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To like, or not to like...

Last Updated : 16 April 2016, 18:57 IST

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You will surely recognise one of English Literature’s most memorable quotes, “Now Is the Winter of Our Discount Tents...” Wait, that’s not right. Sorry, the above is just a cheap, fun-with-a-pun advertisement that was displayed by an outdoor activity shop in England. Unfortunately, this shop later shut down.

This advertisement, of course, is a witty variation of the opening line of the play Richard III (Act I, Scene I, Line 1), that reads, “Now is the Winter of Our Discontent”. For those of you who are not familiar with winter discontents, this play was written by William Shakespeare, who, fortunately or unfortunately, refuses to shut down or shut up — in spite of being dead for 400 years.

Even in today’s media-cluttered world of communication communities, movie mills, interactive internet, television talkies and digital distractions, Shakespearean lines (or funny variations) are being tweeted, twittered and texted regularly.

As we pay tribute to Shakespeare on his 400th death anniversary, one wonders how someone could be celebrated so avidly after four centuries. Whether you are in a dilapidated high school classroom in the Third World, or an ultra hitech theatre in the western hemisphere, Shakespeare continues to be in your face. You go to see an innocent children’s cartoon, but The Lion King turns out to be Disney’s adaptation of Hamlet, complete with a murdered king, an usurping uncle, a prince trying to get back on his throne, and his two clownish, fast-talking friends, Timon and Pumbaa (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the original). And good luck if you are trying to count the number of films, television shows, plays, musicals and operas that have been Shakespeare-inspired.

But why is the Bard so popular? Or, in other words, to read or not to read Shakespeare, that is the question that school syllabus-setters are arguing about. Here are a few reasons why Shakespeare is still fussed about and fought over worldwide.
His language might be archaic, but Shakespeare’s word might and artistry is still loved and lauded today.

What’s in a phrase? Heard any good Knock-Knock jokes recently? But before you go knock-knocking with stale or stolen punchlines, please be aware that the expression “Knock, knock! Who’s there?” is from Macbeth (Act 2, Scene 3). There are so many popular expressions that we throw around in casual conversations without knowing that Shakespeare said it first. If “All of a sudden” you “Go on a wild goose chase”, “Vanish into thin air” or end up “Dead as a doornail”, then it’s Shakespeare’s fault for coining these gloomy phrases. On the brighter side, if you have a “Heart of gold” and are good to your “Own flesh and blood”, then “For goodness sake” “All’s well that ends well”. Such Shakespearean phrases have not only survived the winds of change, but have also helped shape the ideas and thoughts of global generations. And made Shakespeare the most quoted author in the Oxford Dictionary.

His plays stir up such familiar emotions within us that we get a ‘been there, done that!’ feeling.
To kiss or to kill... that is the question asked by confused and emotional Shakespearean characters on stage. And they don’t stop with just kissing and killing, these frenzied souls portray frenetic emotions like elated ecstasies, despairing desires, pathetic passions, shameful sorrows or raging remorsefulness — all the while holding up either a skull or dagger to emphasise their inner turmoil. This, of course, is known as Shakespearean skull-daggery. But skull-daggering aside, the Bard brings to life timeless human issues like love and loathing, friendship and forgiveness, vanity and vengeance so vividly that readers or audiences feel a sense of déjà vu.

His extraordinary and flamboyant characters actually turn out to be quite ordinary and fallible. Grand kings enter and grander queens exit. But between their entry and exit, we find that these upper class royals have the same tension-inducing problems as us. They fall madly in love, get red hot angry, jump for joy, slump down in the dumps, yearn for things they cannot get, and want to smash and bash their enemies. Romeo falls in love with the wrong girl, Hamlet mourns the untimely death of his father, and Macbeth gets overambitious and comes to grief. These upper class kings and queens exhibit the raw emotions and feelings of common humanity. In fact, they are just like us, the only difference being that they tend to wear Elizabethan era clothes, while we wear what advertising companies tell us to wear.

