Some Shakespeare plays have helped me in life
It is pleasant to be praised. But when one is praised, or one’s country is praised, for some quality which one does not like. .. what is one’s feeling then? I have seen young Indians listening to enthusiastic Western women talking to them about Gandhi, and saying how wonderful he was. The young people were moving their feet uneasily: they were not enthusiastic about Gandhi. I remember an Indian doctor in such a case, after trying in vain to stem her tide of words, suddenly bursting out, ‘ Gandhi was a sincere man, but his ideals of rustic simplicity are quite impracticable for this age, and his influence has been disastrous. The sooner we forget him, the better for India.’
Few Japanese people would be as rude as that, but I have noticed a weariness and uneasiness in them when Westerners talk about Kabuki or the genius of Murasaki Shikibu, or the poems of Basho.
In the play Julius Caesar, some of the Romans commit suicide by falling on their swords; I wondered exactly how they did it, and asked the teacher. But he told me to be quiet and not be cheeky.
When I was fifteen, I passed the entrance examination for London University ; there were eight papers, and one of them was English Literature. Part of this paper consisted of questions on a Shakespeare play, which had been announced three months before the examination. I had memorized some of the main speeches, and learnt some orthodox views about the meaning and construction of the play. I passed, and I hoped that I should never have to read another word of Shakespeare’s works. Having entered the University to study law (in those days even a boy could enter, if he could pass the examination; now he has to wait till he is 18). I thought I had closed the book of Shakespeare’s plays for ever.
About seven years later, I went to live in Europe for a year, as a sort of adventure. In Frankfurt I made friends with some German students; they were keen on sport as I was, but they also wanted to practise their English. One of them was always talking about Shakespeare and asking me whether I had seen any of the recent productions in London. I used to fend off his questions with vague answers, but it became harder and harder to conceal my ignorance. He could not realize that an Englishman might be bored with Shakespeare.
We British too have our geniuses whom the world admires so much, but whom we find sometimes boring. I learnt some speeches from the plays of Shakespeare when I was at school, and acted in some of them on the school stage. Much of it I simply could not understand. For instance in the play Julius Caesar, Brutus and the other conspirators wish to kill Caesar. They admit he has always been a good leader, but they are afraid he will become a dictator, so they kill him. At twelve years old, I thought, “ Well, he was a good leader, so they should have wanted him to become dictator”.
The old-fashioned words in the plays produce a comic effect on children today, because the meanings have changed. In Shakespeare’s battle scenes, he sometimes writes the stage direction – ‘Alarm and Excursions’. In his time, 400 years ago, an alarm meant a warning shout, and an excursion meant a sudden attack. So the stage direction meant a general uproar, with groups of men rushing across the stage fighting. But to modern children, an alarm means an alarm clock, and an excursion means a group trip to the country—rather like a Japanese ensoku. The stage direction Alarms and Excursions gives us the impression of alarm clocks sounding loudly, and lines of sleepy children (woken up by the alarm clocks), carrying packed lunches, slowly crossing the stage.
This lasted a number of years. Back in London, I went to Shakespeare’s plays, and found new beauties and profundities in them each time. Shakespeare was the master psychologist, Shakespeare was the master dramatist, Shakespeare alone knew the deepest secrets of the human heart.
Then I had a shock. I came across an essay on Shakespeare by Tolstoy. I did not know much about Tolstoy. I had read an account of his death, and I had a vague impression that he was rather like King Lear—not a king, but an aged genius, going mad in a Russian snowstorm. Still, I knew he was supposed to be a great writer. To my amazement, he maintained that Shakespeare was a poor playwright, and that the world-wide admiration for Shakespeare was an example of national and international self-hypnosis. I could hardly believe my eyes when I read, ‘Take any fifteen lines of Shakespeare, and you will find something quite absurd and out of character. And the extraordinary thing is, that it is these very absurdities which his admirers think are his greatest strokes of genius.
He gave an example. When Hamlet has just seen the awe-inspiring vision of his father’s ghost, and sworn to avenge his murder, the ghost disappears. Hamlet’s whole life has been overturned; he has learned that it was his mother who plotted the murder of his father, and he is almost mad with shock and grief and revenge. His companions, who have seen (and been terrified by) the ghost at a distance, join him, and he makes them swear of older Germans, Shakespeare’s King Lear is the ‘supreme achievement of human genius’, and the other two nodded gravely. I too had to look serious—they did not like jokes about Shakespeare.
