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Feb 23, 2014

P.W.A. Movement


Writers For Change:
BY: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

A symposium to mark the 75th anniversary of the Progressive Writers' Association discusses purposeful writing in India.

“IF you are not familiar with the age in which we live, read my stories. If you cannot endure my stories, it means that this age is unbearable.” The statement by the prolific writer Saadat Hasan Manto was not just an expression of his individual feeling but a signifier of the mood of most progressive writers of pre-Independence India. Prominent regional writers such as Manto, Munshi Premchand, Kishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Ismat Chughtai, Bhisham Sahni and Firaq Gorakhpuri grappled with themes that were never taken seriously in Indian literature until then. These themes were part of human lives and what people from the colonial era related to. These themes spoke of emotional realities and were not intended merely to entertain readers.

The writers created characters out of the imperialist order of the day and people who engaged with the colonial-capitalist set-up. They had to live a life that threw them into moral dilemmas, sometimes leading to self-damage, sometimes to decadence and depravity, and yet, they were the protagonists of these stories. They were never the fairy-tale heroes, and yet the sympathies of the readers lay with them. These writers became cults in Indian literature because they also put considerable attention to their craft or form while telling these real stories. This moved readers, unsettled them, and cultivated their thought processes. The stories let them know that their problems were not just their own but the results of structural issues. These novelists and poets wrote not just to make personal gains but also to contribute to Indian intellectualism and political activism. This was a significant departure from the Indian literary traditions of the 1930s.

Indian literature was populated mostly by travelogues of foreigners or stuff that received royal patronage. However, some writers started the trend of independent writing and dealt with contemporary themes, and gradually all of them associated themselves directly or indirectly with the Progressive Writers' Association (PWA), which peaked from 1936 until the late 1940s. Known for its revolutionary thoughts and belief in socialist practices, the PWA got unflinching support from the then Communist Party of India, especially from its first general secretary P.C. Joshi, who was also instrumental in forming the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) and was responsible for finding many promising artists and writers from the grass roots.

The year 2011 marks the 75th anniversary of the PWA, and writers, activists and academics have been celebrating the year to push a progressive agenda in contemporary literature. While doing so, they also offer a critique on what they call the “soulless” literature of the post-globalisation era. According to many literary critics, the growth of the publishing industry in India in recent times is coupled with a decline in thoughtful literature where writers are happy to narrate their individual experiences without caring to write about caste discrimination, exploitation of the poor, superstitions, or callous administrations. The current trend, many believe, is solely towards making stories marketable and the thrust is, consequently, only to entertain. In this context, leading artists and academics gathered for a symposium, organised by the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT), in New Delhi to discuss ways to push relevant topics in Indian writing.

The symposium reminded its audience of the writers of the PWA and the artists of the IPTA and also the philosophy that guided them. It recalled how, with the patronage of the Communist Party of India, the PWA grew in strength and what was primarily a Hindustani cult spread to Malayalam, Assamese, Tamil, Telugu and other languages of India. The growth of progressive writing in the regional languages coincided with the growth of the united Communist Party, which believed that the cultural awakening of people towards communist practices should coincide and sometimes precede political action.

The PWA was formed in April 1936 in Lucknow under the leadership of Munshi Premchand. But the seeds of it had been laid in London. Mulk Raj Anand, in one of the first volumes of the PWA journal, writes thus while recollecting the dark days of a depression-hit London in 1935: “…[A]fter the disillusionment and disintegration of years of suffering in India and conscious of the destruction of most of our values through the capitalist crisis of 1931, a few of us emerged from the slough of despondency of the cafes and garrets of Bloomsbury and formed the nucleus of the Progressive Writers' Associations.

“For, since the historic meeting in the Nanking restaurant in Denmark Street where the original manifesto was read, through the eager, well-attended fortnightly meetings of the London branch where essays, stories and poems were read and lectures delivered (and through less eager, ill-attended meetings), through the first All-India Progressive Writers' Conference held in Lucknow in April 1936, and the opening of branches or committees in the various linguistic zones through the provincial conference and the opening of more branches, our organisation has today gathered into it or around it, the most significant writers in India and commands membership so large that it forms, quantitatively, one of the largest blocs for the defence of culture in the world.” ( Marxist Cultural Movement in India; edited by Sudhi Pradhan.)

MULK RAJ ANAND. The first manifesto of the progressive writers' movement was drafted in London by him and the Urdu litterateur Sajjad Zaheer. The movement was formally launched in Lucknow in April 1936.

Another founding member of the PWA and its general secretary for long, Sajjad Zaheer, says in his reminiscences: “Just remember the two years preceding 1935. The political effect of the economic crisis that engulfed the world took in Germany the shape of the dictatorship of Hitler and his Nazi Party. In London and Paris, we daily came across the miserable refugees who had escaped or were exiled from Germany. Everywhere one could hear the painful stories of fascist repression….

“The painful darkness, which, spreading from the bright world of arts and learning that was Germany, was throwing its fearful shades on Europe – all these had shattered the inner tranquillity of our hearts and minds. One power could stem the tide of this modern barbarism – the organised power of the factory workers, the power that emerges from the working together, through cooperation, through ceaseless struggle against repression and exploitation of capitalist…. The experience of the continuous class struggle creates on this class a revolutionary class consciousness enabling it to frustrate the attempts of capitalism to put the clock back and to become the creators of a new civilisation.” ( Marxist Cultural Movement in India; edited by Sudhi Pradhan.)

Ideology of the PWA
The foundation conference of the PWA, or the Anjuman Tarraqi Pasand Mussanafin-e-Hind as it was called in Urdu literary circles, had the blessings of such giants of Indian literature as Rabindranath Tagore, Sarojini Naidu and Munshi Premchand. Right from the start, the inclination and ideology of the writers were clear as has been stated by Premchand in his inaugural speech: “Hitherto we had been content to discuss language and its problems; the existing critical literature of Urdu and Hindi has dealt with the construction and the structure of the language alone. This was doubtless an important and necessary work, and the pioneers of our literature have supplied this preliminary need and performed their task admirably. But language is a means, not an end; a stage, not the journey's end. Its purpose is to mould our thoughts and emotions and to give them the right direction. We have now to concern ourselves with the meaning of things and to find the means of fulfilling the purpose for which the language is constructed. This is the main purpose of this conference.”

