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16 July, 2018 00:00 00 AM

William Shakespeare’s legacy

South Asians got rid of the British but kept Shakespeare
Md. Ziaul Haque
William Shakespeare’s legacy

At present, it is widely time-honoured that William Shakespeare was an esteemed person of the dramatic arts. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, he wrote plays and acted in a few. However, people started recognising his dramatic mastermind particularly in the 19th century:

“In the 19th Century, Shakespeare became an important emblem of national pride, used to spread the influence of British imperial power.

Taught in schools across the Empire, Shakespeare's work helped to imbue a sense of cultural patriotism in the Empire’s subjects. In 1841 Thomas Carlyle described him as a “real, marketable, tangibly useful possession.” Post-colonial literary critics have argued this was a way the British Empire tried to subordinate the cultures of the countries it occupied. Shakespeare continues to be exported, adapted and translated, across the world”

If the colleagues of Shakespeare did not collect his plays into the ‘First Folio’ of 1623, “…around half of his plays, including – amazingly - Macbeth, Julius Caesar and The Tempest would have been lost” (Shakespeare’s Globe, n.d.). “Today, his plays are highly popular and constantly studied and reinterpreted in performances with diverse cultural and political contexts. The genius of Shakespeare's characters and plots are that they present real human beings in a wide range of emotions and conflicts that transcend their origins in Elizabethan England” (William Shakespeare Biography, n.d.). “Theatre’s artistic status in literature had improved by the time of Shakespeare’s death, and he was mourned as a brilliant writer by his peers. But no one could have known that this popular artist, writing for a local audience in a single city, would grow in reach and influence over four hundred years to become arguably the most celebrated writer of all time.” (Shakespeare’s Globe, n.d.).

Compliments and respect for William Shakespeare and his work reached the peak at the starting of the Romantic period of the early 1800s, continuing through the Victorian period. His works were rediscovered and adopted later in the 20th century by the new movements in scholarship and performance.

“Although William Shakespeare was appreciated as a distinguished playwright and poet during his lifetime, it was not until the 19th century that the name of William Shakespeare received the status he holds now. While the Romantics considered Shakespeare to be a genius, the Victorians on the other hand, admired him to the extent of worship. The commencement of the 20th century marked an era of Shakespeare’s plays being excessively adapted to different mediums of performing arts, studied, rediscovered and translated into many languages all over the world. Shakespeare remains the only writer whose every line has been profoundly studied and interpreted by historians, scholars and students. The evergreen works of William Shakespeare have truly left a deep and lasting effect on world literature, theatre and cinema.”

In fact, the legacy of Shakespeare starts in the words. He wrote so delightfully, dramatically and plainly.  He invented many new words and phrases and enriched the English language. Many of his coined words and phrases we still use at present.  “He has given us many of the words we speak, even the thoughts we think. Shakespeare's gift for a well-turned phrase is without parallel and he is frequently quoted even by persons who have never seen or read his plays.”

A lot of his Shakespeare’s plays have stood the test of time.  Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear and Titus Andronicus are several of the most well-known plays of all time and are also a few of the most forceful title characters from any play.  Hamlet brilliantly represents both real and artificial madness (from irresistible sadness to furious anger). The play explores the subject matters of deceitfulness, vengeance, incest, and ethical dishonesty; it is one of the most persuasive and well-formed plays of all time.

“To be, or not to be: that is

the question:

Whether ’t is nobler in the

mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of

outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against

a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them?” (Shakespeare, 1973, p. 828)

The madness of Hamlet and nearly modern illusions in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are exciting the spectators even now and still raise questions that will never be replied certainly.  The tender humour of Cymbeline and the bounce and radiance of Twelfth Night are fascinating. It is true that Shakespeare’s histories are not constantly viewed as perfect but they surely provide the audiences with some observation into a public sensitivity of an age in time, a time with no television, cameras etc. In short, his plays work as a guide to the awareness of the people. “His creations show that his character development and need to entertain came foremost and that is one of the key reasons his works are so important today”

“Pleasure and action make the hours seem short.”

 Shakespeare’s plays teach politeness, courteousness, benignity, kindness and humbleness that are universal and everlasting. His works have entertained the readers and viewers for about four centuries. However, Shakespeare appeared to this part (Asia) of the world with the emergence of the British colonialism. Interestingly, the ruled started loving and relating to Shakespeare more than the rulers! ‘British Bengal was a famous place for Shakespeare studies” (Biswas, 2012). At present, Shakespeare is taught in the colleges and universities in Bangladesh, India and many other Asian countries.

It deserves to be mentioned that Michael Madhusudan Dutt, (the great poet and the father of Bangla blank verse) was a passionate follower of Shakespeare. At the last part of his life, he quoted recurrently from Macbeth, “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow/Creeps in this petty pace from day to day/To the last syllable of recorded time”. (Shakespeare, 1973, p. 843)

Besides, Bankimchandra Chatterjee would use quotations from the Bard as the headings of the chapters. Moreover, Vidyasagar (the Sanskrit scholar) had an insightful knowledge about Shakespeare’s genius; he translated The Comedy of Errors into Bangla and the title was, Bhrantibilas. The Nobel laureate, “Rabindranath Tagore's sonnet-34 included in Balaka is a fine tribute paid by one great poet to another” (Rana, 2010).

The Indians abandoned the British but kept Shakespeare. Even the freedom-fighters paid due respect to Shakespeare whose writings teach not to seize the rights of another. For example, in Shakespeare's The Tempest, Caliban is the ruled who mocks at the ruler in such a way that he appears as the representative of the colonized people: “You taught me language; and my profit on'tIs, I know how to curse.

In the middle of 20th century, Alfred Hart, who was a significant authority on Shakespeare’s vocabulary at that time, wrote that “…Shakespeare is…“credited by the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary with being the first user of about 3,200 words”” (Battistella, 2016). “Words like dishearten, divest, addiction, motionless, leapfrog - and phrases like “once more unto the breach”, “band of brothers” and “heart of gold” – have all passed into our language today with no need to reference their original context. Shakespeare also pioneered innovative use of grammatical form and structure - including verse without rhymes, superlatives and the connecting of existing words to make new words, like bloodstained - while the pre-eminence of his plays also did much to standardise spelling and grammar” (

The words, plots and characters of Shakespeare have been inspiring the culture and society all around the world. When Nelson Mandela was a prisoner on Robben Island, he cherished a quotation from Julius Caesar, “Cowards die many times before their deaths/The valiant never taste of death but once” (Shakespeare, 1973, p. 806). “While Kate Tempest’s poem “My Shakespeare” captures the eternal presence of Shakespeare when she wrote that Shakespeare “…is in every lover who ever stood alone beneath a window…every jealous whispered word and every ghost that will not rest.” Shakespeare’s influence is everywhere, from Dickens and Goethe to Tchaikovsky, Verdi and Brahms; from West Side Story to the Hamlet-inspired title of Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” – the longest-running theatre production in London’s West End today…”

The writer is former Assistant Professor of English at Sylhet International University. Email:



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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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