In a beautiful section midway through Anjum Hasan’s novel Lunatic In My Head (Penguin/Zubaan, 2007) – in my estimation one of the best scenes in the history of the Indian novel – we see the middle-aged college lecturer in English literature Firdaus Ansari, one of Hasan’s three protagonists in the book, going to class in Shillong to teach William Shakespeare’s As You Like It to her students.
Firdaus, we know by this point, is still a spinster, lives with her grandfather, feels herself slightly over the hill, has a much younger Manipuri boyfriend called Ibomcha, is still a virgin and slightly squeamish about sex, and has been struggling for several years to complete her M.Phil on marriage in the novels of Jane Austen. She feels profoundly alienated from her life circumstances: at the beginning of the chapter we find her looking at herself in the mirror and thinking that “There was no connection between her and her image; if she got up and walked away, this woman whose eyes were boring into hers would remain.”
Firdaus is not looking forward to teaching As You Like It to a bunch of uncomprehending and disinterested students. And, even though she has some ancient notes on the play, handed down from teacher to teacher over the years, she trembles before the immense authority of Shakespeare, the demands he makes on those who serve as mediators and interpreters for him. The double-edged words of Jacques the fool, we are told, “could still jangle Firdaus’s nerves”.
We see Firdaus begin to read out a passage from the play to her class “of whispering backbenchers, cautiously gum-chewing middle-benchers, and girls with looks of blank sincerity up front”:
No one responds, so:
“He that a fool doth very wisely hit, Doth very foolishly, although he smart, Not to seem senseless of the bob: if not, The wise man’s folly is anatomised, Even by the squandering glances of the fool,” she read out [...].
She began to haltingly explain Jacques’ twisted lines. “The idea here, girls, is that Jaques feels that by being a fool, being given the charter, the freedom to be foolish, is liberating. Why is it liberating?...Any ideas?”
Firdaus read out impatiently from her fading notes. “Jacques says to Duke Senior that his only suit or requirement is that he be allowed to wear a motley coat, one that will signal to the world that he is a fool. In addition, that is withal, he must have freedom as large as the wind to quote blow on whom I please unquote, that is, direct his foolish wit or witty folly towards whomever he chooses. Those who are most provoked by his folly, Jacques goes on to say, are those who must laugh the hardest. Why is this so...? That’s what I was asking you,” she broke off to say, “...if you have any clue about this, but you obviously don’t. Anyway...why is this so?” She continued reading. “Jacques explains that this should be obvious to people, as obvious to them as the way to the church is. The fact is that the person who hits a fool, which can be taken to mean hit not in a literal sense, but figuratively, that is he who criticises or berates a fool, might appear smart but is actually very foolish. [...] For if he criticises a fool he exposes himself. He exposes himself and his folly is laid bare within brackets anatomised. Even the squandering glances, that is, the casual fun that a fool might poke at a man...”It is by any standard an incoherent, fumbling explanation: there is much dross amidst scraps of sense. But just as Jacques’s chatter is wise foolishness, so Hasan’s portrayal of her protagonist is one of clarity routed through incoherence. By not punctuating Firdaus’s talk as Firdaus herself directs it (“...quote blow on whom I please unquote”, “...which can be taken to mean hit not in a literal sense, but figuratively”), Hasan gives us a sense of how Firdaus’s students are hearing her lecture, and how puzzling it must seem to them.
And by showing how Firdaus, while feeling frustration at the sluggishness of her students, is herself not willing to walk with Shakespeare without the crutch of her notes, Hasan has the courage and the confidence to present us with a fairly damning indictment of her protagonist, whose reproaches to her students mask the fact that she, too, is – to borrow a phrase from Othello – “perplex’d in the extreme. The most meaningful words in Hasan’s passage are not those that make some sense of what Jacques is saying, but precisely the most superfluous ones: phrases like “In addition, that is withal” and “within brackets anatomised”, which show that Firdaus is actually on the same side of the fence as her students. It is a genuinely novelistic passage, teeming with crisscrossing meanings: as a result of the author’s artful layering, the words point out towards Shakespeare and back towards Firdaus at the same time, and we understand not just the place of the fool in Shakespearean comedy but the feelings of inadequacy felt by Firdaus.
Firdaus knows that her students must grapple with Shakespeare “simply because he was standing in the way, he was unavoidable”. She is quite right: in the castle of English literature, the biggest suite of rooms belongs to Shakespeare. But why? For what reason? Firdaus’s reverence for Shakespeare, and the incongruity of this fairly representative classroom scene narrated by Hasan, help crystallise a peculiarly Indian attitude towards Shakespeare, which is to see him as the gold standard of sophisticated “high” English, as a dealer in proverbs and precepts, and, finally, as some kind of transcendent genius, a god who never put a foot wrong. Shakespeare is standing in the way, and we bow before him: we have not broken free of a colonized relationship with him.
