It is almost 400 years now, when he died, this day, the 23rd of April, and the year was 1616. If he were alive, we would say no other 448 year old has aged so elegantly. I am a literature buff. I am sitting in my home in Karachi, in a place and a time which is a far cry from the world and the time and the era Shakespeare lived in. Yet, so rich is his work and so expansive was his imagination and so varied and impactful were his characters that four centuries later, he is still a part of my life. He refuses to leave us and has left an indelible mark on how literature, and drama in particular, has effected humanity. One cannot help but praise him on the crutches of certain cliches because those cliches, in his case, are just so true.
Shakespeare was an interesting man in a very mundane way. He did not marry multiple times. His life does not fit the lifestyle expected of a bard of his caliber. It was, in fact, boring and predictable at many levels. He was not aggressively disturbed, unlike greats like Christopher Marlowe (a personal favourite, who died at the age of 29 after a self-destructive life was cut short by an enemy). From a middle-class background, he went on to become the favourite of the monarchs of his time. Yet, things about him were unusual as well.
His early life remains shrouded in mystery. He never got formal education beyond grammar school. He married Ann Hathaway who was 8 years his senior. Mother of his three children, she survived him and expressed a desire to be buried in his grave! The average English-speaking person uses around 2000 words everyday. But so ornate and rich was Shakespeare’s language that he used some 29,066 words in his plays! Not just that, he contributed between 1700 to 2000 words to the English language. Words like “birthplace” and “coldhearted” and “amazement”. And phrases like “All’s well that ends well” and “All that glitters is not gold” and “It’s Greek to me”.
Shakespeare’s characters are so strong that they have become archetypes and household names over the centuries. Hamlet, the sad prince forever moaning his father’s death and talking to himself in a state of neurosis, with his soliloquies forming lasting parts of English literature. Romeo and Juliet, eternal lovers, ending in a tragedy, living on forever. Romeo a synonym for intense love, Juliet the more sober of the two, but together their love is legend. Cleopatra, the central character of this geographically well-traveled tragedy, is an enchantress and a character open to different interpretations, each interpretation magical and at times disturbing. And her mate, Marc Antony, has become the archetype of a man torn between love and duty. And Macbeth – relentlessly ambitious, courageous warrior but simultaneously showing a lack of belief in himself. Shakespeare’s characters were not simple. They were complex and often self-contradictory, which is why they can be related to even today.
What is amazing is how much variety there is in his sources of inspiration for these characters, for which he was at times criticized. Romeo and Juliet were real lovers from Italy. The magical “Midsummer Night’s Dream” had characters inspired from the Greek mythology, English traditional fairy tales, work of Ovid and the London of Shakespearean times. Some didn’t quite get it, for example Samuel Pepys who called A Midsummer Night’s Dream ”the most insipid, ridiculous play that I ever saw in my life.”
Yet, he continues to be knows as THE bard, the greatest dramatist ever and the English writer who had to have the most lasting influence. And to enjoy him, you have to go with the flow of his pen, traveling through romance and comedy and tragedy. As Ludwig Wittgenstein said “It may be that the essential thing with Shakespeare is his ease and authority and that you just have to accept him as he is if you are going to be able to admire him properly, in the way you accept nature, a piece of scenery for example, just as it is.” (Culture and Value, 1980).
Shakespearean magic has contributed magnificently to celluloid magic. Countless movies have been made based on his work: Much Ado About Nothing, Love’s Labour Lost, The Merchant of Venice, All’s Well That Ends Well…..the list goes on. Closer to home, Bollywood’s classic comedy “Angoor” (1982) was an adaptation of The Comedy of Errors. The critically acclaimed “Maqbool” (2004) was adapted from Macbeth. And “Omkara” (2006) was but of course Othello-inspired.
Here are some quotes of Shakespeare that remind us why he was….well…..Shakespeare.
1. “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose.
By any other name would smell as sweet.” (Romeo and Juliet. II,ii,1-2)
2. If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die. (Twelfth Night. Act 1, scene 1, 1-3)
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life. (Hamlet, Act 3, scene 1, 55-87)
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—
nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so. (Hamlet, Act 2, scene 2, 303-312)
5. ”Et tu, Brute?” (Julius Caesar. III,i,77)