“Our literary taste,” Premchand added, “is undergoing a rapid transformation. It is coming more and to grips with the realities of life; it interests itself with society or man as a social unit. It is not satisfied now with the singing of frustrated love, or with writing to satisfy only our sense of wonder; it concerns itself with the problems of our life and such themes as have a social value. The literature which does not arouse in us a critical spirit or satisfy our spiritual needs, which is not ‘force-giving' and dynamic, which does not awaken our sense of beauty, which does not make us face the grim realities of life in a spirit of determination, has no use for us today. It cannot even be termed as literature.”

AT THE ALL India IPTA conference, Ahmedabad, 1948, a group from West Bengal performing on a truck.

Critiquing religion, which writers of yore had shown as the chief spiritual and moral guiding principle of man, Premchand said: “Today, however, literature has undertaken a new task, and its instrument is our inherent sense of beauty; it tried to achieve its aim by arousing this sense of beauty in us. The more a writer develops this sense through his observation of nature, the more effective will his writings become. All that is ugly or detestable, all that is inhuman, becomes intolerable to such a writer. He becomes the standard-bearer of humanity, of moral uprightness, of nobility.

“It becomes his duty to help all those who are downtrodden, oppressed and exploited – individuals or groups – and to advocate their cause. And his judge is itself – it is before society that he brings his plant. He knows that the more realistic his story is, the more full of expression and movement his picture, the more intimate his observation of human nature, psychology, the greater the effect he will produce. It is not even enough that from a psychological point of view his characters resembled human beings; we must further be satisfied that they are real human beings of bone and flesh. We do not believe in an imaginary man; his acts and his thoughts do not impress us.”

Premchand's speech showed that talking and writing about the different types of oppression prevalent in India and other contemporary realities was not a Western construct but something that was rooted in the Indian soil.

Revolutionary resolution
An association of writers was a novel idea in India. And so was its revolutionary resolution adopted in the first conference in Lucknow. In the political climate of the 1930s, this was considered a highly political activity. The aims and objectives of the association were unanimously passed as follows: “To establish organisation of writers to correspond to the various linguistic zones of India; to coordinate these organisations by holding conferences and by publishing literature; to establish a close connection between the central organisations and to cooperate with those literary organisations whose aims do not conflict with the basic aims of the Association; to form branches of the Association in all the important towns of India; to produce and to translate literatures of a progressive nature, to fight cultural reaction, and in this way to further the cause of India's freedom and social regeneration; to protect the interests of progressive authors; to fight for the right of free expression of thought and opinion.”

The resolution was Left-liberal in its approach. The cultural Left and the political Left operated with relative autonomy, each complementing the other. Some of the papers presented at the SAHMAT symposium pointed out that this autonomy was necessary for a progressive cultural agenda and that to some extent the control of the Communist Party over the Left cultural groups after Independence led to their downfall. This was a point that the noted historian K.N. Panikkar and theatre personality Shamik Banerjee elaborated in their papers. Neither the PWA nor the IPTA could function well after 1955. Writers and artists from the Left broke away from the association but kept writing within its ideology.

BALRAJ AND DAMAYANTI Sahni in the IPTA's only film, `Dharti ke Lal'.
The traumas of Partition and the violence during the late 1940s left the writers of the PWA bewildered: they have narrated these in their stories. Heated debates within the Communist Party of India further weakened the PWA. Writers who were no more a part of the PWA still carried its legacy forward.

In his paper, the noted Bengali academic Mihir Bhattacharya proposed that “a political movement of the people like the PWA introduces a moment in culture which acts as something like a singularity, altering the configuration of its dynamics, and though the movement dies out, the moment stays and works often as a manifest power in the construction and reconstruction of texts, and sometimes as an immanent force which enters into relationship with other forces”. It is this heritage that many of the contemporary progressive writers tend to follow even today.

Progressive experiments
Some papers at the symposium pointed out that when progressive experiments got much attention and were subject to renewals in States like Tamil Nadu and Kerala in recent years, cultural groups in other States were lagging behind and had failed to reinvent themselves. In this context, Jana Natya Manch, founded by Safdar Hashmi, was hailed for drawing crowds and volunteers even today when most others failed to do so. Safdar Hashmi's wife, Moloyshree Hashmi, recalled how they went about writing their plays and mobilising people everywhere they went.

The function of cultural activity for a progressive agenda is to evoke a sensibility that is pro-people. This can then lead to a political awareness. Such cultural activity proved to be an instrumental tool in pre-revolution Russia or in early 20th century Europe. In India, aggressive cultural activity have made left-wing extremist political parties such as the Communist Party of India (Maoist) stronger in tribal hinterlands and have made Dalit identity politics a force to reckon with.

THE COMMUNIST PARTY of India's cultural workers Ali Sardar Jafri, Chittaprosad and Kalpana Joshi. A photograph by Sunil Janah. The growth of progressive cultural movements coincided with the growth of the Communist Party of India, which believed that the cultural awakening of people towards communist practices should coincide and sometimes precede political action.

In these times of globalisation, when inequalities between the rich and the poor are growing, what could the electoral Left parties do to reinvent their cultural wings so that their appeal increases among the people? Prabhat Patnaik's explanation in this context seems to throw some light on this. He says that the Marxist cultural movement should not just talk about class inequalities but also address permanent problems of Indian society, giving the communist movement a local flavour. Thus he departs from the universally accepted communist position of internationalism.

He writes in his paper: “The progressive cultural movement... must therefore fight, in its own terrain, not only against the exploitative order presided over by the bourgeoisie, allied with the rich landed interests, but also against the ideological perceptions and cultural practices of the old order, against caste, patriarchy, communalism and all forms of suppression of the individual by the so-called ‘traditions' of the old community. The latter struggle is a permanent struggle that stretches from the present until the establishment of the new order.” This is exactly what the PWA did in those times and this is what Left cultural groups could do in a reinvented form and understanding of an ever-changing political climate.

Many scholars at the SAHMAT conference tried to reinterpret the old subjects of cultural activism, and almost every participant, through discussions, implicitly urged contemporary writers to probe society further. As they say, to not probe is to surrender and if a writer surrenders, she/he ceases to be a writer.

