Shakespeare was born on April 23. He died, 52 years later, on the same day. The bard is synonymous with the English Language. But he is being sidelined from the university syllabi. English language lovers tell K. PRADEEP what they feel about this.
WILLAIM SHAKESPEARE was hailed to be `not of an age but for all time.' He was supposed to even outlive the great British Empire, remaining with everyone who had the fortune to meet him through his immortal works. The paradox is that, today, in most of the universities in the country, especially the ones nearer home, the syllabi have been restructured in such a manner that the Bard of Avon is no longer an icon. While reducing someone like Shakespeare to the status of just another Elizabethan playwright is considered scandalous by the older generation of teachers and students, the younger group, recognising the worth of this great poet, sees the need for a re-reading of his works.
"If at all you are introducing an English author to an Indian student the first name obviously must be Shakespeare. He is still respected and he is still relevant. But there is no need to treat him as an icon. For the last so many years there has been a sort of emotional approach to Shakespeare studies, which I feel should change. This colonial burden must be put down and a very contemporary relevant reading needed," feels Dr. C. B. Sudhakaran, Head of the Department of English, The Cochin College.
This call for a new approach to literature studies was on the anvil for many years. Debates on the relevance of teaching humanities, including English, in the present times were on in Indian and foreign universities.
"It was there for a long time. Maybe right from the time I began my career. It was a trend set by the giant strides taken by science and technology. In everything the utilitarian aspect gained more significance than the aesthetic. It was also a fallout of a psychological reaction in post-colonial countries against canonised authors. This necessitated a re-reading of many authors, including Shakespeare. This restructuring of the syllabus would have taken place much earlier in our universities had it not been for some staunch Shakespeare supporters in the Board of Studies," says Prof. C. S. Jayaram, former HOD, English Department, Sacred Heart College, Thevara.
Earlier, there was an acerbic competition in being chosen to teach Shakespeare at the intermediate or graduate classes, recalls Prof. T. K. Balakrishnan.
"Perhaps the opportunity to teach Shelley or Keats came next. Such glories have now vanished. Shakespeare walks with a diminished head in our colleges now," Prof. Balakrishnan adds.
"What a pity!" This was Dr. Mathew's first reaction when this subject was broached. The former principal of Maharaja's College, Ernakulam, went on, "In the forties and fifties, before a student took his B.A. degree, he would have done three Shakespeare plays. One, during his Intermediate and two at the B.A. level. Even though some of us were students of science, we looked forward to those Shakespeare classes."
Today under the new syllabus, at the undergraduate level, Part I English students have options. The science students can opt for what is called English for students of science. Here, a minimum of two to three textbooks are on subjects related to science, while the novel is usually a science fiction one. Only the English Literature students, at this level, come across Shakespeare. "At this stage, it must be said that the hours allotted is heavily loaded in favour of the poet. One play of the Bard, out of the two prescribed, is for compulsory study," notes Dr. Sudhakaran.
Prof. Madhukar Rao, a well-known teacher of Shakespeare studies, feels that by limiting Shakespeare in the syllabus they had belittled the poet. Many, he felt, believed that English started only in the 1950s. "With many lecturers in India it has now become a fashion to decry Shakespeare. They feel two inches taller when they exclaim with a superior air, `William Shakespeare is dated.' They forget that almost every English writer worth the name has Shakespeare in his bones. To cite a few examples, we speak of the Oedipus complex. Freud discovered it in Hamlet, first. Edward Bond for his `aggro' effect in the epic theatre hearkened back to King Lear, Barrie's `Dear Brutus,' Stoppard's `Rosencratnz and Guilderstern Are Dead', the popular one-act play, `The Queen and Mr. Shakespeare,' Christopher Fry's `Curtmantle' all go back to Shakespeare. Almost all the poems of T. S. Eliot contain numerous references to his plays. One of my friends, an inveterate Shakespeare detractor, apologetically remarked, when confronted with all these details, that he is a born cynic. My polite rejoinder was, `cynicism is a mask for cowardice and ignorance'," Prof. Rao elaborated.
