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     Volume 2 Issue 131 | August 9 , 2009|


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The Bard Still Flies

Sameeha Suraiya

SINCE time immemorial, human beings have sought to achieve immortality through the most diverse means. Whether it is through magnificent structures in marble or through the most blazing words of wisdom, these individuals have withstood the test of time, and most rightfully so. Maybe it is their way of challenging the greater power, or mocking mortality itself, for their creations have undoubtedly succeeded in transcending all barriers of time and space. Their creations still resonate with the same power they had centuries before. These are what we call masterpieces, and their fiery creators are celebrated around the globe with the same spirit and adoration to this day. The name, William Shakespeare, require no clarification. One of the greatest playwrights and poets of all times, Shakespeare still intrigues the minds of countless critics and scholars around the world.

It was in the spirit of this very idea that Shakespeare's undying creations were once again called forth to be remembered and to be celebrated. Organized by the Department of English & Humanities of BRAC University on the 16th of July, the event, aptly titled 'Contemporary Readings of Shakespeare', highlighted where the Bard stands today and how his works are read and interpreted by the readers of Bangladesh. With some of the most distinguished professors as speakers and guests, and not to forget the stellar efforts from the student body, the program was a top-notch success. Kicking off with great clockwork precision, the first session was ushered amid great anticipation, with the welcome address delivered by Rukhsana Rahim Choudhury, Lecturer of Dept. of English & Humanities. Choudhury elaborated on how effortlessly we can still relate to Shakespeare, the reason being that his themes are universal and for all ages. The social issues that Shakespeare touches upon most frequently in his plays are still the burning issues of the modern world. She mentioned how today, his plays are not only enjoyed for the pure entertainment value but also to elicit critical thoughts on a global scale.

Professor Jamilur Reza Choudhury, the Chief Guest and the Vice Chancellor of BRAC University next took the stage. An amiable speaker exuding great eagerness towards the subject, he remembers his first acquaintance with William Shakespeare with the early edition of the Lamb's Tales. He pointed out how Shakespeare is an integral part of all school curriculums, yet sometimes is not taken in with as much in-depth analysis. Students are more concerned with getting done with the text and passing the examinations, whereas it is when the reader is able to move beyond what is required or expected out of him that Shakespeare can be most enjoyed. The Vice Chancellor reminisced how he attempted to visit the places that Shakespeare portrays in his plays, and how on his first trip to the Globe Theatre, he had tried to envision the atmosphere and setting as it could have been a hundreds of years back. He echoed the many wonders surrounding this great playwright, things that still do not fail to surprise his readers. The fact that Shakespeare knew so much about the world outside the British Isles is a subject of constant curiosity. Even though it was a tumultuous period he lived in, a time when some of the greatest travels were made, it is still a matter of much discourse as to how the playwright knew so much about alien cultures, and that too with such great precision. The idea of his immortal creations is proven in the way we quote Shakespeare in our everyday speech. The words and phrases he coined decades and centuries ago still exist and are embedded in our day-to-day speech. To imagine that he produced 29000 words without any formal education is another mind-boggling feat.

Prof. Niaz Zaman, Supernumerary Professor of Department of English, DU and also the Advisor of Department of English, Independent University, Bangladesh is a distinct literary scholar who had her audience gripped throughout her enlightening speech. Prof. Zaman highlighted on the reading of Shakespeare and 60 years after. In a light moment she described how in the olden days, every English household would have the Bible along with a copy of Shakespeare's work. She elaborated on Shakespeare as we know him today. His oft-quoted passages are known by everybody, even if in bits and pieces. She also quoted from Jane Austen's Mansfield Park where one of the characters says, "One gets acquainted with Shakespeare without knowing how". She remembers how besotted she would be with the earliest copy of Shakespeare's plays she owned as a child, the pictures of Lady Macbeth, Ophelia and other famous protagonists being the real reasons.

Over the centuries there has been much speculation surrounding various aspects of Shakespeare's life including his religious affiliation, sexual orientation, sources for collaborations, authorship of and chronology of the plays and sonnets. Many of the dates of play performances, when they were written, adapted or revised and printed are imprecise. Countless scholars and historians have devoted their lives to the study and demystification of the man and his works. Prof. Niaz Zaman talked about the controversy surrounding who wrote Henry VIII. She then brought Shakespeare to our sub-continent before 1971 and recounted how her role as King Lear in her all-girls school had sent peals of laughter amongst the audience as soon as she had made her entrance. Prof. Zaman humorously pointed out how the audience or the readers are always looking for comic relief, a technique that Shakespeare used in abundance and with great expertise. She moved on to talk bout post '71, a time when English Literature and Language took a backseat. However, Shakespeare, considered a colonial import always had a unique position in India. It was during the end of the 19th century that Shakespeare was translated and attempts were made to keep the translations as close to the original as possible. Earlier, additional scenes and even songs would be added to please the audience's tastes. Prof. Niaz Zaman observed how the readings of Shakespeare is far more complex today now 60 years after; without understanding the major world events of the World Wars, it is not possible to know how we changed and with it our reading of Literature. Rounding up her speech, she acknowledged that human folly is universal and that Shakespeare's plays are "read to correct our follies whether it is through the tragedies or comedies". Prof. Firdous Azim, Chairperson, Department of English & Humanities, BRAC University acted as the moderator as the session continued with Zerin Alam, Associate Professor, Department of English, Dhaka University. Alam focused on the relevance of Shakespeare during his times. Ben Johnson had said of Shakespeare that he is not for his age but for all time. Harold Bloom, one of the most prominent critics of Shakespeare says that after every interpretation there is still enough room for others to come with their own readings.