Feb 19, 2014

The Work of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction: Summary

The Work of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction
Walter Benjamin
In his essay, “The Work of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Walter Benjamin discusses a shift in perception and its affects in the wake of the advent of film and photography in the twentieth century. He writes of the sense changes within humanity’s entire mode of existence; the way we look and see the visual work of art has is different now and its consequences remain to be determined. How does human sense perception related to history? Is it a universal perspective that is being critiqued here? Can there be a universal perspective in the first place?
Benjamin here attempts to mark something specific about the modern age; of the effects of modernity on the work of art in particular. Film and photography point to this movement. Benjamin writes of the loss of the aura through the mechanical reproduction of art itself. The aura for Benjamin represents the originality and authenticity of a work of art that has not been reproduced. A painting as an aura while a photograph does not; the photograph is an image of an image while the painting remains utterly original.
The sense of the aura is lost on film and the reproducible image itself demonstrates a historical shift that we have to take account of even if when we don’t necessarily notice it. What does it mean when the aura is lost? How does it function and how does it come about? Benjamin writes of the loss of the aura as a loss of a singular authority within the work of art itself. But what comes through in this new space left by the death to the aura? How does the mechanically reproduced work of art manage to make up for this void?
As Benjamin continues, a tension between new modes of perception and the aura arise. The removal of authority within the original work of art infers a loss of authority, however, in regards to mass consumption, this liberation is not necessarily contingent. The cameraman, for example, intervenes with what we see in a way which a painting can never do. It directs the eye towards a specific place and a specific story; at the same time it is radical and revolutionary it is also totalitarian. It guides us to a particular side of a story and leaves other parts out. It dulls our perception towards the work of art and introduces distraction as a mode of reception. The location of anything we might call the aura has to be moved into a mythological space; into the cult of genius. This cult of genius relates back to the cultish characteristic of the aura itself; in its absence there is a grabbling for a replacement. What does it mean to place an aura on “someone” or “something”? Is it even necessary to reclaim the aura in the first place? The mystical cult of the original in broken with the loss of the aura, and now every one can go to a gallery, a museum, the theater or the cinema. A whole new appreciation of art is introduced while at the same time, a whole new mode of deception and distraction also enters.

For Benjamin, the aura is dead and it exists in an improbable and mystical space. But in the making of our own myths therein lies an aesthetic interpretation of these reproducible images; there is a temporal world that is there for you, where you do not truly participate. The object consumes man at the same time man consumes it. Mass consumption revels in this consequence of the loss of the aura. For Benjamin, a distance from the aura is a good thing. The loss of the aura has the potential to open up the politicization of art, whether or not that opening is detrimental or beneficial is yet to be determined. However, it allows for us to raise political questions in regards to the reproducible image which can be used in one way or another.

Yet Benjamin makes it clear that in this new age of mechanical reproduction the contemplation of a screen and the nature of the film itself has changed in such a way that the individual no longer contemplates the film per say; the film contemplates them. A constantly moving image in the disjunction of the physical arrest of watching a moving image move, changes the structure of perception itself. Within the reproducibility of images there is an increase of submission towards the film itself. In and of itself this marks a symptom and not a cause of something terrible that is happening. How can we think of subjectivity in the age of mechanical reproduction? What does it mean to reflect back onto ourselves after being absorbed by these inauthentic and politicized images? What does the aestheticization of the work of art mean now when the aura is lost?
Key passages:
“During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence. The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well” (Benjamin, 222).
“The surgeon represents the polar opposite of the magician. The magician heals a stick person by the laying on of hands; the surgeon cuts into the patient’s body. The magician maintains the natural distance between the patient and himself; though he reduces it very slightly by the laying on of hands, he greatly increases it by virtue of his authority. The surgeon does exactly the reverse; he greatly diminishes the distance between himself and the patient by penetrating into the patient’s body, and increases it but little by the caution with which his hand moves among the organs. In short, in contrast to the magician—who is still hidden in the medical practitioner—the surgeon at the decisive moment abstains from facing the patient man to man; rather , it is through the operation that he penetrates into him” (Benjamin, 233).
“The act of reaching for a lighter or a spoon is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between hand and metal, not to mention how this fluctuates with our moods. Here the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, its extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions. The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses”(Benjamin, 237).
“Let us compare the screen on which a film unfolds with the canvas of a painting. The painting invites the spectator to contemplation; before it the spectator can abandon himself to his associations. Before the movie frame he cannot do so. No sooner has his eye grasped a scene than it is already changed. It cannot be arrested….The spectator’s process of association in the view of these images is indeed interrupted by their constant, sudden change. This constitutes the shock effect of the film, which, like all shocks, should be cushioned by heightened presence of mind. By means of its technical structure, the film has taken the physical shock effect out of the wrappers in which Dadaism had, as it were, kept it inside the moral shock effect” (Benjamin, 238).
“The distracted person too, can form habits. More, the ability to master certain tasks in a state of distraction proves that their solution has become a matter of habit. Distraction is provided by art presents a covert control of the extent to which new tasks have become soluble by apperception. Since, moreover, individuals are tempted to avoid such tasks, art will tackle the most difficult and most important ones where it is able to mobilize the masses. Today it does so in film. Reception in a state of distraction, which is increasing noticeably in all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in apperception, finds in the film its true means of exercise”(Benjamin, 240).
“Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, is now one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art”(Benjamin, 242).

Feb 14, 2014

Introduction of English in India

This text is part of the History of English Studies Page (Rita Raley). 


As it seems to be the opinion of some of the gentlemen who compose the Committee of Public Instruction, that the course which they have hitherto pursued was strictly prescribed by the British Parliament in 1813, and as, if that opinion be correct, a legislative act will be necessary to warrant a change, I have thought it right to refrain from taking any part in the preparation of the adverse statements which are now before us, and to reserve what I had to say on the subject till it should come before me as a member of the Council of India. 

It does not appear to me that the Act of Parliament can, by any art of construction, be made to bear the meaning which has been assigned to it. It contains nothing about the particular languages or sciences which are to be studied. A sum is set apart "for the revival and promotion of literature and the encouragement of the learned natives of India, and for the introduction and promotion of a knowledge of the sciences among the inhabitants of the British territories." It is argued, or rather taken for granted, that by literature, the Parliament can have meant only Arabic and Sanscrit literature, that they never would have given the honorable appellation of "a learned native" to a native who was familiar with the poetry of Milton, the Metaphysics of Locke, and the Physics of Newton; but that they meant to designate by that name only such persons as might have studied in the sacred books of the Hindoos all the uses of cusa-grass, and all the mysteries of absorption into the Deity. This does not appear to be a very satisfactory interpretation. To take a parallel case; suppose that the Pacha of Egypt, a country once superior in knowledge to the nations of Europe but now sunk far below them, were to appropriate a sum or the purpose of "reviving and promoting literature, and encouraging learned natives of Egypt," would anybody infer that he meant the youth of his pachalic to give years to the study of hieroglyphics, to search into all the doctrines disguised under the fable of Osiris, and to ascertain with all possible accuracy the ritual with which cats and onions were anciently adored? Would he be justly charged with inconsistency, if, instead of employing his young subjects in deciphering obelisks, he were to order them to be instructed in the English and French languages, and in all the sciences to which those languages are the chief keys? 

