all, his high spirits and zest for life fascinated them. Though they appreciated that sonnet became an effective poetic genre for an expression of tenderest feelings of love, they felt that he wrote better poetry in his plays, especially his tragedies. Shakespeare is matchless: there is not an aspect of human nature or an angularity of human mind that he has not perceived and immortalized in his works. May the great bard live eternally in our memory!
I should say I am lucky I had had quite a rewarding experience in my teaching career. My students invariably enjoyed what I taught them, but interestingly they enjoyed Shakespeare’s plays more than anything else; that is, perhaps, because of the great bard’s versatile universality. His themes are simple, his treatment skilful, his language appropriate and brief to the point, his nature honest and untainted by ostentation.
My feeling is that Julius Caesar, though not considered one of the four great tragedies, has a peculiarly special appeal to the Indian readership. There is, I think, something in the Indian psyche which at once responds to idealism of any hue involving sacrifice, mainly, self-sacrifice.
Brutus is an uncompromising idealist. Idealism is his strength and weakness too. Even the worst of his enemies admit without reservations that he is an honourable man. Antony is a crafty politician and skilful orator. He can raise people, of course mobs, to a frenzy and knows how to make their overcharged emotions serve his ends. It took some time for me and considerable persuasive argument to convince my students that Brutus is a better man than Antony. Grown up in our traditional cultural context and subconsciously influenced by our native response patterns, they think that what Brutus did to Caesar was an unconscionable act of betrayal of friendship. I tried to convince them that what Brutus had said about the so-called murder of Caesar was only and sincerely in his view a sacrifice in the interests of public good. Once they are convinced of his unquestionable idealism, ardent patriotism and absolute selflessness, they are able to admire the fineness of his character.
I had to take recourse to Dover Wilson’s incisive and insightful observation that the very concept of kingship is repugnant to his (Brutus’) republican sensibilities. And Caesar had become ambitious and wanted to become king. Caesar, though is his best friend, had to bleed for his ambition. Otherwise, by becoming king, he would trample on the fundamental freedoms and liberties of the people and ruin the republican character of the government.
The tragedy of Brutus is not just his personal tragedy; it is, on the other hand, the tragedy of public duty, the defeat of idealism. That is so because Brutus is ahead of his times, and idealists therefore fail more often than not because in Hamletian expression, the times are always out of joint for them. I used to dwell for long on this and then they would appreciate his stand. The favourite piece in recitation competitions or for stage presentation is Antony’s oration. Antony knows that the Roman mobs had no brains, and they were only susceptible to fiery flashes of emotion. And so he spoke appealing to their emotions. Brutus thought that every Roman thought as he thought, and spoke like an intellectual. Naturally, the effect of the thing that touches emotions is immediate and spontaneous, whereas the effect of the thing which is sought to reach and sink into the minds of the people through convoluted logical processes is almost lost in most of the cases. Brutus is different; he valued principles and not interests. When this is explained, it becomes clear for my students why Antony’s oration was a great success and Brutus’ speech was non-productive.
Sympathy plays a great role in human responses, and, I think, especially in India. A good man wronged automatically rouses sympathy in the hearts of people. Hamlet is one of the most wronged men in literature. His father was brutally murdered by no one else other than his (Hamlet’s) uncle; he did not stop there; he married his mother almost immediately. My students were horrified at the injury and insult suffered by Hamlet. They were at once with Hamlet eager for revenge. The enormity of his inner torment disturbed his mental equilibrium and ‘coloured his imagination ill’. It made the charming prince of Denmark have neither sleep nor rest. He is the intellectual type, very ethical by nature ‘thinking too precisely on the event’ of the consequences. He is for revenge and he gets several opportunities to kill the murderer, but every time he thinks too, too long which unfortunately leads to no worthwhile action. My students with their deep sympathy for him were very much upset by his inaction and too much of his wasteful reflection. When I drew their attention to a brilliant comment by Coleridge on Hamlet that “He vacillates from sensibility and procrastinates from thought and loses the power of action in the energy of resolve,” they sadly reconciled themselves to the tragic trait of his.
