Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Shakespeare 450th Birth Anniversary Festival – Symposium on Apr 27, 2014: Shakespeare in My Youth by Joe Cleetus

Joe recalled events from his youth which bore the impress of William Shakespeare and briefly considered a string of sonnets dealing with love. 

He noted what made them attractive in youth. Some even had bawdy content but the wit was charming.  The sonnets in the plays are particularly poignant. 

The Palmer's Kiss – Romeo & Juliet, Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey

Illustrations from boyhood speech in school mimicking Shakespeare demonstrate the liberating influence he had. 

Joe Cleetus

A year ago Joe decided he owed something to Master Shakespeare and would repay him partially by gathering people for a festival celebrating his words on his 450th Birth Anniversary. His talk ended with a sonnet of homage.

To read more click below ...

Joe has had an affair with Shakespeare since his teens. He took a path through Physics in which he earned his terminal degree, and detoured through a professional career here and abroad in computers and concurrent engineering, before reaching retirement at his late father’s home in Fort Kochi, a few hundred metres south of David Hall. There he rests dabbling in matters literary with occasional travel, always accompanied by his wife, KumKum. 

Shakespeare in My Youth
by Joe Cleetus

Falling in Love  
When I was twenty or twenty one, I had a crush on a girl. The experience was heady and infatuation took its course. None of the thrill is lost, for I used to keep a journal in those days and the encounters are all described, pretty chaste by today’s standards, and certainly by those of Shakespeare. The hope in which I dressed myself in those days was certainly drunk. I experienced the extremes of elation and despair, but still maintained a great regard for the object of my desire.

Sonnet Reading  
It was about that time I undertook a more extensive reading of the sonnets of Shakespeare. In his sonnets he followed the course of Love in its many hues and moods.
In "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day" (the famous Sonnet 18) he confesses the wonder of youthful love that cannot praise the beloved enough.
When there's a lover's quarrel, you can reach for Sonnet 116 to see how he bridges it, "Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.”
When quarrels entangle the lovers in a web of little deceptions, Shakespeare instructs the young lover who has never known falsehood before, with his Sonnet 138, “When my love swears she is made of truth/ I do believe her, though I know she lies”. The couplet ends with a lovely pun, “Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,/ And in our faults by lies we flatter’d be.
The absence of the lover can instil such a mood of grayness that the very aspect of nature can turn from sunny summer to freezing winter, or so Shakespere writes in Sonnet 97And, thou away, the very birds are mute;/Or, if they sing, 'tis with so dull a cheer /That leaves look pale, dreading the winter's near.
And when the love grows to a consuming passion, Shakespeare captures the lover's crazed ardour with his Sonnet 147, "My love is a fever, longing still/ ...Past cure I am, now Reason is past care,/ And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;"
Ah, and when love must end, there is the lover’s rent heart groaning in his Sonnet 87, perhaps his most poignant sonnet, “Farewell, thou art too dear for my possessing. ”

So there, you have a rondo of Sonnets (numbered 18, 116, 138, 97, 147, and 87) which together give a fairly complete account of love's trajectory!

The Ring of Truth  
Wouldn't it exhilarate a young person to come across all this by himerself, naive and untutored, poring over a slim volume of Shakespeare's sonnets? They are not sugar’d, they are plain as you can see if you read the first lines – the diction is straightforward. Hence, the reason that they affect us so, must be found in the sure ring of truth as the poet's thoughts unfold in eager discourse. And I find the entire Sonnet 87, the farewell sonnet, transcribed in my journal of those times, when I finally had to let go of that juvenile amour.

Such was my fascination with his sonnets, that I recall giving it to at least three girls who were sensitive and receptive to its charms in Calcutta. Although I’ll add that when it finally came to the woman of my life, my wife KumKum, I was disloyal to WS and it was Elizabeth Barrett Browning who won out in the gift of a volume of sonnets. But I say to young men: read them sonnets, give them a volume of sonnets, and the girls will open up! And perhaps it will work, with genders reversed too. It’s the answer to the question Richard III asks:
Was ever woman in this humour woo'd?
Was ever woman in this humour won?

