Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Shakespeare 450th Birth Anniversary Festival – Symposium on Apr 27, 2014, The Magic of Shakespeare by Shri V.N. Venugopal

Shakespeare as Prospero  the magician

What is the magic of William Shakespeare that 400 years after his death the world still rings with his praise? This is the central question to which Shri V.N. Venugopal addressed himself. 

Shri V.N. Venugopal, Patron of the Kerala Fine Arts Society

The variety of characters and human portraiture in Shakespeare's plays are unparalleled.  His female characters are equally colourful and interesting. 

Jeanette Nolan from Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948)

Longfellow summed up Shakespeare’s work as “the rarest essence of all human thoughts.”

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V. N. Venugopal

Shri V. N. Venugopal, scholar and city historian, retired as head of Premier Tyres. He is a graduate of Maharaja's College and has studied Physics, Sociology, English Literature, and Management! In other words, he is a Renaissance Man. He is a Patron of the Kerala Fine Arts society and has served as its President for many years. Shri Venugopal is a past president of the Kerala Management Association also. 

He is the grandson of Shri K. Govinda Menon, who was the classmate at Oxford of Lawrence of Arabia and had Lawrence come over to Thrissur for Ayurvedic treatment. His father is P. Narayana Menon. He is currently involved in education and art. Shri Venugopal lists his hobbies as Reading, mainly biographies, history and literary criticism and listening to Carnatic music.

He brought out a commemorative volume on the historic Lotus Club. If the city of Madras has Mutiah to chronicle its history, Kochi has Shri Venugopal, if you judge by his many writings in papers and journals.

x— x — x — x — x — x — x

What is the magic of Shakespeare? As we celebrate the 450th birth anniversary of this great literary personality of all time, what aspect of his literature carries all of us across time and space and inspires us to read, talk and discuss about him? We know that many of his plots are not original, but he had the ability to develop these plots weaving around characters and incidents that have been made immortal. It is this creativity, the creativity of the dramatist in King Lear or Othello that still lure us into reading Shakespeare. There are Shakespeare societies, reading clubs, fan clubs, symposia and chairs for Shakespearean studies in many universities. It is said that he who knows not Shakespeare or appreciates his work is ignorant of something which is the greatest secular work in world literature.

As Shakespeare himself wrote about Cleopatra, his variety is infinite. He knew nature well and lovingly described it. The variety of characters and human portraiture in his plays are unparalleled. He rarely referred to the tremendous happenings of the age in which he lived – the defeat of the Armada, the voyages of Raleigh to America or the tragedy of Mary Queen of Scots. There is hardly any contemporary topical allusion in his plays. Yet the gayest fancy, the broadest humour, the most piercing wit with the deepest pathos, strongest passion and the truest philosophy are what he has portrayed. It is human life, not a stilted conventionality that Shakespeare cared for. His plays are concerned with human nature, the same unchanging facts that have remained throughout the ages – the basic attributes of all creative writing even today. Maturity of craftsmanship as well as maturity of poetic and imaginative power was necessary for development of plot and character from modest beginnings to the grand sweep of pageantry and heroically conceived characters of the many English and roman history plays; to those high comedies that submit to definition only in terms of themselves and therefore can only be called Shakespearean; those tragedies whose dark magnificence are equaled only by the ancient Greeks. Even today, as we look around, we can see the delightful fool Launcelot Gobbo, the braggart Falstaff, the miser Shylock, the lean and hungry Cassius or the neurotic Hamlet weighing the future.

His female characters are equally colourful and interesting. Portia, full of wit and poetry, heavenly Rosalind with deep, steadfast love of a true woman, Juliet with her adolescent passion, Ophelia and Desdemona their foolish, fond and helpless love, Cleopatra’s craft and sensuousness and Lady Macbeth with her unscrupulous ambition. He created the evil sisters Goneril and Regan but in deep contrast he also produced the gentle Cordelia, a model of filial devotion. As themes of his plays he has mighty dramas of love, jealousy, friendship, hatred and ambition. His plays are a perfect guide to human nature and all sorts of men and women are represented by him the old, the young, the wise, the foolish, kings and common men.

