Shakespeare’s influence has been so widespread within and beyond the English speaking world, that had the bard himself been present on his 450th birthday ceremony last April, he would have been astounded by the sheer number and diversity of his devotees. Indeed, many of them would not be English speakers at all, but rather readers from the hundreds of other languages in which Shakespeare’s works have been translated.
Barely does a school kid pass through the first 16 years of his life without coming across at least one of his plays or sonnets.
Actors cannot brag about their flexibility, writers cannot establish their maturity and scholars cannot ascertain their erudition without naming Shakespeare as a comrade or influence. The bard is now more famous than the monarchs he wrote many of plays for.
But how did the bard manage to attain this pinnacle of literary success?
One simple answer would be versatility. In fact, he might be a tad bit disappointed to be referred to as merely a bard, because poetry was just one component of his very assorted oeuvre. Shakespeare not only presented an alternative reality to theater-goers in the Elizabethan era but also furnished that reality with his imagination, his inscrutable characters and suspenseful situations. But of course, not even a child would go to see Hamlet or the Twelfth Night merely for the plot twists.
There is a lot that Shakespeare communicates, not just about life in general but also philosophy, psychology, history and language. A comedy is not merely humor but the mirror in which a human being can look and laugh at his own mundane existence. A tragedy is not just the story of a man’s misfortunes but the slow decay of that man’s world outside and his reality inside, where he is forced to make decisions based on his flawed perception and human weaknesses. The ultimate decline is not natural but rather enforced on the characters by themselves. And in the process, the reader and the viewer, is bewitched by the sheer depth and vivacity of what he sees on stage. Shakespeare questions every human value and not just English or Elizabethan ones. He places a soldier against a King in Macbeth, a son against a father in Hamlet, a slave against a Venetian senator in Othello and two young lovers against their respective clans in Romeo Juliet. In the process, Shakespeare demolishes every hierarchy and status quo, eventually also razing the very individuals who confront it.
Shakespeare’s versatility is not just proven by the variety of his sonnets, his assorted characters (heroes, villains and jokers) but also the sheer density of images, expressions and even words he gifted to the English language. A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson quotes Shakespeare more than any other writer.
Another evidence of Shakespeare’s immortality is the multitude of writers he influenced. The western literary canon has rarely produced any great writer without a visible Shakespearean impact on his/her literary foundation. Many literary luminaries like Faulkner, Keats, Dickens, Herman Melville and Coleridge have named him as their mentor. In fact, if he does return, Shakespeare can demand a significant chunk of royalties and prize money of almost half the Nobel laureates in Literature. This is the exact test of any literary masterpiece, how resilient it is to the test time. And in Shakespeare’s case, it seems as if he only left yesterday. Faulkner went so far as to base one of his masterpieces, The Sound and the Fury, on Shakespeare’s magnum opus Macbeth.
Macbeth is one of my favorite tragedies by Shakespeare, surpassing Hamlet by just a few points. Most of the Shakespearean tragedies reflect the modern day angst and embody today’s existential threat. For example, this famous soliloquy in Macbeth:
|Joseph Millson as Macbeth, with Moyo Akande, Cat Simmons and Jess Murphy as the witches. (via Guardian)|
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (Macbeth, Act V, Scene v)
Most of the characters in Shakespeare’s world are perplexing to say the least. Even the historical plays like Antony Cleopatra and Julius Cesar are full of inventive characters, situations, dialogues and of course artistic mastery over the form that is original and very Shakespearean in nature.
Another fact that has kept Shakespeare’s works alive is universality. The images and emotions evoked in his plays appeal people from every age and era till date. One testimony to this fact is the repeated performances and film adaptations of his works. Even Bollywood has embraced him with movies like Omkara, Maqbool, Ram Leela and the soon to be launched Haider – all based on Shakespeare’s tragedies.
|First look of Vishal Bhardwaj's Haider, based on Hamlet.|
Lastly, if you want to attain lasting glory, then perhaps you should practice becoming an obscurity yourself- a mystery big enough to perplex scholars and writers for centuries. For many years now, there is doubt about Shakespeare’s identity, his sexuality, family circumstances and even authorship of works penned under his name. In fact, one theory suggests that the sheer genius displayed by Shakespeare through his works, is impossible for one person to produce. Perhaps this is why Charles Dickens, the father of modern novel and yet another aficionado of Shakespeare sums it up this way: “The life of Shakespeare is a fine mystery and I tremble every day lest something turn up.”
This article was first published in The Sunday Plus on 17th August, 2014.