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Is Shakespeare relevant today?

As the world celebrates the Bard's 450th birth anniversary, Nevin Thomas investigates across sections of our society to gauge if English literature’s biggest icon’s works resonate in our age

The legend of some people carries on forever, centuries after their passing on. No truer statement can be said about poet, playwright and actor William Shakespeare. His stories continue to be re-told, re-adapted and re-dramatised in every corner of the world.


Bristol Old Vic with Handspring Puppet Company presents A Midsummer Night’s Dream from the creators of The Tony Award-Winning hit War Horse, at The Broad Stage on April 3, 2014  Pic/AFP

It is also perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of Shakespeare’s plays that they have almost always seemed to resonate with the times in which they are read. Some of the phrases he coined have become part of our everyday language. His characters like Romeo, Hamlet and Lady Macbeth have cultural meaning attached to them.


Cast members of a new touring production of Hamlet perform during a photocall at the Globe Theatre in London on April 2014. Pic/AFP

India has a rich connection with Shakespeare. A lot of our stories, films and plays have taken inspiration from the Bard’s work. As acclaimed writer and journalist Jerry Pinto puts it, “Shakespeare belongs to India as much as Kalidasa belongs to Europe. Such is the power of these artists that their works have transcended the boundaries of space and time.”


Piya Behrupiya directed by Atul Kumar is a Hindi adaptation of Twelfth Night.

All the world’s a stage
Theatre in India boasts a rich history, though our colonial rulers first introduced the plays of Shakespeare in the country as a part of the empire building exercise. His works have now seeped into our culture. The plays, most of which are extremely melodramatic and infused with humour, matched our style of works. “His stories are timeless. If you look around, you will find them everywhere. Every Khap Panchayat will have a story of Romeo and Juliet. Every politician can tell you the story of Macbeth,” elaborates columnist and writer Anil Dharker.


A still from Vishal Bharadwaj’s Omkara, which was based on Othello

Not only did we adopt his stories, we transformed them into something that all Indians can relate to. “It is essential that we do not just stick to classical theatre. We should experiment with these stories. Add humour where it is required. Bring it to the Indian context. It is one thing to do Shakespeare. But we should look at what his works can do to you,” said much-acclaimed director Feroz Abbas Khan.


Maro Piyu Gayo Rangoon is director Sunil Shanbag’s take on All’s Well That Ends Well, in Gujarati

Today, both the commercial and the experimental theatre in India use adaptations of Shakespeare to good use. Nothing Like Lear is an adaptation of the Bard’s King Lear, directed by Rajat Kapoor. Piya Behrupiya directed by Atul Kumar is Twelfth Night in Hindi. Maro Piyu Gayo Rangoon is director Sunil Shanbag’s take on All’s Well That Ends Well, in Gujarati. British director Tim Supple's A Midsummer Night’s Dream, produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the British Council, also relied on Indian actors and theatre-makers.

Actor Shernaz Patel echoed the need to explore Shakespeare beyond the classical realms. “I still think we don’t make enough plays based on Shakespeare. We need to push Shakespeare beyond school textbooks,” she maintains.

Sir, I am too old to learn
Shakespeare has always been an integral part of academics in the country. As Alia Sinha, a former Mumbai-based English Literature student recalls, “Since class seven, I have academically studied seven Shakespearean plays, acted in one and watched four full-length plays through school and college.”

But how does one go about teaching such complex narratives in a language that is no longer in use? “The tales are inherently dramatic. But it is important to do more than just merely read the lines. Always keep the class open for discussions and multiple interpretations,” explained Suparna Sengupta, English lecturer at Bangalore’s Jyoti Nivas College. Comparative literature courses at colleges in the city, are trying to connect the Shakespearean plays with their contemporary adaptations in the country, to engage the students even more, she believes.

The show must go on
The world of cinema has always drawn inspiration from the works of Shakespeare. Grigori Kozintsev and Iosif Shapiro’s Hamlet, and Akira Kurosawa’s Ran remain director Feroz Abbas Khan's favourites. Indian films have also used the Bard’s work extensively. Director Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool and Omkara, both adaptations of Shakespeare’s works, received international acclaim for its powerful portrayals. Yet-to-be-released Haider, starring Shahid Kapoor, is based on Hamlet, too.

The interest for Shakespeare remains as active as ever. “There is definitely still a market and strong interest in Shakespeare. For example, on Penguin India’s Facebook page, we are currently doing a Shakespeare week to celebrate his birthday and the posts have had a huge amount of engagement and likes,” said Caroline Newbury, vice president, marketing and corporate communications. But the number of books sold is reducing, and PM Shenvi, manager at Strand Book Stall believes this is due to online availability of the classics for free, and dying reading habits. “Nowadays when I travel, I hardly see anyone reading a book. They are all on Facebook or Whatsapp,” he rues.

Come what, come may
Yet, Shakespeare today is alive in India. It is not often that something that happened more than 400 years ago features in our every day language and not in our history books. And, one can assume that the Bard is going to maintain his relevance, at least in the foreseeable future.

Globe-trotting

Shakespeare’s Globe — the recreation of his wooden theatre on the banks of the River Thames in London — is launching a two-year tour of Hamlet that will take in around 200 countries.

The tour begins Wednesday at The Globe Theatre, and will finish with a performance at Elsinore Castle in Denmark, where the tale of deferred revenge is set.

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