THE ETERNAL BARD | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 09, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:01 AM, June 09, 2018

THE ETERNAL BARD

Age Cannot Wither Him Shakespeare: Four Hundred Years After, Edited by Niaz Zaman and Razia Sultana Khan. Independent University Bangladesh, 2018.

Just the other day I was watching over CNN the celebrated journalist Christianne Amanpour prefacing her interview of the veteran Malaysian political leader, Anwar Ibrahim by stating that the circumstances of his recent release from prison was a story that would have made even Shakespeare blush. A long time back (maybe at the end of the last millennium, or the beginning of this one) I read (possibly in Time magazine) an article that asserted that the only body of literary work that will survive till the end of this world is that of Shakespeare. Regarding the first statement, I believe that William Shakespeare would have composed another timeless drama that would have surpassed the happenings of the actual event. And, in terms of the prognostication, I have no doubt that his works will survive and be read till the end of time in Planet Earth. 

Professor Emeritus of UTSA (The University of Texas at San Antonio) Alan Craven has probably paid the ultimate accolade to Shakespeare:  he is “…the greatest dramatist, the greatest poet and the greatest prose writer in the history of the language.” The totality of his estimation might reasonably be disputed, but its indication to a supreme writer can hardly be contested.  His basic themes of love, treachery, political intrigue, bravery resonate to this day, and his works continue to have profound influence on language, literature, theater, and other elements of culture. Nelson Mandela spent a large part of his long prison sentence reading the Bard, and that speaks volumes about the writer.

The Bard continues, and will continue, to be celebrated across the globe. As he was at a conference in 2016, on his 400th death anniversary, by the Department of English at Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB), under the title of “Age Cannot Wither Him, Nor Custom Stale His Infinite Variety --- Shakespeare:  Four Hundred Years After.” Twelve articles presented on the occasion have been selected for the book Age Cannot Wither Him Shakespeare: Four Hundred Years After, edited by two of the contributors, Niaz Zaman and Razia Sultana Khan. Most are eminently readable, and erudite to boot, underscoring the fact that profound scholarship does not necessarily have to be irksome. Imtiaz Habib (“Shakespeare's India, Bengal, and a “Dark Historical Narrative” in A Midsummer Night's Dream), Fakrul Alam (“Making Shakespeare Our Contemporary in Our Classrooms”) in particular, and Nazmul Ahsan (“Shakespeare in Bangla”) and Md. Saifur Rahman (“From Hamlet to Haider: the Existential Anguish of the Individual under State Surveillance”) dwell at length on the connection between the Bard and India/Bengal, and his impact on aspects of culture of the subcontinent. 

Imtiaz Habib goes to great lengths to prove that “not only is there a specific history of Shakespeare's knowledge of India but also that […] of Bengal, the unmarked faceplate of Shakespeare's India.” The discussion he embarks on is compelling, but, of course, other views could be expected as well. On a grander scale, Habib declares how “in a global millennium,” the “dream of India appear(s) in Shakespeare,” addressing whether “India is a world by itself, into the particular idea of Bengal” in Shakespeare.

Fakrul Alam asserts that most academics find it difficult to teach the Bard's works.  He himself confesses that, while a student at Dhaka University, his mind wandered as the (undoubtedly) erudite, though possibly lugubrious and soporific, lectures of senior academics droned on.  He decided that the best way of teaching the Englishman's (as well as others') works was to follow Edward Said and teach from his/her location in space and time.  He has chosen the texts of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Henry IV Part I, Hamlet, and Measure for Measure to make his point. And he believes that the “beginning of our fascination” with the ingenious plots of Shakespeare can be “accentuated through reimagining them for our students in Bangladeshi situations” with which they can identify and promptly empathize.  

Nazmul Ahsan elucidates, with a fair measure of success, on the Bard's works presented in Bangla. One is through translations, of three kinds, from 1852 to 1872:  literary translations, adaptations, and cultural translations. He alludes to the progress made in Bangladesh's cultural field by stating that after independence, this country's interest in Shakespeare went beyond the educational institutions and on to the stage. Md. Saifur Rahman touches on the film genre to assess the impact of Shakespeare on India. He mentions Vishal Bhardwaj's film Haider (2014), an Indian adaptation of Hamlet, set in turbulent Kashmir in 1995, which stirred much controversy. The author sums up his own thoughts saying that it is the “existential anguish” of the protagonists and their “struggle against the panoptic surveillance […] of the State” that make both the pieces a unique combination of cross-cultural realities.

Niaz Zaman (“The Mother and Child Image in Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra) takes up a very interesting aspect of Shakespeare's mastery of the human nature.  She poses the profound query, “Why does Shakespeare put in something which is contradictory?” She refers to the part where “Lady Macbeth thinks of dashing a baby to the ground”, and Macbeth envisages “the image of pity as a naked new-born babe”, a final sign of his sanity. The other editor, Razia Sultana Khan (“Once Upon a Time: The Fairy Tale Elements in King Lear”), links the oral tradition of storytelling with a deft touch to the construction of what is arguably the Bard's greatest play, King Lear where:  “Shakespeare [...] is able to pick up a skeletal story from a fairy tale and produce a masterpiece like King Lear.” 

Mohit Ul Alam (“Power Politics in Shakespeare”) dwells on a perennial factor in the national and international scenes: power politics, and shows how Shakespeare indulges in iconoclastic endeavors. Alam's is a separate and distinct follow-up on a particular crucial topic in a nation's and human life to Imtiaz A. Hussain's “Shakespeare and International Relations:  England's Unsung Machiavelli.”  Hussain dubs the Bard a Machiavelli (in just how many directions Shakespeare can be characterized!) and brings up a critical point in England's rise as a global power.

Zarin Alam (“Gender Interrupted:  The Woman's Part in Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies”) and Sohana Manzoor (“Male Actors as Women and the Problem of Cross-dressing in Shakespeare's As You Like It and Twelvth Night”) expound on other aspects of the Bard's writings.  Alam dwells on transcending gender bending in the Bard's works, and concludes that it is “not disrupted or inverted; it is only interrupted for a brief moment, and gender relations remain the same throughout.”  Manzoor comes up with an intriguing observation that “there is little cross-dressing material in Shakespeare's tragedies, while cross-dressing is widely explored in his comedies.”  Above and over this interesting anomaly is the fact that cross-dressing in Shakespeare's time was a serious social offense!  It says much about the Bard's genius.

Mehedi Karim Shimanto (“Iago: The Street Magician”) talks about the magician-like qualities in Iago, one of the most notorious characters in Shakespeare, while S.M. Mahfuzur Rahman (“Macbeth:  Frailties of a Paradoxical Ubermensch”) discusses one of the most complex characters in literary annals:  Macbeth, where the ambitious character “only allows his thoughts to dissolve in the quicksand of resentment and irresolution --- which facilitates and precipitates his ultimate downfall.”  Age Cannot Wither Him.  Indeed, not truer words can be said.  Shakespeare:  Four Hundred Years After is a veritable smorgasbord of a plethora of aspects of William Shakespeare and his works, one can definitely admit!

Shahid Alam is Professor of Media and Communication at IUB.

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