Dr. Sudin Daniel, Keighley
About 452 years ago, Stratford upon Avon in Warwickshire witnessed the birth of the man who would within 50 years of his life, etch his name in history as one of the greatest poets and playwrights in English. Born on the 26th of April 1564, William Shakespeare had a modest primary education but even before the age of 30, became a known figure in the theatres in London both as a playwright and as an actor. He was a member of the acting group called as “Lord Chamberlain’s men”.
At the age of 18, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway who was 8 years older and had three children, Suzanna, Hamnet and Judith. During his career, he authored 154 sonnets, 38 plays and two narrative poems. His literary genius did not escape the eye of the sceptics like Robert Greene who once referred to him as an “Upstart Crow”, as, clearly this man from a modest background was creating an upheaval in the literary world studded with likes of Thomas Nash and Greene himself.
As an Indian, born and bred in Kerala, I like most of you had the opportunity to read the works of Shakespeare right from early school years, thanks to the introduction of a proper education system in India by the British. The names of Shakespeare, Kelly, Byron and Wordsworth are all engraved in our memory from school years but strikingly Shakespeare’s plays have left a lasting impression in my mind.
“Friends, Romans and Countrymen lend me your ears, I come to bury Caesar not to praise him, …” the speech by Mark Antony on the pulpit in Rome, as he stands there beside Caesar’s body riddled with stab wounds inflicted by his conspirators, still makes the hair on my hands stand up. In the play “Julius Caesar”, he goes on to say that the people of those times in Rome were stirred more by “emotions than by reason”, an observation made by Shakespeare, telling us about the amount of research he might have done for writing that play. He touched upon the lives of the poor and the rich, the valorous and the timid, the upright and the crooked and all the virtues and vices of human nature. His themes were common enough for anyone to grasp, even for us who were thousands of miles away, yet it could be exotic. Poverty, ignorance, lust, treachery, greed, guilt and violence were subtly yet strikingly woven into his tragedies, whilst at the same time love, honesty, trustworthiness, courage, valour and romance were easy to find. These common themes could easily strike a chord with any audience anywhere in the world.
Shakespeare had the ability to dwell into the emotions of his characters and vividly describe them using a language that was simple to understand, yet poetic and thought provoking. It could sometimes be read as pessimistic, but plausible. For example, In Macbeth he described life as
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,
Try and contrast that with the romantic poetry from Romeo and Juliet, which reads
“See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand!
O that I were a glove upon that hand,
that I might touch that cheek!”
Who could resist the sensuality in the above lines?
Brought up in modest surroundings, Shakespeare had a balanced view about life and maintained that view, later in life as well, even as a rich and successful playwright. The lines from “As you like it” about the seven stages of man is hilarious yet touching.
“At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel,
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel….,
anyone, anywhere, and anytime could relate to the above words within their lives; such was the reach of William Shakespeare. Yes, I could go on and on talking about this literary genius, but for the want of space and time.
Shakespeare died at the age of 52, on the 23rd of April 1616. Often hailed as the “Bard of Avon” and the National Poet of England, he certainly lives up to the description quite aptly given by noted English playwright Ben Johnson “not of an age, but for all time”.