Ahead of times
Shakespeare gave a voice to marginalised minorities. Today we are able to micromanage nanotechnologies, split innocent atoms, splice misbehaving genes and reach for the stars with our rocket-science. But yet our progressive, multi-plural society has been unable to climb out of shameful social swamps like sexism, male chauvinism and other dubious discriminations. Imagine then the gender prejudices prevalent during Shakespearean times, when women were relegated to a socially-stunted, secondary stature. But Shakespeare came to the rescue, giving his female characters independent identities and defiant voices. In his plays, strong women speak their minds and express harsh opinions. The beautiful, intelligent Portia disguises herself as a male lawyer in The Merchant of Venice and wins a case using her wits. Lady Macbeth taunts and forces her husband to commit murder. Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing is a feisty feminist who looks upon men with contempt. And Shakespeare also forces us to look at social lower-rung personalities like jesters and servants. Feste of Twelfth Night and Touchstone of As You Like It prove they are not really fools but unappreciated philosophers. In the words of Touchstone, “The more pity, that fools may not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly.”

We are more Shakespearised than we realise. Which college boy wouldn’t feel collar-lifting proud if someone referred to him as a “Romeo”? But unfortunately, today the term ‘Romeo’ refers to a persistent skirt-chaser and consistent philanderer rather than a faithful-till-death-do-us-part lover. And you might know ‘Hamlet’, a person who thinks and rethinks but cannot make decisions. Such names have gone beyond being stage characters to become cultural identities. And not just his characters, but Shakespeare himself has become part of our language. A New Yorker cartoon depicts a man and woman walking to a movie theatre, with a caption that reads, “I don’t mind if something’s Shakespearean, just as long as it’s not Shakespeare.” The Daily Telegraph of London writes that “throwing a children’s party can be a drama of Shakespearean proportions.” The Bard would never have guessed that his name would become an all-purpose adjective used to describe anything that’s great or grand, intense or ironic.
It’s not just literature, but also fields such as psychology, sociology, political theory, business, medicine and law that have fallen victim to the Shakespearisation phenomenon. For example, Psychology loves Shakespeare since most of his characters are quite mad. Psychology students would probably get outstanding grades if they are able to explain why Hamlet was talking to a skull instead of his therapist or friends. But jokes aside, Shakespeare was an intuitive psychologist, creating characters that reflected the mental turmoil and problems of his audience. His lines reveal a clear understanding of human psychology — “most ignorant of what he’s most assured”. This statement nutshells a common psychological ailment we suffer from — overestimating our own knowledge and wisdom. In other words, we think we are always right, and people who disagree with us are stupid and ignorant.

And, could leadership institutes and business schools find better case studies than Shakespearean plays? When his soldiers are about to turn tail, King Henry V launches into a long and boring speech. But instead of running away from his monologue, his soldiers get motivated and fighting mad. This is a classic example of Transformational Leadership, where a leader motivates and changes the attitude of his followers. And how should one handle a suicidal person like Hamlet with his depressing “to be or not to be” thoughts? That is exactly what a crisis management student should study. And if you are a business student, Julius Caesar is a case study in how to execute a ruthless takeover, just don’t kill the CEO in the process.

But to answer the question, “Wherefore art thou now, O Shakespeare?”, evidence indicates that he might be hiding in the town of Vellore, Tamil Nadu. Because, in this town, I saw a large sign that boldly stated, “Don’t Fear Shakespeare!” Though an obvious attempt by a high school English teacher to scare students into joining his coaching centre, this does prove that a playwright’s leaky pen is mightier than bloody swords. Attila the Hun, Ivan the Terrible and other merciless murderers have become the subject of silly jokes. But Shakespeare is able to reach across countries, cultures and centuries to shake up impressionable imaginations and put the fear of literature into the hearts of school children. Long may we be spellbound by your ghost stories, your love epics, your murder plots and your war tales.

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Published 16 April 2016, 18:07 IST

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