An “underview” of the Sana’a Shakespeare Seminar [Archives:2005/852/Education]

June 20 2005

By Murari Prasad
Faculty of Education
Sana'a University
[email protected]

As I recently noted (Yemen Times, 25 April; The Statesman, 22 May 2005), the academic Shakespeareans have practically ignored the controversies surrounding the authorship of the works attributed to William Shakespeare and so the man from Stratford-upon-Avon remains for them as potent as his pentameters. The two-day (May 24-25) National Seminar on Shakespeare, the first-ever of its kind in the Republic of Yemen, organized by the Department of English in the Faculty of Arts of Sana'a University attracted animated critical interest in the works of the world's most discussed writer. The Rector of the University, Dr Saleh Ali Bassurah, the Dean of the Faculty, Dr Mohd Abdul Aziz Yusr, and the Chairman of the Department, Dr Damodar Thakur have reasons to stand tall for hosting productive deliberations on the peerless genius who has not only been the linchpin of English literary heritage but has also dominated the page, the stage and the screen.

To spotlight the themes and issues as well as the insightful interventions that wove through the engaging sessions, I propose to appropriate to myself the term “underview” since I feel able neither to sum up all the disparate elements of the discussions in a comprehensive overview nor to resist the temptation to comment. I apologize in advance for leaving out detailed reference to all the presentations (the list is as long as your arm!), although it was indeed a pleasure to listen to and profit from diverse points of view.

The seminar began with a bang. Dr Thakur's plenary presentation on “the Number Symbolism in Shakespeare's plays”)a subject singularly untouched in the lavish explorations of the Bard's works)was erudite and provocative, focused and perceptive. He expounded his proposition by citing the recurrence of the number three in Shakespeare's plays such as Macbeth, Julius Caesar and Othello at various levels of textuality. Is there any signifying transaction by way of the palpable triplicity in these plays, or other plays for that matter? Is this trope symbiotically related to the ontology of the plays and as such epistemically significant? Instead of relying on my gut reaction)and to give the hypothesis an intensive airing to boot)I quizzed some eminent Shakespeareans almost globally known. I should like to share their response with the readers for a better-informed take on Dr Thakur's point.

Stephen Greenblatt, by far the best Shakespeare scholar and also known as the founder of the most influential school of literary theory and criticism today called New Historicism ( or cultural poetics), the editor of Norton Shakespeare and Cogan Professor of English at Harvard University, writes to me: .

I think the recurrence of the number three in Shakespeare is interesting, though I rather doubt that it has an esoteric significance. That is, I think that Shakespeare took it over from such places as folklore, where there are frequently three sons, or daughters, or geese, or caskets. (Have a look at Calvino's collection of Italian folktales). I have no idea what folklorists make of it. There are some compelling reflections on numbers in King Lear in John Jones' remarkable book, Shakespeare at work.

Harold Bloom, Professor of English at the University of Yale and the author of Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1999), says in his pithy comment: “The triads that [Dr Thakur] notices certainly are there. I don't know what to make of them.” Prof. Ania Loomba, an Indian academic specializing in Shakespeare studies at Pennsylvania University, has this to say:” Three is a fairly standard trope in all fairy tales and legends all over the world, not just in Shakespeare.” More remarkably, a prominent Shakespeare scholar at Jadavpur University (India), Prof Sukanta Chaudhuri, sees no deeper meaning in the recurrent “threeness”, and is rather skeptical about this line of study : “I certainly don't think there's any significance to Shakespeare's use of the number three at certain points of his plays, though I have no doubt there's been a good bit of numerological analysis.” Quite a few perceptive correspondents suspect Judaeo-Christian associations,e.g., Christ rose on the third day, but, as regards the magical property of numbers, Christianity seems to privilege 3 and 4 and 7 (3+4=7) and 12 (3×4). Equally, some have speculated about the subtle implications of the Holy Trinity. Once I extract the salient points of these observations, there is no doubt that Dr Thakur has set out a challenging hypothesis with a new angle to probe some Shakespearean texts.W hether this multi-level triplicity is an inheritance from medieval cosmology a la, for example, Dante's Divina Commedia or the threesomeness in his epic, or is related to the famous Christian trinity, or even the Hindu trinity, is still hugely debatable. Shakespeare is often hooked on to his favourite numbers: twenty, for example (Romeo and Juliet) in swearing words or general expressions of description. Unlike the three sons ( leaving out the one out of wedlock) in Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov with three distinct characteristics, passion, reason and piety, King Lear's three daughters are not amenable to this neat categorization.

We do have now a fragment of school report about Shakespeare's unusual, “frivolous” interest in things outside the normal range of a Grammar school curriculum. I have had access to this scrap of evidence by courtesy of Prof David Crystal. It seems to have been written by a “straightlaced, Latin-minded Elizabethan teacher” in 1571, when the lad was seven:

Some small improvement this term. Needs to work on his handwriting. Still talking in class a lot. Frivolous attitude. Seems to have an unhealthy interest in ghosts, witches, and daggers.

