It is possible to measure a scientist's greatness by his discoveries, which have led to an understanding of Nature's laws and inventions that have benefited mankind. Many modern electronic devices are designed using quantum mechanics. Examples include electron microscopes, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) devices, and the components used in hardware. The study of semiconductors led to the invention of the diode and the transistor, which are indispensable parts of modern electronic systems and telecommunication devices.
Einstein's theory of relativity has made many new technologies possible. A world without relativity would be a world without cathode-ray televisions, radar guns, the global positioning system, and more. Cathode-ray tube (CRT) televisions create pictures by shooting electrons at a phosphorous screen. If it weren't for Einstein's general theory of relativity, we wouldn't know to consider relativity's effects when synchronizing the network of Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites orbiting the Earth.
It's hard to get lost because of GPS—it allows our satnavs (satellite navigation systems) and smartphone map apps to tell us the quickest route to the restaurant or the beach.
A LASER (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) is a quantum mechanical device invented by Townes. It emits light with a well-defined wavelength in a very narrow beam. The operation of a laser is also based on the quantum mechanical process of stimulated emission, predicted by Einstein when he studied the photoelectric effect.
The question arises as to why poetry is equally important. This is because, great as are the achievements of science, poets have not lost their hold on what is perennial in man, as man is essentially a biological creature, with emotions and feelings. It is poetry that makes human life worth living and lifts it above the level of a farce.
A civilization based entirely on scientific materialism does not make human life worth living, unless it is accompanied by eternal values, enshrined in great poetical works such as Shakespeare's. It is poetry that protects the moral fabric of civilization.
Shakespeare did not have to visit Disneyland to get excitement. But his poetry is greater than all theme parks put together.
I was just a schoolboy when one day in the fifties, 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. Its existence had been postulated by Hideki Yukawa, who was also awarded the Prize.
During the conversation, my uncle casually mentioned to Powell that I was a "Shakespeare addict." Powell's eyes immediately lit up. He jumped up from his seat and started quoting from his favorite 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 of the lines.
So I took over and recited from:
"O how shall summer's honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of battering days
To 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 in 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 endeavour. I am not downplaying their accomplishments. But when we refer to Shakespeare, I feel all comparisons must cease.
This was the point that the famous poet Matthew Arnold made in his sonnet:
"Others abide our question. Thou art free.
We ask and ask—Thou smilest and art still,
Out-topping knowledge. For the loftiest hill,
Who to the stars uncrowns 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 didst the stars and sunbeams know,
Self-school'd, self-scann'd, self-honour'd, self-secure,
Didst tread on earth unguess'd at.—Better so!
All pains the immortal spirit must endure,
All weakness which impairs, all griefs which bow,
Find their sole speech in that victorious brow."
In these lines, Arnold has 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 question, analysis, scrutiny, and judgment.
Who could have said it better than Shakespeare's own compatriot Ben Jonson, in his special tribute?
He addresses Shakespeare as:
"Soul of the Age,
The applause! delight, wonder of our stage!
My Shakespeare rise! I will not lodge thee by
Chaucer or Spencer, or bid Beaumont lie
A little further to make thee a room!
I should commit thee surely with thy peers
And tell how far thou didst our Lyly outshine
Or sporting Kyd or Marlowe's mighty line
From thence to honour thee I would not seek
For names; but call forth thundering Aeschylus
Euripides and Sophocles to us.”
“Leave thee alone for thy comparison
Of all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome
Sent forth and since did from their ashes
Triumph my Britain thou hast one to show
To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe
He was not of an age but for all time.”
By referring to Greece and Rome, Ben Jonson has dismissed Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles in just a few lines.
Several reputed international magazines brought out special editions to commemorate the London Olympics in 2012. One of the main attractions in the Olympic Village was a replica of Shakespeare's theater as it existed in his time. It was a veritable museum of Shakespearean memorabilia.
Among the valuable treasures displayed there was a copy of Julius Caesar autographed by Nelson Mandela who had read it during his days in the prison on Robben Island. There was no mention of Newton or Darwin or Churchill but only Shakespeare.
It appeared that London had seized the opportunity to pay homage to England's greatest son and to reveal to the world England's unrivalled literary heritage.
One recalls Shakespeare's immortal passage in King Richard II, in which John of Gaunt goes into raptures while praising England:
“This Royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle
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"
What a waterfall of metaphors!
