Thursday, 21 April 2016

An interactive talk

Hello Mr. Shakespeare

Even four hundred years after his death, the very name William Shakespeare, invokes feelings of awe on account of the erudition of the writer and his amazing use of language. He is known in every part of the world and eighty-three percent of educated Indians have read a play or two by him or have, at least, heard about him. His plays and poems are translated into almost every major language in the world, films and film adaptations are made to this day; his plays are performed at theatres and dances and mimes are choreographed by some of the best artists of our times. To add to it, his plays appear on current curricula of courses as diverse as Literature, Psychology, Law, Geriatrics, Nursing, Management and Gender Studies, among many more.

The general belief however is that only a well-educated person can understand the works of “the unsurpassed monarch of the English language” but the truth is that Shakespeare, the bard of Stratford-upon-Avon, wrote his plays for the ordinary Londoners of his time. The ‘groundlings’ who constituted bulk of the audience and stood around the stage while his plays were being performed, were mainly button-makers, weavers and carpenters like Bottom and his companions in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Unlike some of the other playwrights of his day, Shakespeare enjoyed an intimate and dynamic relationship with his audience and gave them the blood, gore and bawdiness they desired but also managed to make them ‘think’ - or rather re-think - the prejudices and biases that they had imbibed from their society. For instance, Tudor and Elizabethan Londoners were known to harbor strong anti-Semitic sentiments and Jews were hated in Shakespeare’s day and age. This must have disturbed Shakespeare for in The Merchant of Venice he deals with this stereotype in dexterous ways. On the surface, the plot of the play seems to satisfy the audience by reinforcing their anti-Jewish biases and the hated Jew leaves the stage a broken man who has lost everything he held dear but then, Shakespeare cleverly ‘humanises’  Shylock and makes us see him as a victim of the Christian fundamentalism of his time. In Act Three Scene One for instance, Shylock asks:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections,
passions ?  fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same
diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and
summer as a Christian is? if you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not
laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge ? If
we are like you , in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

Surely Shakespeare’s audience would return home feeling satisfied over the punishment meted out to Shylock but Shylock’s words would probably trouble them enough to re-think their bias.

By critiquing the concept of ‘re/presentation’, Shakespeare forces us to re-think the nature of reality and by problemtatising the notion of ‘subjectivity’, he leads us into asking ourselves: “Whose reality are we listening to?”  He also critiques the idea of the ‘uniqueness’ by making us see ourselves and the texts we read as, what the poststructuralist thinker Roland Barthes called, “tissues of quotations from the various sites of culture.” The complexity in his works delights the minds of those who wish to engage with his plays and poems but then what is the nature of the spell that he dexterously wove to hold the world in thrall and remain relevant to this day? My contention is that that the timeless, ageless quality of his works can be attributed to the ease with which Shakespeare plumbed into the ‘Collective Unconscious’ of humankind to create powerful archetypal characters with whom we can strongly identify.

The psychological paradigm created by Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen in her books Goddesses in Everywoman and Gods in Everyman helps us illustrate the archetypal nature of Shakespeare’s works. Dr. Bolen divides the universal, goddess patterns among women into three groups – Virgin Goddesses, Vulnerable Goddesses and Alchemical Goddess. Among the Virgin Goddesses are Artemis, Athena and Hestia. A quick look through the Shakespeare canon reveals Rosalind (As You Like It) and Emelia (Othello) as Artemis women, Katherina (The Taming of the Shrew) and Cordelia (King Lear) as Athena women and Calpurnia (Julius Caesar) and Katherine (Henry VIII) as Hestia women.  In the Vulnerable Goddess category are Hera, Demeter and Persephone. Lady Macbeth (Macbeth) and Queen Isabel (Richard II) are archetypal Hera women, Lady Macduff (Macbeth), the Nurse (Romeo and Juliet) and the Duchess of York (Richard II), Demeter women and Gertrude (Hamlet), Ophelia (Hamlet) and Octavia (Anthony and Cleopatra), Persephone women. The Alchemical Goddess Aphrodite, appears in the Shakespeare canon as Cleopatra (Anthony and Cleopatra), Cressida (Troilus and Cressida) and Anne (Henry VIII).

Dr. Bolen divides the archetypal patterns in men into two categories – Fathers and Sons. Among the Fathers are Zeus, Poseidon and Hades. In Shakespeare’s plays the Zeus archetype is clearly visible in Julius Caesar (Julius Caesar), Octavius Caesar (Anthony and Cleopatra), Henry Bolingbroke (Richard II) and Prince Hall (Henry IV – Part II), the Poseidon archetype in Macbeth (Macbeth) Lear (King Lear) and Antony (Anthony and Cleopatra) and the Hades archetype in Edmund (King Lear) and Hamlet (Hamlet). Apollo, Hermes, Ares, Hephaestus and Dionysus, the sons of Zeus, constitute Bolen’s category of Sons. Brutus (Julius Caesar) and Ferdinand (The Tempest) showcase the Apollo archetype, Petruchio (The Taming of the Shrew), Enobarbus (Anthony and Cleopatra), Iago (Othello), Puck (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and Ariel (The Tempest), the Hermes archetype, Harry Hotspur (Henry IV – Part I) and Tybalt and Mercutio (Romeo and Juliet), the Ares archetype, Menelaus (Troilus and Cressida) the Hephaestus  archetype and King Richard II (Richard II) and Falstaff (Henry IV – Part I), the Dionysus archetype.

The archetypal dimensions of his work ensure his timeless appeal across barriers of space and time and leave audiences and readers with the feelings that

Age cannot wither [him],nor custom stale
[His] infinite variety: other [writers] cloy
The appetites they feed: but [he] makes hungry
Where most [he] satisfies……………………………

Prof. Coomi S. Vevaina 
(Ph.D. Literature, Ph.D. Education)
Dept. of English, University of Mumbai.

Dr. Coomi S. Vevaina at the book discussion

Participants at the book discussion

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