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Teaching Shakespeare.

KARACHI: Teaching Shakespeare has been a learning experience. Literature teachers find out quickly enough that before the analytical ascent to exploring the "diamond absolutes" of art comes the absolute imperative of communication skills. These clearly go beyond what frequently appear to be technical pirouettes of what is fashionably known as language teaching or learning with its intimidating armoury of jargon and air of superior, briefcase-carrying efficiency and relevance. Contrastingly, literature teaching tends to be cast as an outdated, inefficient and patently self-indulgent activity. Perhaps a Shakespearean engagement is the height of self-indulgence, given how hooked we are on gadgeted short cuts and daily doses of arsenic conservatism, when the very word 'ideology' strikes terror in academic administrators' hearts and is excised from course titles. So how does the garden grow for Shakespeare? Despite the linguistic and cultural forgiveness of the Bard or the distance of his concerns from our own, it never fails to surprise one that generations of young people diverse in backgrounds and varying drastically in linguistic proficiency (or rather lack of) respond so feelingly and intelligently to his work. For one Prince of Denmark there are scores of soul-searching and conflicted youthful Punjabis. Shakespeare's characters and, more particularly, their dramatic social contexts be it King Lear's ancient, tribal Britain, Othello's etiolated 'colonial' Venice or the "unnatural scene" of Coriolanus' Rome evoke waves of identification, recognition and understanding; or censure and condemnation. A class which begins on an all-too-familiar note of 'I did not manage to read', 'I don't understand', 'it is too hot/cold to struggle with the sixteenth century', 'there is a noisy jaloos (procession) outside' or 'what are going to be my survival tactics in the hostel today?' is changed, "changed utterly". The well-worn teacherly arsenal of prodding chastisement tempered with clucks of encouragement is once more effective; apathy and inattention flower into animated debate. Fierce arguments, like little bushfires, flare up about Othello's egregious naivete or generous nobility, Hamlet's depths or being out of his depths, Edmund's bastardly villainy set against the 'legitimate' Goneril and Regan's callous filial disregard. Before one knows it the hour has flown and the task of shepherding one's flock and structuring discussion is over. The class is done and entirely figuratively, "the page is printed".

The thought of Sufi poets like Bulleh Shah sometimes find great resonance in Shakespeare

The thought of Sufi poets like Bulleh Shah sometimes find great resonance in Shakespeare

It is not hard to locate "something rotten in the State of Denmark" to something closer to home

What is it, then, that instigates this outsearching of heart and light into our own context of heat and dust? Obviously, primarily Shakespeare's capacious humanity, his virtually forensic exploration of hearts and minds, palaces and marketplaces, "the infinite variety" of his art and "unsullen" craft. But it is also the teacher's Doctor Who-vian manning of the time-space ship, the Tardis, and bringing the world of doublet and hose within the compass of our own experience - that skin-to-skin encounter with and through the text which is recognised in its otherness but, more importantly, accommodated in its chameleon-like adaptability, its openness to what moves or provokes us. According to the Chorus in Henry V, a quickening of the audience's imagination is the daunting task set for the players and the words they speak:

Let us ciphers to this great accompt,

...on your imaginary forces work...

...for it is your thoughts that now must deck our beings

Carry them here or there, jumping o'er times,

Turning the accomplishment of many years

Into an hour glass...

The teacher's task of carrying the students on the wings of blank verse while clearly not of as "great accompt" is no less daunting as one enacts the roles of transmitter, translator and caretaker, all in one.

The ability to teach may be a gift, but rarely possessed overnight; an exciting lecture hardly ever a flash in the pan. Difficult to calculate its honing by clock time, it is an accretion of growing into one's subject and into oneself, made possible to a great extent through one's interaction with others, with young people who may yet discover that hunger in themselves "to be more serious", more joyful, more curious. When teaching, the wisdom and efficacy of E.M Forster's "only connect" offers enormous support. In the teaching of Shakespeare it proves an indispensible aid, whetting and enhancing one's communication skills. The depth and breadth of one's recourse to other sources, the biodiversity of reference and allusion, a discourse enriched by the twinning of the 'other' tongues with the mother tongue is in itself a measure of one's own inventiveness. Surely Shakespeare's "richest alchemy" can demand that, at the very least, from the teacher. All's fair in how far one journeys carrying one's students. Once the first steps are taken, there is the reward of how enthusiastically the young set off finding paths and tributaries for themselves, "lying" down in "the word hoard", and knitting up the "ravell'd sleeve" of temporal and cultural differences. Few have much difficulty in locating the "something rotten in the State of Denmark" to something closer to home, or are unfamiliar with the "oppressor's wrong", "the law's delay", the "insolence of office" or unacquainted with the promise of a time when "distribution should undo excess/And each man have enough". Certainly we abound in our own breed of "scurvy" politicians and hear daily "the very stones prate" of their antics. The plays positively hold up the mirror to our own society in which "Though tattered clothes small vices appear/Robes and furr'd gowns hide all" and punitive zeal "breaks...the strong arm of justice".

