Throughout the colonies, we yearn toward his English. I have immortal longings in me. Among the whites he is known as the master | profane saint | gold standard | origin of language. Touchstone, godling, hearth.
Among the browns he is source material | raw clay to adapt and sculpt. Kurosawa takes him as a scaffolding on which to unfold dreamscapes (pure shards of red silk), to reinvent a medium: crossing over, anti-everything, cracking open all traditions into the lush explosion of a political aesthetic; what, in writing, would be called voice.
Shakespeare as vessel for our ventriloquism.
For their sake, immigrants must speak the language of Shakespeare.
Plymouth Salem High School, circa 1986: we dressed as witches, donned blonde wigs, cackled ’round a plastic Halloween cauldron. Double, double toil and trouble. Twice a week we turned in sonnets, copied in our own handwriting. Dutiful model-minority child, I did mine, while my white classmates paid off younger siblings or just blew it off as busywork. By semester’s end I was primed for the final assignment: write a formal Shakespearean sonnet. I’d internalized iambs, ABAB, a lovelorn language, but the teacher’s red pen circled a cliché I’d built in.
I didn’t argue (the grade was already an ‘A’), but my idea had been that, as ‘Shakespeare’, I’d invented the idiom.
So young (14 going on 400); so, whence this desire to invent a thing, even a sordid little thing, that would outlast the centuries?
Wilt thou reach stars, because they shine on thee?
Go, base intruder! overweening slave!
Out here in the former colonies, what’s British is authoritative; old and British, divine. So worship the colonizer’s god: write the paper on The Catcher in the Rye as a dithering Hamlet. Date an English major; giggle knowledgeably through Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Compare and contrast Bollywood’s Maqbool (zero witches) with Verdi’s communal Macbeth (an entire three-part chorus of witches), and discuss what this says about gender in your India.
Or rebel. Now you’re a Shrew, a Caliban. You’ll never master the master’s tongue. Stop humming that tune.
So, reclaim. Find the gayness in the sonnets, the drag everywhere. Twirl the world over your tongue: Elizabethan exotica! Mine!
Settle down; declaim. I’m a tragedies girl; give me a hero with a flaw. The comedies are so common, the histories bore me, dear. Can’t keep straight all those Henry’s, can you? But O, Othello.
The question remains why anyone would submit, even unconsciously, to Iago’s narrative fashioning. Why would anyone submit to another’s narrative at all?
To pass the test, pass the test. Fake the Shakespeare till you make it. Somewhere inside ‘Romeo & Juliet’, lose yourself. Inside that wherefore lies the wound: site where the family and the erotic stand in opposition, suspended, forever. You know this story; you’ll survive it.
Fall in love, again, with that Will: the boy whose passion isn’t romance but indictment, skewering the deadly killing power of pure prejudice across the ages. Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria . . .
And language; always the language. See what language can do, when you make love to it?
To speak Shakespeare like a native: Long for it. Enunciate. Aspire.
Belonging as a posture against longing.
A working definition of assimilation, i.e. the internalized engine of colonization: the act of submission to another’s narrative.
Or, in other words:
I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass.
Shakespeare as a rite/riot of assimilation.
Shakespeare as artifact of aspiration.
Shakespeare speaking from the center of a language that became, with him and in his aftermath, hegemonic.
Shakespeare as a necessary grappling.
Now I will believe
That there are unicorns, and . . .
Sebastian, stranded on Prospero’s enchanted island, is enraptured by ‘strange Shapes, bringing in a banquet’. Stranded on the shores of English, we are captivated by its chief wizard. As readers we long to be known as masterfully as he knew his world, each myth and mannerism. And so across distant lands Shakespeare offers libations to the weary, to the outraged, to the wrecked.
But do they satisfy?
Can an actor playing a fictional would-be king eat imagined faery food and be pretend-nourished?
It seems unlikely, and yet . . .
We may not belong to Shakespeare, nor he to us, ever.
Still, perhaps he leaves us with a more satisfying sort of longing.
Wilt thou aspire to guide the heavenly car
And with thy daring folly burn the world?
Note: Italicized quotations are from, in order: ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ V.ii; headline, the Telegraph, 8 March 2015; ‘Macbeth’ IV.i; ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ III.i; ‘Maria’, West Side Story, 1961; Stephen Greenblatt, The Improvisation of Power; ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ V.v; ‘The Tempest’ III.iii; and again ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ III.i.
Photograph © Kulasekaran Seshadri