It is common knowledge that most people from all walks of life in any country, whatever their levels of education, would have at least heard of Shakespeare.
They may be aware that he was an English poet and playwright who lived a few centuries ago but is very famous today.
They probably know the titles of some of his plays: Julius Caesar, Hamlet, King Lear, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night.
They may remember a few phrases from them—'Cowards die many times before their death, The valiant never taste of death but once', 'To be or not to be that is the question', 'How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is, To have a thankless child', 'All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players', 'Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them '—even if they are ignorant of which play they come from.
Perhaps they have visited Shakespeare's Birthplace on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon (incidentally I have visited Stratford-upon-Avon eleven times—a record for a tourist according to officials of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust!)
They may have come across a baseless and malicious theory that Shakespeare was not the true author of the plays and that someone else (e.g. Marlowe, Bacon) was the real author.
But if they had read Shakespeare’s plays often, they should know the famous quote from Romeo and Juliet: “What's in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet.” Anyway, except a fringe, the rest of the world believes that Shakespeare was indeed the author of the magnificent plays.
Some children at school may have been forced to learn passages from Shakespeare's plays by heart; perhaps ones starting 'The quality of mercy is not strained', or, 'Is this a dagger which I see before me?', or, from a sonnet such as 'When to the sessions of sweet silent thought '.
Such a task may have been imposed on them as a punishment. They may have been compelled to take part in a classroom reading, or to reluctantly act in a scene from one of the plays in front of their schoolfellows during an annual function.
The great philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russel rightly said that children associate Shakespeare with pedantic boredom. If they could meet him in the flesh, full of jollity and ale, they would be astonished and if they had never heard of him before, they might be led by his jollity to see what he had written.
But if at school they had been inoculated against him, they will never be able to enjoy him. Shakespeare did not write with a view to boring school-children; he wrote with a view to delighting his audiences.
Comparing, the Norwegian playwright Ibsen with Shakespeare, Bertrand Russel observed:
"No increased powers of expression, no greater gift for words, could have transformed Ibsen into Shakespeare. The materials out of which the latter created his works - his conception of human dignity, his sense of the importance of human passions, his vision of the amplitude of human life - simply did not and could not exist for lbsen''.
The same thing could be said of all other dramatists in the whole range of literature, also.
But then something may have suddenly happened to kindle the interest of some young children in Shakespeare. They may have been compelled to see a Shakespeare play or film just to keep a friend or a family member company or because a famous film or television star--a Lawrence Olivier or a John Gielgud was acting in it.
They might have been surprised to find a few passages interesting. This is exactly where an enlightened teacher can play a major role in nurturing that interest and developing in a schoolboy a love for Shakespeare during the remaining period of his stay at school.
Now let us 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.
This extraordinary vocabulary represented 40 per cent of the total vocabulary of the English language up to the year 1623 (and Shakespeare had no access to any dictionary to learn those words!)
To put it in perspective, the average person has only a speaking and writing vocabulary ranging from 2,000 to 3,000 words, and a recognition capacity of about 5,000 words. In great writers these figures grow to one-and-a-half times or twice the number — Milton had a vocabulary of 10,000 words and Homer 9,000 words.
The King James Bible has 8,000 words.
Webster’s Third New International Dictionary lists 4,50,000, and the Oxford English Dictionary lists 6,15,000, words out of a total vocabulary of two million people words in Modern English followed by German with 1,86,000 words, Russian with 1,36,000 words, and French with 1,26,000 words.
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).
Major sections of large libraries in many universities and bookstores whether in Washington or London are devoted to him. More books and articles have been written about him and his works than about any other individual (except perhaps prophets).
Shakespeare coined over 1700 (according to some estimates the figure is much higher) of our common words by changing nouns into verbs, verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and devising words wholly original. or even any other single subject (at least till the age of computers!).
The sentence "To be or not to be, that is the question" from Hamlet, and the first line of his most famous sonnet "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" are believed to be the most quoted lines in the internet. Shakespeare’s quotes are printed on T- Shirts, Jackets, mugs, and plaques.
Now I propose to show some special techniques employed by Shakespeare to impart music and an electromagnetic force to his words: techniques which no other dramatist in the world has employed.
First of all he had the gift of creating the exact image to suit the context . Thus for example there is in Henry V the following passage
'Tis not the balm, the sceptre, and the ball,
The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,
The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,
The farced title running 'fore the king,
The throne he sits on; nor the tide of pomp
That beats upon the high shore of this world–
No, not all these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony,
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave'
Henry muses on the difference in station between a common soldier and himself. Henry says that the main difference is in the ceremony and homage given to him. But for this homage he must in return give up peace of mind and easy sleep. It may be noted that Henry has used about ten images that reflect the pomp and pageantry of royalty.
In Antony and Cleopatra, Enobarbus describes the barge of Cleopatra : He produces a waterfall of images !
Enobarbus: I will tell you.
The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar'd all description: she did lie
In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,
O'erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour'd fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did'.
Macbeth on realising the full horror of the murder he had committed looks at his hand and says
'Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red'.
Shakespeare makes, a magnificently poetic, verb out of "incarnadine," a sixteenth century adjective meaning "pink." (The Latin root carn refers to flesh, and thus, in its derivatives, to flesh color.) "To incarnadine" is thus to turn something pink or light red—what Macbeth imagines his bloody hands will do to Neptune's green ocean.
After Shakespeare, the verb and adjective have both come to refer to the colour of blood itself—crimson—rather than to the light red of a bloodied sea.
King Lear curses his ungrateful daughter Goneril as follows:
'Hear, nature, hear; dear goddess, hear!
Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful!
Into her womb convey sterility!
Dry up in her the organs of increase;
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honour her! If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen; that it may live,
And be a thwart disnatured torment to her!
