Shakespeare today

On the relevance of his plays to the modern world.

Published : Jun 07, 2017 12:30 IST



SHAKESPEARE'S plays are universal and timeless because they are the essence of human life in poetry. Each age, points out Dr K. Chellappan, a retired professor of English in The World as a Stage: Shakespearean Transformations, “rediscovered Shakespeare in its own image and in that process rediscovered itself”. The book, written in commemoration of the 400th death anniversary of William Shakespeare, has two sections.

In the first section, the author concentrates on some of Shakespeare’s comedies, tragedies and historical plays, although the main focus is on the theme of power and the world as a theatre or life as drama/dream. The second section, consisting of six chapters, is devoted entirely to translations, transformations and comparisons with Indian epics, classical Sanskrit dramas and T.S. Eliot.

The introductory piece establishes Shakespeare as our contemporary by highlighting some of the concepts in the plays that are relevant to the modern world. Citing from the plays, the author shows how Shakespeare provides answers to questions that plague the world today. Starting with women’s search for identity, Chellappan goes on to discuss political idealism, the question of life and death, power and its limitations, leadership qualities and even communicative and management skills that can be learnt from Shakespeare’s plays.

Shakespeare is modern and contemporary in the sense that his heroines in the early comedies break free from social restraints and limitations of their sex and discover their true identity and prove that gender is not a natural but a cultural phenomenon. What happens in Julius Caesar is what is happening in many countries today—conflict between abstract principles and human relationships. In Julius Caesar, one meets a Gandhian Shakespeare for whom “means is as important as the end”. Hamlet is Shakespeare’s Bhagavad Gita, which teaches how to act in a morally corrupt world. While The Merchant of Venice gives lessons on risk management, Hamlet teaches crisis management. Iago is a successful communicator, but Desdemona and Cordelia are ineffective in their communication. King Lear is an example of an overconfident leader erring in his judgement; Henry V is an ideal leader and Prospero (in The Tempest) is one who knows the limits and limitations of power.

In the chapter titled “Dream, Drama and Reality in A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, the author discusses how Shakespeare explores the relationship between dream, drama and reality to reveal that life is an illusion with a deeper reality. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bottom and Puck, Oberon and Titania, Demetrius and Lysander change their identities and play roles collapsing the boundaries between play and reality, making us aware of the thin line that divides reality and drama.

In the chapter titled “Disguise and Unsexing as Search for Power in a few Plays of Shakespeare”, the author demonstrates how the playwright’s use of two different devices—“disguise” in comedies and “unsexing and reversal of sexual roles” in tragedies—to represent women’s craving for power or self-completion marks the subtle differences in the nature of power women come to possess or not possess over the men in their lives. (Rosalind, Viola and Portia are positive and aggressive but the freedom and power obtained over men through their disguise is temporary. The women in the tragedies are negative and either totally aggressive or helpless, but in both the cases they do not complement the men; they wish to be transformed into man in a crisis.)

In “Meta Drama in Henry IV Part I”, the author takes up the theme of reality versus illusion/role playing. He states that though there is “a play within a play” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet and Macbeth, “the ‘play’ theme and imagery are pivotal to Henry IV Part I where role-playing is almost a structural principle”. Using the substitution theme and Prince Hal, Hotspur and Falstaff, who resort to counterfeiting or role-playing, Shakespeare raises the fundamental question “what is real and what is unreal”?

In the chapter “Disguise in Words and Deeds: A Comparison of Hamlet and Macbeth”, the author emphasises that “when money or evil… takes the place of the human bond, words lose their symbolic and communicative power.” Language becomes a “mask” to conceal “reality”. Many similarities and differences are seen in Hamlet and Macbeth, especially in their language and action, but the one main difference between the two is Hamlet finally finds his real identity through role-playing and imparts reality to words, whereas Macbeth gradually distances himself from his real identity and language becomes counterfeit.

In “The World as Theatre in King Lear and The Tempest”, the writer takes up Shakespeare’s favourite subject of illusion and reality and demonstrates how King Lear “combines the power with the illusion of theatre, and the world as theatre merges with theatre as world”. He takes us through the successive events that reveal to Lear, who initially dismissed reality as illusion and accepted illusion as reality, that love is the only reality in the world of illusion. In The Tempest, Prospero, using his power of magic, enacts a drama—“a reversal of what happened to him in the mainland”—in the island which is a world of dream, a world of illusions that finally disappears.