Even when we do not comprehend Shakespeare, or faintly comprehend him, we are sure that he was great: the very fact that we do not understand what he is saying proves it, and just to say his name is to bask in reflected glory. Shakespeare is supposed to be good for us, as green vegetables are. I remember how, in school, my seventh standard textbook had a passage from Hamlet which excerpted Polonius’s immensely tedious words of advice to his departing son Laertes. The councillors of education who chose it presumably thought that it was an edifying passage that would be good for students, and by presenting Polonius’s speech out of context, chose to totally ignore the fact that we are at some point supposed to laugh at Polonius’s longwindedness. The dramatic situation counts for nothing; the highflown words for everything.
This Bardolatry, perversely, has the effect of diminishing our enjoyment and appreciation of Shakespeare, because it defines, a priori, the terms of our engagement with him, instead of giving us the chance to apply our all faculties on Shakespeare’s enormously knotty and complicated language in an open field, as it were. Shakespeare’s language is certainly extraordinary, but what is extraordinary about it is that it is not necessarily “good”, or grammatically correct, or coherent in its syntax: it is a language of both beauty and craziness, of thrilling energy but also grinding stasis.
Indeed, I have on occasion heard some grizzled Indian Shakespeareans declare that they cannot bear to read anything but Shakespeare (there used to be a figure like this in many English departments in India, and their eclipse is in its own way rather sad, because in many cases they have been replaced by figures who, waving the flags of new critical theories, are convinced that Shakespeare’s reputation is a conspiracy of British imperialism, or that he represents not artistic genius but a coalescence and personification of the social and ideological energies of his time) – they cannot bear to read anything but Shakespeare because the language of “modern literature”, with its slang and its cuss words, seems debased by comparision. But actually Shakespeare himself is full of curses, scurrility, ribaldry, and slang, now given a patina of respectability by the passage of four centuries.
Shakespeare (but not the Indian Shakespeare) is as rude as anybody in the canon, for the exigencies of his dramatic and intensely practical art, which thrived or withered according to gate receipts, required that he write for groundlings as much as sophisticates. A line like “Now is he total gules” (Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2, meaning “now he is totally red with blood”) sits uneasily with our view of Shakespeare as representative of high culture: it could belong just as easily to a rap song.
In fact, it is imperative that we read Shakespeare without rose-tinted glasses, and note (alongside his wondrous density and compression of sense; his startling nominalizations and verbalizations, compound words and neologisms; the knotty texture of his thought; the marvellous and supple rhythms of his lines) his often gratuitous wordplay, his shambling and over-long metaphors, his immense sententiousness, and his tendency to say in ten lines what he might have done in two. As Frank Kermode writes in an essay called “Writing About Shakespeare”, “There is a way of treating Shakespeare...as a very good but sometimes not so good poet, as sometimes but not always clearly a writer of genius – as always, indeed, a writer and to be considered as such.”
Just as Firdaus is all the more sympathetic for her weakness, so too the richest Shakespeare, the most intriguing Shakespeare, is one whom we discern as being both grand and grandiloquent, both untouchable and fallible, a wizard with words whose trade also forced him into hackwork, and whom we might imagine sitting in his room after a long day at the playhouse, sometimes short of inspiration, and saying to himself, like Richard II, “I cannot do it; yet I’ll hammer it out”.
At the close of that passage in Lunatic In My Head, we see Firdaus back home after an eventful day. Once again the ghost of Shakespeare insinuates itself into her consciousness, stands in the way:
In bed at night, listening to her grandfather coughing his chronic cough, Firdaus, still in complete possession of her new-found clarity, realised – with the shock one might feel when an old ache suddenly vanishes – that all self-confidence was connected to language. If she could clearly articulate what she felt, if she could find the right words, if she could speak them forcefully into the world, she would be able to make an impress on reality. [...]“Invest me in my motley; give me leave to speak my mind, and I will through and through cleanse the foul body of the infected world” – these ringing words might be read as Shakespeare’s coded appeal to his audience, and indeed as the imprecation of every writer to his or her imagined reader.
