Indian university syllabi include Shakespeare to turn our young people into a nation of English-ingesting and English-regurgitating professionals

Teaching Shakespeare in India How the bard travels across borders
Blog Literature Thursday, April 28, 2016 - 15:43

By Ranita Hirji

My love affair with William Shakespeare began when I was in Std IX, and my English teacher, Shirley Freese, introduced us to Macbeth (in the original!). Oh no, I thought. Now it will only be toil and trouble. But as we progressed into the play, the experience was sheer delight. I could not get enough of it and my appetite did not sicken.

In my enthusiasm to learn I vigorously scribbled notes in the margins of the pages of my book, until one day, Ms Freese wrote on the title page: “A good book is the true life-blood of a master spirit.” And so she introduced me to John Milton.

In the following years, college and a BA Honours course in English literature meant more Shakespeare and a time to build critical opinion. I remember telling one of my professors that while I understood Macbeth, I could not fathom Lear. She looked at me with much kindliness and said: “Wait till you turn forty. Lear you will empathise with in middle-age.”

In my long innings of 46 years as a teacher of English literature, I have taught scores of students who have known Shakespeare, loved Shakespeare, lived Shakespeare, tolerated Shakespeare, and suffered Shakespeare in my classes, only for lack of choice. Every university syllabus has included at least one play by Shakespeare in an endeavour to turn our “university-educated” youth into a nation of English-ingesting and, more importantly, English-regurgitating professionals.

So decreed the wise in their wisdom, and so I entered many a compulsory English class every term armed with my copy of Shakespeare’s prescribed play and a liberal dose of fortitude. For fortitude is what I was in dire need of when my bewildered students wondered if I was the something rotten in the state of academia. And of course I grew more evil when I told them the bard had been christened Shakespeare and not “Shakesphere”, and what he wrote was great literature, not “litreature". When I paused for breath, their eyes mocked back with: Why all this ado about nothing!

But I laboured on regardless, hoping to enthuse them with my passion for the bard’s works. I did not give up, ever, in my attempt to teach the rules and use of modern English grammar from a 16th-century Shakespeare text. My vaulting ambition to teach my students the English language spurred me on to perform the famous soliloquies in class, and to encourage my students to not only enact interesting scenes from the plays but also adapt them in Hindi and Kannada to discuss contemporary issues in nukkad performances.

Once, in a desperate attempt to teach my students the difference between literary and journalistic writing, I made them bring out a newspaper in Rome on March 16, 44 BC, reporting Julius Caesar’s assassination. There was some method in my madness. Their prescribed text that year was Julius Caesar.

To be or not to be was never the question. I, their English teacher, taught them language, and my profit is they know how to speak.

Yes I have had my fair share of disappointment, and even anguish. Evaluating answer scripts after a university exam I have sometimes come across answers which read: “These lines are taken from L Seshagiri Rao’s famous drama Macbeth…” (it is easier for students to read Shakespeare from an examination guide book than plough through the original). But I have smiled at grief and patiently read the rest of the answer, and awarded a few marks if there was a faint glimmer of understanding and expression. For Shakespeare had successfully travelled to a remote rural area in India and gifted a student with language.

Ranita Hirji is Dean, Commits – Institute of Journalism and Mass Communication, Bangalore

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