World Book Day: An Ode To The Bard, The Best Of Them All

World Book Day: An Ode To The Bard, The Best Of Them All

by V R Ferose - Sunday, April 23, 2017 05:02 PM IST
World Book Day: An Ode To The Bard, The Best Of Them AllShakespeare’s First Folio. 
  • Shakespeare is the first literary writer to invent truly three dimensional fictional human beings: characters who, in hearing themselves think, proceed to develop.

    They interact in a vibrant, global context, showing the extremities of the human condition.

My earliest memory of Shakespeare is watching Merchant of Venice played out at my school annual day.

Tarry a little; there is something else. This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood; The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh:’ Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh; But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate Unto the state of Venice.
Portia to Shylock Act No: 4.1.305.

That quote has stayed with me for over three decades! While I have to thank our Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE) syllabus for introducing Shakespeare during our school days, I vividly remember that the literature class was not something I looked forward to.

The language was foreign and I could not relate to the characters either. I would rather read all of Shakespeare now, when I have the understanding, ability and maturity to enjoy the narrative.

Over the years my reintroduction to Shakespeare has been largely thanks to the Indian film director Vishal Bharadwaj’s regular dose of Bollywood adaptations of Shakespeare’s work.

While you should not judge a book by its movie, Vishal Bharadwaj had done an exceptional job of making Indian versions of three of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies: Othello (Omkara), Hamlet (Haider) and Macbeth (Maqbool).

The Bard’s work has also been performed on stages all over the world in every possible language. I never miss an opportunity to watch a Shakespearean play or an adaptation of it, which showcases the same in a different context or with a modern spin to it.

While his tragedies are hugely popular, I myself enjoy the comedies better. One of the productions that I was fortunate enough to see was called Jungle Mein Mangal, a Marathi adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Ranga Shankara theatre. Although in a language I wasn’t too familiar with, it was a laugh riot with all the male characters played by women and vice versa.

Another production Piya Behroopia, a Hindi adaptation of Twelfth Night at M L R Convention Centre was performed as a musical with every character speaking a different dialect of Hindi and singing in a different style of Indian music - Rajasthani folk, Hindustani Classical and so on.

Rajat Kapoor, a well known name in Indian theatre, has staged a parody version of Hamlet called Hamlet the Clown Prince and I watched it at the Jagriti Theatre.

More recently, I also caught his production of Macbeth in Redwood City.

But the most memorable of all would have to be The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) performed by The Reduced Shakespeare Company at Chowdiah Memorial Hall. I don’t remember laughing that hard at any other play.

After moving to the US, I accidentally discovered the Shakespeare Society of America (SSA) at Moss Landing while returning from a weekend trip to Carmel. The purpose of SSA was to provide public benefit programmes which inspire education and personal development through the works of William Shakespeare, melding history, culture, literature, theatre and art in America.

This was a small space which kept the spirit of Shakespeare alive.

Interestingly, I had visited Shakespeare’s birthplace at Stratford Upon Avon, UK in 2005. While this should have been a high, it happened at a point in my life when I knew or cared very little about him or his works. I wish I am able to revisit it now when it has more meaning to me.

Today, my relationship to Shakespeare has taken a very different and exciting turn, that of a collector focused on the history and making of the first four Folios containing the complete works of Shakespeare.

If this interests you as much as it interests me, I would recommend a few books out there that make for fascinating reading. Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger by Stephen H Grant, and The Bard and the Millionaire by Andrea E Mays, both of which give a good idea of not only how the Folios came into being, but also the obsession of Folio collectors over the ages.

The Fourth Folio.
The Fourth Folio.

Inspired by these collectors, I bought an original leaf from one of the four Folios printed in the seventeenth century, the closest I will ever come to owning a piece of Shakespeare history!

The four Shakespeare Folios have become some of the most valued books in the history of Western literature and printing. They were published in the seventeenth century for little more than a pound and today command anything from four to seven million dollars for an intact copy at auctions. Their full and original title is Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies and though the Folios became a kind of repository for all of the Bard’s plays, they were, strictly speaking, not the first editions – many of these plays had been published as quartos, and several more in pirated editions (yes, piracy existed even then!)

More accurately, they are the first published plays in the folio format which at that time was the most prestigious and expensive pedigree a book could have.

One of the reasons the Folios have such an aura about them is because if they had not been printed, the world perhaps may have entirely lost several of the Bard’s great plays to obscurity and time. Unpublished plays such as Macbeth, Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, and Julius Caesar were all gathered here for the first time.

If the two men responsible for the Folio, John Heminges and Henry Condell, had not been passionate enough about the project, many plays would have perished. At the Morgan Library in New York I even got the opportunity to see an original copy of the First Folio since it is constantly on display. During my visit to the Mystery Pier Bookstore in Los Angeles, I got the opportunity to see the 1734 first separate printings of Shakespeare (Othello, Romeo and Juliet, The Comedy of Errors, As you like it, Julius Caesar and Measure for Measure).

The original Folio leaf I acquired is from the Fourth Folio because when buying single dis-bound leaves from any of the four Folios, the chances of it being a facsimile in the Fourth are very small, at least smaller than from those from the First.

When the First Folio was published it was used by its owners just as if it was another book in the house – as a result copies weren’t particularly taken care of, and when they began to be collected perhaps 50 or 100 years after they were published, collectors noticed leaves torn or missing from the Folio.

To complete their copy they began the practice of having facsimile leaves made and carefully inserted. There is thus always the possibility that a leaf from a First Folio could be one of those facsimiles – which were of the highest quality, and could almost stand in for the real thing.

While I was exploring Shakespeare in his published, physical editions, my wife, Deepali, was taking a course at Stanford University titled “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.” This meant that I could now spend my evenings discussing Othello and Hamlet! It always helps to have a partner who knows a little more than you.

Very first separate printings of Shakespeare’s work.
Very first separate printings of Shakespeare’s work.

Deepali shared with me what the course was getting at in suggesting Shakespeare invented ‘the human’ by quoting from her course introduction: “…Shakespeare is the first literary writer to invent truly three dimensional fictional human beings: characters who, in hearing themselves think, proceed to develop…They interact in a vibrant, global context, showing the extremities of the human condition. Betrayal, passionate first love, sibling rivalry, an unquenchable thirst for power, cunning, avarice, despair, madness - it’s all there.”

Based in Palo Alto, VR Ferose is SVP & Head of Globalization Services at SAP SE. He is a Board Member of Specialist People Foundation. He founded the India Inclusion Foundation, which seeks to mainstream India’s inclusion discussion, and conducts the India Inclusion Summit and Inclusion Fellowships. In 2012, the World Economic Forum named him a ‘Young Global Leader’. In March 2017, he was conferred the AUCD award for his pathbreaking ‘Autism at Work’ initiative. Ferose has co-authored Gifted, a best-seller on people with disabilities.

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