Shakespeare and South Asia

Island Editorial

Shakespeare continues to fascinate the world even four and a half centuries after his demise and his influence on people across the globe remains undiminished. This is a feat only a few literary figures have achieved. It is believed that Shakespeare is still the best-selling author of fiction in the world.

One wonders whether there is any language or any culture which Shakespeare’s fabulous works haven’t influenced and enriched. There is hardly any true lover who hasn’t drawn inspiration from Romeo and Juliet and shed a secret tear for the tragic end of the star-crossed eponyms. Such is the timelessness as well as universality of his creations.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is holding an exhibition in the UK to showcase the relationship of the Bard’s works with South Asia, as we reported yesterday. Catching the next flight to be there must be the fervent wish of every lover of Shakespeare in this region.Image result for shakespeare

The Bard, no doubt, has had an enduring influence on South Asia mainly due to British colonialism, which acted as a vehicle for the dissemination of the English language and literature. It was not a one-way process, though. English has also gained tremendously as evident from its rich word stock, described as a chain of borrowings.

The British not only filled their coffers with jewels plundered from its colonies but also enriched their language with alien words. There is evidence that Shakespeare was also influenced by Asia, especially India, which has, incidentally, loaned a large number of her words to the British lexicon such as ‘loot’, ‘jungle’, and ‘juggernaut’. Sri Lanka has also contributed several words to the inventory of lexemes of English, some of them being ‘beriberi’ and ‘anaconda’.

Elizabeth Dollimore, from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, has said the aforesaid exhibition will explore Shakespeare as an international figure who crossed borders. One can see this in most of his works, especially those in which one finds a fine blend of history and fiction.

Shakespeare may not have been au fait with history and diverse cultures of this region as such. But, he apparently had more than a nodding acquaintance with them. Interestingly, several references to India find themselves in some of his major plays as C. R. Banerji et al have pointed out: in The Merchant of Venice, Bassanio refers to Antonio’s trade with India. In The Twelfth Night, Sir Toby uses the metaphor, ‘metal of India’, to describe Maria. In All’s well that ends well, Helena, in love with Bertram, who belongs to a different social class, compares her predicament to that of an Indian sun-worshipper. A repenting Othello likens himself to the Indian who cast away his pearl.

Meanwhile, there is an interesting argument that one of the stories in Aesop’s Fables has been borrowed from the Jataka Tales; Martin Wickramasinghe is of the view that the origin of The Ass in the Lion’s Skin is found in ‘Siha-Chamma Jataka’. What is of greater interest is that Shakespeare alludes to this fable in King John! The famous work of Erasmus, the classical scholar, on proverbs is also thought to have been influenced by this particular Jataka tale. This shows the sheer extent of the cross-pollination of literature in different cultures across the world––something that would not have been possible without the literary geniuses of the Bard’s calibre.