Since it’s April—the month of Shakespeare—let’s begin with something from Two Gentlemen of Verona. It’s Proteus speaking:
O, how this spring of love resembleth/ The uncertain glory of an April day,/Which now shows all the beauty of the sun,/ And by and by a cloud takes all away! No explanation needed; it’s just beautiful.
Then comes my favourite speech in all of Shakespeare from Measure for Measure, a play that sadly falls apart in the second half. I love it because Shakespeare, working in an age much like ours, an age of severe moralists, is an ardent defender of human weakness. Here, he has Angelo, who himself is the scourge of frailty, begin to fall. He has just tried to seduce Isabella in exchange for her brother’s life:
What’s this, what’s this? Is this her fault or mine?
The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?
Not she: nor doth she tempt: but it is I
That, lying by the violet in the sun,
Do as the carrion does, not as the flower,
Corrupt with virtuous season. Can it be
That modesty may more betray our sense
Than woman’s lightness?
There are very few pure villains in Shakespeare. Almost all his characters are human before they are evil. The ones that come nearest to pure evil are Richard, Iago, Edmund, and—I suppose—Iachimo. But even here, between the acting of a dreadful thing and the first motion, there is such tenderness. In this scene, Iachimo watches Imogen sleep:
‘Tis her breathing that
Perfumes the chamber thus: the flame o’ the taper
Bows toward her, and would under-peep her lids,
To see the enclosed lights, now canopied
Under these windows, white and azure laced
With blue of heaven’s own tinct.
Shakespeare’s world reminds me more of ours, in India and Pakistan, than that of the modern West. There is that same palette of high emotion, the same melodrama. And there is always the man who tries to be a law unto himself. Coriolanus is one such man. He may be one of my favourite characters in Shakespeare, the general who is useless in this weak piping time of peace. Here he turns on a mob who are demanding he be banished from the city:
You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate
As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air, I banish you;
And here remain with your uncertainty!
Let every feeble rumour shake your hearts!
Your enemies, with nodding of their plumes,
Fan you into despair! Have the power still
To banish your defenders; till at length
Your ignorance, which finds not till it feels,
Making not reservation of yourselves,
Still your own foes, deliver you as most
Abated captives to some nation
That won you without blows! Despising,
For you, the city, thus I turn my back:
There is a world elsewhere.
(Aatish Taseer’s latest novel is The Way Things Were)
I am a Macbeth man—the greatest Shakespeare play in my view—and the witches are based on the witches of my hometown in Scotland, North Berwick, which had just seen a huge scandal the year before he wrote it. So I choose this favourite old chestnut:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this pretty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
(William Dalrymple’s new book The Anarchy: India Between Empires 1739-1803 will be published this year)
My current favourite is a choice insult: king of codpieces — from Love’s Labour’s Lost, which seems the perfect description of an over-dressed, puffed-up, pompous kind of person. Quite a lot of politicians seem to fit that description.
I’ve also found myself over-using God, stand up for bastards from King Lear (though actually it should be ‘Gods’). These words were spoken by Edmund, a pretty nasty character—but it has a democratic appeal to me, as a way of saying that the well-born should not be allowed to inherit the earth.
However, the quotation I still use most is one from Twelfth Night, which I was forced to study at school and because of which I love it least of all of Shakespeare’s plays, though many of its speeches have entered my sub-conscious. And so, whenever the justice system eventually catches up with an evil dictator or a celebrity rapist, I happily declare to myself that thus the whirligig of time brings in its revenges. It should actually be ‘his’, not ‘its’, but never mind.
(Sam Miller is the author of A Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes)
I have two favourites, both from Hamlet:
To be or not to be — that is the question—a favourite because it is one of life’s perennial questions.
To thine own self be true—the reason is self-evident.
(David Davidar is a publisher and novelist)
One of my favourite passages is a verse from Ariel’s Song in The Tempest:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them—
I’ve always loved the music of this passage and the sense of mystery and elemental change: the bones turning to coral, the eyes to pearls as if Death is a slow change into substance. And the suddenness with which ‘sea-change’ appears in the poem—just as sea-changes do in life.
Eliot uses a line from this in The Wasteland (‘Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!’) and he had a parody of it in the first draft of The Wasteland which he didn’t include in the final (‘Full fathom five your Bleistein lies/ Under the flat fish and the squids...That is lace that was his nose’).
The song has many incarnations, I suppose, as does the play. There is a film called Prospero’s Books, by Peter Greenaway, that made a huge impression on me when it came out in the early 90s, it was such a hypnotic, gorgeous creation, as much about writing, calligraphy, binding, paper and making books as it was an adaptation of The Tempest. In the film, the words from Ariel’s Song appear on a piece of parchment on screen, as a woman’s voice sings it.
(Anuradha Roy’s latest novel is Sleeping on Jupiter)
The opening lines of Macbeth work as a kind of incantation for me. In school I’d mugged up the entire play and could spout impressive reams from it. And while there are certainly more poetic lines in Shakespeare’s oeuvre than, When shall we three meet again/ In thunder, lightning, or in rain? few work for me in such an elemental manner. They also remind me of the importance of memorising poetry. The power that the spoken word has. ‘When shall we three’, is the beginning of that for me. As an aside, I’ve seen many versions of Macbeth, but my favourite representation of the three witches has to be Ratan Thiyam’s octopus-like creatures.
(Tishani Doshi is a novelist and poet)
Never, Never, Never, Never, Never.
—King Lear Act 5, Scene 3
It is not easy to pinpoint the reason this line has stayed with me over the years. Perhaps, what we cannot understand fully remains with us for long. I sense a new meaning every time I think of these words. I was 18 when I first heard it. I am still in its spell.
