Bardolatory - William Shakespeare's Legacy
C R Sridhar
"I am more easily bored with Shakespeare, and have suffered more ghastly evenings with him, than any dramatist I know."
"Let's all raise a flagon of ale and wish a happy 444th to one of our favorite playwright and poet." said one of the admirers of Shakespeare. Indeed, as the BBC news reports, the crowds in Stratford-upon-Avon enjoyed street theatre, dancing, plays and music over the weekend marking his birth - believed to be 23 April 1564. Last week hundreds of people celebrated William Shakespeare’s 444th birth anniversary, including some wearing Elizabethan costumes, took part in the traditional procession on Saturday. A spokesperson for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, said the weekend was "a celebration, not only of the world's greatest poet and playwright but also of tradition, the arts and Stratford-upon-Avon."1
India was conspicuous by its absence at the 444th birth anniversary celebrations of The Bard of Avon at his birthplace. The reason for India’s absence was indeed strange as only last year former High Commissioner Kamalesh Sharma had raised the tricolour at Stratford-upon-Avon. “But the Indian diplomatic absence may be easily explained, if not easily understood.” says Rashmee Roshan Lall tetchily in her column ‘Shakespearewallah fails to show up.’2 It appears that as the Indian High Commissioner and his diplomatic officials were preoccupied with the untidy events of the Maoists coming to power in Nepal, they could not participate in the anniversary festivities in the Bard’s birthplace. The columnist’s irritation was perhaps justified, as after 200 years of pillage and plunder, the enduring legacy of Britain to India has been Shakespeare and Cricket.
Shakespeare’s literary foes
The effusive praises for the Bard conceal some dissenting voices that have challenged the greatness of Shakespeare as a literary figure. His harshest critic was the Great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy who wrote such masterpieces as ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Anna Karenina’. Tolstoy marshaled his formidable creative power to fire a salvo at the Bard.
In Shakespeare and the Drama, published in 1906, Tolstoy declared that he had always experienced feelings of repulsion, weariness, and bewilderment on reading Shakespeare's plays. "Now," he says "before writing this article, as an old man of seventy-five wishing once more to check my conclusions, I have again read the whole of Shakespeare . . . and have experienced the same feelings still more strongly, no longer with perplexity but with a firm and unshakeable conviction that the undisputed fame Shakespeare enjoys as a great genius - which makes writers of our time imitate him, and readers and spectators, distorting their aesthetic and ethical sense, seek nonexistent qualities in him - is a great evil, as every falsehood is."3
Tolstoy stirred a bitter controversy in literary circles when he claimed “Shakespeare cannot be admitted to be either a writer of great genius or even an average one." He filleted the Bard by examining one of his critically acclaimed plays King Lear. Tolstoy found the play to be overrated and not meeting the basic standards of art. He argued that the play was filled with characters that were stilted, speaking a language that was affected, pretentious, pompous far removed from the real people of the World. The play had no sense of proportion, claimed Tolstoy, and the contents reflected a vulgar view of life, which fawned on the mighty and treated the poor with contempt. Tolstoy also controversially claimed that King Lear was a plagiarized version of a far superior play King Leir authored by an unknown playwright. Moreover, the Weltanschauung of the Bard was that of a status quo-ist without the humanitarian impulse of trying to change the order of an iniquitous society. All the major flaws found in King Lear, Tolstoy concluded, could be found in his other plays.
Tolstoy’s antipathy to Shakespeare rose from irreconcilable differences as to the purpose of Art. For Art to be a meaningful, said Tolstoy, it must be rooted in reason and conscience. Tolstoy passionately denounced the movements such as the Decadents and Symbolists, which idealized beauty, truth, and goodness. For Tolstoy a purely aesthetic appreciation of the holy Trinity symbolized by beauty, truth, and goodness represented the effusions of counterfeit Art. All great works of art, he contended, are great because they are accessible and comprehensible to everyone. As examples of great Art Tolstoy selected Schiller's 'The Robbers', Hugo's 'Les Miserables' and 'Les Pauvres Gens', Dickens' 'A Tale of Two Cities', 'A Christmas Carol', and 'The Chimes', Harriet Beecher Stowe's 'Uncle Tom's Cabin', Dostoevsky's 'The House of the Dead', and George Eliot's 'Adam Bede' as manifestations of love of God and man.
A Shavian Salvo
Tolstoy’s criticism of Shakespeare and the credo Art for Art’s sake found sympathy in George Bernard Shaw who held the view that Great Art should be harnessed to the purpose of changing humankind for the better. On the so called Greatness of Shakespeare Shaw agreed with Tolstoy and said “ I have striven hard to open English eyes to the emptiness of Shakespeare’s philosophy, to the superficiality and second-handedness of his morality, to his weakness and his incoherence as a thinker, to his snobbery, his vulgar prejudices, his ignorance, his disqualifications of all sorts for the philosophic eminence claimed for him.” But Shaw disagreed with Tolstoy and said that the Bard had great literary power, which made him a great artist. 4
The popularity of Shakespeare remains a paradox, as he was never considered as a great playwright amongst his peers Beaumont, Fletcher, Ben Jonson and others during the Elizabethan Age. Until the end of the Eighteenth Century Shakespeare remained relatively obscure in England. It was Goethe who praised Shakespeare and later taken up by German Literary scholars who praised Shakespeare’s plays. As Tolstoy says his reputation “originated in Germany, and thence was transferred to England.” There were special circumstances favouring the Bard as German Drama was trapped in its mediocrity and French classical literature was ossified into a sterile rigidity. The Germans were captivated by Shakespeare’s clever development of scenes and his literary reputation grew steadily. The infatuation with Shakespeare has lasted ever since.5 Thus the spell of Shakespeare could be attributed to ‘epidemic suggestion’ induced by Germanic scholars whose enthusiasm for the Bard spread to England. The reputation of Shakespeare became solid during the Eighteenth Century as the Bard’s plays represented a return to safety before all the upheavals of the French Revolution and he symbolized solid English values such as Monarchy.
Porters of Colonial Legacy
When the British left India after 200 years of colonial rule, they left a dubious cultural legacy: Shakespeare. Gary Taylor in his irreverent book ‘Reinventing Shakespeare’ challenges the inherited assumption of Shakespeare’s greatness, preferring to see his current status as the fruit of centuries of public relations on the part of British Imperialism, “which propagated the English Language on every continent.”
In post-Independence India, Shakespeare and Rudyard Kipling, the icons of British imperialism became required reading in schools and Universities teaching English Literature. The upper middle classes of Indian society lapped up courses on Shakespeare creating divisions between high art and popular entertainment. The plays in vernacular languages and native cinema became popular with the masses. The uncomfortable questions raised by Tolstoy beg for our attention- Why not shape our literary consciousness by delving deeply into our folklore and the study of epics, which are part of our cultural milieu? Why not draw inspiration from diverse native tradition for our Art? What, if any, is the relevance of Shakespeare in India where many do not speak English?
For the porters of colonial legacy, these troubling questions cast long shadows on their path as they make their journey to a far of place called Stratford-upon-Avon.
1. BBC News, 26 April 2008 12:20 UK
2. "View from London- Shakespearewallah fails to show up"- TOI-April 29, 2008.
3. "What is art? - Introduction to Tolstoy's writings"- Ernest J Simmons.
4. "New concerted attack on the fame of Shakespeare"- New York Times-December 9, 1906, Sunday.
5. "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool"- George Orwell
Bardolatory - William Shakespeare's Legacy
- » Published on May 02, 2008
- » Type: Opinion
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