In Tamil translation

Section two begins with “Shakespeare in Tamil” and chronicles the translators and their works, and informs the reader how the translations vary depending on the attitude of the translator. Early translators held Shakespeare in great awe and never attempted to localise his plays. But, translators such as T.R. Salachalosana Chettiar, Pammal Sambanda Mudaliyar and Dr Sachidananthan did not hesitate to introduce changes to suit their needs and culture. A desire to illustrate the Tamil theory of meyppadu as expounded by Tolkappiyar motivated Swami Vipulananda to translate Shakespeare’s plays. Since not many have attempted poetic translations and no great poet has translated Shakespeare, the author wonders if it is because great poetry is untranslatable. The author opines that the colonial attitude to Shakespeare might have contributed to the humility and insists that translations as refractions are moments “in the growth of the original which will complete itself in enlarging itself”.

In “Humanism in Kamban and Shakespeare: A Comparison”, before pointing out the similarities and disparities between the two great poets who reflected the age in which they lived, as an explanation for taking up Kamban’s Rama for comparison, the author discusses Valmiki’s Rama and Tulsidas’ Rama and shows how Kamban’s Rama is different from them. The author cites examples to show how they differ in presenting love, power of salvation, three levels of consciousness/life, and ideal land or utopia. He concludes by saying that “Shakespeare’s heroes are fully human though imperfect, but Kamban’s Rama is perfectly human, perfect but still human”.

Influence on Eliot

In “The Shakespearean Patterns in the Plays of T.S. Eliot”, Chellappan argues that a copious presence of Shakespeare’s patterns and symbols establishes beyond doubt that Eliot was influenced by Shakespeare. The theme of “horizontal and vertical spreading of guilt” unites Harry in The Family Reunion with Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The images of sickness of the world, incestuous desire and inability to love are some of the similarities. There are also significant differences: in Hamlet it is human love whereas in Harry it is divine; Eliot’s play is not about its hero, whereas Hamlet is about Hamlet.

Love is an important theme in both Eliot’s Cocktail Party and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Disguise and mistaken identity crucial to any comedy, are also present in both the plays. The difference is that Twelfth Night, a romantic comedy, is transformed into The Cocktail Party, a metaphysical tragicomedy. Eliot’s The Elder Statesman is Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In it is seen serenity and mellow ripeness of an elderly person as in The Tempest. In “Macbeth: A Comparison with Indian Epics”, the author puts forth the argument that Macbeth in its depiction of war between good and evil is similar to Mahabharata, and Macbeth is akin to Ravana in Ramayana. Macbeth and Ravana, the author argues, are great warriors who are caught in the swirl of fate because of that initial violation of a sacred ethical code and, unable to extricate themselves from it, commit crime after crime. Both “show dignity and tragic grandeur in death and defeat, and evoke pity and terror.…” The author lists crucial moments in the lives of Macbeth and Ravana to show how they are drawn into an endless chain of crimes.

In Macbeth and Mahabharata, battle is used as the central metaphor for life. Loss of their children make both Arjuna and Macduff determined to fight and destroy their enemies, and the supernatural forces work with the human order. Macbeth does not have the spaciousness and amplitude of the Indian epic but it is a mini epic, concludes the author.

Shakespeare and Sanskrit

In “Shakespeare and Classical Sanskrit Drama; A Comparison between a Few Plays”, Chellappan delineates the similarities between Shakespeare’s plays and some of the works of Sanskrit scholars. Love in different manifestations is what connects Harsha’s Priyadarsika with Twelfth Night. Disguise has its importance in both the plays. Harsha’s use of “garba rata” to suggest that “all reality is drama within drama” reminds one of the play within the play in Hamlet, which is used to catch the conscience of the king. Both Sudraka’s Little Clay Cart (Mrichakatika) and The Merchant of Venice deal with wealth, love and character. In both, the heroines are more active and wealthy. Kalidasa’s Sakuntalam can be compared with The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest.

The chapter “Shakespeare and Classical Sanskrit Drama: A Comparison between a few Plays” looks at transformations and adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays on Tamil cinema and drama. There is Twelfth Night as Kanniyin Kathali; The Taming of the Shrew as Arivali; and Hamlet as Manohara with changes to suit Tamil values and culture. Manonmaniyam, a poetic drama by P. Sundaram Pillai, is the most important creative work in Tamil in which the influence of Shakespeare is much observed. Although based on Lord Lytton’s The Secret Way, it is like a Shakespearean romance or comedy. The central theme of the play is varieties of love as in Twelfth Night, but there is a metaphysical twist in it. Manonmaniyam has a Shylock, a Malvolio, misguided fathers, Iago, Miranda, good friends as in As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing and many more. Like Shakespeare, Sundaram has also used irony and soliloquy to reveal the inner mind of a character. Manonmaniyam has an inset play Sivakami Charitam, which is a typical Shakespearean technique.

The writer, in conclusion, says: “The influence of Shakespeare on the Tamil mind was revealed more in the scholarly interpretations and recreations than in the Tamil theatre as such.”

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