I had never read King Lear, though I had come across references to it. All I had was a vague impression that it was about an old king who for some reason was out on an open moor in a thunderstorm, and who went mad. That afternoon I went by myself to a second-hand school bookshop in Frankfurt, and there found a copy of King Lear; the English text, annotated for German schoolboys. As I began to read, I was thinking about the ‘supreme achievement of human genius,’ and by the time I had got half-way through I found that I was beginning to agree. I could feel myself swelling with pride at the thought of Shakespeare’s Englishness.
I tried to think that I might be related to him. I had two parents, four grandparents, eight great- grandparents, and so on. In the 18th and 17th centuries, life was short, and they married early, often at eighteen years or even at sixteen. So I calculated that in the time of Shakespeare, say 1580, there would have been about 250,000 ancestors of mine in England; one generation more would make it 500,000. The total population then was only about 3,000,000. As Shakespeare lived in the south, and I was born in the south, it was almost certain that I was a descendant of Shakespeare. (Yes, he had children.) I almost felt I was Shakespeare.
The historian’s remark is quite accurate. Hamlet makes his odd jokes not before but just at the end of the terrible encounter, in fact while he is still hearing the ghost’s voice. Soldiers do not make jokes during the battle itself.
I still appreciate Shakespeare, and some of the plays have helped me in life. But I am glad I read Tolstoy—I can see that there are incongruities and careless craftsmanship too. I felt the essay had prevented my becoming completely hypnotized. One can become overawed by the classics; to criticize anything in them seems to imply that one is uncultured. But it is better to realize that even a genius can have uninspired moments. Bernard Shaw said he hoped he would never become a classic: ‘If you become a classic, either they don’t read you, or if they do, they give up thinking, because they are reading a classic.’
Still, there is a mystery about Shakespeare. It has been said by a number of critics, Including Bernard Shaw, that though he was a wonderful poet of feeling, he had very little intellectual capacity. During Shakespeare’s life the great flowering of science was beginning all over Europe ; there is no sign of any interest in it in the writing of Shakespeare. So they say.
But I believe that the critics overlook one fact: it is hard to remember just when an idea became accepted as true. For instance, we all know now that objects fall towards the centre of the earth because of the gravitational attraction exerted by the mass of the earth. This was not known in to say nothing about it. As they do so, the voice of the ghost sounds from under their feet, ‘ Swear.’ Incredibly, Hamlet cries to it “Ah, ha, boy! Say’st thou so”? They move to another part of the stage, and again from beneath their feet the ghost intones ‘Swear.’ And Hamlet cries, ‘Well said, old mole!
This, says Tolstoy, is a typical example of Shakespeare’s hopeless incompetence as a playwright, and his complete failure to understand human beings. A man who has seen a fearful vision, the ghost of his father majestic in full armour, and has sworn to avenge him, would not, could not, address the ghost as ‘ boy’ and ‘old mole’.
Remembering how Tolstoy said that the admirers of Shakespeare maintain that his very absurdities are strokes of genius, I made an experiment. In conversation with a BBC drama producer and a historian, both great admirers, I reminded them of this scene and said, ‘Don’t you think it is absolutely absurd?’
The historian said almost exactly what Tolstoy predicted. ‘This is just Shakespeare’s greatness as a psychologist! He knows that in times of great crisis, men often try to relieve the unbearable tension by making jokes. Think of soldiers just before a crucial battle. It is certainly true of English soldiers—just before a battle they do make fun of what is frightening, namely the enemy. It may not be true of some nations, but Shakespeare was an Englishman.
However, thinking it over, I am not sure that Shakespeare’s day. The great astronomer Copernicus, who died shortly before Shakespeare was born, believed that objects—being parts of the earth—‘ naturally ’ move to unite with the whole. The object moves, and the movement must somehow originate in the object. No one thought that the earth could pull—how could it pull across empty space? Galileo, the greatest scientist of his age, died in 1642, long after Shakespeare’s death, and he certainly never believed in anything like gravitational attraction.
It is an interesting fact that the idea that the earth pulls objects has been known in the East for over 1,200 years. The Indian philosopher Shankara wrote in about 700 that the god of the earth pulls objects towards it with just the right amount of force; if the pull were stronger, men would fall flat on the ground, and if there were no pull, things would float away into the sky.
It was only in 1676 that Newton proved that the earth attracts objects to its centre. And yet, in 1600, Shakespeare somehow knew that the earth pulls everything towards its centre. In his play Troilus and Cressida there are the lines:
Time, force, and death,
Do to this body what extremes you can;
But the strong base and building of my love Is as the very centre of the earth,
Drawing all things to it.
However did Shakespeare know that?
© Trevor Leggett