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No doubts about his genius

How could Shakespeare wind up as a `runner up' in any poll to select the greatest Briton, asks V.S.RAVI.

AN overseas poll conducted by the BBC has concluded that Sir Issac Newton was the "Greatest Briton" of all time, followed by Churchill and Princess Diana.

Newton's enormous scientific achievements seem to have influenced the outcome; while in the case of Churchill, it was his leadership qualities during World War II.

Ranking Diana third has destroyed the credibility of the whole exercise. Her charm, kindness and involvement in charitable causes contributed greatly to make her an icon all over the world. But that is where the admiration for her has to stop. Including her in a list of 10 Greatest Britons of all time is carrying things a little too far.

However, I was shocked to find Shakespeare, the greatest genius of all time, had been relegated to the status of a `runner-up'. There is also no justification to deny Darwin his rightful place, in as much as his contribution to biology is as significant as Newton's is to physics. For all these reasons opinion polls of this kind are unreliable, misleading and invite ridicule.

Take a look at Shakespeare's enormous vocabulary. He employed 9,36,433 words in his writings, out of which 27,780 are different words. The average person uses less than 1,000 words in writing, a little more than that in speech and has a recognition vocabulary of about 5,000 words. Some of the greatest writers may have twice this capability.

Today, English has a total vocabulary of two million words followed by German as a pathetic second with 1,86,000 words, Russian with 1,36,000 words, and French with 1,26,000 words. Thus Shakespeare in the 16th Century used five times the number of words in modern German!

Shakespeare is the most quoted writer in history. His plays have been translated into 50 languages. In the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations containing about 20,000 quotations, Shakespeare alone monopolises a staggering 60 pages (10 per cent). He coined 1700 new words. Many of the phrases and terms created by him are in daily use. Some of them have been used as titles for books and movies.

The vastness of vocabulary and the ability to see the relationship between words is one of the major factors in measuring genius. Shakespeare excelled any other human being in this aspect. His encyclopaedic knowledge of science, history, mathematics, classical literature sociology, psychology, law, Latin, French politics, music and art acquired by studying books relating to almost every mental discipline and observing the habits and style of life of various sections of people all around him enabled him to draw ideas generously from all those sources for being used in his plays.

The lyrical grandeur of his language covers every known figure of speech from metaphor to simile, hyperbole to hendiadys. The alchemic process in the crucible of Shakespeare's brain transmuted emotions, like ambition, frustration, jealousy, greed, romantic love, joy, and sorrow he found all around him in people, into the rich gold of his everlasting plays. Hence there is no emotion or activity or situation in the human condition that is not found in his plays.

More people visit the place of Shakespeare's birth than that of any other human being. More books and articles have been written about him and his works than about any other individual or even any other single subject (at least till the age of computers!). Entire libraries and major sections of many famous libraries whether in Washington D.C or London are devoted to him.

Shakespeare has inspired more tributes than any other poet, scientist or painter; in fact some of the people who have showered praises on Shakespeare, like Coleridge, De Quincey and Dryden, are of such stature themselves that each would have got two Nobel Prizes for literature if they had lived in the 20th century.

Then what justification is there for any voter, whatever his profession, to place this extraordinary man who is " In judgment a Nestor/ In genius a Socrates/ In art a Virgil" in the position of a runner-up in a ranking of the greatest Briton ever.

Is it not ironical that a great poet like Coleridge had once equated Shakespeare to 500 Newtons but the voters who took part in the BBC poll have placed him far below Newton? Is it not even more ironical that Churchill, who once attributed his brilliant prose and eloquence to his having collected the quotations of Shakespeare early in life like "pennies in a slot", should be placed second in the list far above the very same man?

Any poll will only succeed in devaluing its own assessment, and lose its sanctity and credibility, if it denies this "mighty poet", to quote De Quincey, his rightful place as the greatest genius of all time.

As someone appropriately observed, "it is not only the crowning glory of England but also the crowning glory of all mankind that such a man as William Shakespeare should ever have been born".

More than all the triumphs of science and technology, and the glories of art and music, Shakespeare's poetry alone, with its great soliloquies packed with metaphors, similes, and every known figure of speech, (that reflects his flashes of genius and leaps of fantastic imagination), can be and should be regarded as the topmost achievement of man, on this planet, the fulfilment of long centuries of human civilisation and culture!

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