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Shakespeare’s Global Stage

Shakespeare’s Global Stage
William Shakespeare
April 20
10:19 2016

Fiji’s leading writer Satendra Nandan’s fourth book of essays, ‘Autumn Leaves: Writing Myself,’ will be published later this year. His Brief Encounters was published last year in July.



To write about Shakespeare in a weekly column on a page is like filling a canoe with salt-water from the Pacific Ocean in a cyclone.

No matter what you say about William Shakespeare, he remains an elusive enigma: inconceivable in our times, incredible in the world of writing – wherein we petty men peep under him and he, like a Colossus, bestrides our narrow world.

William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564, and died on April 23, 1616.

Neither his birth nor his death disturbed the universe in any significant way. Like many great authors, he became famous posthumously.

His father John Shakespeare, among his several occupations, was predominantly a farmer and went bankrupt.

Young Will was not well-educated:  his contemporary Ben Jonson said he knew ‘small Latin and less Greek’. At the age of 18, he married ‘Anne Hathaway of Stratford’, eight years senior to him; something to contemplate if you want to be a writer?

Germaine Greer’s Shakespeare’s Wife (2007) puts the role of Ann Hathaway in the poet’s life in its proper perspective. No writer could have created characters like Cordelia, Desdemona, Imogen, Portia, Cleopatra and many others without the love of a very special woman in his life.

In his youth he was also accused of poaching on the estate of a local magnate and left the town to escape the consequences. In London he performed several menial jobs at the theatres, and possibly acquired more knowledge of human nature than many burning the midnight oil in the British Museum.

Yet William Shakespeare was no little Englander: his 37 plays, 154 sonnets and two major poems form the heart of the canons of English literature. He took his stories, themes, plots, characters, values, visions, from many parts of the then known world.

Today he’s read, performed, recited, translated in the Southern Hemisphere from South Africa via the South Pacific to South America.

In the Northern Hemisphere he’s the dominant and most comprehensive artist ever from London to Moscow to New York.

Both Hollywood and Bollywood have been full of Shakespeare’s inexhaustible ideas of tragedies, histories, comedies, melodramas and a lot in between.

Nothing seems to have escaped his wondrous imagination in words. No epic matches the infinite variety of human life and its myriad manifestations: From Julius Caesar to John Falstaff.

But his poetry vibrates with the vital breath of the ordinary folks living close to the famous Globe Theatre. Think of a character and somewhere he’s in a Shakespearean scene or defined in an image or a metaphor.

This month, this weekend, the world will remember and celebrate this complex comic-tragic dramatic genius, the like of which we’ve never looked upon again.

If there’s a miracle in literature, it’s Will Shakespeare.

Because he’s such a multifaceted artist, even to this day scholars believe that no single person could have written his 37 plays; there were other pretenders, including Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen.

I remember a rather smart joke when one pedantic scholar claimed that the plays were really composed by Elizabeth.

An enraged fan stood up to protest: Sir, how can a woman write with such passion and poetry, such depth and meaning?

The scholar replied: Sir, you’ve missed my point: My main contention was that Queen Elizabeth was a man!

This was a time before equality of the feminist movement was heard of. And men mistakenly thought they ruled the world. But it was the time when Britannia ruled the waves, instead of waiving the rules for off-shore banking!


Introduction to Shakespeare

My own introduction to Shakespeare was in Form Three on the  riparian banks of the Nadi river when my world was perhaps not too different from Shakespeare’s childhood landscape, full of pristine nature and joys of innocence across a koro.

Or the joy of love, as the good Pope puts it in another context. Although we lived half a world away and four centuries apart: to think a version of Caesar’s assassination took place in the Parliament of Fiji on May 14, 1987.

In Form Three we were being taught an abridged version of The Merchant of Venice by a teacher named Rao.

I don’t know if he ever read the play, even in its abridged version, but he regaled us with his personal story of elopement with his wife from Suva. I think he conflated the characters of Lorenzo and Jessica – two young lovers in the play.

I found the weaving of the fiction in his personal life more interesting than the play and felt a deep sympathy for my teacher’s fair wife.

It was only at Delhi university that I studied The Merchant of Venice and gave a seminar on ‘Shylock is a Tragic Character’. It amused my classmates who saw the play as a comedy.

I think one lecturer of mine saw my point with more understanding. His name was Rupin Walter Desai.

Rupin established the Globe Society and produced a Shakespearean play annually – it was the cultural event of the college, indeed the university.

I became the secretary of the Globe Society and in the final year we staged Julius Caesar with a cast of over a hundred actors. It was a huge success and the mob scenes were particularly appreciated.

But Desai’s favourite play was Hamlet. We studied it in the class and thereby hang a remarkable tale.

Desai went on to complete his doctoral studies in the US and returned to Delhi to teach and establish Hamlet Studies.

This unique journal for decades has devoted itself to this single play, perhaps the most popular in Shakespeare’s oeuvres.

In the year 2000, I visited Delhi and had dinner with Desai.

He gave me a collection of essays published under the title Thirty-one New Essays on Hamlet, and inscribed: To Satendra, ‘With the hope that a new dawn will soon break over his beloved homeland, Fiji ‘, with a quote from Hamlet:

‘But look, the morn in russet mantle-clad

Walks oe’r the dew of yon high eastward hill…’

It’s a line from Hamlet, Act I, Scene i.

It’s dated September 27, 2000, an important day in my life.

Such was the gift of my wonderfully gifted teacher and he’s still going strong in his early eighties, a world renowned scholar who will be giving the key-note talk this year in England on Shakespeare.  We read Hamlet and  studied King Lear in the honours class.

Personally I think King Lear is the greatest play in the literature of the world: a proud, powerful king is brought to understand love when it’s too late for him but he acquires a deep and enlightening self-knowledge of life and true love, old age and death; he is finally able to empathise and identify with the life around him until the death of his beloved daughter breaks his heart. He dies holding her in his arms.

He realises that there’s no cause for so much evil and goodness always pays the price.

Life simply is:

‘As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods;

They kill us for their sport.’

But towards the end Lear says ‘Men must endure

Their going hence, even as their coming hither:  Ripeness is all.’

Men-women and boughs break. We see it daily.

During the Elizabethan era, Shakespeare was able to use the outlines of many stories and his plays were set in Denmark, Venice, in forests and on islands, and, of course, London. He was able to include and entertain the kings and queens, lords and ladies, and the groundlings.

There are stirring moments of patriotic feelings in his historical plays and politicians from Churchill to Thatcher have used it effectively but Shakeapeare was not an arch imperialist or a narrow nationalist.

There was always in him an awareness of the humanity of human beings, their flawed characters and their noble endeavours.

The world was a large stage accommodating all: we make our entrances and exits. But the eternal drama goes on.

In Hamlet his poetry soars:

…What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form, in moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

The question is answered by Macbeth when he hears of the death of his ambitiously overwrought wife:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps the petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of our 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.

The last lines of Marc Antony, who has finally defeated the honourable assassin, Brutus could be the playwright’s epitaph:

His life was gentle, and the elements

So mixed in him that Nature might stand up

And say to all the world, ‘This was a man!’

For Shakespeare was truly a human being, not unaware that there’s a divinity that shapes our ends. That is his deepest achievement: he knew that there are more things in heaven and earth than in our philosophy or scriptures.

His mellowed maturity, in the last play The Tempest, showed grace, forgiveness and reconciliation : all  rooted in human reality and redemption but fully aware of a universe larger than that of mere human beings.

If Hamlet exclaims: ‘What a piece of work is man?’

We can proudly proclaim: ‘What masterpieces are hidden in the soul of single man or woman!’

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