King Lear says this when he discovers his daughter Cordelia dead and just before he succumbs to his grief. Lear does not want to acknowledge that Cordelia is gone. At the same time, he also knows that it is a reality, which is irreversible. With every word, Lear wants to reverse or reject some part of his past.
The recurrence of the word ‘never’ rings in my mind like a mantra. Uttering it repeatedly gives me a feeling that I have begun to understand it. I imagine the different ways an actor might say this on stage. Then I realise that it is not the same word said five times but each ‘never’ has a different meaning and a deep-rooted past attached to it.
The magic of great literature lies in capturing the most complex emotions with a few simple words. What better example can you find than this?
(Vivek Shanbhag is a Kannada writer)
Macbeth is the only Shakespeare play that I studied in school. The line that stays in my memory is, There’s daggers in men’s smiles. The greatest literary genius that mankind has ever produced entered my life when I was a 10-year-old in Class VI. I was preparing for a recitation contest and my mother selected the renowned Mark Antony speech in Julius Caesar, which she taught me and made me rehearse a number of times.
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears / I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
It was the next two lines which struck me the most: The evil that men do lives after them; / The good is oft interred with their bones.
When my mother explained the meaning, I found that it was contrary to what I was taught till then, that only goodness will prevail. All the books I had read and all the movies I had watched and all the lessons I had studied preached the same—that truth prevails, the good wins.
One evening, when I got out of the bus and walked home I thought of this and decided to check for myself. Ours was a small village where everyone knew everyone. A young woman who lived next door to me was walking ahead of me. I called out to her and she stopped for me and we walked along the pebble strewn road. We passed one of the houses and we were talking about the girl of that house. I asked, “Was her dad a good person?” My neighbour replied immediately, “Who? He? He has three children by another woman.”
While she listed out his faults, I was wondering how right Shakespeare was. For many days I asked others about other people, till it was proven beyond doubt that people remember other people’s evil deeds better than their kindness, sacrifices and achievements. Once I found out, it was my turn to worry how I will be remembered and for which bad deeds.
After I became a journalist, I found out that immediately after the demise of great personalities, newspapers remember only the good deeds. But as years pass by, things begin to change.
Today, after living for so many years, I have realised that the concept of good and bad changes with time. Thus, we now remember Gandhiji as a narrow-minded Hindutvadi and Godse as a hero. We see Tipu Sultan as a tyrant and Savarkar as a freedom fighter. But even that had been predicted by Shakespeare in Hamlet: for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
The line, the evil that men do lives after them also means that the stories about people, lives after them. And these stories come not from their good deeds but from their failures, faults and flaws. How true this is, even about Shakespeare himself.
(KR Meera is a Malayalam novelist and the author of Hangwoman)
Ah, I can’t. I can’t. For the simple reason that the lines of Shakespeare that I’m grappling with at the moment will supply the title of a future book. And I must nurture this idea in secret in my heart. Not just my heart but in my heart of heart: that phrase, my heart of heart, is also Shakespeare’s, of course.
You must have heard the quip about the lady who came out of a performance of Hamlet, I believe, and remarked that she had quite liked the play but was surprised that it was so full of quotations. It’s partly because of the enduring currency of his phrases, but also of course his freshness and wit, that Shakespeare is someone we turn to for titles of books. I haven’t confirmed this with him but I read somewhere that when my friend Akhil Sharma finished his remarkable first novel, his wife took a highlighter and went through various Shakespeare plays. The novel was about a man in Delhi, a corrupt minor official, who had raped his daughter. The phrase Akhil’s wife found, the perfect one from a scene in King Lear, was The Obedient Father.
(Amitava Kumar is the author of Lunch with a Bigot)
I am not well and am ageing, and this passage seems to represent the most desirable outcome to me. Of course, there is much more depth to this famous soliloquy by Hamlet. I have lived long enough to have experienced the slings and arrows of fortune, and have come to the point in life where I feel I am unable to cope with whatever lies in store for me.
To be, or not to be—that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep—
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to.
(Bapsi Sidhwa is an author, most recently of Their Language of Love)
Here are two quotes, both from Twelfth Night:
She sat like patience on a monument, Smiling at grief.
I love this because it conjures up such a campy image—a larger-than-life tragedienne putting on a noble face to cover up her silent suffering. It’s perfect to hurl at someone when they are trying to ostentatiously cast themselves in such a role.
By my life, this is my lady’s hand these be her very C’s, her U’s and her T’s and thus makes she her great P’s.
When said aloud, the ‘and’ in ‘and her’ comes out sounding like an ‘N,’ which Shakespeare did intentionally— so that the audience would hear the naughty word he was spelling out. With this, and thus makes she her great P’s makes perfect, uproarious sense. No wonder Shakespeare is called the bawdy bard— although when we were doing the play in school this passage was quietly passed over.
(Manil Suri’s latest novel is The City of Devi)
Messenger: As I did stand my watch upon the hill, / I looked toward Birnam, and anon, methought / The wood began to move.
This is from the famous denouement of Macbeth, when the rebel army uses ‘camouflage’ to approach the castle. After Macbeth learns of his wife’s death (and gives his famous ‘tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ speech), he is told by a messenger that Birnam wood has become a ‘moving grove’, coming towards their stronghold. I’ve always been haunted by the phantasmagoric quality of the scene in the play and in its wonderful film adaptations by Akira Kurosawa and Roman Polanski. I’m moved by its elemental force, the forest coming to take man’s hall of stone. Macbeth remains for us in the modern age one of the greatest cautionary tales about the lust for power—any kind of power — and the inevitable doom that shadows that desire.
(Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among the Stars)