Saturday, April 23, 2011

`The Epitome, Test, and Symbol of Literary Culture'

“…although we had heard the story of King Lear from our mother and knew who it was by, our first notion of Shakespeare was of a man whose writings all grown-up persons were expected to discuss and, what was even more important, to recite. It did not take us long, however, to pass from the rank of spectators to that of participants in the Shakespearean procession.”

Listen to the civilized voice of Nirad C. Chaudhuri (1897-1999) in one of the last century’s great memoirs, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (1951). No post-colonial whining for this man of learning, dignity and independence, who dedicates his autobiography, with a catch, “to the memory of the British Empire in India.” This blog is dedicated to “the intersection of books and life,” precisely the phenomenon Chaudhuri describes as the “Shakespearean procession” in his native Kishorganj, East Bengal. What better way to observe the playwright’s birthday than to celebrate his enduring universality? Later in the Autobiography, Chaudhuri recounts a momentous event from childhood:

“One day, toward the end of 1907, my father was standing in the yard of the outer house with a book in his hand and, seeing me, asked me to come up, for, he said, he wanted me to learn something new and in English. When he gave me the book I found that it was Julius Caesar. He pointed to a place and directed me to read, and I began: `That you have wronged me doth appear in this…’ That was the first passage in Shakespeare that I learned by heart. My brother was given the part of Brutus, and between us we acted nearly the whole dialogue, which did not take us long to learn.”

Cassius speaks the line at the opening of Act IV, Scene 3. Brutus accuses Cassius of compromising the nobility of the murder they have committed by accepting bribes. The quarrel between the two future suicides comes to little. How peculiar that Chaudhuri’s father, a provincial lawyer dedicated to educating his family, should introduce his sons to Shakespeare with this scene, but how telling that the boys lap it up. Nirad commits other speeches by Cassius to memory and earns a local reputation for his interpretation of the role. Chaudhuri admits his pleasure was enhanced by “whipping out a dagger,” but how many ten-year-old boys today revel in Shakespearean rhetoric? Today it’s possible to earn advanced degrees from a university without once reading Shakespeare. Chaudhuri explains:

“I do not know if any other country or people in the world has ever made one author the epitome, test, and symbol of literary culture as we Bengalis did with Shakespeare in the nineteenth century.”

1 comment:

Helen Pinkerton said...

Just a quick historical note on academia. I was a teaching fellow at Harvard in Fall 1952, guiding a small flock of Radcliffe seniors, majors in English, toward their degrees. At that time I noted that it was possible for any of them to receive an AB in English without any course in Shakespeare. Recently-adoped less rigorous requirements permitted this. I was annoyed then and have seen the mold in curriculum grow since then. Was Harvard the leader in this? I suspect so.