In Shakespeare’s sonnets you can hear his mind clicking away and inventing those arguments and counter-arguments of the first twelve lines, and then hitting home with the couplet at the end. The language is undoubtedly what still entrances us. We know we are in the hands not merely of a master who can marshal all the resources of language, but one who develops a train of alluring thoughts in a way that draws us in. No matter how involuted the arguments he makes, we wish to follow and are compelled to concede his point on re-reading. That's old fashioned rhetoric, and it was part of his dramatic gift, using which he gave voice to such convincing characters in the plays.

Not much later I read about the risqué, unbridled, writing of Shakespeare from Eric Partridge’s book, Shakespeare’s Bawdy, though there were intimations of it even in a play we read in high school, Macbeth. Undoubtedly, Elizabethan audiences enjoyed this bit of bawdy humour thrown into a searing dramatic play that is full of horrors. But for a real taste of Shakespeare’s unalloyed delight in dwelling on the inferior canals of the body, with wit and realism combined, we have to go to Othello.

But even in Romeo & Juliet there is this over-familiar exchange between Mercutio and the Nurse:
Mercutio: the bawdy hand of the dial is upon the prick of noon.
Nurse: Out upon you! what a man are you!

It's the wit. You can’t forget the phrase (quite different from Macbeth: By the pricking of my thumbs, /Something wicked this way comes). Then you realise how many modern sex words come from Shakespeare. This brings to mind one of his sonnets in which WS marvellously mixes his own name with an array of punning and bawdy such as will never been seen again. I refer to his sonnet 135 in which the word 'will' is used thirteen times in seven different meanings:
Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will,
And Will to boot, and Will in overplus;
Embedded Sonnets in Plays
Shakespeare was so fluent in the sonnet form that he effortlessly, it would seem, sprinkled his plays with a sonnet here and a sonnet there. Romeo and Juliet is introduced with a play summary in sonnet form. And then it occurs as a duet, though you have to listen closely to Act 1, Scene 5. R&J have just met but are already star-crossed, and engage in this brilliant bout of rapturous banter at the dance in the Capulet’s hall:
If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.
Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake
Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.

At this point a Bravo would go up, even a Bravissimo, if we were in the operatic arena! If you've ever wondered why in Hindi movies there is a sudden outbreak of dialogue in verse and song when boy meets girl, look no further. The tradition is an old one in many cultures.

Shakespeare obviously wrote for the play-goers of his time and wished to bring them in because he made his living from being an actor first, and then part-owner of the theatre in which the plays were produced. Some of the devices in the plays, such as having clowns in attendance, were meant to provide comic relief. But he also has his jesters speak with double meaning, thus imbuing them with seriousness too.

But what was it that made his plays endure and become the essential foundation of English literature? The Universality of his characters, is the answer most often given the fact that they contain the qualities and defects of humans everywhere. His sympathy for each of his characters is another underlying charm which makes them possess as many facets as real humans have; the villains too are not merely villainous. Perhaps this was accentuated by his acting, where he had to make a character come alive, and therefore had to become those characters on stage; get inside them and make them believable.

My Schoolboy Experience  
When fooling with other lads in exaggerated speech in high school, we thought we were imitating actors on the Elizabethan stage. So we’d pile on alliteration and punning with rhyme:

Why with your hockey stick do you belabour the bottom end of your bosom friend?

Think you to steal my heart with flattery? Rather do I steel my soul against your flattery!

Or again playing chess,
The castle’s taken, the knights are dead
Upon my pike I’ll have your head.

We wanted to come up with expressions like that, which we thought were worthy of Shakespeare. It was getting our minds around the wonderful amplitude of the words that came into our ken while reading his plays; it was also our desire to play with words, as he did. For it was clearly visible all over what he wrote that he not only got pleasure out of his own inventiveness and ability to turn a phrase and come up with a new metaphor, but that he made a complete game of language. One could not return to prose without a feeling of loss, for the ludic sheen was gone.

Liberating the Breath  
We learned too we could stand up and declaim our speech to the world. Let speech go forth with an emphatic wrenching of the mouth and a forceful blast of air from our lungs. Speech, real speech, was meant to be thus. Not to speak meekly like a schoolboy to the master, but to speak like a man to another man in the heat of emotion. Shakespeare may have had an effect in liberating our breath when speaking, for it did not seem he wrote his plays to be softly read to oneself, but to be spoken energetically to an audience. This surely boosted our later debating lives in college.

