Not bored of the Bard yet?

What distinguishes Shakespeare from his peers, making him perennially popular?
Last Updated : 23 April 2024, 22:37 IST
Last Updated : 23 April 2024, 22:37 IST

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The recurrent question for English teachers is Shakespeare’s relevance in today’s world and why his legacy remains celebrated even four centuries after his passing. April 23 is globally marked as Shakespeare Day. This query resonates, given Shakespeare’s ubiquitous presence in English curricula worldwide. In fact, omitting Shakespeare from a BA English literature programme in India might render it incomplete, if not deficient.

Recognising national and international days means celebrating significant figures, events, and milestones, but Shakespeare is exceptional. His name is firmly etched in cultural memory, and his works have been translated into over a hundred languages and studied by millions worldwide. Immortalised on screen by icons like Sir Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh, Shakespeare’s characters even graced Bollywood adaptations. The 400th anniversary of his death in 2016 sparked global interest, with worldwide festivals highlighting his profound influence across nations.

What distinguishes Shakespeare from his peers, making him perennially popular? Perhaps it’s his prolific output, mastering diverse literary genres—he effortlessly explored tragedies, comedies, history, and poetry, leaving an enduring impact in each domain. Writing 38 full-length plays in just 22 years, alongside 154 sonnets and numerous other poems, showcases his unmatched creative brilliance.

Many argue that Shakespeare’s mastery of blending prose, blank verse, and poetry set him apart. His profound impact on the English language is undeniable, and the words and phrases he coined or popularised are still in everyday use. Expressions such as “it’s Greek to me,” “vanished into thin air,” “green-eyed,” “tongue-tied,” “hoodwinked,” and “bedazzle” find their way into everyday conversations.

Some believe that Shakespeare’s genius lies in his capacity to infuse everyday language with poetic resonance, captivating audiences through his words. Whether it’s Macbeth’s haunting reflection on life’s fleeting nature—"Life’s but a walking shadow…a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”—or Iago’s chilling declaration—"I am not what I am”—or the timeless portrayal of Cleopatra’s eternal allure—“Age cannot wither her”—Shakespeare’s words ring through the ages, reminding us of his enduring legacy.

Perhaps the widely held view of Shakespeare’s characters and themes as profoundly human and universally relevant also boosts his stature. Shakespeare adeptly depicted complex human dilemmas, allowing readers to relate, empathise, and find catharsis. Scholars argue that his plays, especially the tragedies, prompt us to confront the truth and understand ourselves. For many, Shakespeare’s works offer an intense exploration of self, others, and the world.

While appreciating Shakespeare’s significant contributions, it’s also imperative to reassess the canon and acknowledge voices that have been marginalised. Many scholars critique Shakespeare’s works for harbouring misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, classism, homophobia, and outdated perspectives. Their question of whether other writers, equally adept at exploring themes like love, greed, and ambition, have been overlooked may be quite valid. Perhaps Shakespeare has been excessively celebrated, often overshadowing other deserving writers.

Hence, there is a call to reevaluate his prominence within academic circles. Schools and colleges, especially those granting teachers autonomy in curriculum design, have embraced this shift, including those in the UK. This change is evident even in India, where the English literature curriculum was introduced during British rule, predating its adoption in England.

Also, today’s educators are increasingly challenging the concept of universality (often attributed to Shakespeare’s works), questioning the inherent “whiteness” embedded within such notions. They argue that viewing dominant values as universally applicable is flawed and detrimental. Even when exploring themes traditionally found in canonical works, teachers advocate for including modern literature that offers a broader spectrum of perspectives, moving beyond the confines of canonical writers.

Many dismiss the belief that studying Shakespeare is indispensable as nonsensical. In numerous educational institutions, Shakespeare has been supplanted by indigenous voices, reflecting a paradigm shift in pedagogy. However, another perspective suggests that Shakespeare need not be entirely sidelined but rather supplemented with the inclusion of authors who have responded to his work, such as Toni Morrison, August Wilson, Gayl Jones, and James Baldwin.

They avow that a multifaceted approach to Shakespeare, incorporating diverse voices and global perspectives, enriches the teaching and analysis of literature. This nuanced stance, they believe, encourages a more inclusive and comprehensive understanding of literature, transcending the limitations of traditional canons.

Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s contemporary and playwright, asserted that Shakespeare was “not of an age but for all time.” That view has changed. Many argue that he was very much of his time. And perhaps that’s another way to remember the Bard today.

(The writer is Professor and Dean, Christ (Deemed to be University), Bengaluru)

Published 23 April 2024, 22:37 IST

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