” If you fix the year 1600 AD on a mental time line and travel twelve years before and twelve years thereafter~~in those twenty four years you will discover a body of thirty-four plays, the greatest to be ever written in the English language, plays that shaped the language as we know it and which continue to inspire millions even today.” When our University Professor introduced Shakespeare thus to our class before we settled down to study ‘Hamlet’, the adulation in his voice was palpable. (To be technically precise one could give or take a year or two either way…but that number stayed and it’s a reference i even used later while teaching ‘Merchant of Venice” to high school students!) Our Professor’s admiration was a classic example of “Bardolatory”~a term once coined by George Bernard Shaw to contemptuously dismiss the Bard’s ardent admirers. The irony is many may ask “Shaw who??” but i haven’t met anyone yet who has asked “Shakespeare who?!”, even though they may not understand what the fuss around him is all about!
Many of my generation were first introduced to Shakespeare in middle school through that anthology “Tales From Shakespeare” by Charles and Mary Lamb, which reduced the complicated plots of his plays to a level a child could comprehend. Our favourite was “Merchant of Venice”. With childlike glee we enjoyed Portia’s deft turning of the tables on Shylock in the end. And when our teacher made us learn and enact Shylock’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes…” i remember that even as children we were deeply moved by the sentiment of those words. With each play you read and studied through school,college and university, the admiration for his genius and the universality of his themes just kept rising. Once you’ve lived through the pages of those famous tragedies…”Hamlet”, with his fatal flaw of hesitation; “Othello” whose jealousy destroys him and the one he loves; “King Lear” where the theme of filial-ingratitude cuts ‘sharper than a serpents tooth’; “Macbeth” and his wife’s uncontrollable ambition; and “Anthony and Cleopatra” where Mark Anthony’s tragic grandeur is raised to a new level…you become a Shakespeare-convertee for life.
The beauty is that probably none of his stories are original. Like a Bollywood ‘masala’ script his plays borrow ideas from various sources but then his poetic genius reshaped each plot to create several centres of interest and to show as many sides of a narrative to the audience as possible. He also managed to people the stories with memorable characters and some of the most brilliant dramatic dialogues ever written. That is why a Shakespearean play can survive translations, adaptations and wide interpretations without taking away from its dramatic core. Over four centuries after him, his work is still being rediscovered by new movements in scholarship and performance. As for his plays they continue to not just be studied and performed, but reinterpreted in diverse cultural and political contexts throughout the world. In our own Hindi cinema we have some brilliant adaptations (think Vishal Bhardwaj).
The one that will probably be a classic forever is no doubt “Hamlet”. It is Shakespeare’s longest play and among the most powerful and influential tragedies in English literature, with a story capable of “seemingly endless retelling and adaptation by others.”
“To be or not to be”…that is a question brooding humanity will forever ponder over…