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SHJ Issue 13
Fall 2015

Why Shakespeare Is a Third-World Hero

by Prakash Kona

Alexander the Great was more admired by the Persians whose empire he vanquished than he was by the Greeks who made his conquest possible in the first place. Ironically, Shakespeare’s role will be that of Alexander in terms of greatness and what he will mean in the developing world. Alexander understood his enemies and treated them with the respect and humanity they deserved. Shakespeare understood the oppressed and the colonized and accorded them the language of human dignity befitting their pride.

The English who produced Shakespeare have more or less outlived him. The social order that Shakespeare portrays in his dramas has radically altered since the inception of colonialism. What might be of interest in Shakespeare for an English or American reader lies in the exploration of marginal characters that stood at the border of the Elizabethan order and whose historic victimization Shakespeare seems to have had an insight into from the point of view of race, gender, and class. For some others it must be the mere nostalgia that the western world produced a literary imagination as surpassing in genius as that of Shakespeare.

But, Shakespeare’s real value will continue for another thousand years or more among the erstwhile colonized who, like Caliban in The Tempest, have been taught the English language by their colonial masters in “how/ To name the bigger light, and how the less,/ That burn by day and night” (Act I, Scene 2). In exchange for the “naming,” their lands were taken away from them and their cultures devastated; Prospero like a “betrayed” colonizer will say, “lying slave,/ Whom stripes may move, not kindness” (Act I, Scene 2), while accusing Caliban of attempting to rape Miranda, his daughter. Caliban, of course, with the tenacity of a betrayer who believes in his right to do so, will consciously play into the stereotype and respond in the mocking tone that the oppressed use to deconstruct the so-called good intentions of their oppressors: “O ho, O ho! would’t had been done!/ Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else/ This isle with Calibans” (Act I, Scene 2).

All betrayals are built into the intense and poignant bonding created through the social relations in a feudal order. No one understands that social world better than Shakespeare. Thus the broken-hearted father in Much Ado About Nothing will say in response to his virgin daughter having been shamed as “pure impiety and impious purity” (Act 1V, Scene 1) for an illicit affair by her prospective groom: “But mine and mine I loved and mine I praised/ And mine that I was proud on, mine so much/ That I myself was to myself not mine,/ Valuing of her” (Act 1V, Scene 1). The context is a deeply patriarchal and authoritarian one. The daughters must be chaste at all costs and no deviance is expected of them. Yet the bonds of longing and personal attachment that repression will create are as real as life itself. The father will love the daughter as if she were his very self. The same father can wish her death or be the reason of the daughter’s death when it comes to the loss of honor. “If they speak but truth of her,/ These hands shall tear her” (Act 1V, Scene 1). The order must prevail at all costs because the idea of honor is about preserving property relations that are intertwined with the emotional lives of individual characters. No one can, however, doubt the genuineness of the love, or the power of the repression for that matter. Whether it is Othello’s love for Desdemona or Lear’s encompassing affection of his daughters—the reality of the emotion is beyond question, despite the violence of the terrible love whose victims happen to be women.

The oppressed inhabit two worlds. One is in their condition as the oppressed and another is in their humanity as men and women. In the latter condition they will not be fundamentally different from their oppressors. They will live the contradiction in a mental condition where they will simultaneously use power against those who they perceive as weaker than themselves. The instant they overcome that contradiction and like Spartacus believe in human equality in rejecting oppression in any form, the ground is fertile for a social revolution. Shakespeare, however, will see the working classes in the state of contradiction they are bound to. At once deeply loyal to the social order that provides them, the poor are aware of the conflicted situation in which they exist. The language they use will bind them to their oppressors. They will feel one with them playing a role almost predestined on the stage given to them. The emotional bonds in a feudal order where maids share space with mistresses and clowns, and fools with princes and dukes, through the language they speak, give one the illusion of a society ultimately at harmony with itself.