The words on which the supporters of the old system rely do not bear them out, and other words follow which seem to be quite decisive on the other side. This lac of rupees is set apart, not only for "reviving literature in India," the phrase on which their whole interpretation is founded, but also for "the introduction and promotion of a knowledge of the sciences among the inhabitants of the British territories,"--words which are alone sufficient to authorise all the changes for which I contend. 

If the Council agree in my construction, no legislative Act will be necessary. If they differ from me, I will prepare a short Act rescinding that clause of the Charter of 1813, from which the difficulty arises. 

The argument which I have been considering, affects only the form of proceeding. But the admirers of the Oriental system of education have used another argument, which, if we admit it to be valid, is decisive against all change. They conceive that the public faith is pledged to the present system, and that to alter the appropriation of any of the funds which have hitherto been spent in encouragmg the study of Arabic and Sanscrit, would be down-right spoliation. It is not easy to understand by what process of reasoning they can have arrived at this conclusion. The grants which are made from the public purse for the encouragement of literature differed in no respect from the grants which are made from the same purse for other objects of real or supposed utility. We found a sanatarium on a spot which we suppose to be healthy. Do we thereby pledge ourselves to keep a sanatarium there, if the result should not answer our expectation? We commence the erection of a pier. Is it a violation of the public faith to stop the works, if we afterwards see reason to believe that the building will be useless? The rights of property are undoubtedly sacred. But nothing endangers those rights so much as the practice, now unhappily too common, of attributing them to things to which they do not belong. Those who would impart to abuses the sanctity of property are in truth imparting to the institution of property the unpopularity and the fragility of abuses. If the Government has given to any person a formal assurance; nay, if the Government has exdted in any person's mind a reasonable expectation that he shall receive a certain income as a teacher or a learner of Sanscrit or Arabic, I would respect that person's pecuniary interests--I would rather err on the side of liberality to individuals than suffer the public faith to be called in question. But to talk of a Government pledging itself to teach certain languages and certain sciences, though those languages may become useless, though those sciences may be exploded, seems to me quite unmeaning. There is not a single word in any public instructions, from which it can be inferred that the Indian Government ever intended to give any pledge on this subject, or ever considered the destination of these funds as unalterably fixed. But had it been otherwise, I should have denied the competence of our predecessors to bind us by any pledge on such a subject. Suppose that a Government had in the last century enacted in the most sole,nn manner that all its subjects should, to the end of time, be inoculated for the smallpox: would that Government be bound to persist in the practice after Jenner's discovery? These promises, of which nobody claims the performance, and from which nobody can grant a release; these vested rights, which vest in nobody; this property without proprietors; this robbery, which makes nobody poorer, may be comprehended by persons of higher faculties than mine.--- I consider this plea merely as a set form of words, regularly used both in England and in India, in defence of every abuse for which no other plea can be set up. 

I hold this lac of rupees to be quite at the disposal of the Governor General in Council, for the purpose of promoting learning in India, in any way which may be thought most advisable. I hold his Lordship to be quite as free to direct that it shall no longer be employed in encouraging Arabic and Sanscrit, as he is to direct that the reward for killing tigers in Mysore shall be diminished, that no more public money shall be expended on the chanting at the cathedral. 

We now come to the gist of the matter. We have a fund to be employed as Government shall direct for the intellectual improvement of the people of this country. The simple question is, what is the most useful way of employing it? 

All parties seem to be agreed on one point, that the dialects commonly spoken among the natives of this part of India, contain neither literary nor scientific information, and are, moreover, so poor and rude that, until they are enriched from some other quarter, it will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them. It seems to be admitted on all sides, that the intellectual improvement of those classes of the people who have the means of pursuing higher studies can at present be effected only by means of some language not vernacular amongst them. 

What then shall that language be? One-half of the Committee maintain that it should be the English. The other half strongly recommend the Arabic and Sanscrit. The whole question seems to me to be, which language is the best worth knowing? 

I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic.--But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanscrit works. I have conversed both here and at home with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I am quite ready to take the Oriental learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is, indeed, fully admitted by those members of the Committee who support the Oriental plan of education. 

It will hardly be disputed, I suppose, that the department of literature in which the Eastern writers stand highest is poetry. And I certainly never met with any Orientalist who ventured to maintain that the Arabic and Sanscrit poetry could be compared to that of the great European nations. But when we pass from works of imagination to works in which facts are recorded, and general principles investigated, the superiority of the Europeans becomes absolutely immeasurable. It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say, that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanscrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England. In every branch of physical or moral philosophy, the relative position of the two nations is nearly the same. 

How, then, stands the case? We have to educate a people who cannot at present be educated by means of their mother-tongue. We must teach them some foreign language. The claims of our own language it is hardly necessary to recapitulate. It stands pre-eminent even among the languages of the west. It abounds with works of imagination not inferior to the noblest which Greece has bequeathed to us; with models of every species of eloquence; with historical compositions, which, considered merely as nar- ratives, have seldom been surpassed, and which, considered as vehicles of ethical and political instruction, have never been equalled; with just and lively representations of human life and human nature; with the most profound speculations on metaphysics, morals, government, jurisprudence, and trade; with full and correct information respecting every experimental science which tends to preserve the health, to increase the comfort, or to expand the intellect of man. Whoever knows that language has ready access to all the vast intellectual wealth, which all the wisest nations of the earth have created and hoarded in the course of ninety generations. It may safely be said, that the literature now extant in that language is of far greater value than all the literature which three hundred years ago was extant in all the languages of the world together. Nor is this all. In India, English is the language spoken by the ruling class. It is spoken by the higher class of natives at the seats of Government. It is likely to become the language of commerce throughout the seas of the East. It is the language of two great European communities which are rising, the one in the south of Africa, the other in Australasia; communities which are every year becoming more important, and more closely connected with our Indian empire. Whether we look at the intrinsic value of our literature, or at the particular situation of this country, we shall see the strongest reason to think that, of all foreign tongues, the English tongue is that which would be the most useful to our native subjects. 