She felt calm and drowsy. Her nose hurt less now. At the very border of sleep, Jacques’ lines came back to her: ‘Invest me in my motley; give me leave to speak my mind, and I will through and through cleanse the foul body of the infected world’, and she knew that in some roundabout way he was speaking about the power of language too, about the power of the tongue, its wit and cunning, its ability to make men reveal their deepest selves.
And here are links to some essays on Shakespeare which I have enjoyed most over the years. Some of these provide an perspective, from a point of view roughly corresponding to my own though infinitely more subtle, on the main currents in Shakespeare criticism in the last twenty-five years; others directly address questions of language and performance:
“The Case for Bardolatry” by William Kerrigan – one of the most thrilling essays I’ve read in a decade of reading Shakespeare criticism (“Bloom’s literary constructionism is no less extravagant–and no more subject to proof–than the New Historicists’ social constructionism. It is probably wise not to enter into the ultimately empty arguments supporting these two contrasting claims. They can instead be regarded as antagonistic Weltanschauungs of late-twentieth-century literary intellectuals–a particularly clear instance of the ongoing battle between those inclined to see literature largely in terms of society or politics and those inclined to see society or politics largely in terms of literature”);
“The One and Only” by the great Shakespeare scholar Anne Barton, with whom I had the good fortune of studying (“Most biographies, John Updike has observed, ‘are really just novels with indexes.’ That seems especially true with lives of Shakespeare.”);
“Blueprints for Performance” by the theatre director Richard Eyre (“He chose to write in a form in which narrative and character are revealed in words and actions rather than description, and which uses time, space, gesture, movement, speech, colour, costume, light and music, and aims to be truthful while always being unreal. It thrives on metaphor: a room becomes a world, a group of characters a whole society”);
“A Man For All Ages” by Jonathan Bate, co-editor of the recently released Complete Works based on the First Folio and author of the brilliant book The Genius of Shakespeare (“Shakespeare's enduring appeal cannot, however, be said to rest solely on his linguistic virtuosity, nor on the proposition – favoured by some of today's politically minded critics – that he achieved world domination simply because of the power of the British empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. At one level, he is ‘not of an age, but for all time’. He works with archetypal characters, core plots and perennial conflicts, as he dramatises the competing demands of the living and the dead, the old and the young, men and women, self and society, integrity and role-play, insiders and outsiders. He grasps the structural conflicts shared by all societies: religious against secular vision, country against city, birth against education, strong leadership against the people's voice, the code of honour against the energies of erotic desire”);
“Stages of Thought” by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum (“To write philosophically about Shakespeare, or any other great author or artist, one needs not so much philosophical learning, or even philosophical argument, but a genuinely philosophical temperament, puzzled and even humble before life's complexities, and willing to put one's sense of life on the line in the process of reading a text. As Plato rightly said, it is no chance matter that we are discussing, but how one should live. The philosopher needs to turn to literature because literature gets at depths of human experience, tragic or comic, that philosophical prose does not reach; but then the philosopher will need to show the imprint of that complexity, to reveal something of the pain or the joy that the work evokes from his or her own character”);
The first chapter from Shakespeare's Language by Frank Kermode, and an excerpt from Kermode's The Age of Shakespeare (“The commercial development of [Elizabethan] drama was one more sign that the world as regulated by liturgy was being supplanted by a world more concerned with capital and labor – a world in which time itself had a different quality”)
“Whose Bard?” by Thomas Jeffers (“And the Russians? Alexander Pushkin, Ivan Turgenev, and Fyodor Dostoevsky had some wise, and Leo Tolstoy some foolish, things to say about Shakespeare, but the one who did the most for him—translating the plays, prompting their production, and recreating the Elizabethan world—was Boris Pasternak. Gross gives him four entries, including this about the atmosphere of Romeo and Juliet, well caught in Franco Zeffirelli’s film version (1968): ‘Outside the windows ring the daggers of the quarreling clans, the blood of Capulets and Montagues streams in the streets, while in the kitchens, cooks’ knives clatter and scullions squabble over the endless dinners. And under the hubbub of cooking and carnage, as under the thumping beat of a noisy band, the tragedy of hushed feelings is played out in silent, conspiratorial whispers.’”);
