June: Macbeth and Asian English

Sometime between 1599 and 1606, William Shakespeare wrote The Tragedy of Macbeth. It is the shortest of his great tragedies and the most popular. It is known in the theatrical world as the ‘Scottish Play’, and it is said to be unlucky to say the name ‘Macbeth’ out loud. It is a historical play of a kind, and it takes as its subject the murder of a Scottish king. It was at the time of its writing very much a topical play since 1603 had seen the death of Queen Elizabeth and her place taken on the English throne by James the First. In Scotland, he was known as James the Sixth. England for the first time had a Scottish king.

James VI and I was fond of the theatre, and, on his arrival in London, he became fond of the players who made up the company in which Shakespeare worked. James adopted Shakespeare’s company as the King’s Men. So it was that Shakespeare became a courtier, if a minor one. The Scottish play has been taken to be a tribute to the Scottish king.

In the character of Banquo, a loyal lieutenant of Macbeth, Shakespeare made courteous allusion to James’s ancestors. Tradition held that eight Stuart kings preceded James and, in Act 4 in a dumb show, the ghost of Banquo presents eight kings in procession. Moreover, in Act 1, Scene 1, James’s expert knowledge of witchcraft was flattered by three witches running on stage.  Amidst thunder and lightning, they made a royal beginning for the Scottish play:

FIRST WITCH               When shall we three meet again?
                                  In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

SECOND WITCH           When the hurly-burly's done,
                                  When the battle's lost and won.

THIRD WITCH              That will be ere the set of sun.

FIRST WITCH              Where the place?

SECOND WITCH          Upon the heath.

THIRD WITCH             There to meet with Macbeth.

FIRST WITCH              I come, Grimalkin!

SECOND WITCH          Paddock calls.

THIRD WITCH              Anon.

ALL                             Fair is foul, and foul is fair,
                                 Hover through the fog and filthy air.

(Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 1)

A brew of incantation, mystery and magic is whipped to frenzy by a fast-beat rhythm and striking, monosyllabic rhymes. The two-syllables of ‘Macbeth’ break that pattern to give the hero a dark emphasis, entangling his name with those of the animal familiars of the hags: Grimalkin, a cat, and Paddock, a toad. Macbeth will make a third noxious creature to complete a trinity. The third witch’s ‘Anon’ rings with anticipation of disaster.

In the final couplet, recited by all three witches, the first line’s chiasmus accentuates a stinging alliteration - fair:foul::foul:fair. Macbeth will echo the witches when he comes on stage, saying ‘So fair and foul a day I have not seen’.  The second line of the witches’ incantation continues the alliteration and keeps the witches’ song in the ear as the witches disappear. ‘Exeunt’, says the stage direction: ‘They leave.’ Shakespeare’s opening scenes are marvels of theatre. Language and staging assault the audience. A grenade could not get more attention. 

We think of Shakespeare as a London playwright, but, though he lived in London, his theatrical activities took place beyond the city’s boundaries. When Macbeth was played before King James, it is was being played in Westminster, and, when it was being played at the Globe, it was being played in Southwark. Both Westminster and Southwark were outside the City of London. London not only had no court; it had no university. It had no school of music. It had no academy of art. London had a cathedral, but its bishop was no archbishop. London was not a royal, intellectual, artistic or ecclesiastical city. It was then, as now, a business city.

In 1600, London was at the beginning of a trajectory that would make it the wealthiest city in the world, but that was two centuries in the future. In Shakespeare’s time, the great cities of the East outranked London in terms of both population and wealth. London was to make its way to the top by depositing Asian profits in London banks, and it did that mainly by trade. London was ready to do it by theft, but, as with Africa, so with Asia. London preferred to trade than to steal. Theft despoiled a land; trade developed it. Stealing meant raiding and raiding was dangerous, but trading could be dangerous too.