The question now before us is simply whether, when it is in our power to teach this language, we shall teach languages in which, by universal confession, there are no books on any subject which deserve to be compared to our own; whether, when we can teach European science, we shall teach systems which, by universal confession, whenever they differ from those of Europe, differ for the worse; and whether, when we can patronise sound Philosophy and true History, we shall countenance, at the public expense, medi- cal doctrines, which would disgrace an English farrier,--Astronomy, which would move laughter in girls at an English boarding school,--History, abounding with kings thirty feet high, and reigns thirty thousand years long,--and Geography, made up of seas of treacle and seas of butter. 

We are not without experience to guide us. History furnishes several analogous cases, and they all teach the same lesson. There are in modern times, to go no further, two memorable instances of a great impulse given to the mind of a whole society,--of prejudices overthrown,--of knowledge diffused,--taste purified,--of arts and sciences planted in countries which had recently been ignorant and barbarous. 

The first instance to which I refer, is the great revival of letters among the Western nations at the close of the fifteenth and the begi:ning of the sixteenth century. At that time almost every thing that was worth reading was contained in the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Had our ancestors acted as the Committee of Public Instruction has hitherto acted; had they neglected the language of Cicero and Tacitus; had they confined their attention to the old dialects of our own island; had they print- ed nothing and taught nothing at the universities but Chronicles in Anglo-Saxon, and Romances in Norman-French, would England have been what she now is? What the Greek and Latin were to the contemporaries of More and Ascham, our tongue is to the people of India. The literature of England is now more valuable than that of classical antiquity. I doubt whether the Sanscrit literature be as valuable as that of our Saxon and Norman progenitors. In some departments,--in History, for example, I am certain that it is much less so. 

Another instance may be said to be still before our eyes. Within the last hundred and twenty years, a nation which has previously been in a state as barbarous as that in which our ancestors were before the crusades, has gradually emerged from the ignorance in which it was sunk, and has taken its place among civilized communities.--I speak of Russia. There is now in that country a large educated class, abounding with persons fit to serve the state in the highest ftmctions, and in no wise inferior to the most accomplished men who adorn the best circles of Paris and London. There is reason to hope that this vast empire, which in the time of our grandfathers was probably behind the Punjab, may, in the time of our grandchildren, be pressing close on France and Britain in the career of improvement. And how was this change effected? Not by flattering national prejudices: not by feeding the mind of the young Muscovite with the old women's stories which his rude fathers had believed: not by filling his head with lying legends about St. Nicholas: not by encouraging him to study the great question, whether the world was or was not created on the 13th of September: not by calling him "a learned native," when he has mastered all these points of knowledge: but by teaching him those foreign languages in which the greatest mass of information had been laid up, and thus putting all that information within his reach. The languages of Western Europe civilized Russia. I cannot doubt that they will do for the Hindoo what they have done for the Tartar. 

And what are the arguments against that course which seems to be alike recommended by theory and by experience? It is said that we ought to secure the cooperation of the native public, and that we can do this only by teaching Sanscrit and Arabic. 

I can by no means admit that when a nation of high intellectual attainments undertakes to Superintend the education of a nation comparatively ignorant, the learners are absolutely to prescribe the course which is to be taken by the teachers. It is not necessary, however, to say any thing on this subject. For it is proved by unanswerable evidence that we are not at present securing the Cooperation of the natives. It would be bad enough to consult their intellectual taste at the expense of their intellectual health. But we are consulting neither,--we are withholding from them the learning for which they are craving, we are forcing on them the mock-learning which they nauseate. 

This is proved by the fact that we are forced to pay our Arabic and Sanscrit students, while those who learn Engiish are wiling to pay us. All the declamations in the worid about the love and reverence of the natives for their sacred dialects will never, in the mind of any impartial person, outweigh the undisputed fact, that we cannot find, in all our vast empire, a single student who will let us teach him those dialects unless we will pay him. 

I have now before me the accounts of the Madrassa for one month,-in the month of December, 1833. The Arabic students appear to have been seventy-seven in number. All receive stipends from the public. The whole amount paid to them is above 500 rupees a month. On the other side of the account stands the following item: Deduct amount realized from the out-students of English for the months of May, June and July last, 103 rupees. 

I have been told that it is merely from want of local experience that I am surprised at these phenomena, and that it is not the fashion for students in India to study at their own charges. This only confirms me in my opinion. Nothing is more certain than that it never can in any part of the world be necessary to pay men for doing what they think pleasant and profitable. India is no exception to this rule. The people of India do not require to be paid for eating rice when they are hungry, or for wearing woollen cloth in the cold season. To come nearer to the case before us, the children who learn their letters and a little elementary Arithmetic from the village school-master are not paid by him. He is paid for teaching them. Why then is it necessary to pay people to learn Sanscrit and Arabic? Evidently because it is universally felt that the Sanscrit and Arabic are languages, the knowledge of which does not compensate for the trouble of acquiring them. On all such subjects the state of the market is the decisive test. 

Other evidence is not wanting, if other evidence were required. A petition was presented last year to the Committee by several ex-students of the Sanscrit College. The petitioners stated that they had studied in the college ten or twelve years; that they had made themselves acquainted with Hindoo literature and science; that they had received certificates of proficiency: and what is the fruit of all this! "Notwithstanding such testimonials," they say, "we have but little prospect of bettering our condition without the kind assistance of your Honorable Committee, the indifference with which we are generally looked upon by our countrymen leaving no hope of encouragement and assistance from them." They therefore beg that they may be recommended to the Governor General for places under the Government, not places of high dignity or emolument, but such as may just enable them to exist. "We want means," they say, "for a decent living, and for our progressive improvement, which, however, we cannot obtain without the assistance of Government, by whom we have been educated and maintained from childhood." They conclude by representing, very pathetically, that they are sure that it was never the intention of Government, after behaving so liberally to them during their education, to abandon them to destitution and neglect. 

I have been used to see petitions to Government for compensation. All these petitions, even the most unreasonable of them, proceeded on the supposition that some loss had been sustained- that some wrong had been inflicted. These are surely the first petitioners who ever demanded compensation for having been educated gratis, for having been supported by the public during twelve years, and then sent forth into the world well furnished with literature and science. They represent their education as an injury which gives them a claim on the Government for redress, as an injury for which the stipends paid to them during the infliction were a very inadequate compensation. And I doubt not that they are in the right. They have wasted the best years of life in learning what procures for them neither bread nor respect. Surely we might, with advantage, have saved the cost of making these persons useless and miserable; surely, men may be brought up to be burdens to the public and objects of contempt to their neighbours at a somewhat smaller charge to the state. But such is our policy. We do not even stand neuter in the contest between truth and falsehood. We are not content to leave the natives to the influence of their own hereditary prejudices. To the natural difficulties which obstruct the progress of sound science in the East, we add fresh difficulties of our own making. Bounties and premiums, such as ought not to be given even for the propagation of truth, we lavish on false taste and false philosophy. 