Hamlet gets one more opportunity to kill the villain when he is on his knees in prayer. The poor chaps, my students, thought that he would do the thing now. No, he did not. Then I told them about Bradley’s comment: “a repugnance to the idea of falling suddenly on a man (however bloody he is) who could not defend himself” deters him from taking vengeance. They are surely appreciative of Hamlet’s moral sense, but are sorry at the wasted opportunity.
It is wrong to think that Hamlet is just a man of reflection and inaction; it is only when there is time for him that he goes on thinking endlessly “too precisely on the event” and “loses the power of action in the energy of resolve.” But when there is no time for him to think about the consequences and when he acts on an impulse, he acts so well with intrepid and surprising daring. He kills several people, including his onetime friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, before he kills Claudius at last. Already a man of endless reflection and irresolution and of a highly sensitive nature, he has been very badly affected by melancholy caused by painful and disgusting developments. My students are very much impressed with Bradley’s beautifully worded insightful comment as it is very helpful in understanding Hamlet’s character: “Hamlet found in his mother’s remarriage not only an astounding shallowness of feeling but an eruption of coarse sensuality, rank and gross, speeding post-haste to its horrible delight.” It was such a thrilling experience for me when I saw my students’ faces lit up with a glow of appreciation made possible with the great professor’s wonderful observation.
I still remember how some of the boys who had a talent for histrionics and love of the English language enacted some of Hamlet’s soliloquies like “Oh, that this too, too solid flesh” and “to be or not to be that is the question.” Those were the days of liberal education and wider reading unlike the present times when we have only too, too focused preparation for admission to professional courses. Students of all faculties, whether of arts, sciences, commerce, law, engineering or medicine, loved languages and literature, not at all neglecting their optional courses. They carried an air of literary culture about them and the way they conducted things.
Othello is a man of much greater strength of mind than most other Shakespeare’s tragic heroes: no wavering, no vacillation, no hesitation, and no remorse. He is a rocklike man. He is not without great passion, but he has tremendous self-control. He does not dissipate his energy in wasteful thoughts. He can be as firm as one can be. He knows no diplomatic circumlocution or wasteful euphemism. He can be blunt and masterful as he commands. He can warn people against exhibitionist heroism: “Keep up your bright swords, for the mist will rust them.”
Strength appeals to all of us, and much more to the youth. Students at once take to him. But at the same time, we should say we are amazed at Desdemona’s decision to marry a moor. It is not a question of black or brown or white in matrimony. What is primarily looked for in matrimony is a near approximation of good looks between partners. It does not mean that that only matters and is decisive. It is only to say that looks cannot be ignored. Coleridge speaks for latter-day American critics when he observes, “No doubt Desdemona saw Othello’s visage in his mind; yet, as we are constituted, and most surely as an English audience was disposed in the beginning of the seventeenth century, it would be something monstrous to conceive this beautiful Venetian girl falling in love with a veritable black man. It would argue a disproportionateness, a want of balance in Desdemona which Shakespeare does not appear to have in the least contemplated.” Bradley tries to question the validity of what Coleridge says by bringing in how it appeared to Brabantio, her father and how Iago thought about their matrimony:
Foh! One may smell in such a will most rank
Foul ‘disproportion’, thoughts unnatural
Bradley observes that Coleridge sees her marriage as her father Brabantio and as Iago sees it, but not as Shakespeare has conceived it.
Can the bride’s father’s concerns about the match be dismissed as trash? Does something cease to be true because an evil man like Iago said it? Beauty may not be the ultimate binding factor in matrimony but can anything else be that without it?
By beauty I mean reasonably attractive looks. Willing to be a partner in matrimony in spite of ‘disproportionateness’ between them may not be monstrous as said by Coleridge, but it will certainly be surprising. It may not be complexion complex, one wonders whether it is not some complex relating to a lack of good looks matching Desdemona’s that lies in some remotest corner of his mind that causes him to suspect her marital fidelity. When I led the discussion marked by a free exchange of views on this matter, this was the consensus we arrived at.
