There was an odd issue which had been troubling me for days. I brought it up during my causal discussion with people who were aware of Shakespearean literature, though not in depth.
Today, strangely, Debora, a Grade IX student brought it up. I instantly gave her my best compliments. What she asked me was why Shakespeare is considered such a great writer through his stories are all very silly.
It still takes a child to comment on the nudity of kings.
First I told her that he should not be blamed for his stories since almost all his stories came from other people. He is not called the thief of thieves for nothing. A plagiarist, a born kleptomaniac on whose nature nurture will not stick!
But why? The answer lies in his last play The Tempest. His own story in more than one way. But, what story are we talking about here! There isn’t any.
So, creating a plot was not one of his talents.
But, a man who began his career as a hostler outside theatres could have trained himself to create any number of winding plots instead of borrowing silly plots from anyone, like a desperate Bassanio repeatedly borrowing money from Antonio. And the plots he borrowed were so popular that it was hard to say who told the story first.
But then, we say that he was a hostler near the theatres for some time. But no one is sure. No one is sure where he was for long years. So much is simply missing from his life like a maths table we learned too early in life. We can make up for what we have lost.
OK, his tales were not his. But his wisdom is wonderful. We can quote endless examples from him.
You mean from him or his books.
From his books, but is there a difference?
Yes, it is not like quoting from Dickens or Shelley. When we quote Shakespeare, we are only quoting what he made his characters say. And none of his characters are angels. So, be warned. Quotations from Shakespeare are not like maxims you can live by. See what those characters did in life or what others did to them. So, there goes the Shakespeare who lives in quotations like Dr. Jonson predicted.
So, was he just a popular money-spinning playwright, pleading guilty about beautifying himself from feathers from the other playwrights?
No, far from that.
The fact is if we call Shakespeare a writer, we should find another term for those who just write and if we don’t want to change that, then we should find another name for Shakespeare’s profession. Such is his greatness.
He is the most misunderstood of all the writers in the world. Not because his language is archaic but we are all pretentious. We don’t take literature as seriously as it has to be taken. Our tastes are so low that we would sit and watch any opera had we not been watched by others. This is where Shakespearean tales are a boon. We can enjoy all those silly stories and not feel guilty.
We enjoy those stories and we take them to class and the children too are enchanted by the melodrama. Since neither they nor we read enough, it never occurs to us that most writers come up with better plots and Shakespeare could not have hoped to win even the school drama writing competition with that kind of stories. A man signs his own death warrant when he borrows money. His friend wins a rich lady by lottery for which she offers him illegal help and with the same inclination to do illegal acts she later saves her husband’s friend misrepresenting her gender and presenting herself as a lawyer though she would have thought a ‘plaintiff is a common quarrel’ (plain.. tiff) ( from The Twisted Tales of Shakespeare by Richard Armour). The argument she comes up with is not even worth mentioning here. How can this be a classic story? It is not.
To cut it short, Shakespeare had higher aims than making an extra ducat by being a playwright. Each of his plays is meant to teach us something. Like his art which conceals his artfulness, he hid his tracks completely. In The Merchant of Venice, he wanted to tell us that appearance is deceptive or that one should not judge a book by its cover. On the cover, it says The Merchant of Venice, but it is hardly about the merchant. Portia is the protagonist and Bassanio is no merchant. Antonio does not lead the story; he only signs his death warrant and waits to be ripe to fall off. Taming of the Shrew, considered to be a true anti-feminist play has spiritual aspirations if we are shrewd enough to see it all. He has brought us the medicine because he knew we are all sick. He was only 31 when he wrote Romeo and Juliet, the story of which he got from a three thousand line long poem. What he says about Juliet’s parents is something none of the other writers would dare to say even today. Jacques, in As You Like It, looks at a fool with wonder and whispers to himself: Motley is the only wear. In this brief blurting out, Shakespeare has revealed his view of life. He has given those words to a philosopher, no wonder. The hero’s mouth is not worth it. Life is so meaningless that the only way to live it meaningfully is to live like a fool. Charles Chaplin’s Tramp and Samuel Beckett’s Gogo are celebrations of this idea. And they are not the only ones who took this seriously.
We should take a good look at someone like T S Elliot or James Joyce and then see how great critics find even him not as good as Shakespeare. It is then that we realize the level of loving wrong we do to Shakespeare. It is then that we find we are not equipped to gauge the greatness of this writer. We are small-time astronomers who look up and wonder at the stars on the firmament while rocket scientists are arranging guided tours to Mars. While we are waiting to wise up to appreciate the real excellence of Shakespeare, let us not belittle him by measuring him with such small yardsticks.