Crown or strawberries?

July 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

This year marks the four hundred and fiftieth anniversary year of the bard of Stratford-on-Avon, William Shakespeare, who was described by his senior and scholarly contemporary, Ben Jonson, as the ‘Soul of the Age’. Shakespeare was born in the year 1564, which was significant in the sense it announced the death of Michelangelo and also of Calvin, the former,  representing  Renaissance, in the field Arts and the latter, Reformation in the field of religion.  Shakespeare’s works summed up the essence of both. Shakespeare died in the same year as Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, which by being the first of the modern novels that wrote an epitaph for the Middle Ages.

The Bard

It looks like writing plays and staging them had no literary credibility, as like being a poet,  during the period in which Shakespeare lived. It is said that Shakespeare had to write sonnets to prove his literary worthiness. This is the reason his plays had to be published posthumously and his first folio found print  only in  1623, seven years after his death.  Ben Jonson, although, he was held in high esteem as a literary scholar( ‘If learned Jonson sock be on, or sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy’s child- John Milton), was ridiculed by the academics, when he published his plays during his life time.

A small digression. Things were not different in India at that time and even now.. The author of NatyaSastra and his hundred sons were considered as Brahmins of an inferior order for practicing theatre. Kalidasa, perhaps, had to write Meghadootam, Kumarasambhavam and Raghuvamsam, and such immortal poems because he knew his fame might not rest on his plays . Fortunately he had Sir William Jones  to translate it in the 18th century and there was this outstanding German poet Johanna Wolfgang von Goethe to go rapturous after reading it in translation. That plays did not merit literary consideration in our Indian cultural tradition  could be the reason for the Sanskrit plays finding their translations in the Indian languages only after the recognition for dramatic creations came from the West in the 19th century  . It must also be noted that most of the major literary works in Sanskrit  had already been rendered in the Indian regional tongues  centuries earlier.

This very well could be the reason why Ilango Adigal conceived ‘Silappadikaram’ as a play, but wrote it in an epic format.  

Drawing the digression to a close and coming back to Shakespeare, though his infinite variety of characterization is inexhaustible, my favorite is his portrayal of the historical personalities. When one writes prose fiction or drama based on historical figures, history is mostly a grand setting, a background against t which the characters ,love, hate, suffer and experience their personal dramas. But it appears Shakespeare looked at history in a totally different way. It is not a background or setting but it is, by itself the protagonist of a tragedy.

History has no meaning, ,constantly repeats itself in cruel cycle that it is a elemental force, like hail, storm, hurricane, birth and death. One can find this Shakespeare repeating it over and again in all his tragedies, King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, Richard II and Richard III.

Richard II

………… for within the hollow crown

That rounds the mortal temples of a king

Keeps Death his court; and there the antic sits,

Scoffing his state, and grinning at his pomp;

Allowing him a breath, a little scene,

To monarchize, he fear’d and kill with looks;

…………. And humour’d thus,

Comes at the last, and with a little pin

Bores through his castle- wall, and farewell king!

                                          (Richard II,III,2)

Most of Shakespeare’s historical plays are about power and politics. During the reign of the Plantagenet kings in England  in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, history was a metaphorical staircase sketching the climb and fall of kings and their progenies.. They were either dethroned, or murdered, or both, almost reading like our Mogul history after Jehangir. 

Among the historical plays of Shakespeare, the most fascinating character is Richard III. It is very difficult to analyze this complicated character. He has a compelling presence, in spite of his uncouth physical bearing. He murders everyone that proves to be a hurdle for him to ascend the throne but yet, while reading or watching every scene, one cannot but wait for him to arrive , so absorbingly interesting is his character. This is, precisely, what is known as Shakespearian magic.

One illustration.

It is just before early dawn, a time when royal or political conspiracies are hatched.  All the barons and political bigwigs have assembled at the Tower, waiting for the most important man , Lord Protector, the Duke of Gloucester(later, King Richard III) to arrive. The ruling king is dead and who is to ascend the throne? The decision has to be made by Richard. The dead king has two minor sons. Everyone in the assembly knows Richard’s intentions. Richard knows that he has to dispose of a few friends and foes and also the minor heirs to the throne before he sits on it. And he cannot do it openly.

The atmosphere is tense. 

The lords talk amongst themselves that the Lord Protector may be requested to reveal his decision.

Suddenly there is thundering silence as Richard enters in measured steps in deep contemplation, as he was in meditation.

Everyone looks at him in awe and anticipation.

Richard turns towards the Bishop of Ely. The Bishop trembles.

Richard says:

‘ My Lord of Ely, when I was last in Holborn

I saw good strawberries in your garden there;

I do beseech you send for some of them’.

Saying this, he leaves the place. All of them look at each other in confusion and anxiety. What does the tyrant want? Strawberries or throne?

This is vintage Shakespeare. This could very well be from a Beckettian or Ionesco’s play. 

Later, he accuses most of them of conspiracy and sends them to the Tower and that is another story.


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