An understatement: William Shakespeare was a genius.
His plays and sonnets have enriched the world of literature, and provided an insight into the human condition, like no other works of art in any phase of the history of mankind. But not a great deal is known about his personal life and it is pretty much shrouded in mystery, which makes reading and performing his plays all the more intellectually stimulating.
No less stimulating was a presentation titled ‘Why is Shakespeare Shakespeare’ given by distinguished artist and president of the National Academy of Performing Arts Zia Mohyeddin on Friday evening at the academy.
Mr Mohyeddin set the tone of his talk by telling the audience “why is Shakespeare uniquely Shakespeare”. He said one reason was that his plays written 400 years ago “still resonate with remarkable clarity”. The playwright was always in sympathy with human nature. “You want to have some understanding of jealousy, read Othello. You want some advice on the art of seduction, read Richard III. You want to know something about fear, anguish and pangs of conscience, read Hamlet. You want to know the fate of kings, listen to Richard II: ‘O for God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings.’”
Mr Mohyeddin said Shakespeare crystallised thought into memorable sayings. There’s no other writer who condensed ideas and feelings into [such] unforgettable phrases. Pointing out the playwright’s tremendous wordplay, he gave the example of a line from Measure for Measure where the word ‘prone’ meant inactive, but also ‘active’ in the context of the scene it’s used in.
Shakespeare was always in sympathy with human nature. “You want to have some understanding of jealousy, read Othello," said Zia Mohyeddin
He then read out famous passages and speeches from Shakespearian dramas describing how unique each was in unfolding human suffering, melancholy, human failings, compassion and passion. He said As You Like It was an elegantly constructed and neatly finished comedy by Shakespeare and read ‘The seven ages of man’ with aplomb.
From the comedy he shifted to Julius Caesar, calling Marc Antony’s speech ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’ a masterly exercise in political oratory.
While talking about Shakespeare’s plays, he also informed the audience about the periods in which efforts were made to push him back or lessen his importance. Of course, that didn’t happen. He was rediscovered in the 18th century. This led Mr Mohyeddin to claim that Shakespeare’s uniqueness lay in his artlessness. “But for his artlessness, we’d not be having an Othello, a Romeo & Juliet, a Hamlet.”
Mr Mohyeddin said students who studied Shakespeare often told him that they found his blank verse a terrible constraint. It was largely because they tended to read each line separately whereas the playwright said lots of things at the same time. He could be witty, dramatic and terrifying … all at the same time.
The eminent artist then focused on the ‘lyric love story’ Romeo & Juliet and explained to the men and women in the hall listening attentively to him the significance of lyrical lines from the well-known balcony scene. From here he moved to The Merchant of Venice demonstrating how Shakespeare brought to the fore the working of a mind belonging to a ghettoised and persecuted community. He did that by reading a couple of passages, including ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’
Mr Mohyeddin said a certain Russian writer hated King Lear. To prove him wrong, he narrated the story of the great tragedy in a nutshell and feelingly performed Lear’s speeches, especially the one in which the king is carrying his daughter’s body in his arms wailing ‘howl, howl, howl’.
The last part of his top-notch presentation was an attempt at trying to unravel the enigma called Hamlet, claiming it’s a masterpiece of all masterpieces. He read three soliloquies from the drama, the last one being ‘To be or not to be’. He articulated Hamlet was at war with himself. “Like we all are at times. There’s a Hamlet in all of us.”
Originally published in Dawn, November 12th, 2017