Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty via The Guardian

Among the many twists and turns of history, few can be more contrived than that which led to the establishment of Shakespeare’s tongue as a second or link language in a little island thousands of miles from England where Englishmen have scarcely set foot in Shakespeare’s lifetime (1564 – 1612).  Of that ambiguous legacy, I am one of the beneficiaries.

This may explain, at least in good part, why the majority of the English speaking minority of Sri Lankans are still drawn to the drama of Shakespeare or assessments of it.

When I decided to go public with these personal musings on Shakespeare, I was acutely conscious of the fact that nearly everything I have to say may sound familiar and unoriginal to the informed reader.

I took heart, however, from the fact that Shakespeare, Polonius’ dictum notwithstanding, was both a lender and, more important, a copious borrower.  Shakespeare, whatever else he may be, is not the epitome of originality.  He borrowed heavily, and profitably, from the rich and diverse sources available to him.  Principal among these are Holinshed’s Chronicles (The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 1577), Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives (1579), and the works of Greek and Roman dramatists, as well as those of some of his own contemporaries.

The particular genius of Shakespeare lay in his wonderful creative ability.  He was able to forge from his varied sources a new whole.  Whatever he borrowed, Shakespeare transmuted trough his creative genius to something infinitely greater.

What I propose to do in the next several paragraphs is to take a leaf out of Shakespeare’s book.  While I do not pretend for a moment to have anything remotely resembling Shakespeare’s creative genius, I believe I do have the capacity to borrow from the sources available to me, as freely as Shakespeare did from those available to him!  As we know hundreds and thousands of people have written about Shakespeare and his literary works.  The material on Shakespeare and his literary output is, therefore, plentiful and I am tempted to allow those critics to speak for themselves.  I have tried not to resist this temptation.

The long line of monuments to Shakespeare’s presence is familiar.  It extends from Ben Jonson’s generous tribute in the First Folio to, and beyond, Bernard Shaw’s diatribe.

Here is Ben Jonson.  Shakespeare to Jonson was:

Soul of the age,

The applause! Delight, the wonder of our stage,

Here is Shaw.  Do bear in mind that Shaw’s comments though ostensibly directed at Shakespeare had as their real target the excesses of nineteenth century hero worship of Shakespeare.

With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his… It would positively be a relief to me to dig him up and throw stones at him.

But the tributes of poets and dramatists throughout the centuries (even those as devious as Shaw’s) are only the most obvious indications of Shakespeare’s continuing presence.  The very language is indelibly signed with Shakespeare’s idiom or fragments of it.  As one critic has put it:

We use it all but unconsciously every time we see something in our mind’s eye, or ask ourselves what’s in a name or reflect that there’s method in a colleague’s madness or feel ourselves more sinned against than sinning or console ourselves with the thought that we are poor but honest.

Matthew Arnold paid his homage to Shakespeare in a memorable sonnet from which I should like to quote a few lines:

Others abide our question.  Thou are free.  We ask and ask-Thou smilest and art still, Out-topping knowledge.

The tribute is unmistakably warm, and appears to be a sentimental effusion of a romantic critic.  And yet Arnold was a classicist.  In a letter to his friend Arthur Hugh Clough, he expressed his dislike for

……those d   –   d  Elizabethan poets

This anomaly can be explained.   As a poet himself Arnold could not but pay his homage to the greater post.  Shakespeare, he fully realised, defied all analysis and the chains of rules.  But since Arnold was also a reformer, critic, and legislator of poetry, he must subject even Shakespeare to a close scrutiny.  In the stronghold of romanticism, he was upholding the glory of the Aristotelian canons of criticism.

Arnold’s homage to Shakespeare, therefore, is tempered by his critical sense.

Oscar Wilde did not exaggerate when he wrote –

What we do not know about Shakespeare is a most fascinating subject, and one that would fill a volume, but what we do know about him is so meager and inadequate that when it is collected together the result is disappointing.