"The need to make English studies more relevant cannot be negated. The focus today is not on the author but more on his works. The sanctity of the author is always questioned, while the works, as specimens, the theories, questions and issues they pose is exemplified. Conventional reading strategies have been obsolete, not Shakespeare as such. Even today there have been so many significant studies on Shakespeare like Jan Kott's `Shakespeare Our Contemporary,' or even Akira Kurosawa's films like `Throne of Blood' and `Ran' which was an attempt at approximation of Shakespeare's work to Japanese culture," says Prof. Jayaram.
The argument floated is that Shakespeare can be read by anyone who is really interested in the poet and his works, at least at the post-graduate level. There is no need to have a whole paper on Shakespeare, for today, what the students are expected to learn is not English Language and Literature but Literature in English and so there must be space for all kinds of literature, even if it means learning it in translation.
"There is absolutely no time in the present semester system for any sort of detailed study. It is a real rat race. Everything is done keeping just the examinations in view.
"From a teacher's point of view, I feel that Shakespeare is relevant. He can never be outdated and his works still hold a mirror to life. It is wrong to think of him simply as a product of a bygone age. The essence of his plays still holds good. However, when we get to language studies there is a need to go beyond Shakespeare. When there is a need to develop communicative skills, to equip and fend for oneself in life, Shakespeare and his language may not be that relevant," feels Prof. Rosamma Joseph, who heads the English Department at St. Teresa's College.
Prof. Balakrishnan partly subscribes to this view. "There is the theory that students who study general English at the B.A. or BSc. level do not need Literature. All that they are expected to study is to write and speak the language without making mistakes. This might be accepted in the changed objective of teaching English in the present day. But those who specialise in English need Literature with a sensitive appreciation of the great masters of drama and poetry and prose."
When syllabi are restructured and options offered, the students, for whom ironically they are supposed to be done, are perhaps never taken into confidence at all. There are so many young boys and girls who jump into English Literature dreaming of wandering into Shakespeare country, living with his interesting characters and drawing their own theories of their actions. Most of them end up disappointed when all they are asked to do is to study Act III of `Hamlet' and the whole play read through in about three hours.
"We were not able to enjoy Shakespeare at all for we went through the prescribed texts at breakneck speed. Shakespeare shares a paper with other Elizabethan dramatists, which is not fair at all. The system that forced this situation is also not right. For Paper 12 there are two plays, Edward Bond's `Lear' and Samuel Becket's `Endgame.' All of us opted for Becket, rather hesitantly, only because to study Bond's play we had to know more about Shakespeare's King Lear. For us Shakespeare is irrelevant and it is sad," laments Renjitha, a final year PG student.
"The young generation surely sees a practical purpose in everything, including the subjects they study. The antique expressions, language of Shakespeare may not be of any practical use to them. This must be one reason why Shakespeare studies have taken a backseat in our college today. But the content is what is important. They still enjoy enacting his plays; the language is not a bother then," confirms Prof. Molly Joseph, HOD, St. Xavier's College for Women, Aluva.
Colleges or universities may not be the final word on the relevance of Shakespeare. "The relevance of an author is not decided by merely being prescribed in college syllabi. It is like asking, are the Bible, the Gita and the Quran relevant? Universities usually do not prescribe any of these humanising works. Languages yet unborn and climes yet unknown will still continue to study Shakespeare," quips Prof. Balakrishnan.
There is a need to read Shakespeare in the contemporary Indian context, even in local situations. "A historical treatment of Shakespeare is what is required, which has relevance in the present and a torchbearer or a light to the future. Reading his plays, like the anti-Semitic echoes in `Merchant of Venice,' or `The Tempest' as a treatise on the coloniser and the colonised, the racial issues in `Othello' or the relationship of power and the underworld in `Macbeth' will make Shakespeare studies much more contemporary, relevant.
"Staging his plays using these diverse themes would be a perfect option. For after all even Shakespeare never wanted his plays to be read, he wanted them to be staged," says Dr. Sudhakaran.
Shakespeare sure, is missed in Universities. Semester systems need a revamp to include much more time for at least a re-reading of his works and to make it relevant in the contemporary context.
(With inputs from Prof. T. K. Balakrishnan and Priyadarsshini Sharma)
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