In 1606 London drummed with reports that an English ship had been seized and its crew murdered in the East Indies. In the hold of the ship, the ship’s master had imprisoned a band of Japanese sailors accused of piracy. They broke out and killed him and his men. The name of the ship was The Tiger. It is the name invoked in the third scene of Macbeth when the First Witch speaks of charming a sailor’s wife:

Her husband's to Aleppo gone, master o' the Tiger:
But in a sieve I'll thither sail,
And, like a rat without a tail,
I'll do, I'll do, and I'll do.

The witch got the name of the ship right but not its destination. In December 1604, The Tiger had been chartered to map the coast of Sumatra. It was not a Levant trader, and, on its final voyage, it was not making for Aleppo, but its fate made it a name to conjure with in 1606. The Tiger was owned by the Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies. Established in 1600 to exploit a newly opening Eastern market, it came to be known as the Honourable East India Company. In due course and over two and a half centuries, it evolved into the British Raj, an entity vastly larger, more populous and (once) more wealthy than the country of which it became the colony.

In turn, in the twentieth century, the British Raj became the Republics of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.  Today, those countries contain one of the largest English-speaking communities in the world - 330,000,000 people. If all Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi users of English are not fluent speakers of English, there are some 60,000,000 speakers who are fluent, making a speech community matching that of England.  Among the poets most read in that community is William Shakespeare, and he is the playwright most performed. 

Poonam Trivedi of Delhi University tells us that Shakespeare’s plays were being performed for English traders in Calcutta and Bombay in the 1770s. Sukanta Chaudhuri of Jadavpur University tells us that The Tempest had been translated into Bengali in the 1810s. The play was used by the East India Company to introduce its clerks newly arrived from England to a language of India. In the 1820s, Indians began using Shakespeare as a tool for learning English at Hindu College, Calcutta. In the 1870s, Rabindranath Tagore, the greatest of Bengali poets, was set by his tutors to translate Macbeth into Bengali.

By the 1850s, Shakespeare was being performed in many Indian languages. The adoption of Shakespeare in translation at a time when the British rulers were actively imposing the English language on the Indian population reflected, says Trivedi, an enjoyment of the plays that went beyond colonial submission. Sukanta Chaudhuri emphasizes the number of translation made into Indian languages. In 1964, the Indian National Library in Kolkata counted 670 translations with 128 into Bengali followed by ninety-seven into Marathi. Many were not complete texts; most were single scenes or combinations of scenes. Particularly popular were translations of tales from Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare. In India, Shakespeare became as much storyteller and novelist as poet and playwright. Poonam Trivedi points out that the plays and the retellings were translated in more ways than one. Characters and locations were given Indian names; themes took an Indian turn; the music, songs and dancing became Indian.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century the teaching of English and teaching in English became dominant. The early period of free-ranging licence gave way to orthodoxy. Full text with actors in European costume became the fashion. To know English was a proof of education; to know Shakespeare was a proof of higher education.  At the same time, Shakespeare’s plays were used as models for the development of the dramatic genre in many of the languages of India. Where these had become vehicles of high culture, they challenged writers to match in their own language the achievement of Shakespeare.

After Independence, says Trivedi, there was a revival of the earlier freedoms so that Shakespeare was again made an Indian playwright but this time without the carefree entertainment of the nineteenth-century adaptations. A modern India concerned for its future and its identity co-opted rather than adapted Shakespeare, making his plays a site for anti-colonial statement and assertion.