By acting thus we create the very evil which we fear. We are making that opposition which we do not find. What we spend on the Arabic and Sanscrit colleges is not merely a dead loss to the cause of truth; it is bounty-money paid to raise up champions of error. It goes to form a nest, not merely of helpless place-hunters, but of bigots prompted alike by passion and by interest to raise a cry against every usetul scheme of education. If there should be any opposition among the natives to the change which I recommend, that opposition will be the effect of our own system. It will be headed by persons supported by our stipends and trained in our colleges. The longer we persevere in our present course, the more formidable will that opposition be. It will be every year reinforced by recruits whom we are paying. From the native society left to itself, we have no difficulties to apprehend; all the murmuring will come from that oriental interest which we have, by artificial means, called into being, and nursed into strength. 

There is yet another fact, which is alone sufficient to prove that the feeling of the native public, when left to itself, is not such as the supporters of the old system represent it to be. The Committee have thought fit to lay out above a lac of rupees in printing Arabic and Sanscrit books. Those books find no purchasers. It is very rarely that a single copy is disposed of. Twenty-three thousand volumes, most of them folios and quartos, fill the libraries, or rather the lumber-rooms, of this body. The Committee contrive to get rid of some portion of their vast stock of oriental literature by giving books away. But they cannot give so fast as they print. About twenty thousand rupees a year are spent in adding fresh masses of waste paper to a hoard which, I should think, is already sufficiently ample. During the last three years, about sixty thousand rupees have been expended in this manner. The sale of Arabic and Sanscrit books, during those three years, has not yielded quite one thousand rupees. In the mean time the School- book Society is selling seven or eight thousand English volumes every year, and not only pays the expenses of printing, but realises a profit of 20 per cent. on its outlay. 

The fact that the Hindoo law is to be learned chiefly from Sans- crit books, and the Mahomedan law from Arabic books, has been much insisted on, but seems not to bear at all on the question. We are commanded by Parliament to ascertam and digest the laws of India. The assistance of a law Commission has been given to us for that purpose. As soon as the code is promulgated, the Shasster and the Hedaya will be useless to a Moonsiff or Sudder Ameen. I hope and trust that before the boys who are now entering at the Madrassa and the Sanscrit college have completed their studies, this great work will be finished. It would be manifestly absurd to educate the rising generation with a view to a state of things which we mean to alter before they reach manhood. 

But there is yet another argument which seems even more untenable. It is said that the Sanscrit and Arabic are the languages in which the sacred books of a hundred millions of people are written, and that they are, on that account, entitled to peculiar encouragement. Assuredly it is the duty of the British Government in India to be not only tolerant, but neutral on all religious questions. But to encourage the study of a literature admitted to be of small intrinsic value, only because that literature incuIcates the most serious errors on the most important subjects, is a course hardly reconcileable with reason, with morality, or even with that very neutrality which ought, as we all agree, to be sacredly pre- served. It is confessed that a language is barren of useful know- ledge. We are to teach it because it is fruittul of monstrous superstitions. We are to teach false History, false Astronomy, false Medicine, because we find them in company with a false religion. We abstain, and I trust shall always abstain, from giving any public encouragement to those who are engaged in the work of converting natives to Christianity. And while we act thus, can we reasonably and decently bribe men out of the revenues of the state to waste their youth in learning how they are to purify themselves after touching an ass, or what text of the Vedas they are to repeat to expiate the crime of killing a goat? 

It is taken for granted by the advocates of Oriental learning, that no native of this country can possibly attain more than a mere smattering of English. They do not attempt to prove this; but they perpetually insinuate it. They designate the education which their opponents recommend as a mere spelling book education. They assume it as undenlable, that the question is between a profound knowledge of Hindoo and Arabian literature and science on the one side, and a superficial knowledge of the rudiments of English on the other. This is not merely an assumption, but an assumption contrary to all reason and experience. We know that foreigners of all nations do learn our language sufficiently to have access to all the most abstruse knowledge which it contains, sufficiently to relish even the more delicate graces of our most idiomatic writers. There are in this very town natives who are quite competent to discuss political or scientific questions with fluency and precision in the English language. I have heard the gentlemen with a liberality and an intelligence which would do credit to any member of the Committee of Public Instruction. Indeed it is unusual to find, even in the literary circles of the continent, any foreigner who can express himself in English with so much facility and correctness as we find in many Hindoos. Nobody, I suppose, will contend that English is so difficult to a Hindoo as Greek to an Englishman. Yet an intelligent English youth, in a much smaller number of years than our unfortunate pupils pass at the Sanscrit college, becomes able to read, to enjoy, and even to imitate, not unhappily, the compositions of the best Greek Authors. Less than half the time which enables an English youth to read Herodotus and Sophocles, ought to enable a Hindoo to read Hume and Milton. 

To sum up what I have said, I think it clear that we are not fettered by the Act of Parliament of 1813; that we are not fettered by any pledge expressed or implied; that we are free to employ our fiinds as we choose; that we ought to employ them in teaching what is best worth knowing; that English is better worth knowing than Sanscrit or Arabic; that the natives are desirous to be taught English, and are not desirous to be taught Sanscrit or Arabic; that neither as the languages of law, nor as the languages of religion, have the Sanscrit and Arabic any peculiar claim to our engagement; that it is possible to make natives of this country thoroughly good English scholars, and that to this end our efforts ought to be directed. 

In one point I fully agree with the gentlemen to whose general views I am opposed. I feel with them, that it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population. 

I would strictly respect all existing interests. I would deal even generously with all individuals who have had fair reason to expect a pecuniary provision. But I would strike at the root of the bad system which has hitherto been fostered by us. I would at once stop the printing of Arabic and Sanscrit books, I would abolish the Madrassa and the Sanscrit college at Calcutta. Benares is the great seat of Brahmanical learning; Delhi, of Arabic learning. If we retain the Sanscrit college at Benares and the Mahometan college at Delhi, we do enough, and much more than enough in my opinion, for the Eastern languages. If the Benares and Delhi colleges should be retained, I would at least recommend that no stipends shall be given to any students who may hereafter repair thither, but that the people shall be left to make their own choice between the rival systems of education without being bribed by us to learn what they have no desire to know. The funds which would thus be placed at our disposal would enable us to give larger encouragement to the Hindoo college at Calcutta, and to establish in the principal cities throughout the Presidencies of Fort William and Agra schools in which the English language might be well and thoroughly taught. 