It is because of the inadequacy of our knowledge about Shakespeare that he is as Arnold asserted –


Out-topping our knowledge.

He is also “free” because he has transcended the limitations of time and place.  A product of the Renaissance, Shakespeare has his eye finely rolling across the subtlety and magnificence of the world, the exuberance of life and the joy in living.  In his poetic dramas, he has given expression to the gamut of human feelings.  The human soul in intense emotion has expressed itself there; and curious and interested readers, irrespective of age and clime have found in Shakespeare an echo of their own emotions.  Judging by their longevity if nothing else, one could say that Shakespeare’s plays have the stamp of permanence and universality.

Talking of universality of Shakespeare’s plays one is reminded of the Chinese scholar reading Literature at Oxford.  On seeing a production of Hamlet he exclaimed in sheer wonder and delight

Hamlet’s problems are also mine.

Hamlet must be a man of China.

Trite as this may sound I think it could be said that Shakespeare is not just a dramatist of England, but of mankind.  He is essentially a poet of life.  His plays are shot through with the good and the bad, the beauty and the ugliness.  He has, as Middleton-Murray aptly describes, the supreme power of inclusiveness.  A product of the renaissance, Shakespeare embodies the exuberance, the love of life and adventure that characterize the spirit of the Renaissance.  He captures this spirit when he makes Hamlet say:

What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!

Again, in The Tempest it is Miranda who becomes Shakespeare’s mouthpiece-

O, Wonder!

How many goodly creatures are there here!

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world!

That has such people in it!

Nothing human seems alien to Shakespeare.  It is in this acceptance of life in its totality that we may trace one of the clues to Shakespeare’s universality.  He is not just another Elizabethan.  He is a poet of the eternal verities.

Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream voices Shakespeare’s perception of the poet –

The lunatic, lover, and the poet

Are of imagination all compact:

One sees more devils than vast hell can hold, –

That is, the madman: The lover, all as frantic,

Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,

And, as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

Shakespeare’s universality is also reflected in his broad humanity.  He never sits in judgement upon his fellow men.  Unlike a Voltaire or Swift, he is never carried away by indignation.  Not a social reformer or moralist he does not seek to convert his readers or audiences to his point of view, for he has no particular view point to push.  Shakespeare has not used his plays as a convenient pulpit from which to deliver sermons.  In this respect Ben Jonson and Shakespeare are strikingly different.  Ben Jonson’s objective is well expressed in the Prologue to Every Man in this Humour:

Deeds and language such as men do use,

And persons such as Comedy would choose

When she would shew and image of the times,

And sport with human follies, not with crimes.

Shakespeare has dealt with neither follies nor crimes.  And Jonson has dealt with both, particularly in Volpone, where he has scathingly attacked human brutality.  While aware of Man’s shortcomings, Shakespeare consistently maintains a warm sympathy for fallible humanity.  He bemoans Man’s inhumanity to Man and charity, tolerance, forgiveness are his cardinal precepts.

Measure for Measure provides instances that illustrate Shakespeare’s Christian charity.  This is Isabella’s poser to Angelo –

How would you be,

If He, which is the top of judgement should

But judge you as you are? O, think on that;

And mercy then will breathe within your lips,

Like new-made.

Mariana, in the same play, says:

 They say, best men are moulded out of faults;

And, for the most, become much more the better

For being a little bad:

Again, Isabella speaks my favourite lines from the play:

 Man, proud man,

Dress’d in a little brief authority,-

Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,

His glassy essence, – like an angry ape,

Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven

As make the angels weep;

Forgiveness is the dominant theme of most of Shakespeare’s work.  Even in All’s Well That Ends Well, popularly known as a ‘dark’ comedy, Shakespeare says:

Let him not ask pardon;

The nature of this offence is dead,

And deeper than oblivion we do bury

The incensing relics of it.

King Lear, chastised for his hubris, emerges from his ordeal and suffering to say

 Pray you now, forget and forgive

In the Tempest, Prospero, who once was deeply wronged, cries out

 Though with high wrong I am struck to the quick

Yet with my noble reason against my fury

Do I take par; the rarer action;

In virtue than in vengeance.