My obsession with Shakespeare should not be confused with a blind admiration for Britain's colourful history, or the superficial glories of the British Empire. I only worship Shakespeare! I do admire Einstein, Bohr, and Dirac. I do experience a certain joy when I read Heisenberg's uncertainty principle or the Dirac equation. But it cannot be compared to the thrill I experience when reading "To be or not to be" from Hamlet or “Hear Nature hear, Dear Goddess hear” from King Lear.
Almost every section of the vast crowds that had come to witness the games turned up at the theater to pay homage to the bard!
Like most people, I cannot say Science is Science, Poetry is Poetry, and so Scientists and Poets cannot be compared. This is no doubt true when comparing mere mortals. But in the case of Shakespeare alone, we are dealing with the one supreme genius who is far above all other mortals.
Stephen Hawking 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 enable us to know the mind of God. This is in sharp contrast to what Pope wrote in 1733. "Know then thyself presume not God to scan The proper study of mankind is man.”
Hawking felt that since God created the universe, man by understanding his own role should be able to understand the purpose of creation. This is exactly what Shakespeare alone had accomplished about 133 years 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.
As I stated earlier, nothing that I have said must be misconstrued as an attempt to downplay the fantastic achievements of Science or technology that have immeasurably improved the quality of human life. It is just that in any discussion in respect of human intellect, I cannot resist drifting towards that one man.
A few years ago, during a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon I had stood in front of the grave of William Shakespeare. My younger son who was with me remarked that I seemed to be in a trance. Yes, I was. I was thrilled to the core of my being by the realization that there beneath my feet, lay the dust of the mysterious brain that had conceived Hamlet and Macbeth, the farsighted eyes that had plumbed the depths of life and the wonderful hand that had traced those marvelous sonnets.
I could not help recalling De Quincey's famous lines about Shakespeare "on 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 thrill and emotion that had made Wordsworth write the following lines above Tintern Abbey:
"I have felt
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 indeed no words to describe the thrill I experienced as I stood in front of Shakespeare's grave - the kind of emotion that floods a devotee's mind when he stands before the God he worships.
Shakespeare’s Funerary Monument is a memorial to Shakespeare located in the choir of the Holy Trinity Church. It was made by Gerard Johnson, the Flemish artist who was commissioned by Shakespeare's son-in-law John Hall in 1616. It is a demi-figure of Shakespeare holding a quill in one hand and a piece of paper resting on a cushion in the other.
It is one of only two representations accepted as accurately portraying Shakespeare’s physical appearance. The date of the Monument must have been 1616. Beneath the figure is engraved an epitaph in Latin and a poem in English.
The first line of the epitaph, which is in Latin when translated reads: “A Pylian in judgement, a Socrates in genius, a Maro in art,” comparing him to Nestor, the wise king of Pylus, in judgment, to the Greek philosopher Socrates in genius, and the Roman poet Virgil (whose last name was Maro) in art.
The second line reads: "The Earth buries him, the people mourn him, Olympus possesses him,” referring to Olympus, the home of the Greek Gods. But Shakespeare was greater than Socrates, Virgil, and Nestor combined!
On Shakespeare’s gravestone are the words: “GOOD FRIEND FOR JESUS SAKE FORBEAR TO DIG THE DUST ENCLOSED HERE BLESSED BE THE MAN THAT SPARES THESE STONES AND CURST BE HE THAT MOVES MY BONES.”
The words have been spelled in archaic English and are in capital letters (I have given modern spelling while retaining the capital letters). For a long time, I had been unable to understand why and how these lines came to be written. I was intrigued as to why this marvelous man who had erected intellectual pyramids that gaze out into the vast literary sands for eternity would have been so superstitious as to put these crude pebbles (as a curse) on his gravestone. Then it occurred to me that in all probability, Thomas Hall who had been looking after these affairs might have put that inscription, to prevent illiterate miscreants from tampering with the grave.
Shakespeare in genius excelled the human race. Neither the miraculous gadgets of our seemingly 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 symphonies can rival or outlive Shakespeare's powerful rhyme.
More than all the triumphs of our science and technology and the glories of art and music, Shakespeare's plays alone, with their great soliloquies packed with metaphors, similes, and every known figure of speech (that reflect his flashes of genius and leaps of fantastic imagination) can be and should be regarded as man's topmost intellectual achievement on this planet, the fulfillment of long centuries of human civilization and culture.
If at some distant future visitors from an alien planet were to visit our little Planet, long after man has disappeared, they will not marvel so much at Einstein's Relativity or Darwin's Evolution, or Dirac's Quantum mechanics or Crick's Double Helix as at the soul-stirring poetry of William Shakespeare, that eternal monument to human intellectual achievement and dignity, and man's brief appearance in one remote part of our galaxy. 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.
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.
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