If the decision of his Lordship in Council should be such as I anticipate, I shall enter on the performance of my duties with the greatest zeal and alacrity. If, on the other hand, it be the opinion of the Government that the present system ought to remain unchanged, I beg that I may be permitted to retire from the chair of the Committee. I feel that I could not be of the smallest use there--I feel, also, that I should be lending my countenance to what I firmly believe to be a mere delusion. I believe that the present system tends, not to accelerate the progress of truth, but to delay the natural death of expiring errors. I conceive that we have at present no right to the respectable name of a Board of Public Instruction. We are a Board for wasting public money, for printing books which are of less value than the paper on which they are printed was while it was blank; for giving artificial encouragement to absurd history, absurd metaphysics, absurd physics, absurd theology; for raising up a breed of scholars who find their scholarship an encumbrance and a blemish, who live on the public while they are receiving their education, and whose education is so utterly useless to them that when they have received it they must either starve or live on the public all the rest of their lives. Entertaining these opinions, I am naturally desirous to decline all share in the responsibility of a body, which unless it alters its whole mode of proceeding, I must consider not merely as useless, but as positively noxious. 

Feb 11, 2014

A Theory About Shakespeare

As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
- The Tempest, Epilogue, 19-20

[Preliminary Note: The following "theory" {the word is related to "theater" and etymologically it means something like a "way of seeing"} is mine in two possible senses of ownership. First, I have formulated it; second, I "believe" in it. It comes from two specific sources which I myself have combined. The "theory" also rests on my own occasional readings of Shakespeare's various plays, of course - in other words, it's not superimposed on Shakespeare (see my essay on "The Art of Reading"), it is implicit in his work . . . ]

Of Plots and Conflicts (and Young Women, of Course)

It seems that all of Shakespeare’s plays are variations on a theme. They certainly seem to be jigsaw puzzle-like pieces of an intricate and complex design/pattern/weave/text/texture. According the John Vyvyan’s Shakespeare and the Rose of Love, the scenario goes something like this: Shakespeare seems to have learned to plot his plays according to a design established by Terence, the Roman playwright. The “Terentian Pattern” is plotted according to the following structure:

Act I: Conflict is established (Vyvyan uses the metaphor of war) and the audience is “asked” to take sides. In Vyvyan’s words “the first act gives the rational and emotional background of the coming action” (12).

Act II: Suspense builds up as both the “good guys” and the “bad guys” make preliminary moves against one another.

Act III: Things begin to look as if the “bad guys” might win. The audience is worried.

Act IV: The “good guys” go for it. In Vyvyan’s words, “the act closes with everything prepared for the final victory, but just short of it” (ibid.)

Act V: There may be a “surprise” here (Vyvyan’s word), but the victory of the side which wins nevertheless follows a kind of “logic” (my word).


The first thing to know about this five-act structure is that Terence used it (and intended it) for comedy. Shakespeare, on the other hand, used it for both tragedy and comedy (in fact, he seems to have used it for the so-called dark comedies [such as The Merchant of Venice or Measure for Measure] as well as the so-called serene romances [his last four plays, of which The Tempest is the final]). In any case, this fact gives rise to the following interesting question: what (in Shakespeare’s scheme of things) makes a play (that is, causes it to be) a comedy rather than a tragedy, and vice versa? It is clear that the stuff of each kind of play is full of the potential makings of tragedy. This is especially true of the so-called dark comedies, which is precisely why they are so called. But even the “regular” comedies abound in the stuff (evil) of which tragedies are made. According to Vyvyan, it all depends on the Rose of Love. “Her fortunes . . . determine the outcome of life or death. She is a love-symbol. And the love-symbol, for Shakespeare, is something more than sex, passion or romance; these are parts, but their sum is not the whole” (21). For Vyvyan, the Rose of Love is either “Platonic love” or the “redemptive love of the Gospels” (ibid.). In the first case she is “passive,” in the second, “active” (22).

Things are, of course, a bit more complicated. I certainly don’t want to give you the impression that this is a static structure in Shakespeare. On the contrary, it is for all intents and purposes infinitely variable. Yet, with the possible exception of the so-called history plays, all of Shakespeare’s plays seem variations on the theme of love, passive or active. At the heart of the dynamic is the man/woman relationship usually with a dose of a father/daughter relationship thrown in for good measure. If the man rejects the love of the woman (the Rose), and if she lets him get away with it (in which case she is passive), we usually (not necessarily always) have a tragedy on our hands. If, on the other hand, she won’t let the man get away with rejecting the Rose or her love (in which case the Rose is active, of course), we usually (I think always) have a comedy on our hands. Just think, in this connection, of the Hamlet/Ophelia and the Ophelia/Polonius dynamic. Where does Hamlet send Ophelia? Right, to a “nunn’ry” (which also meant “whorehouse” in Renaissance slang). The trouble is that she lets him get away with this, partly because she is too obedient to her father (and Polonius isn’t exactly wise, you know, even though he is the one who says “this above all: to thine own self be true”). Ironically, Hamlet isn’t a dumb tragic hero (they’re usually dumb, you know); in fact, he is too smart for his own good (more of this later). A similar (yet different) example is provided for us in the Othello/Desdemona and the Desdemona/Brabantio dynamic. What does Desdemona do when Othello rejects her (they’re married, by this time, to boot). Why, she lets Othello get away with it, even though she has had the “active” gumption to marry him behind her father’s back in the first place. Othello (unlike Hamlet) isn’t very smart either (more of this later).

The difference between these plays and the comedies is clearly augmented by the difference between their respective heroines. Just think, in this connection, of the Orsino/Viola(Cesario) dynamic in Twelfth Night or the Orlando/Rosalind(Ganymed) dynamic in As You Like It. The first thing you will notice is that in these plays the heroines dress up as men in order to undo the “evil that men do.” What adds to the dynamic in question is, of course, the nature of the conflict (“war” in Vyvyan’s terminology) which is “about to break out” (Vyvyan 12) as each play opens. According to my own educated guess, the real conflict in Shakespeare’s plays is metaphysical. It usually takes some permutation of a clash between seeming and being (that is, appearance and reality). Shakespeare’s heroes are usually too dumb to detect the difference (which makes all the difference, of course) between seeming and being. Hamlet is an exception to this rule. Othello, on the other hand, may be the rule itself, if you will. And King Lear wouldn’t be far behind Othello, even though he is a much older and wiser man. In Hamlet’s case, the question of seeming and being revolves around the ghost. In Othello’s case, it revolves around Desdemona’s fidelity to her husband. In King Lear’s case, the question is, who loves “daddy” the most, those who claim they do (Regan and Goneril) or she who doesn’t claim anything beyond filial duty (Cordelia). But I think you are beginning to see the dynamic hinted at by John Vyvyan’s Shakespeare and the Rose of Love. Whether a play is a comedy or a tragedy, then, seems to depend on the kind of heroine we have (active or passive), for it is she who is the “trump card of life” (Vyvyan 20).

