Aligarh and its Shakespeare wallahs

Indian scholars and academic institutions have played a great role in keeping the Bard and his works alive. One such place is the English Department of Aligarh Muslim University.

April 22, 2016 01:32 am | Updated 01:32 am IST

A portrait of William Shakespeare. Photo AP.

A portrait of William Shakespeare. Photo AP.

“When beggars die, there are no comets seen; The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.” The immortal words of the Bard, certainly the prince among the poets and dramatists, aptly describe the 400th death anniversary celebrations of William Shakespeare which falls on April 23, 2016. It may well be remembered, however, that the iconic status of the Bard also owes a great deal to the efforts of Indian students, scholars, film makers and theatre personalities. And of all places of literary production it is the academia where Shakespeare still reigns supreme. If literature is what gets taught, as Barthes famously said, then Shakespeare is the first cause in any discussion of literature in Indian universities.

One such place where Shakespeare was first among equals was the English Department of Aligarh Muslim University which specialised in Shakespeare scholarship from its inception. Sir Walter Raleigh, the first professor of English at Oxford, had already worked as a professor of English at Mohammadan Anglo- Oriental College from 1885 to 1887. Though his important study on Shakespeare, simply titled “Shakespeare” would not appear earlier than 1907, that is after he left Aligarh, the Department of English still considers this Shakespeare critic one of its own and has a very active ‘Raleigh Literary Society’ which regularly organises performances of scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. In fact, ‘Shakespeare in Performance’ is emerging as a very popular paper in the Department at the postgraduate level.

However, Shakespeare scholarship in the Department would develop a firm footing much later, from 1950s onwards, and with the start of “The Aligarh Journal of English Studies” in 1976 by Asloob Ahmad Ansari, Shakespeare scholarship in the Department became a point of intellectual interaction between the Indian and the Western scholars.

At one time such was the reputation of this journal that there were not many Shakespeare scholars in India who would not try to get published in its pages. Not only the Indian academics but also some of the most important names in Shakespeare criticism, which included Wilson Knight and Kenneth Muir, wrote for AJES. Kenneth Muir, a very prominent Shakespeare critic who is known for his works “Shakespeare as Collaborator”, “A New Companion to Shakespeare Studies”, “Shakespeare’s Sonnets” and “Shakespeare’s Tragic Sequence” regularly wrote for the journal in the eighties. His two interesting and witty write-ups published in AJES included ‘Four Notes on “Hamlet”’ and ‘“Hamlet” among the Ideologues’.

In the first thirty years of its publication there were as many as 75 essays in the journal on different aspects of Shakespeare’s art, covering his comedies, tragedies, history plays, and also his sonnets. The very first issue of the journal had articles on “Twelfth Night”, “Othello” and “Henry V”, in other words, on Shakespeare’s comedy, tragedy and his history play. In fact, F.W. Bateson, a very prominent English critic and Ansari’s tutor at Oxford during his student days, wrote of the “Twelfth Night” piece: ‘I …read your piece on “Twelfth Night” without leaving a word. It reminded me vividly of those tutorials we used to have in the distant past’. Two issues of the journal which stood out were special numbers on “Hamlet” and “King Lear”.

Asloob Ahmad Ansari’s readings of Shakespeare were greatly influenced by his interest in existentialist philosophy. Two of his books on Shakespeare deserve special mention: “Shakespeare: The Existentialist” and “A Critique of Time in Shakespeare, Wordsworth and T.S.Eliot”. After his retirement from the University, Ansari started another journal, “Aligarh Critical Miscellany”, which also had its fair share of Shakespeare articles though it hardly matched his effort in AJES.

Apart from Ansari, Maqbool Hasan Khan and Z.A. Usmani also made a significant contribution to Shakespeare scholarship. Usmani’s “Shakespeareian and Other Essays” (1987) included his studies of some plays of Shakespeare. Khan’s is a much more important contribution. His insightful analyses of many Shakespeare critics like Coleridge, Sir Walter Raleigh, Granville Barker, Wilson Knight, L.C. Knights, Derek Traversi and Kenneth Muir can still be read with pleasure such is his style of writing. His further contribution to Shakespeare studies was made through his books titled “Edward Dowden’s Shakespeare Criticism” (1987), “Shakespeare’s “Pericles” and Other Studies”(1987), and his extremely perceptive introductions to “Tempest” and “Hamlet” in Orient Longman Drama Classics series. He played an important role in building what can be called ‘the Aligarh sub-school of Shakespeare Criticism’.

Maqbool Hasan Khan’s well-worded ‘judgement’ about Shakespeare’s genius in his essay on ‘Sir Walter Raleigh’s Shakespearian Criticism’, can still be considered spot on, on the Bard’s 400th death anniversary:

‘If Shakespeare is the greatest of the creative writers in English (note ‘in English’), it is not because he had some abstruse, esoteric philosophy, or philosophy not esoteric but philosophy still, that could be deciphered with the help of other philosophies; Shakespeare’s kind of drama marks the apotheosis of improvisation that moves from imperfection to imperfection and yet achieves a comprehensiveness unparalleled anywhere else.’

(The writer teaches English at Aligarh Muslim University.)

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