Why India Loves Shakespeare

BY RUCHIRA GHOSH

The modern aficionados of English literature can by no means overlook the Great Bard of Stratford-on-Avon, the globally renowned poet, actor, and playwright. Shakespeare is undoubtedly the cornerstone of the English language, devoid of which the entire edifice would crumble.

On 23rd April 1616, precisely 401 years ago, Shakespeare walked into sunset; but the volume of rich, varied works which he left behind has been etched in human memory forever.

In my home country of India Shakespeare’s works continue to be read, seen and heard. If anything, they are more popular than ever. Why?

There is an eternal, humane quality palpable in all of Shakespeare’s literary works. What was relevant and in vogue during his lifetime does not fail to move us, so many centuries later. Readers as well as viewers of today still delight in the tomfoolery of Lancelot Gobbo (Merchant of Venice), pranks of Puck (Midsummer Night’s Dream) or enjoy the light-hearted mischief of Ariel (The Tempest).

The welter of emotions that is rampant in the sad plight of King Lear, ill-fated teenagers Romeo & Juliet, or the brutal assassination of Julius Caesar, leave even modern readers tearful.

Cutting across the Bard’s numerous plays we stumble upon numerous women characters that have been rendered immortal. It is amply evident that these female characters are empowered individuals in their own right.  Amidst these larger- than- life women, figures Portia, (Merchant of Venice) who adroitly outsmarts the crafty, ruthless Shylock thus preventing him from procuring his pound of flesh, which he was hell-bent upon having. In Twelfth Night, the youthful Viola surmounts all obstacles, in quest of her lost sibling.  Or consider the gorgeous damsel Desdemona who frantically loves her spouse Othello the Moor, but is eventually slain by him, in a fit of jealousy, when he suspects her of adultery. The viewers are moved by the plight of Ophelia, who dies broken-hearted after being spurned by Hamlet. The epitome of filial affection, gratitude, and duty is Lear’s daughter Cordelia who remains steadfastly devoted to her parent in life and in death.  On her part the lovely, vibrant teenager Juliet sacrifices her life at the altar of love!

There are villains and vamps galore in most of Shakespeare’s plays – formidable figures who fill the viewers’ hearts and minds with fear, awe, and an array of negative emotions. Most famous of them all is Marcus Brutus who delivers “the unkindest cut of all,” while the senators assassinate Julius Caesar. It is indeed a cruel irony of fate that Brutus happens to be a close associate and friend of the slain monarch. The audience is bound to wonder as to what made such an individual brutally murder the ruler? On closer scrutiny, realization begins to dawn on us that Brutus has indeed a strong bonding with Caesar, but alas this is surpassed by the emotions which he harbours towards Rome and its general populace. This paradox is aptly summed up in the famous line “Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.”

It would not be erroneous to compare Brutus the Biblical Judas Iscariot, the Apostle who betrayed Jesus with a kiss. Their proximity to the respective protagonists turns them into epitomes of gross treachery and betrayal. Their actions heinous and unpardonable. Not a lot unlike Indian politics at times today!

Iago, one of Othello’s fellow warriors comes across as a sinister villain, a schemer and manipulator. Ironically, he is referred to as “honest Iago,” throughout the length of the play; he is adept at deceiving gullible people who do not suspect him in the least. Rather they think he is truthful and trustworthy. Upon being denied the rank of a Lieutenant by Othello, a vengeful Iago determines to devastate the lives of the principal characters in the story-Othello, Desdemona, his own adversary Cassio who wins the coveted post, not sparing Emilia, his wife and Desdemona’s handmaid.

Juliet’s cousin Tybalt is yet another of Shakespeare’s conspicuous villains.  He is young, hot blooded, and pugnacious, ready to engage in sword fights at the slightest provocation. A Capulet loyalist he detests his clan’s adversaries, the Montagues (Romeo’s family). Unfortunately, he meets with a tragic end at the hands of Romeo.

These are characters we Indians identify with. Their ways seem to have echoed across the seas and generations.

Mention must be made of notorious vamps – siblings Goneril and Reagan, first and second daughters of the old, frail octogenarian King Lear. Ruthless and avaricious they flatter the king to part with his all his wealth; once this is accomplished, they heap tortures, insult and indignities upon Lear, eventually rendering him homeless.

Worse is to follow.  The siblings play a key role in the most gruesome, gory scene of the play – the blinding of the senile, helpless Gloucester, an erstwhile courtier of Lear. The duo gouges his eyes out, mockingly pulling out his beard alongside. However, nemesis continues to dog the siblings. Having conceived a lustful passion for Gloucester’s illegitimate son, the evil Edmund, they turn bitter rivals. In sheer jealousy, Goneril poisons Reagan and then takes her own life.  How can one ignore Lady Macbeth – with her steely determination and seething ambition- who goads her wavering husband to commit the heinous act?

All said and done, the vignettes of human life depicted by the master craftsman form a perennial source of delight and inspiration for all lovers of English classics, even today. Of which there are millions residing here in the Indian subcontinent too.

New Delhi-based Ruchira Adhikari Ghosh hails from a family steeped in English literature. She grew up on a diet enriched with Hans Anderson’s Fairy tales, Grimm’s Fairy tales, besides Enid Blyton’s works. An English (Hons) graduate from Panjab University Chandigarh, she also holds a Master’s degree in English Literature from the same varsity. A professional journalist, she has regularly contributed to noted dailies viz Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Pioneer, beside upmarket journals like Society and Savvy.  She writes simply to give vent to her vibrant imagination and her tumult of emotions. 

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