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth;
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks;
Turn all her mother's pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt, -- that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is
To have a thankless child! '
I would regard this as the greatest and most powerful passage in English literature.
Another unique skill of Shakespeare was his extraordinary ability to use various figures of speech such as irony, metaphor, simile, Caesura, riposia, epimone, ploce, anadiplosis, aposiopesis, anaconosis polyptoton, litotes, pun, and circumlocution, to name just a few, to embellish his dramatic technique.
It is estimated that he knew about fifty figures of speech. No other poet has crossed even 10 or 15 at the most.
Some of these figures of speech are so obscure, that they are beyond the comprehension of even poets like Milton and Keats.
In Julius Caesar, Mark Antony's funeral oration alone contains all the figures of speech mentioned above.
Shakespeare is unique in another aspect. He makes Iago the wicked villain in Othello, say the following noble sentence :
"Good name in man and woman, dear my lord, Is the immediate jewel of their souls: Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing; 'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands: But he that filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him And makes me poor indeed "
Shakespeare is a wizard in drawing metaphors from any human activity. A soliloquy in Macbeth which I find fascinating is the one in which Macbeth admits to himself that he has no moral justification for committing the murder of King Duncan. He first specifies the reasons he has for not killing him and then candidly acknowledges in a suspended metaphor his only reason for murdering Duncan by saying: ' I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, except vaulting ambition, that overleaps itself and falls on the other '.
One soliloquy in Macbeth relies on several images, derived from horse-riding:
The word ‘trammel’, summons the idea of binding a horse’s legs together, while the sentence ‘I have no spur/To prick the sides of my intent’ suggests a rider kicking his horse to make it gallop. Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself / And falls on th’ other’ calls to mind an over-hasty horse which trips because it is jumping too far, too fast.
Some scholars think that this metaphor 'prick the sides of my intent" may mean an inexperienced and rather clumsy horseman, who tries to mount a horse but vaults so ridiculously that he sails over the saddle and falls in a heap on the ground. However, in my view, Shakespeare meant the two images mentioned earlier. Macbeth is foreseeing that it will be a serious mistake to murder Duncan just to achieve his ambition.
At another place Macbeth asks 'if we should fail?'
Lady Macbeth answers:
'Screw your courage to the sticking place, and we shall not fail'.
It’s an image from a crossbow (the type used by William Tell) whose string is pulled taut by turning a wooden screw. Only when the screw is turned to its fullest extent — its sticking place — the crossbow is ready to fire.
However, in the traditional bow/long bow, the type used by Robin Hood, the bow is bent, the string pulled back along with the arrow and then the arrow is shot.
Lady Macbeth, is referring to the crossbow, and saying that Macbeth needs to generate the required courage, which like the arrow of a crossbow, is fixed in the sticking place, for being fired.
In Shakespeare's time 'Bear baiting' was a popular sport. A bear was tied with a rope to a sturdy post inside an arena filled with spectators. Then a pack of aggressive dogs or lions were let loose and a bloody fight to the death ensued. The bear was unable to escape or defend itself.
So Macbeth says,
"I am tied to a stake and must bear-like fight my course'
Macbeth invokes this image as he anticipates that he will soon be attacked by Malcolm's forces and he has no alternative but to fight to save himself.
This discussion will be incomplete without making a mention of the conversation in Twelfth Night between Duke Orsino and Viola, who is dressed as a man. When the Duke asks her about her sister, Viola who is in love with him answers
"She never told her love,
But let concealment like a worm in the bud
Feed on her damask cheek; she pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like Patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief"
Shakespeare makes Viola use three figures of speech, simile, metaphor, and personification to tell a cleverly disguised truth about herself, and her love for him, as the Duke doesn't know that Viola dressed as a page is a lady.
When the Duke asks Viola whether her sister died of her love, Viola who herself is in love with the Duke says,
“I am all the daughters of my father’s house,
And all the brothers too."
There was no cleverer way for Viola to convey her love for the Duke, having regard to the circumstances in which she had found herself.
According to the great Shakespeare scholar, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, this last sentence of Viola defines poetry.
No one has an obligation or duty to like Shakespeare. On the other hand, it is a wonderful experience to read him, enjoy him and allow him to enrich your life.
Milton makes Adam say to Eve
'my Ever New Delight'.
To me it is Shakespeare .
Othello refers to his love for Desdemona as 'the fountain from which my current runs or else dries up'.
To me it is Shakespeare.
If I were asked which is my greatest source of intellectual and spiritual enlightenment in this world, I would unhesitatingly point to Shakespeare.
V.S.Ravi is a distinguished and highly decorated IPS officer having served both the Government of AP and the Government of India, for 35 years. He retired in 1998. He is a scion of the Alladi family, being a grandson of the Late Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, one of the Chief architects of the Constitution . Sri Ravi is one of the foremost authorities on Shakespeare in the country. He has contributed articles on Shakespeare to the Hindu and News Time Now. He passed Physics (Hons) with distinction and he has kept himself in touch with the latest developments in science and technology.
An appeal from Swarajya
At Swarajya, we rely on our readers' support through subscriptions to sustain our media platform. Unlike larger conglomerates, we are unable to relentlessly chase advertising money — our model is largely built on your patronage.
Your support has never been more crucial. We work tirelessly to deliver 10-15 high-quality articles daily, ensuring you receive insightful content from 7 AM to 10 PM.
If you believe India's story has to be articulated in a way it has never been done before without shrugging it off, become a patron (or) subscribe now for ₹̶2̶4̶0̶0̶ ₹1999 and get 12 print issues, unlimited digital access for 1 year, a special India that is Bharat T-shirt (Offer ends soon).
We are counting on you!