There is something of Shakespeare you will spot everywhere. The universality is what you cannot miss, for there are in his plays all the sentiments, indeed all the emotions that men and women are capable of calling forth. Sit back and imagine all those moments in your life when the spirit of Puck invaded your being and led you, by the invisible hand as it were, into the crannies and nooks of mischief. And yet there is in that mischief an element of magic, for in Shakespeare there is a huge interplay of the supernatural which defines the reality in which you tend to operate. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is magic which draws you to thoughts of love. A near sense of sensuality is what comes over you as you watch Hermia and Helena run through a maze of confusion in their queer efforts for a consummation of their love. And, lord! Many are the follies they commit. Remember the man with the donkey’s head? Remember Bottom and his band of ordinary mortals stumbling into a world they simply have no idea of? Or cannot relate to?
That is Shakespeare for you, for me. All these centuries after his birth, and after his death, the appeal of his literature, by which we mean his plays and sonnets, remains a focal point of explanation for much of the experience we go through. There was Marlowe, there was Thomas Kyd. And then there have been all the others, in England and outside it, Goethe for instance, and Moliere. But none of them has exercised on the human imagination the kind of hold Shakespeare perennially has. You move from the magical quality of the plays into the seriously comic. In The Taming of the Shrew, it is the essential struggle between a strong man and a defiant woman you observe. Kate is the shrew, but she is a shrew you would love to possess and tame. All strong women are a challenge for ambitious men, which is why when you watch Kate rebel against authority, you understand the compulsions under which she operates. Deep within yourself, you know too that sooner rather than later, this woman of relentless rebellion will turn docile, not because she is a woman but because she will come round to the idea of love. And then life will be lived in that happily ever after mould.
Shakespeare’s appeal to passing generations has by and large rested on his ability to probe the depths of the human soul and to re-emerge with the essences that complement life as it is lived. Dwell a little, if you will, on the element of envy, of jealousy, a trait that has since the beginning of time defined the attitudes of individuals to other individuals. You spot jealousy, of the murderous sort, in Othello. But do you honestly blame the man for the rage that wells up in his soul once he begins to suspect that Desdemona has been carrying on an extra-marital affair behind his back? Of course Desdemona does no such thing. The sanctity of marriage is what typifies her attitude to the marital bed. But jealousy, being an ingrained part of the male personality, must lead Othello into committing the ultimate tragedy. He murders Desdemona, making sure that the life is squeezed out of her through slow, insistent strangulation. It is at that point that life goes downhill for the Moor.
When you reflect on Shakespeare, you basically focus on the slices of life you encounter in your own existence or in that of others. Note that for all the royal grandeur the playwright emphasizes in his plays, it is generally the common run of life that he speaks of. Within the gilded halls and inside the hallowed bedrooms, it is passion and lust and fundamental evil you spot. Macbeth’s ambitions are whetted by the three witches and then taken many more steps forward by his wife. In Lady Macbeth, the milk of human kindness is not what you will find. She would thrust a suckling baby to the ground if it suited her purposes. Whoever said woman was a frail little thing? Lady Macbeth, out of sheer disgust at the tottering nature of the courage in her husband, walks into the room where the unsuspecting Duncan sleeps, and digs the knife into him. The gods look away. Soon, they will be climbing all over her and her husband, to have them experience their just desserts.
You might suggest that there is a moral to Shakespeare’s tales. Maybe there is, but what you will not find there is the didactic. You have Hamlet before you, verily a story of tragedy caused by a lack of will or an absence of decision. But is it as simple as that? How do you explain the moral dilemma the Prince of Denmark goes through as he seeks to discover the truth behind the death of his father? Of course the ghost has spoken. But do not forget that the modern man in Hamlet initially prevents him from taking the spirit of the dead man at its word. That is when he resorts to artifice, of a multi-faceted form. There is the play within the play, there is the scene where a repentant Claudius prays before the gods and then there is Gertrude, the mother who knows, finally, the truth behind her husband’s murder. Hamlet could have dispatched Claudius even as the latter prayed. He does not, which is one more sign of the infirmity clouding his intentions. His methodical madness leads Ophelia to increasingly higher levels of insanity before pushing her to an early death. That is when Hamlet breaks. Not even forty thousand brothers can match the love he has for Ophelia. Which is when the brother in Laertes is rendered psychologically weak. It is also the moment when death slithers swiftly toward Hamlet. The dynasty gasps for breath, and then the heart in it peters out. Horatio bids the soldiers shoot.
There is pathos in Shakespeare. King Lear remains a potent symbol of it. Why should a rat, a horse, a dog have life and his daughter Cordelia lie silent in death? Life for Lear has been a series of late missteps. Even the Fool knows that. I am a Fool; thou art nothing, says he. That says a whole lot about the shadow and the reality Shakespeare constantly deals with.
When you raise the matter of William Shakespeare, you confront universality of a profound kind. History stares you in the face; society draws you into its old streets and by-lanes. In Julius Caesar, yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look.
The interplay of politics, conspiracy and lust draws you to the world you inhabit in your times.
Comedy in Shakespeare is the laughter you hear in the light of the moon on the banks of the river.
(The birth and death anniversaries of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) are observed on 23 April)