Unrelieved villainy in a dramatic presentation is more often repellent than not. In Hamlet or Macbeth, we do not have such a one as we do find in Othello and King Lear. Lady Macbeth in Macbeth may be extremely selfish and diabolical in her ambition and in her evil designs for their realization, but there is surely something appealing about her. An awareness of her guilt with traces of self-condemnation as we find in expressions like “all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand” lends a certain charm to her character. One is apt to be filled with revulsion for Iago, but Macbeth and Lady Macbeth keep us in a certain charming awe. Macbeth has many charming qualities and endowments, but his ambition becomes an overriding obsession. He loses all sense of right and wrong, all sense of proportion and propriety. He is bent upon becoming the King of Scotland at any cost by whichever means fair or foul which he can summon or command. He prepares himself to commit an atrocious crime, a heinous deed. He decides to murder his King, his benefactor, his guest who is drunk and in sleep. Unfortunately ambition, the tragic flaw in Macbeth, becomes an all-absorbing passion which sets at naught many a virtue any one of which may have ensured an honoured place in the annals of human glory.
My students are much more fascinatingly drawn to Julius Caesar, Hamlet and Macbeth than to Othello and King Lear. And that is, perhaps, because, I think, there is a much more fascinating touch of charm and grandeur about the protagonists in them. I remember how it was so well received when we, staff and students, staged a bunch of scenes from them.
I do not think that any other of Shakespeare’s plays has ever been as modified and altered radically as King Lear. Why So? Bradley says that King Lear is Shakespeare’s greatest literary achievement, but as a play it is the weakest one. He, perhaps implies that we feel great when we read it, but when it is staged it almost fails to sustain gripping interest in us. But a doubt still lingers: even when we read it, can we forget that it is a play, and don’t we think of the dramatic propriety even if it is brilliant? Can we take something out of its organic whole and enjoy it as a fragment unrelated to it?
Things happen in a very odd manner in King Lear. Does a sensible father ask his grown-up daughters how much each of them likes him? That, too, does a king who is generally expected to be wise, dignified and farsighted ask such a question as that? Even if it is asked for fun, let us suppose, will he take their replies seriously, so seriously as to punish a daughter (Cordelia) who replies with honest frankness and appreciable balance? Can we really stand unrelieved evil paraded through scene after scene to triumph unresisted? The play is unfortunately based on such a thoughtless question by King Lear and made to move on to disastrous consequences. Goneril, Regan, Oswald and Edmund are so repulsive that we cannot even stand their presence. Goneril is the worst and most disgusting, the most hideous and repulsive character in literature. How to stand her? We can understand ambition, we can understand vengeance, we can understand evil machinations to promote one’s own selfish interests, but how to stand such contemptible, mean-minded, vicious and ungrateful nature past comprehension? If it is a good piece of literature, we should go back to it again and again. Can we ever dare to read King Lear for a second time? We do not mind witnessing ambition, vengeance, bloodshed and murder if there is something noble in content and lofty in manner justifying them, or at least understandable selfishness. King Lear has too many shameless villains. My students spoke with wry and dull faces, and the consensus we arrived at having discussed the play is certainly not a happy one in any manner.
In a novel or a play or even a short story, the most important thing is characterization wherein our chief interest lies. Those people in literature should impress us as being more real than we are in this mundane world of ours and then we do not mind minor defects, if any, in plot construction, etc. We adore Brutus, we adore Hamlet, and we at least understand Macbeth and Othello not without a measure of appreciation. But what can we say of characters in King Lear? When I think of Goneril, a very ugly fiendish wretch appears before me with gritted teeth and frightening looks and I at once turn my looks on something pleasant to the eye and mind. Perhaps this is what Johnson meant when he described King Lear as a play “in which the wicked prosper.”
