Shakespeare and his Relevance Today

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
                                                                                   – Sonnet 55, Shakespeare

Shakespeare and his Relevance Today

The release of the Vishal Bhardwaj movie, Haider(2014), brought back into the spotlight a fact that has been well documented. Shakespeare, plying his craft over four centuries ago, still retains the ability to fling universal truths at us no matter how much time has passed. Thematically, he hit pretty much every subject that stays constant in human intraspecies communications. Love, greed, ambition, revenge, lust. One can safely assume that these qualities or weaknesses are and will remain innate in humans as long as they exist.

 But if that were the only reason for Shakespeare’s timelessness, then we would have a much larger list of timeless authors to discuss today. These themes, after all, are hardly exclusive to Shakespeare.  But where Shakespeare’s work stands head and shoulders above the rest is its ability to evolve, to morph, to transmute, to create for itself a new meaning in every subsequent generation and yet to suffer no damage or perversion to its origin.

Haider is the perfect example to demonstrate this. Vishal Bhardwaj deserves great credit for pulling off such a challenging endeavor; however the fact remains that he was able to place the play (Hamlet) in contemporary Kashmir and address all the issues that ravage the modern Kashmir, while still remaining largely true to the original play by Shakespeare. While the director’s effort was no mean feat, that of the writer’s is almost criminally exceptional.

The characters in the movie have been created with great care and obviously after a lot of research and input from some insightful locals. Anyone who has stayed in Kashmir for an extended period of time would easily recognize most of them.

 The son who starts out with innocence, but is seduced into a life of violence by propaganda and perversions of truth by one and all around him. The mother who, desperate to prevent her son from straying too far, threatens him ironically with more violence (to herself), thus entering herself into the vicious circle of morbidity that life over there constitutes; the over protective older brother, the stubborn, slightly spoilt antics of the younger daughter, the political intrigues of Kay Kay Menon on his path to power, even the morbid humor of the gravediggers.

Each of these characters will resonate with a Kashmiri, or someone familiar with Kashmiris. And yet, take a step back and each of them is still very much a character from Hamlet.

This is what Shakespeare offers us that probably no other writer can. He did not scribble out vague general characters that may or may not be identified with, depending on your perception of it. He created characters that were complex, complete, intricate and most importantly, they were flawed. Perfect characters can exist only in literature, flawed characters come bursting into real life, and that is where its relevance is really measured.

He had the ability to look inside the mind of Hamlet, to perceive the turmoil that must have taken place when he beheld his mother wedded to his uncle not very long after his father’s death under circumstances that were suspect at best. Add to that all the political intrigues that take place around him and his conduct throughout the play is almost completely justified. Hamlet’s behavior is erratic, at times lunatic, but that is precisely what makes us identify with him. Under such duress, very few minds, let alone one as emotional as Hamlet’s (or Haider’s) would be expected to bear themselves with equanimity.

He had the understanding of human psychology deep enough to understand that a person engaged in an occupation such as grave digging, with his constant exposure to death and the oftentimes horrific stories behind it, would necessarily resort to black and morbid humor as a coping mechanism. And he also gives them their fair share of wisdom, for those who see the darker sides of life often have fewer veils before their eyes in their perception of it.

 The conduct of Gertrude may be seen as simply the wish for stability. The King had died, the enemies of the state were conniving and contriving to attack, the whole country was in a state of unrest. Her marriage to Claudius, whether regarded as incestuous or not, was at the very least an attempt to restore some form of stability to her life that had undergone massive upheaval. And that wish for a stable home is still as cherished a dream for most homemaker’s today as it was in the early 1600’s.

And, importantly, his understanding ran so deep as to have developed the whole story of Hamlet along the lines of the Oedipus Complex which, of course was not discovered until much later (Freud 1910). The procrastination in the murder of Claudius is an eerie precursor to the subsequent theory of Oedipus complex under which Claudius has carried out the actions which Hamlet himself subconsciously wanted to carry out (i.e. killing the father and having relations with the mother). It is to the eternal credit of Shakespeare’s writing that the dynamic between Hamlet and Gertrude remains potent and original even in the wake of such seismic shifts in the understanding of the human mind.

Each of the characters described above are from the original play, and yet, as shown by Haider, they hold true and are easily recognizable in today’s society.

Governmental intrigues, the mentality of oppressed masses, the mental state of an emotional soul whose life is riddled by betrayals, the undying emotion of two souls in love, the amoralistic ambition of a man who lusts only for power, all these characters have been explored to unprecedented depths by arguably the greatest writer in the English Language. And their continued relevance today makes one wonder whether humans have evolved at all or remain the same bestial caveman underneath while donning a more sophisticated exterior.

That could be a part of the answer, but nevertheless the skill of the author in creating timeless characters, not once but over and over, of exploring themes that encompass all of human existence, of establishing moral precedents and cultural trends for centuries to come, and (an often underestimated fact) to do so while also entertaining the contemporaneous crowds is a feat that must not, and thankfully is not underestimated.

Any observer of the film or theater culture today will be aware of the difficulty of creating a movie that appeals to the masses without sacrificing any of its artistic integrity. There appears to be a choice that necessarily needs to be made. Either make a movie of artistic merit OR make one to please the masses. Shakespeare holds the distinction of changing that “OR” into an “AND”.

And that too, is a big reason why his plays and poetry are still prescribed in every course and enjoyed by all students of literature. Somehow he has managed to retain the entertainment value of his plays while creating works that bear no comparison. The staging of a Shakespeare play (or a movie based on his play) is as much a successful commercial venture today as it was in his time.

And so we have the necessary ingredients. Eternal themes, impeccable command of language, deep, almost omniscient insight into the human psyche, shrewd discernment of interpersonal relationships and the related dynamics, vivid and lofty imagination, tinged with a realistic, often morbid take on life. Put all these together and you have a writer whose works not only survive, but grow in importance as the years roll on. Put all these together and you can make yourself another Shakespeare.

Until that time, we may return joyfully to the Bard of Avon. 

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