blogsComprehending Shakespeare

Comprehending Shakespeare

‘’Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, 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 spoke these lines in a play named after him. I recall every day that we learned Shakespeare at school, was a day of discovery. Today, if you read the lines above, you will probably understand every word that is written, but how many will understand what Will Shakespeare really meant by them? At least half of a one-hour period (sorry folks, in our day we called them periods; pardon me ladies) would be devoted to actually understanding what the real meaning of lines like these was. But more to the point; you rarely hear or read of young people quoting Shakespeare in today’s world. So the questions that begs to be asked is “How relevant is Shakespeare in today’s world?”

Very rarely have I come across any of his philosophical lines, or statements on the state of the world that are not relevant and meaningful for us today. And he wrote his plays more than 400 years ago. Unlike many of our scriptures, which sometimes tend to be dated so that a thinking person may question their relevance in today’s world, Shakespeare’s philosophy was timeless. Look at the lines above. Even if a deeper meaning escapes you, there is nothing said there that could be said to be irrelevant today.

“Life is but a walking shadow” means that there is nothing original in life anymore. We live our lives in the shadows of others who have walked on this earth before us. “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” could honestly be a definition of a movie made in Hollywood. The Director is the idiot telling the story of life, the sound and fury could be the emotional drama and upheavals of life, or on the other hand, it could even mean the special effects in the movie. Signifying nothing means that it is all fiction, not real.

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The course of True Love Never did run Smooth

I heard this line spoken by a woman to her lover in a violent TV Serial on Netflix a couple of months back, and it brought back memories of high school. This is the 21st century, and Shakespeare wrote these lines early in the 17th century. This one line speaks volumes about love and romanticism. These lines were spoken by Lysander in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.  (And, who calls himself Lysander? I mean what kind of a name is that? If you were given a name like that by your parents today, you would probably hate them). But, we should ask ourselves how it is that Shakespeare had the depth of understanding of human relationships that he could write such an immortal line.

And the context in which he said this? Lysander and Hermia loved each other (in today’s context, you can say “they were boy-friend and girl-friend”). But, Hermia’s father did not approve of Lysander. Does this sound familiar? In Bollywood movies, if they banned this theme, there would be 50% less movies made. Timeless indeed.

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 “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

I would be surprised if a large majority of readers have never heard this line. They were spoken by the egotistical fool Malvolio in Twelfth Night. This sentence stands true today as well. Some people are born great, meaning they are born into a high or a noble family. Some achieve greatness, for example by hard work. And when he says some have greatness thrust upon them, it means that some people happen to be in the right place at the right time, and achieve that level of greatness that they would otherwise not earn. Again, timeless.

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 The evil that men do lives after them;

 The good is oft interred with their bones;

This is a part of probably one of the most iconic passages written by the Bard. It forms the 3rd and 4th lines of Mark Antony’s famous “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech, in which he incites the crowd before him to go after the assassins of Julius Caesar in the Shakespeare play by the same name. It is so relevant even today. I cannot say what good qualities famous men have had, but in India, for example, many people still blame Nehru for agreeing to the 1947 partition decades after his death, and Indira Gandhi is remembered for the Emergency. No matter what good they may have done, it has been “interred with their bones”. These are timeless sayings, but the style with which he wrote them is compelling.

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Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like a snail
Unwillingly to school.

Does this sound familiar? It was the second of the seven stages of a man’s life as described in a monologue by Jaques in “As you Like it”. But if you read the lines above, the imagery in them is so vivid and reflective of what we know today. A schoolboy, freshly scrubbed clean, with his school bag, going reluctantly to school. In that this was written over 400 years ago, it is remarkable that he has captured the imagery so beautifully. The others in the seven stages are also so apt. The infant, mewling and puking, the schoolboy as above, the lover sighing like a furnace, then the soldier seeking the bubble reputation even in the cannon’s mouth, then the justice (judge) with eyes severe and beard of formal cut, but with fair round belly, then into the lean and slippered pantaloon, his big manly voice turning again towards childish treble, and finally the seventh stage is described as second childishness and mere oblivion, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

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Perhaps I am myself a relic of a past that cannot be re-created. But Shakespeare, much like Tennyson, moved me like nothing else has. The power of his writing has moved millions of scholars, and created myriad interpretations, some fanciful, some more grounded, but all guesswork. Would Shakespeare be alive today, I would have had a book full of questions to ask him.

Friends have suggested that I hold Shakespeare appreciation lessons at Zabaan. I think this task may be too tall for me. I have not read all of his 36 (I thought it was 37 actually) plays. But I would be happy to share my passion for Shakespeare for sure.

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