The fact is this: emotional intimacies are formed when people occupy the same physical space for a long period of time. It is never about choices but rather about bonds made through feelings. When Romeo longs to be the “glove” on Juliet’s hand so that he could touch her “cheek,” or when to Juliet, Romeo like the “name” of the rose will be sweet even if he were not called “Romeo,” this is not the poetry of an open society. This is the poetry of a society so deeply closed that it could produce a Rumi, a Hafez, or a Shakespeare. Had Shakespeare lived fifty years earlier or was born later into the Restoration era, his creative genius would not flower in the same manner as it did in the long transition period of the Elizabethan era when English society would irreversibly say goodbye to the medieval world. More than welcoming the new world, Shakespeare is both celebrating and mourning the lost world. Hence Prospero echoing the feelings of his creator will say:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. (Act IV, Scene 1)

The closing statement looks at the world of theatre and the theatre of a world from a profound distance, so unlike the last line of his first performed play Two Gentlemen of Verona: “One feast, one house, one mutual happiness.” (Act V. Scene 4). What makes Shakespeare himself is the infinite empathy with which he will put words into the minor characters that inhabit the territory of the “literal” rather than the metaphorical, which is part of the reason why they have fewer illusions about the world than do the protagonists. Thus Emilia, with the practical sense of a common person, will answer the romantically inclined Desdemona, “for the whole world,—why, who would/ not make her husband a cuckold to make him a/ monarch? I should venture purgatory for’t” (Act IV, Scene 3).

The society Shakespeare reconstructs is the society that we who live in a developing country are most familiar with. We know the poetry because we know the repression as well. Intense repression, intense bonding, and intense poetry go together. The bonding is as inevitable as the repression that produces the poetry in response to the violence of power. The repression is social as much as it is political and by extension personal. It is rooted in the politics of the family. We are enslaved by those very bonds that make us who we are. The minor characters appeal to a modern audience because they voice the marginality of those who are caught in an unequal society. Writers in the twenty-first century, especially those from the developed nations, might have their own special audience in the non-western world, but Shakespeare cuts across the barriers of nation, class, and types of audience. We’re not a politically correct society. And neither are we a society where the law will enter every domain of social life in order to defend individual rights. Our parents are violent like the parents in Shakespeare’s plays and poignantly loving in the same breath. Therefore, we feel a deep connection with those characters as if they were ourselves. It doesn’t matter that they are white and English and from a different world that did not know of our existence. We can’t help identifying with Caesar’s ambition or Desdemona’s grief at Othello’s meaningless suspicion.

It’s a rare moment in history when a conquered people will absorb and internalize a writer or his work with such absolute conviction. In a short essay, “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare,” the black writer James Baldwin says:

My relationship, then, to the language of Shakespeare revealed itself as nothing less than my relationship to myself and my past. Under this light, this revelation, both myself and my past began slowly to open, perhaps the way a flower opens at morning, but more probably the way an atrophied muscle begins to function or frozen fingers to thaw.

To read Shakespeare is to share a past with the history of another world. It is also about knowing colonial history through the history of the language as reflected in his plays.

In Jorge Luis Borges’ existential parable on the life of Shakespeare titled “Everything and Nothing,” unable to discover a “real” self within his own being, the master creates characters out of the dread of his own sense of nothingness, exhausting, like the Egyptian Proteus, “all the guises of reality.” The brilliant ending of the parable complements the haunting sense of nothingness when Shakespeare meets God himself:

History adds that before or after dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: “I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.” The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: “Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.”

It is not however a sense of nothingness that revels in a state of abstraction. To quote Baldwin again:

The greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people. He could have done this only through love—by knowing, which is not the same thing as understanding, that whatever was happening to anyone was happening to him...he saw, as I think we must, that the people who produce the poet as not responsible to him: he is responsible to them.

SHJ Issue 13
Fall 2015

Prakash Kona

is a writer, teacher, and researcher working as a Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad, India. He is the author of Conjurer of Nights [poetry: 2012, Waterloo Press, Hove, UK], Nunc Stans [Creative Nonfiction: 2009, Crossing Chaos enigmatic ink, Ontario, Canada], Pearls of an Unstrung Necklace [Fiction: 2005, Fugue State Press, New York], and Streets that Smell of Dying Roses [Experimental Fiction: 2003, Fugue State Press, New York].

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury