Issue No.3-2020 - p.2
LAUNCH of Shakespeare in the Age of COVID-19
St Thomas’s College Thrissur Kerala, India
by Dr. Christine Williams, Director, Sydney School of Arts & Humanities
It gives me great pleasure to be invited to launch this special anthology, Shakespeare in the Age of COVID-19 - Poems and Flash Fiction by Young Indians, showcasing the work of 50 young people, who all display some proficiency in crafting poetry and story. They were chosen from among 250 students who entered a national writing competition on the Shakespeare COVID-19 theme.
One doesn’t usually speak of a ‘career’ in poetry, or short story/flash fiction writing, except for the very few elevated to Poet Laureate or similar, yet writing poetry, and even the most brief of short stories, is one of the most meticulous activities known to humankind. And it can be very hard work. Each one of us has the capacity of feeling, the inkling to put down one’s philosophical thoughts, time found to do so, but so few even try to write poetry or story in such a disciplined way, let alone reach any great height in the craft as to write a truly memorable poem that will outlive us all.
Shakespeare achieved this recognition not only for his poetry – sonnets many of which have ‘stood the test of time’ for lovers even in far-flung parts of the world – but also for other forms of writing, not least his theatre scripts which have been performed in amateur or professional theatre in most countries of the world. And chameleon-like, transformed into film. Then, after the plays themselves have been the subjects of cinema productions, their author has come under the movie microscope – in comedy as Shakespeare in Love, then a tv series All is True, and back to cinema with Upstart Crow, the story of Shakespeare’s life, in retirement and with problems on the domestic front, all, of course, finally resolved just as Shakespeare’s complex plots always finally reached resolution.
Last year in an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Ben Elton. The director of Upstart Crow, said he saw Shakespeare as the perfect sitcom character – and I quote:
'He was an overworked commuter. A self-made man who was sneered at by the posh boys (they called him ‘Upstart’). A social climber – he bought his family a coat of arms, which was kind of the customised number plate of its day. He was a family man with a long-suffering wife, a teenage daughter, a posh mum (who married beneath her) and a deeply dodgy dad. Good sitcom character? Derr.' (The Guardian Aug 26, 2018)
The success of so many variations on a theme of Shakespeare the man, a workaholic playwright, may be considered to lie in his universal fame while the success of his plays lies in its common man – and woman – approach, its universality … a key ingredient in all great poetry too.
And so, it is most appropriate that Shakespeare and his legacy, his grand portfolio of published works, were settled upon as the subject of this collection.
Just as CHANDRAMOHAN has chosen three works published elsewhere for some praise in his Introduction to the book, I may choose several poems or pieces from within its pages for special mention here – without, of course, casting any negativity on those not selected since they all have merit.
In the Introduction to this landmark collection, which is a self-reflection of social mayhem and radical change in real time written by the youth who will inherit the outcomes of the pandemic, CHANDRAMOHAN points to a poem by Madhu Raghavendra about the importance of art in such a confronting period as this, when we neglect the finer arts in favour of what I view as fear of fatality, rampant disputation and despair, and sheer survival. It’s a poem which ends with the words: ‘Art is non-essential / Until it is not.’
I believe we ignore the arts & humanities at our peril. To overcome the virus we need medicine, as far as it is able to help (and we don’t have the greatest help yet ie a COVID-19 vaccine) but we also need the arts and social sciences in order to face the pressing existential questions now brought into our own villages, city apartment blocks, our families, and our selves – questions about how and why we interact with others within a range of cultural and social practices, which in normal times we can mostly keep at bay until, we hope, we’ll live out three score years and ten. As AKV Kirubalakshmi writes in ‘Taming of our Crew’, published here:
Katherine never bowed to anyone, Man lived on earth as if he was the only one.
We’re all confident in our self-image – fit, healthy, strong, clear-minded, speaking out. Until … we’re not. Then, perhaps too late, we see who or what is in charge. Nature rules on earth.
The arts – writing, painting, photography, sculpture, architecture – and the social sciences – the study of how people live interrelating within a marked and often contrasting range of cultures across the world, observing laws and standards they believe assist in the maintenance of harmony – and medicine itself – the healing art … These three disciplines, the arts, social sciences and medicine, all take as their goals preservation, beneficence, the common good against whatever odds the universe sets at their door. During this time of pandemic, mental health is precarious and we must make our own games, puzzles, riddles, and poems to keep the wolf of depression from that same door. We see that we are not individuals divine, but one small speck in the universe, only able to survive as part of a community, so we need to protect others to protect ourselves. And vice versa.
