Celebration Magazine

Confessions of a Shakespeare addict

The Martin Droeshout engraving of the Bard printed on the cover of the First Folio.  

I may describe myself as a “Shakespearaholic” (if we can coin such a word) in the sense that I am like Winston Churchill who is reported to have once claimed, with justifiable pride, that he had acquired his mastery over English by collecting Shakespeare’s phrases since childhood like “pennies in a slot”. It applies to me as well, though perhaps to a much lesser degree as this incident, which actually took place about six decades ago, shows.

An uncle and I were driving down the beach road in Madras with the British Scientist C.F. Powell, who had just been awarded the Nobel Prize for isolating the Meson (the existence of which had been postulated by the Japanese physicist Hideki Yukawa who was also given the Prize). During the conversation, my uncle casually mentioned that I was a “Shakespeare addict”. Powell's eyes immediately lit up. He jumped up from his seat and started quoting from his favourite sonnet: Since brass nor stone nor earth nor boundless sea/But sad mortality o'ersways their power/How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea/Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

Suddenly he stopped; unfortunately he couldn’t remember the rest. So I took over, and recited the rest: O how shall summer's honey breath hold out/Against the wrackful siege of batt'ring days/When rocks impregnable are not so stout/Nor gates of steel so strong but time decays?/O fearful meditation! Where alack/Shall time's best jewel from time's chest lie his?/Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?/Or who his spoil or beauty can forbid?/O none unless this miracle have might./That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

Powell looked at me with a mixture of admiration and awe and exclaimed that he had not come across someone who could quote Shakespeare offhand with such felicity even in the hallowed universities of Cambridge and Oxford. He added that both his achievements as well as Yukawa’s paled into insignificance before Shakespeare’s poetry, which — in his view — represented the pinnacle of human intellectual achievement.

While I regard myself as fortunate at having received such high praise especially from one of Powell’s stature, what is meaningful was Powell’s utter humility while talking about Shakespeare. I am indeed aware of the stature of other great men in various fields of intellectual endeavor. I am not downplaying their accomplishments. But when we refer to Shakespeare, I feel that all comparisons must cease.

This is the point that the famous English poet Matthew Arnold made when he said: Others abide our question. Thou art free/We ask and ask: Thou smilest and art still/Out-topping knowledge .For the loftiest hill

That to the stars uncrowned his majesty,/Planting his steadfast footsteps in the sea/Making the Heaven of Heavens his dwelling-place/Spares but the cloudy border of his base./To the foil’d searching of mortality:/And thou who didn't the stars and sunbeams know/Self-schooled ,self-scann'd self-honour'd self-secure/Did walk on Earth unguess'd at .Better so!/All pains and immortal spirits must endure,/All weakness that impairs ,all griefs that bow,/Find their sole voice in that victorious brow.

In these lines, Arnold, like the great Shakespearean scholar Pearsall Logan Smith, emphatically stated that while all other geniuses must “abide our question” i.e. await our verdict, Shakespeare alone is “free” i.e he is beyond all questions, analysis, scrutiny and judgment.

Who could have said it better than Shakespeare’s own compatriot Ben Jonson who wrote Soul of the Age/The applause! delight! the wonder of our stage!/My Shakespeare rise; I will not lodge thee by/Chaucer or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie/A little further to make thee a room/Thou art a monument without a tomb. And again: Leave thee alone for the comparison/Of all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome/Sent forth or since did from the ashes come./Triumph my Britain, thou hast one to show./To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe./He was not for an age, but for all time!

Note Jonson's reference to Greece and Rome. Shakespearean scholars understand that, in paying such a tribute to Shakespeare, Jonson has dismissed even Homer, Virgil, Socrates, and Aristotle in two lines. Referring to Aristotle, English poet Alexander Pope had said that one Shakespeare following nature’s lights is worth whole planets full of Stagyrites (Aristotles).

The famous astronomer Kepler, who discovered the laws of Planetary Motion, lived at about the same as Shakespeare. There is historical evidence to show that Kepler took astrology as seriously as he took astronomy. On the other hand, Shakespeare regarded astrology as a pseudoscience and treated it with the contempt it deserves. In Julius Caesar (Act 1, Scene 2), he makes Cassius tell Brutus: Why man he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a colossus and we petty men/Walk under his huge legs and peep about/To find ourselves dishonorable graves/Men at some times are masters of their fates/The fault dear Brutus is not in our stars/but in ourselves that we are underlings.

And again in King Lear, Edmund’s words in Act 1, Scene2: This is the excellent foppery of the world that when we are sick in fortune — often the surfeit of our own behavior — we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars, as if we were villains by necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance, drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence, and all that we are evil in by a divine thrusting-on. An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! My father compounded with my mother under the dragon’s tail and my nativity was under Ursa Major, so that it follows I am rough and lecherous. Fut, I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.

Is this not the height of irony? A famous astronomer with blind belief in astrology and even writing treatises on that subject while a great poet, with a scientific temper, regards it as a pseudoscience.

The English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner alone would fetch him a couple of Nobel Prizes were he alive today, refers to the Bard of Avon as “myriad-minded Shakespeare”( a unit of 10,000 ). Shakespeare is the only man who is so universally and unanimously acknowledged as the greatest genius ever born.

Several reputed international magazines brought out special editions to commemorate the London Olympics in 2012. One of the main attractions in the Olympics village was a replica of Shakespeare’s theatre as it existed in his time. It was a veritable museum of Shakespearean memorabilia. Among the valuable treasures displayed there was a copy of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, autographed by Nelson Mandela who had read it during his days in Robben Island.

