Shakespeare : Why should we study his plays?

Sunday, March 30, 2008

I am not a jealous individual. I do not cry all day coveting my neighbour's girlfriend, or your recently-developed brains.

I have reconciled to the fact that some people are fortunate and others are not. And anyone who fights this fundamental truth is on a path that leads to madness and communism.

So, this emotion (of jealousy) can in no way be used to justify my forthcoming tirade against the man who is regarded as the greatest playwright to have ever lived on this planet( I've achieved nothing in my life, so you can't call me jealous). I'd rather say it is due to the frustration and the hopelessness at having had to study, decipher and deconstruct for the better part of the last four years two of his celebrated plays ( OK, all his plays are masterpieces, the almost (well, entirely)work of an exalted set of grey cells) - Julius Caesar and, more recently, Macbeth.

First up, I solemnly proclaim that the experience of studying Shakespeare's plays is about as inviting as a broken whisky bottle being swung at your face.

The master playwright once wrote:

"Not marble nor guilded monuments
Of Princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme."

How true have these words proved! His plays have been hailed as the finest ever, and are taught as well as performed all over the world.

I've read 'Romeo and Juliet', 'Othello' and 'The Tempest' in order to find out (despite the obvious limitations of my bird-sized brain) just why this has been the case...

I came back more disgruntled than elevated. So, here's my verdict:

I well and truly detest Shakespeare's plays, and couldn't bring myself to read any more of his works.

Go on, call me a nitwit without any class, lacking in the ability to appreciate wine of the finest vintage, but I've got certain small arguments to augment the already improbable-seeming stand that I’ve taken.

I will not, however, hide my immense admiration for the kind of man Shakespeare was. To be able to write utterly fantastic, improbable and incongruous nonsense, to make the whole world appreciate it and make it recognize him as the undisputed emperor of the theatre is no mean feat.

I may not like your literary output, Mr. Shakespeare, but I defend to death your right to write it.

The people who sing Shakespeare's praises (that includes everyone except yours truly) say:

"No poet, ancient or modern - not Aeschylus, not Kalidas, not Ibsen, not even the clamorous Bernard Shaw - can challenge Shakespeare as a dramatist, in his marvellous intuitions into the human mind in the variety of its reactions"

They also speak about his gift of poetic imagination. Coleridge called imagination the 'esemplastic' power - the power which unites and moulds the discordant elements into forms and shapes.

Oh really? I think that Shakespeare's plays are an enormous, contused mass of balderdash in which some truly magnificent scenes shine through in various places.

I think the construction of Shakespeare's plays is faulty. So is his method of characterization. The characters are given new dimensions to suit the next scene which he'd already visualized. The point I am trying to make is that the character of the characters(pun not intended), as well as the characters themselves, do not influence the way the play proceeds, rather, it is the next course the play shall take that brings about the change in the mental make-up of the character's character(again, pun not intended).

I shall not even start speaking about the way in which he's distorted history to suit the needs of his plays. Well, that liberty can be taken, for many seemingly improbable things keep happening in his plays. But he mixes up events and scenes in many places, fails to correlate parallel lines of action, and leaves unbridged gaps between different parts of his plays. All these 'faults' do not perturb his admirers - for they just gloss over them, telling us that all this is the unfathomable secret of genius.

That secret, boys and girls, is simply and solely his lack of artistry.

Our books (ICSE and ISC) say that reading Shakespeare’s plays enables us to cope with our sufferings in a better way. How, in the name of all the Gods at once, are the events of our lives comparable to that faced by Shakespeare’s characters? The probability of similar things happening to us is just about the same as that of me winning a Formula 1 championship, or you becoming the next Bollywood superstar.

His admirers say that few others knew better than he how to construct a play. As a matter-of-fact, few dramatists knew less.

I don’t, for a nanosecond, mean to say that the most well-constructed plays are the best. Who would prefer GB Shaw to Shakespeare? What I’m trying to say is that his plays lack coherence, the pace is hurried at some times, and then lax in others, there are more deviations in them than the old Nurburgring racetrack, and some scenes are unduly long-drawn, with several breaks in action.

Shakespeare always tried to write opening scenes that grab the reader’s attention by the scruff of its neck. The only problem with these scenes is that they are totally unrelated to the rest of the play. We can take a look at the opening scene of ‘The Tempest’, where there is deafening thunder and a horrifying shipwreck, but ultimately all this explains nothing.

The gay (this means LIVELY) Mercutio in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ only cracks unnecessary, complicated jokes, which seem like anything but impromptus. All the character does is irritate us, without contributing in any way towards the action of the play. We are almost grateful when this lunatic is murdered at the beginning of the third act.

Shakespeare has given us really living portraits. So he is someone who is a better painter than a person who really understands the human psyche. He creates creatures of impulse who yield instantly to passion, without a second thought, forsaking all rationality. The same Macbeth who was such a brave warrior and a noble general ultimately becomes a total monomaniac who, despite imagining the consequences of his heinous crimes, goes on to commit them! Another case in point is Othello. He is a simpleton who yields to fury. Of course, you will tell me that Iago was the one who provokes him. I will tell you that even a child would see through the ruses suggested to Othello by this ‘diabolical genius’. Othello was a total idiot. Romeo, well, Romeo is one who is capable of only loving. He surrenders to his passions without ever trying to be conscious of his actions. He symbolizes amorous ardor and intoxication, with little, rather no sensibility. You may not agree with me, but surely you can se that this is a reasonable argument.

However, I shall not ignore the utter genius of this Bard from Avon (I have neither the right, nor the credibility to do so). He was a great poet, capable of creating scenes which no one else could even visualize. The enormous success of his plays bears testimony to this fact. The only problem is that he, more often than not, he’s been incapable of harnessing his imagination. He lets it run wild, and it is because of this that his incoherence, exaggerations, bombast, nonsense and the OTT(Over-The-Top) nature of his work comes to the fore. Still, we are absolutely dazzled and spellbound when we see that despite disdaining reason and truth, he keeps his fiery spirit intact, and gives expression to his extraordinary imagination.

Shakespeare’s plays, in my opinion, should never be taught, but only performed on stage, for this gives true expression to the abortive genius of the Bard. We students should see the plays unfold before our eyes, rather than spend unnecessary time mugging them up and blindly following guide-books. Or our teachers.

Of course you disagree with me. Of course you are thinking I deserve to rot in the Arkham Asylum for the rest of my days.

The thing is, you are absolutely right.


George said...

that's great dear......... truely knocked the wind out of me.... perhaps u should send this to the editorial columns of the TOI.......... atlast we have found someone who could give voice to our feelings......

Anonymous said...

I am tongue tied..
I have not read any shakespeare plays as yet and after this article I won't even dare to!!
Good going mr Raunaq Sahu.