My observation over years is that my students loved tragedies more than comedies, though among comedies they had a great liking for The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. They were also fascinated by the Falstaffian wit and humour; they liked his disposition for pun, fun and frolic. They were happy with the way he made life easy for him and for others in his company. His indefatigable energy, his undying charm, and, above all his high spirits and zest for life charmed them.
As for his sonnets, I should say he perfected their form in a manner that no one else after him ever tried to alter it or improve it. The form of the sonnet was standardized by him. Milton wrote a slightly different kind of sonnet, but no one else afterwards followed that pattern.
The sonnet in his hands became an effective poetic genre for an expression of tenderest feelings of love. He achieved a near technical perfection in sonnet writing. But the subject matter of his sonnets looks rather strange because he goes on appealing in the first nineteen sonnets to a handsome young man barely nineteen, believed to be the Earl of Southampton, to get married without any waste of time and beget children so that his radiant beauty will be perpetuated through his progeny. He does not stop there: he himself professes great love for him. Critical opinion is divided over the evaluation of the beauty and merit of the sonnets. If for some critics and poets like Coleridge and Keats the highest beauty that poetry can reach can be found in them, for others equally eminent like Wordsworth, Hazlitt, Matthew Arnold and Mark Pattison they are dull, drab, repetitive and monotonous stretched on with the same appeals in too worked-out imagery. They contain lines and images damaging to his personal dignity and self-respect. When I taught sonnets to my students I tried to gauge their sincere response, but I should say they remained unimpressed. They seemed to think that Shakespeare wrote better poetry in his plays than in his sonnets. Though there are surely some unforgettable lines shining with the beauty that appears to be radiating from some ethereal world, lines like –
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past
The oddity of the subject, the monotony of the tone, the laboured nature of imagery render the sonnets on the whole ineffectual in leaving a lasting impression on the readers. When I asked the students what they would read again and again of Shakespeare’s works, they said in one voice without any hesitation that their first choice was tragedies, all tragedies, great or not so great.
In fact, my impression of the sonnets is not far different from theirs in spite of their scattered brilliance [Incidentally I may be allowed to mention that I have translated Shakespeare’s Sonnets into Telugu asked by the great NJ Yasaswy, founder of ICFAI University]. I too feel Shakespeare has written better poetry in his plays, chiefly tragedies, than in his sonnets. My students also enjoyed with a thrill of joy some of the passages suffused with lyricism of a very high order and they were struck with the evocativeness and graphic solidity of their imagery, like -
What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving, how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! - (Hamlet)
...this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine
Making the green one red - (Macbeth)
Even till the eastern gate all fiery-red,
Opening on Neptune with fair blessed beams,
Turns into yellow gold his salt-green streams - (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep: the more I give to thee
The more I have, for both are infinite - (Romeo and Juliet)
The name of Shakespeare is quite a familiar one all over the world. I do not think any other writer anywhere else has had such a distinction as this. Shakespeare is a writer with a wonderful perception and vision whose creative gaze penetrates into the very core of human nature with all its widespread complexity. There is not an aspect of human nature or an angularity of human mind that he has not perceived and immortalized in his writings. He is a creative artist in words concerned with a universal man confronted with the problem of life in its tangled maze. He is as much our man, everybody’s man, as an Englishman. He is a man of the world. It is fitting that his four hundred and fiftieth Birth Day is being celebrated with a sense of belonging.
May the great bard live eternally in our memory!
1. Bradley A C (1992), Shakespearean Tragedy, St. Martin’s Press, New York, US.
2. Coleridge S T (1914), Lectures and Notes on Shakespeare and Other English Poets, G. Bell, London.
3. Dowden Edward (1880), Shakespeare, His Mind and Art, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York and London.
4. Sengupta Satyaprasad (1981), Some Aspects of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, S Chand & Co, New Delhi.
5. Wilson John Dover (Ed.) (2009), Julius Caesar, Cambridge Library Collections.
(Originally published in ICFAI University Journal of English Studies, Oct 2014)