“Translating Shakespeare”, an interview with the French poet Yves Bonnefoy (“The stage offered Shakespeare all the possibilities of the spoken word, characters in whose speech the stereotypical thinking of a society, its sexism for instance, would flourish and abound, but in which more lucid intuitions and even remarks of a subversive nature could also be heard, giving the author a chance to deepen his relation to life, to death, and to aspects of existence that are authentically real. And all along, through the fiction that structures the plays, there are situations, events, and figures that can be presented in such a way as to reflect symbolically or emblematically the playwright's thinking about poetry and poetics”);
An excerpt from Playing Shakespeare, an invaluable handbook of advice for actors by the legendary director of Shakespeare plays John Barton ("I may be cynical but I don't believe most people really listen to Shakespeare in the theater unless the actors make them do so. I certainly don't. I know that it's too easy for me to get the general gist and feeling of a speech, but just because I get the gist I often don't listen to the lines in detail. Not unless the actors make me. What I want to explore are the ways in which they can achieve that.");
“The Kingmakers” by the British director and actor Michael Pennington, on the great Shakespearean actors Lawrence Olivier and John Gielgud (“Olivier had a gift for play – for believing that he could become anything he wanted - and an ability to spring any number of physical surprises. In comparison, John Gielgud, who transformed himself brilliantly elsewhere, in Pinter and Chekhov particularly, played Shakespeare as if in unending rapturous tribute, the language harrowing him like fire”);
“The Shakespeared Brain”, a marvellous essay by Philip Davis, author of the recently published and widely praised book Shakespeare Thinking (“In particular I mentioned to him the linguistic phenomenon in Shakespeare which is known as ‘functional shift’ or ‘word class conversion’. It refers to the way that Shakespeare will often use one part of speech – a noun or an adjective, say—to serve as another, often a verb, shifting its grammatical nature with minimal alteration to its shape. Thus in Lear for example, Edgar comparing himself to the king: "He childed as I fathered" (nouns shifted to verbs); in Troilus and Cressida, ‘Kingdomed Achilles in commotion rages’ (noun converted to adjective); Othello, ‘To lip a wanton in a secure couch/And to suppose her chaste!’ (noun ‘lip’ to verb; adjective ‘wanton’ to noun). The effect is often electric I think, like a lightning-flash in the mind: for this is an economically compressed form of speech.... Could we make an experiment out of it?”)
“Reviving Ann Hathaway” by Eric Ormsby (“There remains the matter of the notorious ‘second-best bed’ which Shakespeare left to Ann in his will. This bequest seems grudging at best, contemptuous at worst. But as Ms. Greer notes, a bed represented a substantial legacy at the time: A modest bed had the same value as a cow, a sumptuous bed was worth as much as a cottage. Furthermore, Shakespeare doesn’t seem to have been lavish in the other provisions of his will; even his more substantial bequest to his daughter Judith is hedged about with niggling restrictions. ‘The most eloquent Englishman who ever lived,’ as Ms. Greer rightly describes him, seems to have been something of a Scrooge at the end. But to read contempt into his bequest to Ann of the ‘second-best bed’ (the best was reserved for guests) may be unwarranted. It could have been a legacy of affection as well, the coded bequest which only a loving wife would understand, the solid symbol of a lasting bond”);
“The death of Kings”, a symposium of Shakespeare actors, directors and scholars each listig his or her favourite play from the histories (Simon Schama: “ Henry IV, Part II is better called a memory play than a history; it is the most lyrical Shakespeare ever wrote. And it needs the most delicate touch in its direction and acting to draw out the autumnal pathos. The most heartbreakingly vivid scenes come from the mouths of the old as they spirit themselves back beyond the ache of their brittle bones to the lusty lads and lasses they still feel themselves to be. Whatever else ails them, their memories are as bright as gems”);
“100+ of the best books on Shakespeare”, again by Jonathan Bate (with selections like“Richard A. Lanham, The Motives of Eloquence: Literary Rhetoric in the Renaissance (1976) – dazzling study of Renaissance rhetorical formations of the self, which deserves to be, but is not, as well known as the work of Greenblatt and others” and “Peter Hall, Hamlet's Advice to the Players (2003) – prescriptions of the RSC founder and self-confessed ‘iambic fundamentalist’”);
“Can You Stage A War? What Shakespeare Knew” by the theatre critic John Heilpern (“There’s one thing –and one thing alone – that Shakespeare couldn’t do. He couldn’t show wars onstage.... Far from telling us how battle scenes should be staged, Shakespeare takes great care to instruct us not to stage them. The prologue to Henry V is an inspired, ironic apology: ‘O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention! / A kingdom for a stage, princes to act / And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!’”);
And finally, “Everything and Nothing”, a captivating little fable by Jorge Luis Borges (“The story goes that, before or after he died, he found himself before God and he said: ‘I, who have been so many men in vain, want to be one man: myself.’ The voice of God replied from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I one self; I dreamed the world as you dreamed your work, my Shakespeare, and among the shapes of my dream are you, who, like me, are many persons—and none.’”)