However, there is always the danger of overinterpretation if one presses the point too hard as is the case in linking Shakespeare's use of the number three to his supposed ties to Freemasonry, an international secret society built around an interest in esoteric knowledge, including the ancient art of alchemy. Bro Robert Guffey reads Macbeth as an allegory for the bloody murder of Hiram Abiff, one of the three original Grand Masters of Freemasonry. Although , according to mainstream historians, Freemasonry was founded in 1717, long after Shakespeare's death, a subtle analogy to a fragment of the Hiram Story, Guffey argues, can be seen in Act Two, Scene Three in Macduff's speech after Duncan is found murdered. Tellingly enough, a pair of assassins hired by Macbeth to kill Banquo and Fleance turns into a threesome, and Banquo is killed noticeably in Act 3, Scene 3. Well, I have laboured the point enough and will now pass on to some other points clumped under various themes.

A significant dimension to the seminar was Shakespeare's language as well as its relationship to English language teaching. Distinguished scholars including Prof Anjani Kumar Sinha (Taiz University), Prof VS Dubey (Hodeidah University), Prof. R S Sharma and Dr John Eliezer ( Sana'a University) focused on Shakespeare's linguistic inventiveness and ingenious expressive devices, while other submissions, my own included, dealt with how to enlist Shakespeare to produce language gains in the classroom. Prof Ashok Kumar Sinha and Dr Manmath Kundu of Hodeidah University stressed on evolving unconventional reading strategies and fashioning our pedagogy into a fresh mould. Surely, new initiatives in Yemeni context can be catalyzed as there are practically no institutional impediments to new motivations, nor is there a uniform, stifling format of testing. The teaching of Shakespeare can indeed be enjoyable and rewarding when students move away from the staple diet of , what Widdowson says, “potted critical judgments” or surrogates of experience to personal contact with actual texts.

Prof Mohanraj of Taiz University demonstrated how a judicious blend of materials and methodology can make a passage from Shakespeare an authentic text to develop different language skills.He shared his experience of teaching writing skills to undergraduate students modelled on an excerpt from Hamlet ( Polonius' advice to his son, 1,iv, 59-80) and extrapolated fruitful ELT possibilities by appropriating Shakespearean constructions. My own submission, partly along the same track, adumbrated how Shakespeare's use of conversion, collocation, affixation and idiomatic allusiveness can teach non-native learners to improvise nonce-formations and manipulate the language in dramatic situations of conversation. The chairperson of the session, Prof KM Tiwary, however, expressed doubts about EFL learners becoming linguistically creative in communication, and I can't quite accept his position. Foreign learners of English do allude to Shakespearean quotations, such as to be or not to be when they say: to go or not to go, to fight or not to fight, to copy or not to copy. When an EFL student in Yemen, after learning the basic rules of the language)its grammar, phonology and semantics)takes off on her/ his own and uses expressions like if me no ifs, but me no buts, s/he is manipulating a quotation to suit her/his purpose. And where does the original construction come from? It comes from Shakespeare's Richard II (II, iii):

Bolingbroke: My gracious uncle-

York: Tut, tut, grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle.

In everyday conversation even non-native learners, once they are confident in using the language reasonably correctly, need to bend and break the language in tune with their semantic motivation, and when they do that, they become creative in its use. The question is which English such a speaker is a near-native speaker of. To answer this, let me invoke a Shakespearean paradigm. Caliban says to Prospero in The Tempest: 'You taught me language; and my profit on't/Is, I know how to curse (1.ii.363-4). Is Caliban a native or non-native speaker of English? The decision, I think, is Caliban's as long as he is following his own code. It depends on him what name he gives that code: Calibanese? Prosperian? Or English, if you like.

This confidence and competence in the use of the language is not adequately addressed in the pipeline approach or, I dare say, tunnel-vision methodology of need-based pedagogy, as I understood from the points of view presented by Dr MNK Bose and Dr Ayid Sharyan. They also seemed to labour under a misconception that Shakespearean English is a totally different language from modern English. Shakespeare is not old, he is unyoung. According to the reliable database in Shakespeare's Words ( 2002), there are 930,000 words in the entire canon of 39 plays and some 46,000 occurrences of words in all the poems and plays which are different in some way between Shakespeare's days and now. So, only 5 per cent of the time are we going to encounter a word which is different in meaning from what exists today. And grammatical difference is also within the same range. Certainly, in some of the passages we do encounter a string of unfamiliar words but even these are, though not easily comprehensible, fairly amenable to our modern English intuition. In other words, we do understand Shakespearean lines even though they are not exactly like current English. Besides, the Bard can be summoned in the service of vitalizing the progressive attenuation of the language in communicative English teaching.

Notably in addition, the notion of canon carries value. If certain texts are put on a pedestal and considered valuable in any community, students will want to satisfy their aspirations besides achieving their learning objectives. Of course, the canon is not a fixed monolith but some texts are canonical and secure against shifts in taste and ideological cross-currents by virtue of their intrinsic worth.