I hope the dynamic of this “theory” is readily relevant to your understanding of The Tempest so far. Clearly Miranda is an active Rose. It is also clear that Ferdinand doesn’t reject her. It is also clear that she both obeys her father and yet stands up to him, too. It is also clear that her father doesn’t reject her either. In fact, he admits his indebtedness to her influence. It is also clear that in this serene romance there is plenty of stuff that could easily have turned out tragically but for Miranda’s GRACIOUS AND REDEMPTIVE LOVE! But it is also clear (at least, it should be) that there is more to this business than meets the eye. In my humble attempt to get at this “more,” I shall indulge myself in another apparent digression.

Of Illusions and Illusions

If you know anything about Shakespeare at all, you probably know that he is famous for, among other things, such ejaculations as “the play’s the thing,” or “[a]ll the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players.” Many of Shakespeare’s plays do, in fact, have that curious phenomenon known as the play within the play in them. I am talking about actual theatrical performances here, such as those we find in Hamlet or in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There are, of course, other kinds of “plays” within plays; disguises and pretenses, for example, where women dress up as men or where certain characters appear in costume, so to speak, for the sake of pretending to be something they are not. These sorts of deceptions usually mean something good. It’s (at times) almost as if Shakespeare had favored the fake as opposed to the genuine. Witness, for example, the following lines from As You Like It: “the truest poetry is the / most feigning.” Obviously it is curious to find seeming favored by a playwright who otherwise pits seeming against being in most of his plays at the expense of the former. This can only mean one thing: we must be dealing with two different kinds of seeming here. And we are. But (and at a most advanced level to boot) we may even find the distinction between the two collapse so that being itself may emerge as but a kind of seeming. This is the point to which I would like to take you now, while all along you should understand me as really talking about The Tempest.

One of the best known examples of a play within the play is the play in Hamlet. Hamlet, who has been told that his stepfather is a murderer and a usurper (doesn’t this remind you of Antonio, Prospero’s brother?), would like to be certain that what he has been told is the truth. In other words, he seems aware of the difference between seeming and being, and he considers the possibility that his father’s ghost may have been an evil spirit disguised as his father’s ghost, and so on. In any case, when the strolling actors arrive at the court (we are in Denmark here, where something is always already “rotten,” as you know), Hamlet sees a chance for the verification of the ghost’s story. He will have the players enact the story the ghost has passed on to him and he will scrutinize his stepfather’s reaction. Thus, as he tells us, “the play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” This is the significance of the play within the play from Hamlet’s point of view. Shakespeare’s point of view is another thing. One of the best explorations of the significance of Shakespeare’s point of view is in Leslie Fiedler’s splendid essay, “Shakespeare and the Paradox of Illusion.” Simply put, the issue is as follows: in order to enhance the reality of the illusion of the play (Hamlet, in this case), Shakespeare places a play within the play so as to make the play within which the play appears seem real in comparison to the play within the play. The trouble is, however (and this is precisely what Leslie Fiedler is interested in), that this ploy may backfire. Instead of producing the kind of “psychology” according to which the audience may exclaim: “the unreal play in the play makes the larger play seem real,” the audience may well ejaculate: “the play within which the play appears is only a play, too. In fact, it is precisely this play within the play which reminds me of the inescapable ‘playness’ of the play within which it appears.” Now this, according Leslie Fiedler, may be just the thing Shakespeare is after. Fiedler’s point is that what Shakespeare may ultimately be implying is that life itself is a play within which his own plays are but plays within a play, just as the play within any of his plays is a play within a play. This would make life itself a play within another play, God’s. As Fiedler puts it, “the metaphor of the play within the play . . . is the myth of the Cosmic Drama” (he is, I think, right to add that the “myth of tragedy is a pagan myth,” whereas the “myth of comedy is a Christian myth,” 279).

Are you, my beloved students, beginning to see the light that shines in the seeming darkness of our being? I hope so. And are you also beginning to see the relevance of all this to The Tempest? I most ardently hope so. This, then, is what I would add to the insights we have already gleaned from Vyvyan: the play in question is but seeming. In fact, the whole play is a play within a play where what seems is not what is and what is is not what seems. And Prospero (the “magician”) is both the playwright and the director of this special play within itself. And the theme of this play within itself is clearly that all the wrongs contemplated or committed are nevertheless forgivable. Before forgiveness, though, there must be repentance; and before repentance, crime. But perhaps “crime,” like “life” itself, is no more than an illusion in a larger, transcendent scheme in which it is a fervent hope that God will always already say about us, what Prospero says in the play about his “enemies”:

Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance. They being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further.


With the exception of The Tempest (Signet Classics), all my citations from Shakespeare are from The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974). My spellings (e.g., “nunn’ry,” “Ganymed”) conform to the spellings in this edition. Note, by the way, that Measure for Measure seems to be an exception to the Rose of Love rule. Here it is Duke Vincentio who, having withdrawn himself from the deeply problematic world of the play, returns disguised as a friar to “fix” things. By virtue of his behind-the-scenes machinations, the Duke is clearly a forerunner or precursor of Prospero. Both characters are also images or “imitations” of God.

Works Cited

Fiedler, Leslie. “Shakespeare and the Paradox of Illusion.” 1948. Reprinted in The Collected Essays of Leslie Fiedler. New York: Stein and Day, 1971. I: 265-80.

Vyvyan, John. Shakespeare and the Rose of Love: A Study of the Early Plays in Relation to the Medieval Philosophy of Love. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1960.

*The writer notes: This essay was originally a handout I used in a number of different courses, including a Shakespeare course I had occasion to teach twice in my career. There is a lot written about Shakespeare, so I won’t make any grandiose claims for my contribution, but I do think that this particular way of looking at the Great Bard’s work is insightful and worthwhile.

Note also that originally this essay was an attempt to place The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last play, into a perspective of the whole of Shakespeare’s oeuvre.
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