Tech Shakespeare: When English literature meets engineering

A teacher of English literature and a classroom of budding engineers are forced to get into a nodding acquaintance through the bard’s works.

Published : May 18, 2023 11:00 IST - 7 MINS READ

It was April in Guwahati, a month of cruel heat and sudden thunderstorms. Caught in a spring shower on the way back to my quarters inside the campus of IIT, I sprinted to the nearest shelter and found myself crammed in a tight space with several others.

I teach literature at IIT Guwahati, and the beautiful sprawling campus has been my home for the past seven years. As I stared at the hypnotic rain dissolving the well-ordered Conference Centre into flickering black and gold pixels, a voice beside me said: “Hi ma’am! I wonder if I could talk to you.”

A student in my BTech class—one of the poor souls forced to get into nodding acquaintance with a bit of humanities and social sciences in preparation for a professional career in which his most deployed skill would probably be Microsoft Excel-wrangling—was regarding me with half-hope and half-trepidation.

We had just started reading Macbeth in the “elective” course, and I expected some question regarding course logistics. But he surprised me by saying that he was really interested in drama and wanted to know more about Shakespeare: would I help him make sense of Hamlet, please, so he could perform that soliloquy, you know? I knew. And grew secretly ecstatic. This chance encounter on a blustery April evening led to the formation of the informal book club that would take two years to finish reading Hamlet, word-by-Arden-edition-word, with footnotes on top. It would also lead to long conversations late into the night at the library coffee shop with a group of very bright, curious, and critically engaged minds that left me with a keener understanding of the world. I suppose there is something to be said about residential campuses.

As the world celebrates nearly 460 years of living with Shakespeare, I do not wish to establish his “greatness” again. It is pointless to even try this when someone’s presence as a historical figure is so slim, and I cannot confess myself a member of any Great Men cults. Relevance is perhaps a better approach since it does not alienate.

Here I talk only of some of the ways in which I see the relevance of my entanglements with the authorial signature, William Shakespeare, and of how it has shaped my awareness of these budding engineers whose sensitivity towards the artistic and the beautiful I am entrusted to nurture.

Arts clubs

Not every young engineer, who is expected to be hard-headed and pragmatic by default, thinks literature is relevant, but we do not expect universal consensus in such matters anyway. Young people, even would-be engineers, regardless of the renunciations they undergo to crack the JEE, do possess a strong affinity for the creative and are deeply susceptible to their emotions.

The arts clubs in my institution, and I understand in all technological institutes, are thriving places, and it is no small privilege that I need not justify to anyone my choice of prescribing Shakespeare instead of, say, report-writing in English.

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Asked whether they wish to read Shakespeare, the students in my BTech electives invariably respond with a resounding “Yes!” but their interest is due to a variety of reasons. Many are indifferent (“I suppose he is great but I cannot spare the time to do it on my own”); some are curious (“I know he is great and I would like to know more”); and a handful are well informed but confused about how to process the data they have accessed on the Internet.

Hamlet and that soliloquy are popular, thanks to Internet memes, and my students empathise with its hero’s existential dilemmas. They instinctively think of Hamlet as a peer, and are taken aback by the suggestion that he could be 30 years old. I am always struck by the indulgent exasperation that the Prince of Denmark receives from my students, one perspicacious soul going so far as to exclaim: “This guy, he does so many things he does not talk about and only talks about the one thing he does not do!”

  • Shakespeare is popular even among future techies.
  • My students in IIT Guwahati, who study literature and social sciences as part of their elective course, instinctively think of Hamlet as a peer.
  • Hamlet and that soliloquy are popular, thanks to Internet memes, and my students empathise with its hero’s existential dilemmas.
  • The question about the relevance of Shakespeare is tied to the larger question in Literary Studies and the Humanities of value.

Exeunt left

The only initial deterrent to Shakespeare is the language. But even without the advantage of cultural and linguistic familiarity, or the luxury of slow unpacking, Shakespeare does seem to work, especially when the plays are heard or the poems read out aloud. Very recently, a group of students, with vast diversity in English competence, broke into spontaneous cheers and whistles when Claudius received his comeuppance during a screening of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2016 film Hamlet.

And whatever their background or level of engagement with the “idea of Shakespeare”, my students do a truly remarkable job of enacting scenes from the tragedies as class assignments. I have witnessed impressive DIY props and costumes (including a memorable cauldron complete with smoke), impeccable memorisation, and whimsical appropriations inspired largely by Anurag Kashyap.

Value added

The question about the relevance of Shakespeare, however, is tied to the larger question in Literary Studies and the Humanities of value. Perhaps this is inevitable in a global culture that is increasingly distrustful of the act of evaluation. It is often asked how an “indulgence” called literary criticism could possibly help create a more equal and just society. The debate is ongoing, and the “cause” of literary criticism is not helped by those in the profession not free of such misgivings themselves.

Interdisciplinarity is often offered as an answer, but literary critics are as often at a loss when defining their own discipline. Summarising John Guillory’s observations in Professing Criticism: Essays on the Organisation of Literary Study (Chicago, 2022), in the London Review of Books (Vol. 44, No. 23, Dec. 1, 2022), the literary critic Stefan Collini noted how, for Guillory, professors of English in the US think of their jobs as “at bottom, a kind of political activism […] it means treating one’s teaching and writing about Marlowe and Austen as a form of radical politics itself”.

“Recently, a group of students broke into cheers and whistles when Claudius got his comeuppance during a screening of Hamlet.”

The scenario is not very different in India. What, it has been asked, is the point of telling a young person from a remote village in India about a daffodil? That at least some of these children will go on to become botanists makes for delicious (and dare we say Shakespearean?) irony.

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The debate around value may not have a straightforward resolution, but one thing at least can be claimed for the continued reading and teaching of Shakespeare. To quote Collini again: “One of the most important functions of an education in a humanities subject is to introduce students to worlds different from the one they think they know, and chronological and cultural distance are among the most important forms of such difference.”

Young people, engineers or not, are often instinctively wiser than us. They watch or read science fiction and fantasy, allowing distant and alien worlds to work in them the joy of comprehension. It cannot be useless, then, to lend a hand in this quest for understanding of the world and their place in it, to show eager minds how to discern the familiar in the unfamiliar and the general in the particular. In that case, William Shakespeare is indeed a great place to begin.

Debapriya Basu is Assistant Professor, English, at IIT Guwahati.

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