No wonder Shakespeare is currently inspiring a minor boom in management education even as the proponents of communicative English teaching consider his work incompatible with efficient communication. Perhaps it is not a rumour that the acronym ESP once meant English for Shakespearean purposes before the recent meaning gained currency. The affective power of Shakespearean lines is being appropriated by Business schools for corporate executives. Dr Jayshree Mohanraj made a plea for developing soft skills like interpersonal communication, motivational addresses, and business negotiations by using relevant passages from Shakespearean texts. She referred to Paul Corrigon's book, Shakespeare on Management. As far as I know, two more books on this subject have come out: Power Plays by Tina Packer and John Whitney, and Shakespeare in Charge by Kenneth Adelman and Norman Augustine. Here Falstaff meets Victoria's secret, Cleopatra tangles with the Internet, and Hamlet wretles with AT&T. Ken Adelman, the former US Ambassador to the UNO, and his wife have set up a company, Movers and Shakespeare, to deal with the boardroom issues and to motivate corporate professionals to think in a creative and nimble way. Sure enough, Shakespearean material becomes an ally to lateral thinking and emotional intelligence)the quintessence of modern managessence)when Bill gates takes the cue from Henry IV, Part I: “O the blood more stirs to rouse a lion than to start a hare.”

In the context of Dr Jayshree's paper , I imagine, a business course titled ” In Search of the Perfect Prince,” centred on the case studies from Shakespeare, at Columbia University's School of Business for its MBA students, and Speaking Shakespeare (2002) by the voice coach Patsy Rodenburg may have useful and enriching inputs, in addition to the course description of Management Communication of Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon that she mentioned.

The seminar also had a session devoted to the problems of translating Shakespeare. Mr Tawfique Abdo Sa'eed al-Kinani referred to the cultural problems in translating Shakespeare into Arabic with a particular reference to The Merchant of Venice.In the opinion of other paper presenters , too, Shakespeare is enormously challenging for Arabic translators. In the same vein, Dr Tyagarajan pointed out how the ” diverse interlocking components” of a play make the textual transfer multiply difficult. I would bear him out with an example from King Lear. In Act I, Scene 5, Lear says

O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!

Keep me in temper: I would not be mad!)

The Bristol edition records that Paul Schofield, in 1962 as Lear, achieved quiet terror on the line. And in a 1955 production, Sir John Gielgud paused upon the first 'mad', and took the hand of the Fool, who was crouching beside him, deliberately within reach. Thus a translator has to conflate the text and the spectacle, more so in the case of Shakespeare.

Other presentations of note were papers on Macbeth by Prof RK Jayaraman, Dr Uday Kumar Mishra, Dr Anil K Prasad, Dr Rajesh Kumar and Dr Rafiq azam Khan, as well as cogent and accessible submissions on King Lear by Prof AK Sharma, Dr Nityanand Prasad, Dr Indu BhushanSharma and Dr Gurudeo Poddar. The other Shakespearean plays discussed included Measure for Measure by Prof Ashok Kumar Jha, Antony and Cleopara by Dr Rakesh Kumar, The Merchant of Venice by Dr Chandra Bhushan Prasad, Othello by Sam Sahayam, The Taming of the Shrew by Dr Usha Kiran Sinha, and The Winter's Tale by Dr Vinod Kumar Sinha.

Among other notable paper presenters were Prof PA Abraham, Dr Raweah al-Kumaim, Dr AK Tripathy, Dr Satyartha Tripathy, Dr Rama Shankar Sharma, Dr Pramod Prasad and Dr Meena Rani. The seminar had its moments when Prof KM Tiwary, in a sprightly discussion on Shakespeare's art of laughter, attempted an engaging explication of the wit combats, comic repartees and verbal duelling in Merry Wives of Windsor, and other comedies. In addition to what Prof Tiwary admirably brought out, the comic effect in these plays is heightened by Shakespeare's use of stichomythia, the Senecan rhetorical device of one-line exchange with staccato effect of rapid thrust and parry. The rich and complex vitality of the comic scenes and their realization in the theatre are, as Prof Tiwary rightly said, often ignored in critical interpretation.

I'm not sure how far the psycho-dynamic perspectives of the Gita can be useful in understanding Shakespeare's tragic universe. Prof JP Singh's paper dealing with this line of argument promises to be trail-blazing, once it is published. I believe it was Thoreau who once said,” Compared to the Gita our Shakespeare is only Greene” (I owe this quotation to late C D Narasimhaiah). The parameters pertaining to the states of affairs in respect of Arjun in the Gita , on one hand, and Shakespeare's tragic protagonists on the other, are markedly different. However, Steven Crimi has compared Arjun's crisis with Hamlet's in his paper “The Outcome of Crisis in Hamlet and the Bhagvadgita”.I hope Prof Singh breaks new ground along this track without falling into the trap of inflated and invidious comparisons.

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Prof Anjani Kumar Sinha, one of the valedictory panellists, counselled the seminar participants to study and interpret Shakespeare from “our own points of view”, and not to parrot the West. It reminds me of Nestor, a character in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, who reiterates everything and contributes nothing. Unlike Nestor, we must reorient and invert our terms. The seminar turned out to be quite an event in that many participants tried to look beyond Nestor and, finally, an explicitly eastern or postcolonial perspective on Shakespeare studies was enjoined.