Shakespeare's immortal Hamlet

Shakespeare's immortal Hamlet

Bulleh Shah's existential questing strikes a congruent chord with Lear's "Who can tell me who I am?"

Within the classroom collective one can find oneself in sneaking agreement with Shakespeare's description of Julius Caesar's wayward 'awam' (masses) as the "common herd" and recoil from their "stinking breaths and sweaty nightcaps". However, it is impossible to ignore the interfacing powerful resonance of Lear's profoundly self-indicting and poignant recognition of his failure as king to redress the plight of "the poor naked wretches...That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm...[with their] houseless heads and unfed sides...[and] looped and windowed raggedness". Indeed, Shakespeare teaching perforce prompts the salutary exercise of self-scrutiny, an acceptance of uncomfortable truths that touch us to the quick and refuse consolation. To Kent's "it is the stars/The stars above us govern our condition" is Cassius' trenchant repudiation: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/But in ourselves, that we are underlings". Both characters speak to us directly.

When teaching generally - and with Shakespeare particularly - cross-cultural and linguistic adventurism is not only endorsable but necessary if communication is to move beyond mere explanation to an enlivening of the learning process. Thankfully, this viewpoint finds fertile ground in students' imaginations. The wisdom and wit of Sufi poets, for instance Bulleh Shah's existential questing in 'Bullah, ki janaan main kaun?' strikes a congruent chord with Lear's "Who can tell me who I am?", a question that resonates through the play, and vaulting over time, is embedded in the heart of Ted Hughes' 'Wodwo'. Risking being far-fetched, even the "bare ruin'd choirs" of a Wiltshire woodland "where late the sweet birds sang" of Sonnet 73 can flash a 'mind's eye' glimpse of Jehlum's eroded hills, and the "sweet bird" regenerates in Taufiq Rafat's "mellifluous" stone chat.

The Bard remains very relevant to our contemporary context

The Bard remains very relevant to our contemporary context

In drawing upon Shakespeare as one frequently does to illumine the modern, one realises that the activity can be reversed; that it is, in fact, a two-way shadow play. Hence T.S Eliot's meditation on time in 'East Coker' both shares and lightens the Old Master's space; and Lear's "unaccommodated man", a "poor, bare, fork'd animal" and "a comrade with the wolf and owl" be kinned with Prufrock's longing to have been a "pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas". Following this scheme of connectedness further is Cyclops' island in Derek Walcott's' 'Odyssey', which evokes dark echoes of Scotland under the tyrant's yoke, or as Philip Larkin's "threadbare perspectives" in 'Triple Time' lend deeper insight into Macbeth's "tomorrow and tomorrow" speech, or sounds the desolation of Cleopatra's "there is nothing/Left remarkable/Beneath the visiting moon".

Living in a society where one is daily tutored in sanctimonious self-regard and a carping distrust and denial of all that links us in organic harmony with creatural life, teaching Shakespeare poses its own hazards. Gloucester's frank admission of the "good sport" in the adulterous conception of Edmund or Edmund's own outrageously rousing "Now, gods, stand up for bastards!" is matched by Lear's clarion call of "Let all copulation thrive" and this presents a veritable minefield for the teacher, preferably to be negotiated with all the candour one can muster and as little pious squeamishness as is possible. The same can be said for when one prepares the ground for Sir Toby Belch's riposte to Malvolio's puritanically "distempered appetite": "Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?" In a Shakespeare class one "abjures" the comfort of putting one's feet up on literal paraphrase and yellowed notes. As a teacher one acknowledges the role of a caretaker - one critically receptive to both students' needs and those of the text itself, and one who is committed to being at the same time intellectually professional and intimately self-exacting. In closing, let us indulge in a little useful fantasy: let us imagine that when Hamlet devises the mousetrap to "catch the conscience of the king", it is reshaped as a twin-cabined vehicle--the teacher rides with Claudius!
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Publication:Friday Times of Pakistan (Lahore, Pakistan)
Date:Jan 15, 2016
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