When I think of William Shakespeare, it is not ‘To be or not to be’ that comes to mind, but an old school friend, Vinod. He was popular in class for dozing off while the lessons were on, and jumping awake when the teacher began a sentence with ‘We know that...’ The first syllable sounded like his name, and it was always a treat to watch his confusion.
But it was his mangling of Shakespeare that brought him everlasting fame. Asked to read out from Julius Caesar, he did so, correcting what he thought was a printing mistake. ‘Beware the ideas of March’, he read, perhaps convinced that only a genius like Shakespeare understood what terrible ideas we have in the third month of the year. We loved Shakespeare in school.
A recent survey informs that 83 per cent of Indians understood Shakespeare. Well, if statistics are the food of love, play on. India’s literacy is around 72 per cent, so unless Indians think Priyanka Chopra when they see Shakespeare, it is difficult to see how the Bard can be a household name. He himself was no stranger to exaggeration, though. Remember that crack about all the perfumes of Arabia?
I doubt if 83 per cent of even the English-speaking population would recognise a Shakespeare play if it were read out to them. Brand recognition means you could have heard of the author without having read anything he wrote. But the leap from that to popular is a giant one, as Armstrong, the man who took performance-enhancing stuff and cycled to the moon (as a nephew described him) said all those years ago.
It’s entirely possible that schoolchildren know more Shakespeare, or at least selections from his works, than adults. A Midsummer Night’s Dream has probably been performed by more lisping 10-year-olds struggling to pronounce the name of the jester and ‘merry wanderer of the night’ than any other play. There’s nothing more exciting than going on stage wearing a donkey’s head. Most adults can trace their psychological problems to having either worn that mask at a tender age or having appeared as King Oberon or Queen Titania in a school play.
For schoolchildren, all the plays are comedies, with their references to body parts, bodily functions and the odd hilarious juxtaposition of naughty words.
The joy of Shakespeare in school was the opportunity it gave us to improve upon the original. I remember an unofficial competition that was won by the lad who began: ‘Shall I compare thee to a can of engine oil...’
The actual line – ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ – does not work in temperatures of over 40 degrees.