Bardolatory - William Shakespeare's Legacy

May 02, 2008
C R Sridhar

"I am more easily bored with Shakespeare, and have suffered more ghastly evenings with him, than any dramatist I know."

Peter Brook  

"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 Paradox

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

Sridhar is a Koshy's regular, a Tinto Brass fan, and a cynical Bangalorean
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May 2, 2008
01:47 AM

1.please correct the line 'The play has 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.
to read as-'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.'

2. please correct-'The Germans were captivated by Shakespeare's clever development of scenes and his literary grew steadily.To read as-

'The Germans were captivated by Shakespeare's clever development of scenes and his literary reputation grew steadily.'

Cool guy
May 2, 2008
04:18 AM

This article has been written after a deep research of the Shakespearean dramatic works vis-a-vis other contemporaneity's of the same period. As very rightly pointed by the author for an average Indian the curriculum has been forcing him to be a Shakespearean more so to graduate in English Literature and therefore his vistas do not go beyond the Shakespearean works. Whereas the Indian Literature consisting Kalidasa's Megadutam, Tulsidas's Rama Charita Manas etc are exceptional literary works which are never read by many. Possibly the Author is clear in his thoughts that the Indian Literary works should be equally read, analyzed by Indian rather than restricting only to Shakespearean works.

More so as the Author puts rightly majority of the so called English Literature Students just do the Shakespearean works just to get their degree and nothing more. Let people read the author and carefully re-analyze the Shakespearean works and put their views on the Flaws pointed by the author.

A great work indeed. Keep it up.

May 3, 2008
01:40 AM


In my original draft I had mentioned 'Tolstoy also controversially claimed that King Lear was a plagiarized version of a far superior play King Leir authored by an unknown playwright.'

Please correct the published version 'plagiarized version of a far superior play King Lear' to read as
'plagiarized version of a far superior play King Leir authored by an unknown playwright.'

Aijaz Hassan Mansoor
May 3, 2008
04:08 AM

Well researched and apt article on the 444th birth aniversary of the Bard.Yes it is very important that schools in India ought to be teaching the fabulous plays of Kalidasa,Tagore,the great Hindi,tamil,kannada,telugu marathi or for that matter poets of any state including the urdu poets.Aside the concept of relevance,culturally the Bards works does not identify with our language, tradition, folklore,Art or for that matter the very essence of our way of life.India being a poor country with rich tapestry of poets writing in their native language and identifying with environment,culture and tradition of the people makes more meaningful and serves the purpose of all the Governmental programes of raising the litercy rates.For example it would be worth while to teach the great hindi poets in Northern India than teach Romeo and Juliet.In this context we need to appreciate the State of Tamilnadu where they have made a systematic efforts in ensuring Tamil poets are studied.
The Colonial hang-up of the Indian middle class to identify with Bard has not diminished. What with the five star schools that are mushrooming all over India perpetuating an extremely western standards of education thereby loosing the Indian identity. Chasing a Mirage that studying the Bard is the ultimate in learning english language,poetry,plays and a ticket to Oxbridge with an intent to join the World Bank is like beleaving that Munshi Premchand or Kalidasa would be read at Stratford-upon-Avon. It also seems fashionable to associate with the Bards name.A friend of our family living in Bangalore informed us about a Club opened in the Bards name had a poetry reading session in a bookshop and it was abnoxious. You are from Bangalore Mr.Sridhar which is located in the Indian state of Karnataka.I must confess that i have read translations of some of the greatest poets and literary scholars your state has produced.Some of the poets and scholars remind me of the rich Latin American writers like Pablo Neruda or Gabriel Marquez.All said and done your aricle is excellent and am sure a lot of Bard's admirers would want express their opinion (DISPLEASURE).

May 3, 2008
11:15 PM

Interesting article. The very "mediocrity" of shakespeare made him poplar! He had this blatant disregard for "proper" grammar and vocabulary- that was his secret of "future success".
Coming to the middle class "upper class" indian fascination with all things "anglophilic" (including teapots and biscuits), I am in total agreement with you. It is surprising to see this "deification" of a "mediocre" playwrite when juxtaposed with some brilliant writing.

For this however, one needs to have READ other playwrites! Those who have read will understand, those who havent will continue to be a koop maindak (frog in the well!)

May 4, 2008
03:01 AM

Dear Aijaz,

Thanks for your comments.

The deification of the Bard as required reading for students of Literature is surprising as there are other masterpieces in European Literature such as 'Darling' and 'Attack of Nerves' written by Chekhov which plumb the depths of human tenderness.

Perhaps,the Bard was exported to India as he glorified the Monarchy which represented 'solid British values' opposed to revolution and change of any sort. Such views were useful for the British in preserving their Imperial status in India.

May 4, 2008
03:10 AM

Dear Coolguy,
Thanks for reading the piece and commenting on it.

Even translating Shakespeare for the benefit of the 'natives' has very little to commend.In the translation much is lost as the peculiar use of words by the Bard does not come through. What is left is the crude summary of the plots which is not worth the time translating.

May 6, 2008
01:01 AM

Bardolatory??.....naa...mored like boredolatory from Shakespeare

Kumbakonam Ramanujam
May 14, 2008
06:35 AM

Thiru Sridharangal
very very good.Why not attempt publishing this article in the Guardian.I gather you were listed one among prolific writers on contemporary issues on politics,and economics by the Guardian.We must tell these English Rascals what we think about them.

May 14, 2008
04:17 PM


enjoyed this very much

earlier, as it happens ideas generated float you away to distant (but related terrain) and 'art for whose sake" took me to the "progressive writer's movement" an dit simpact and then onto faiz and onto....

(and i did not finish reading this)

almost the same thing happened today;)

shakespeare aside, it is a never-ending chase...dee's artilce and comments there ..one more example of it

cool guy
May 15, 2008
01:37 AM

Scanning the article vis-a-vis the observation from the readers one could come to a broad conclusions that the idea of translating good works of great writers from various Languages and mainly from that Dr.Rabindranath Tagore, Kalidas etc would have a great readership and I would expect Sir C.R.Sridhar to take the first step.

Paul Sweeney
May 24, 2008
05:28 AM

it is not the buisness of the author of this article to translate the works of famous poets.The works of these poets have already been translated.The issue is to force Govt Of India to implement these works compulsorily and phase out the Bard.

May 28, 2008
02:13 AM

The Bard of Avon is a supreme playwright, poet, philosopher, and a man of grand visions who neverthless never lost touch with the ordinary man.

What glorious words these are, some of them send shivers up the spine.

You may say what you choose, quote Tolstoy or Bernard Shaw, but Shakespeare remains unshaken upon his throne.


The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.
- "As You Like It"

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
-Macbeth Act 5, scene 5, 19-28

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings."
-Julius Caesar (I, ii, 140-141)

As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods,
They kill us for their sport.
-King Lear Act 4, scene 1, 32-37

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
-The Tempest Act 4, scene 1, 148-158

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:

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