Today, with post-colonial confidence, Shakespeare is fashioned and refashioned freely in playful rather than resentful mode. In 2003, Macbeth became Maqbool, a Bollywood movie. Its bold treatment of the Scottish play, says Andrew Dickson in Worlds Elsewhere, reflects an India where there are ‘now reckoned to be more cinematic adaptations of the plays than anywhere else in the world, in nearly every Indian language one could name.’ Vishal Bhardwaj, the director and producer of Maqbool, has gone on to direct Omkara, based on Othello, and Haider, based on Hamlet

In March 2011, in an article in The Times of India, Kumar Mahabir asked ‘Is Shakespeare’s Macbeth based on a Holi legend?’ He reasoned that the plot owes so little to the historical Macbeth and is so like that of the legend of Hiranya, a king who thought himself a god, that Shakespeare must have drawn on Indian not Scottish sources. Mahabir developed similar arguments for King Lear (based on a Hindi legend of a king with seven daughters) and for The Merchant of Venice (based on an episode from the life of the Buddha). No doubt a case could be made for several more, if not all, of Shakespeare’s plays having Indian sources. Shakespearean fecundity finds its match in the riches of Indian myth and legend.

Whatever the Indian origins of Shakespeare’s plots, India may be the country where Shakespeare is most loved. In celebration of the quadricentennial, the British Council made a worldwide survey of Shakespeare’s popularity. Top was India. Bottom was Germany. In Germany, only forty-four people in a hundred said they liked Shakespeare while in India the number was eighty-nine.  

News commentary focused on India’s first place but not on Germany’s last place. That evoked little comment, the only surprise being that it was Germany not France in last place. (France came second to last.) What excited the newspapers was the poor showing of Britain where only fifty-eight people in a hundred admitted to liking Shakespeare. Britons might have been ahead of Germans, but they were way behind Indians.

Is Shakespeare not loved in the land of his birth? There are plenty of Shakespeare lovers in Britain, but it might be that there is a special love reserved for a poet whom we begin to read easily in a foreign language. Indians expect to struggle; Britons do not. Shakespeare tells Indians how much English they know; he tells Britons how little they know. 

The Indian people’s liking of Shakespeare is a popular recognition of his greatness. That is matched by the ambition of the Indian Academy of Letters to translate the great tetralogy - Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet and Othello - ‘into every major Indian language’. That was a decision made after Independence, and Sukanta Chaudhuri links it with a decision to translate Shakespeare into Sanskrit.

Sanskrit is a dead language, but it is the most revered of Indian languages. It holds the place in India that Greek and Latin hold in Europe. Sanskrit, Greek and Latin are vehicles of high culture, and therein lies a tie between the language of Shakespeare and the languages of India. In 1783, in the city that the British called Calcutta, there arrived a remarkable man whose name was Sir William Jones. Sir William was a lawyer at work and a linguist at leisure. He came to know thirteen languages fluently and twenty-eight well. Among those languages were a number of Indian ones.

Sir William taught himself to read Sanskrit, and he was able to compare it with the foreign languages that he knew best: Ancient Greek and Latin. Having all three dead languages before him, he came to a remarkable conclusion. There were so many likenesses that he deduced that they had once, all three, been the same language. Modern linguistics was born with that insight.

Modern linguistics has now determined that the majority of the languages of Europe and most of those of northern India have ‘sprung from some common source’ as Sir William put it. From Gaelic to Gujarati, from Albanian to Yagnobi, several hundreds of ancient and modern European and Indian languages have evolved over 6,000 years from an original language called Proto-Indo-European. It was, some say, the language of a tribe living on the Caspian steppes.

Some 3,000 years ago, there was a people who spoke a language that we call Proto-Germanic. It had evolved from Proto-Indo-European.  The Proto-Germanic people arrived in the Scandinavian Peninsula. They gradually increased in numbers and moved south along the coasts all the way to what is now Holland. They moved inland into parts of what is now Germany. Over a thousand or so years, Proto-Germanic developed into North Germanic, West Germanic and East Germanic. East Germanic has disappeared. North Germanic has become Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and Icelandic. West Germanic has become Dutch, German and English. Sir William Jones’s inspired conjecture enables us to track the English language back some 6,000 years and to get a glimpse of how it came to Europe.

When, in 1892, R. Krishnamacharya began to translate Shakespeare into Sanskrit, he was but rendering Shakespeare’s language into but another dialect of the Ur-language of India and Europe.


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