It is no surprise that we, modern readers, tend to forget that the man behind the many literary accomplishments is an Elizabethan Renaissance man; such is the power of the universality of his works. Going back to the context to which Shakespeare wrote, Alam called it the age of great change. Marked by expansion in ideas, the breakaway from the feudal system and the great flux of the very system of society are all reflected in the plays. The emergence of England as a nation state and the new-found idea of nationalism found great prominence in the history plays. Civil War and political instability plagued England before Richard II was overthrown. It was the strong belief that loyalty to the king was a duty as kings were appointed through a Divine Order, thereby linking politics with religion. Shakespeare focuses on these ideas and also maintains status quo. He has an ambivalent attitude towards kinship and rebellion. His character portrayal of the cruel Richard II manages to draw sympathy. It is true thus, that Shakespeare knew exactly how to pull the right strings and manipulate the reactions of his readers.

The diverse elements of the particular session were upheld and carried along by a Marxist reading of The Tempest. Sanam Ara Amin, a Masters student from the Dept. of English, Brac University revealed the multi-faceted as well as the multi-layered themes at work in this particular play. The Tempest is mainly read as a post-colonial text, but a feminist or a Marxist reading of it can also be integrated to make it a play with diverse interpretations. Similarly, a feminist appraisal of Antony and Cleopatra and The Taming of the Shrew was delivered by Rukhsana Rahim Choudhury which was an extremely interesting speech to listen to.

Shakespeare in Bangladesh was the next session that was conducted by Prof. Kaiser Haq and presided over by Dr. Muhitul Alam and Dr. Selim Sarwar. Dr. Alam has translated the four great tragedies of Shakespeare and he related his experiences as a translator for one of the most complex and multi-dimensional literary genius. English and Bangla come from two entirely different cultures, and this had to be kept in mind along with the change in time so that Bangladeshi readers of this day and age could relate to it instantly. Talking about the many predicaments he faced, he also said compromises had to be made in order to achieve meaningful translation.

Dr. Selim Sarwar, Dean of School of Arts & Social Sciences, North South University, who is known for his beautiful translations of Shakespeare's sonnets, spoke of his experience as a translator, he said, "I see it as a problematic topic. I would like to call it intrigue". Tagore apparently considered translations as the wrong side of a Kashmiri shawl. Yet the fact remains, translations have existed as far back as in 3000 BC Egypt. Dr. Sarwar saw translations as transference across languages as well as history, space and culture. A translator therefore has a composite job combining many different features. He has to be a reader, an interpreter, an editor, a historian. He is also a surrogate author who has to demonstrate fidelity to the source language and felicity in the target language. Dr. Sarwar mentioned two of the key Bengali translators of Shakespearean text, Shudhi Dutta and Bishnu Dey. Great writers in their own rights, Dr. Sarwar, however, feels there is a lot left to be desired.

The following session was mastered by the students of Brac University. Robina Rashid Bhuiyan provided a fresh outlook in Bringing Shakespeare Closer. Talking from the student's perspective, she talked about how Shakespeare has shaped our everyday language and how his characters are subjected to psychoanalysts. She eloquently concluded that it is a necessity for Shakespeare to become a cliché and Shakespeare is what every generation makes of him.

There were praise-worthy recitations of some of the most celebrated sonnets and soliloquies along with their translations. A scene from Julius Caesar was also staged by the students. The performance was a complete package of excellent delivery in dialogues and some great acting skills.

It is unarguably true that Shakespeare's themes can fit into any culture or context. The awesome complexity of his plays and the dramatic interrelatedness are of such magnitude that the only authentic response could be astonishment. Shakespeare stands alone not only as the greatest literary genius who ever lived, but the greatest intellect of all time, so far ahead of anyone who came before or after him that we can never catch up. When we immerse ourselves in his plays we enter territory as yet uncharted. As Harold Bloom puts it, "no one yet has managed to be post-Shakespearean." Yes, the Bard still flies.

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