How did Shakespeare craft his play? As Bradley said, the Shakespearean tragedy in simple terms may be called a story of exceptional calamity leading to the death of a man of high standing. He goes on to say and rightly so, “no amount of calamity which befalls a man descending from the clouds or stealing from the darkness like pestilence alone provides the substance of a story.” His skill in crafting his plays lay here, the acts or omissions characteristic of the doer. Thus his plays do not merely concentrate on the character but also the actions of the character. Even though we can find spots where he has given indulgence to his love of poetry, he was “dramatic to the tips of his fingers” as Bradley has said. An appropriate assessment of Shakespeare’s plays will lead us to the conclusion that performance is the end to which they were created. Yet no one can argue Shakespeare’s works can be understood and appreciated without concern for their place in history. The language, the idiom, the ambiguity and the metaphor form the bulk of the interpretations and appreciation of Shakespeare in the 20th century. As Richard Levin said “Shakespeare can teach us more about the ideas of his time than ideas of his time can teach us about Shakespeare.”

Shakespeare always insists on the tragedy of love – love that is more powerful than death. His plays enshrine some of the most poignant love passages ever written. His sonnets, the most perfect of their kind are symbols of overwhelming passion and could only have been written by someone who had experienced all the ecstasies of love, its pleasure and its pains. Sonnets, one of the most fashionable poetic forms in the last decade of the 16th century abound in the amount of personal and autobiographical matter. The beauty of the power of their verse, their imagery and their emotions are matchless. “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments/ Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme.” (Sonnet 55).

Magic of Shakespeare’s influence on other writers and artistes that started during his lifetime continues to this age. The house at Stratford on Avon where Shakespeare was born in 1564 continues to be a pilgrim centre, a Mecca for Shakespearean scholars and tourists alike. Many are the European authors who borrowed themes or ideas from Shakespeare. Ivan Turgenev's ‘Lear of Steppes’ (1870), amusing variations of comic Shakespearean phrases in P G Wodehouse (1930), T S Eliot’s Prufrock “I am not Prince Hamlet” (1930), Saul Bellow in his novel ‘Seize the Day’ (1956), quoting from Shakespeare’s sonnets, Pushkin offering his own version of ‘Measure for Measure’ in his poem ‘Angelo’ (1833) and Victor Hugo in his preface to the play ‘Cromwell’ (1827), are only some examples. He used English language as a raw material for his works. His style is not any stringing of words, not any naive untrained grouping of language. The following lines from Measure for Measure “God in my mouth / as if I did but only chew his name”, the wonderful lines from Antony and Cleopatra from Cleopatra’s death scene “Now from head to foot / I am marble constant,” the examples are many as Goneril in King Lear, says “Sir I love you more than words/ can wield the matter.” The memorable lines from Macbeth “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow/ creeps in this petty pace from day to day/ to the last syllable of recorded time,” the touching last words of Othello “Why should honour outlive honesty”and “An honourable murderer if you will / for naught I did in hate / but all in honour,” and King Lear’s dying words “why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life and dove no breath at all.” These are some of the lines that stand out as examples of his wonderful craftsmanship. Here is the music of the gods and the splendour of Euripides. Words and expressions reared and modeled like temples which made him a god of style, the patron saint of men of letters. The element of language in each play determines its tone and colour, its range and its metaphor.

Finally, the sense of justice that pervades most of his plays meting out an apt punishment for the wrong-doer is very relevant. Cleopatra and Othello meeting immediate death for their wrongs while Brutus living a life of remorse and welcoming death as an atonement for his wrongdoing. In King Lear, Albany’s pronouncement in the last scene that “All friends shall taste the wages of their virtue and all foes the cup of their deservings” or again in Hamlet Laertes moaning “I am justly killed in my own treachery,” explain the Bard’s Philosophy which is visible throughout his works. A consummate master of language and rhetoric, irony and humour, he did not try to escape the tyranny of environment.

In our own fevered, changing and precarious age where all is in flux and nothing is accepted we must survey with respect a voice singing lyrics in the distant scented darkness that inspired generations of readers. In classical times when Cicero has finished speaking people said “How well he spoke” but when Demosthenes had finished speaking they said “Let us march.” Shakespeare inspired us. The world still lies before him waiting for his invading footstep. The tempest of his creativity rises from oceanic depths. Longfellow summed up Shakespeare’s work as “the rarest essence of all human thoughts.”

References : 
 1) Shakespearean Tragedy ( A C Bradley )

2) Shakespeare ( Stanley Wells and Lena Cowen Orlin )

3) Shakespeare Criticism in the 20th Century ( Michael Taylor )

4) Literary Masters of England ( Nelson Bushnell, Paul M Fulcher and

    Warner Taylor )

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