Of course, poetry too has this effect of leaving one dissatisfied with prose, but none of us students then had the gift to poetise. There were future scientists, accountants, businessmen, doctors, journalists, and so on, among us – but no poets. Shakespeare on the other hand we could mimic at least, for the people spoke in his plays, perhaps in an elevated way; but they rarely recited poetry with a few exceptions, such as Romeo and Juliet’s duelling with a sonnet in the dance scene above.

Blank Verse  
They tell you that the iambic pentameter is the natural rhythm of speech in English, but I vouch it is not the natural rhythm of the prose we write nowadays, and therefore it takes a great deal of effort to refashion modern prose, however eloquent it might be, into blank verse. But I can see for a professional dramatist in those Elizabethan times it would have become a habit after some practice to compose in blank verse. Such an underlying metrical structure actually liberated their imagination and lent a cadence to the speech, and was easier to memorise. It lay at the very foundation of the ability to declaim those great soliloquies in Shakespeare. He was using a tool superbly, that anyone else can use too, with practice. Even when you fall short it still gives an elevation.

Shakespeare in India Today
There are at least three Shakespeare Associations in India. One is the Shakespeare Association of Eastern India which has been in existence since 1986 and holds seminars and conferences, mainly in Kolkata and has outreach programmes for colleges. It runs a Shakespeare Centre for Advanced Research, in collaboration with Rabindra Bharati University, and has a 5,000 volume Shakespeare library. Even bigger is the Shakespeare Society of India in Delhi which sponsors a journal, and holds inter-collegiate competitions in staging Shakespeare plays. The most professional body is a third one, the Shakespeare Association of India, headquartered in Kurukhetra with over 150 life members and a professionally published biannual journal.

Shakespeare translations exist in all the major Indian languages. In Kerala not only have many plays been translated decades back into Malayalam, but there have been Kathakali dramatisations of King Lear, and of several other plays, by Kalamandalam, some of which have won acclaim abroad, for instance at the Edinburgh Festival.

You can hear a discussion of Shakespeare in India where Barbara Bogaev interviews Jyotsna Singh, Professor of English at Michigan State University, and Modhumita Roy, Associate Professor of English at Tufts. They discuss the impact of Shakespeare’s writing on Indian theatre; and, how Indian theater shaped and altered Shakespeare’s work. 

In contemporary Indian literature too Shakespeare plays a part. A most essential part it seems in the coming together of the first suitor for Lata in Vikram Seth’s novel, A Suitable Boy. Kabir Durrani and Lata Mehra are drawn into intimacy when acting the parts of Malvolio and Olivia in The Twelfth Night. Lata auditions for a part in the college play and discovers later that she has been cast opposite Kabir. Rupa Mehra, the mother, who’s trying to find Lata a suitable boy is horrified when she attends the play and hears her daughter say these lines, “Wilt thou go to bed, Malvolio?,” and gasps at Malvolio’s brazen reply – “To bed! ay, sweet-heart, and I'll come to thee.”

So Shakespeare is very much a part of the Indian college and academic scene and poets like Rabindranath have found a great resonance in Shakespeare and even translated portions of his songs and soliloquies. I am not so sure the non-English majors in college are exposed to gentle Shakespeare at all, for the CBSE has dropped Shakespeare plays in its syllabus, I understand, though the ICSE continues to maintain the requirement of two plays to be read in the senior years.

To end, here is a Sonnet; it’s my homage to William Shakespeare:

WHEN young he made his way to London's stage
And wrote the scenes in which his men would play;
He was for all of time and not an age,
So Jonson in his preface dared to say.
With lines like 'where the bee sucks there suck I,'
He bedded plays with much beguiling rhyme,
And sonnets Dark for which the Lady'd sigh —
Immortal verses written in his prime.
A primer for today's untutored youth,
When passion flowers but words cannot be found,
These verses with their patent ring of truth
Will soothe their hearts with honeyed luscious sound.
   To you, whom every man inhabited,
   This Everyman swears love unlimited!

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