The Last Testament is to be traced in the Epilogue to The Tempest spoken by Prospero

 As you from crimes pardoned be

Let your indulgence set me free.

The extracts quoted above should not, however, lead us to believe that Shakespeare was blind to the seamier side of human nature.  Though not a preaching moralist he did subscribe to a clearly defined ethical sense.  Like all good literature, Shakespeare’s works ennobles and elevates human thought.

Shakespeare has implicit faith in a moral order.  Villains, seemingly prosperous at the beginning, have to pay their due in the long run.  Edmund in Lear, Iago in Othello,  Claudius in Hamlet, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have to yield to the inexorable moral law.  Godd men at ties have, no doubt, to suffer, and this suffering is the outcome of the Aristotelian “harmartia” or the tragic flaw.  Cordelia, an innocent young woman, has to die, for her death is Lear’s punishment.  As in life, in Shakespeare’s plays too, the innocent often suffer with the guilty.

Even on spiritual grounds Cordelia’s death is defensible.  Towards the end of the play, Lear triumphs over himself, and the moral universe triumphs in the process.  And Cordelia helps Lear achieve this moral victory.

It is this eventual triumph of the moral order that is one of the secrets of Shakespeare’s universal appeal.

There are a few characters in Shakespeare’s plays, especially in his comedies, who have recoiled from life.  In the tragedies, a couple or more are sick of life.

Macbeth, for example, exclaims –

Out, out brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more; it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Hamlet says that life to him is the quintessence of dust.

But Romeo, Antony, Othello, despite their tragic lot, are triumphantly robust.  Even the lesser characters – – for example, Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night.  Sir John Falstalf in Henry the IV, are enamoured of life.

I have tried to sketch briefly a picture of Shakespeare the man and his literary philosophy for you this morning.  Let me now end as I began – – on a personal note.

I am, as I said at the very beginning, a beneficiary of that ambiguous legacy which makes it possible for me to have access to, and derive pleasure and profit from, Shakespeare and the English language.  When I survey the scene outside my little world in Sri Lanka, there are some pertinent questions that arise.

What essentially does Shakespeare hold for us?  After all, isn’t he the finest literary exponent of the language of imperialism, of the coloniser?.

Isn’t he as a French audience, at a performance of Shakespeare in 1823 by the first English Shakespearean Company to visit France noted, “Wellington’s lieutenant?”

Isn’t Shakespeare somewhat alien to our way of life?

You may gather from the foregoing that Shakespeare has for me “that characteristic double quality of inwardness and otherness which is a paradigm of the experience of literature and indeed of life” that the late Gamini Salgado spoke of.

And as far as this “double quality” goes I hold with Salgado when he asserted –

But some aspects of the Shakespearean world – seasons and flowers, dynasties battles and castles – were irreducibly alien and to be possessed if at all, by unremitting effort, others were as easily and dangerously familiar as the smell of home.  In a culture where the phases of the moon are still significant in the life of the community (every full moon day is still a holiday) the symbolic rhythm, if I may so call it, of a Midsummer Night’s Dream was readily accessible.  In a society where casting of horoscopes is a normal activity and almanacs and ephemerides a familiar sight on household walls, Gloucester’s remark that “These late eclipses portend no good to us’ or something very like it could well have been heard in childhood….Sometimes even half- understanding provided an unexpected bonus.  Where there are no chimneys there are, naturally no chimney sweepers and the only sweepers I had ever seen were road-sweepers, but the memory of such a one in a swirl of dust as he swept the side of the red road alerted me to the poignant pun in the song from Cymbeline:

Golden lads and girls all must

Like chimney sweepers come to dust.

More generally the Buddhist image of the wheel of birth and rebirth which was absorbed in childhood long before it became a philosophical notion, gave depth and resonance not only to King Lear …. But also to the whole weltanschauung which seems to lie beneath the Histories…