There was no mention of Newton or Darwin or Churchill. It appeared that London had seized the golden opportunity to pay tribute to England's greatest son Shakespeare. No other Briton had the stature of Shakespeare — neither Newton nor Darwin nor Churchill — to reveal to the world England’s unrivalled intellectual heritage at this critical juncture of its history. Remember Shakespeare’s immortal passage in King Richard II, in which John of Gaunt goes into raptures while praising England: This earth of majesty ,this seat of Mars/This other Eden Demi-paradise/This fortress built by Nature for herself/Against infection and the hand of war/This happy breed of men this little world/This precious stone set in the silver sea/Which serves it in the office of a wall/Or as a moat defensive to a house/Against the envy of less happier lands/This blessed plot this earth this realm this England/This nurse this teeming womb of royal kings/Feared by their breed and famous by their birth...

What a waterfall of metaphors! Has any poet in any language ever praised a country in this manner? Almost every section of the vast crowds that had come to watch the games reportedly turned up at the theatre to pay homage to the Bard.

My obsession with Shakespeare should not be confused (as is often the case) with an admiration for Britain’s colourful history, the ascent of its Empire or the superficial glories of British civilisation. I only worship Shakespeare.

I admire Albert Einstein, Neils Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Paul Dirac. I experience a certain joy when I read Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle or the Dirac equation. But it cannot be compared to the thrill experienced when reading “To be, or not to be …” (Hamlet), or “Dear Nature hear, dear Goddess hear …” (King Lear). I also have great admiration for Charles Darwin, Francis Crick and Jim Watson. I experience a feeling of delight when I read the theory of the survival of the fittest or the way DNA replicates but I don’t go into raptures as I do when I read “Tomorrow and tomorrow...” (Macbeth) or “Why man he doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus” (Julius Caesar). All these great scientists are, no doubt, extraordinarily gifted “honourable “men (pardon me for using “honourable” in a context entirely different from the one that Mark Antony used in Julius Caesar). But where Shakespeare is concerned, I draw the line.

Like most people, I cannot say science is science and literature is literature, and that the two cannot be compared. This is true when comparing mere mortals in two different fields. But in the case of Shakespeare alone, we are dealing with the one supreme genius who is far above all other mortals.

The renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking has said that if we discover a complete theory about the universe, it would enable us to understand the purpose of man’s existence and the universe, which would in turn lead us to know the mind of God. This is in sharp contrast to Alexander Pope’s views expressed in his Essay on Man. Pope wrote: Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;/The proper study of mankind is Man. Pope strongly felt that since God created the Universe, man by understanding his own role would be able to understand the whole purpose of creation. This is exactly what Shakespeare alone accomplished around 130 before Pope made those observations. He studied every aspect of our existence, explored every emotion that governs our lives, and understood human nature better than anyone else in the history of mankind.

That is why I read Shakespeare. That is why I recite to myself every day great passages from his powerful plays. I believe that maintaining constant touch with them will eventually help me get an insight into his “mighty mind”.

Nothing I have said must be misconstrued as an attempt to downplay the fantastic achievements of the pure sciences or technology that have immeasurably improved our quality of life. It is just that, in any intellectual discussion, I cannot resist drifting towards that one man or God, as I refer to William Shakespeare. I am too deeply steeped in his plays and poems, as you can see from the few quotations that I have drawn from the storehouse of my knowledge of his works, to entertain any other point of view.

When I stood in front of Shakespeare’s grave at Stratford-upon-Avon several years ago, my younger son remarked that I seemed to be in a trance. Yes, I was. I was thrilled to the core by the realisation that there beneath my feet lay the dust of the mysterious brain that had conceived Macbeth and Hamlet, the farsighted eyes that had plumbed the depths of life, and that wonderful hand that had traced those magnificent sonnets. I could not help recalling Thomas De Quincey’s famous lines about Shakespeare in his famous “On the Knocking at the Gate, in Macbeth”: Oh mighty poet! Thy works are not like those of other men, simply and merely great works of art; but are also like the phenomena of nature, like the sun and the sea, the stars and the flowers; like frost and snow, rain and dew, hail-storm and thunder, which are to be studied with entire submission of our faculties.

I experienced the same emotion that made Wordsworth write the following powerful lines in Tintern Abbey. For the first time in my whole life, I could feel: A presence that disturbs me with joy/Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime,/Of something far more deeply interfused,/Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,/And the round ocean and the living air,/And the blue sky and in the mind of man/A motion and a spirit, that impels/All thinking things all objects of all thought/And rolls through all things.

There are no words to describe the thrill I experienced, as I stood in front of the grave of such a great genius — the kind of emotion that floods a devotee’s mind as he stands before the God he admires, adores, and worships.

Shakespeare is a supreme genius. Neither the miraculous gadgets of our great age of technology nor man’s limited rational insight into the mysteries of the cosmos nor the sweetness of “unheard” melodies as Keats referred to the Grecian urn, nor the beauty of the Elgin marbles, nor the mellifluous strains of Beethoven’s music can rival or outlive Shakespeare’s “powerful rhyme”. If in some distant future, visitors from an alien civilisation were to visit our little planet, long after man has disappeared, they will not marvel so much at Einstein’s relativity or Dirac’s quantum mechanics, Darwin’s evolution or Crick’s double helix as at the soul-stirring poetry of William Shakespeare.

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2021 2:20:57 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/confessions-of-a-shakespeare-addict/article5928729.ece

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