Probably Shakespeare’s most loved poem, ‘Sonnet 18’, was written in 1609 and, as pointed out in the Preface by the Editor, Dr Syam Sudhakar, this was just a few decades after a devastating bubonic plague swept across Europe, killing almost half of England’s population, a period covering Shakespeare’s own birth date. We face a similar fate now, spared only by the thought that medicine is so much more advanced than during the 16th and 17th centuries so the prospect of an effective vaccine being developed is not unreasonable. In the meantime, we need to use the arts to entertain each other, to share our love and knowledge.
So – to combat a sombre mood which can so quickly overtake us at any unexpected time these days, I’d like to play around with one poem, in direct comparison between it and Sonnet 18. The first lines below are written by the Bard, the second lines by Vaishnavi Nair, and the poem is titled ‘Covid: 'Shall I Contempt Thee as the Planet’s Bane?’
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Covid: Shall I Contempt Thee as the Planet’s Bane?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Thou are wilier and more desperate;
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
Tough times do shake the beaming hearts of men,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
And Covid’s curse hath all too short a fate;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
Sometimes you hide the sky of human minds,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And often art his bold volitions blocked;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
And everywhere from far sometimes appears,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:
By choice or nature’s raging curse impos’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
But thy infernal sojourn shall sure fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Or lose precision of that scare thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
Or shall death drag thou plunders by his spade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,
When in miserable times to crime thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long as men can fight or eyes can stare,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
No longer wins thee, and this gives life to flare.
Apologies to the Bard and congratulations to the local poet, Vaishnavi Nair. The poem is in no way a plagiarism, instead written in fun and as an homage to Shakespeare’s great talent, within the terms of the competition and the spirit in which these works have been published.
Now, let’s turn to two more contributions to this remarkable collection. As a former journalist, I find this piece of flash fiction particularly appealing:
Dear viewers, we have an interesting piece of news coming in – Lady Macbeth has become the new face of the fight against the deadly COVID-19 after a video of hers went viral in which she is seen washing her hands vigorously for a duration of FIFTEEN MINUTES, an act which clearly challenges the advisory released by the health department which asked the public to wash their hands for fifteen to twenty seconds. The video has led to many people following her example, while a few others accused her of spreading panic. Duke Orsino, who was earlier reported to suffer from depression as the countrywide lockdown prevented any contact with his beloved Olivia, tweeted in response to the video: ‘Inspiring. Let’s keep ourselves safe so that we get to love with a lot more passion once all of this is over. #missyouolivia’. Lady Macbeth could not be reached for comments.” Darsana Balachandran
My third selection of note:
Whatsapp Group: Beware the Ides of March 2020!
Anthony: Friends, Romans and countrymen please lend me your sanitisers! Puck: Never, we are in a lockdown! Brutus: Social distancing is vital; Even Caesar cannot be honourable now! Titania: How do you all pass time? Romeo: Parting is sorrow! I am not hobnobbing with Juliet also; I don’t wish to die with a kiss! Juliet: I have learnt to live with Money heist, Tiktok and Dalgona Coffee! Hamlet: To be or not to be productive is my question! Iago: I am not what I am; I am pretending to be productive at home! Desdemona: I and Othello have pinned our handkerchiefs to our clothes, we are Covid conscious! Orsino: I play Music! If music be the food of love, play on! Richard: A horse! I go on horse riding at my backyard! Malvolio: Bored with pyjamas; I wear Yellow stockings daily! Olivia: Gosh, this is midsummer’s madness! Petruchio: I am coexisting with nature by ‘Taming the shrew’! Hamlet: My father haunts me to wash my hands regularly! Othello: COVID is worse than the green-eyed monster, stay safe and lie low! King Lear: Come what may, we must emerge out being disciplined as “one touch of nature makes the whole world kin”. Vasundhara Giriprasath
In Australia so far, we’ve been protected from the worst of the pandemic. With foresight, we closed our national border early, and inhabiting an island, that was easier than for most countries. Still, no nationality can feel entirely safe as the virus is so unpredictable. We have problems still in one state, Victoria, and now with sterner social distancing and lockdown measures in place, the figures are beginning to drop again. But I feel for India – your people, so resilient in the face of these current infection figures. And I admire those students who have contributed to this collection – not to laugh in the face of coronavirus which must be taken seriously, but to show the remarkable spirit of a people who have suffered over generations and still use the appreciation for the arts, spiritual belief and respect for education to create a place for humour in the midst of tragedy – just as Shakespeare could move from depicting the sadness and desperation of the character King Lear to the madcap frolics of Puck in mid-summer.
I would now like to declare this book of learning, Shakespeare in the Age of COVID-19 - Poems and Flash Fiction by Young Indians, officially launched into the world of literature. May its impact be great as a solace and an entertainment, and even a helpful aid to an appreciation of the works of Shakespeare himself!
Copyright Christine Williams September 2020.