Thursday, March 04, 2010

paul smith on shakespeare

Paul Smith, director of the British Council and Cultural Counsellor to the British Embassy in Cairo, was in Mumbai earlier this year to deliver the 12th annual Vasant J Sheth Memorial Lecture, an annual event to honour the memory of Vasant J. Sheth, founder of The Great Eastern Shipping Company. Smith's lecture was called Full Fathom Five: Shakespeare’s Old Seas and New Worlds. I asked him three questions via email about his subject.

For many readers, Shakespeare's most emphatic engagement with the ocean and the brave new worlds that lay across it comes in The Tempest. Could you tell us about a couple of other instances in his oeuvre - perhaps lesser-read - that we might hear about in your lecture?

You’re right to pick out The Tempest, resolutely a culmination of his life’s dramatic offering, and the play in which transition by sea is key to what the drama explores. And, yes, The Tempest is the Shakespeare play which is most conscious of the ‘newfoundlands’ across the oceans which beckoned a different future from the Mediterranean past. To the European, the Mediterranean was a sea encircled by human cultures and habitations. But the Atlantic beckoned of ‘a world elsewhere’, in accordance with the burgeoning human spirit. Other ‘last plays of Shakespeare – particularly Pericles and The Winter’s Tale – share The Tempest’s use of the sea as the locus of exploration and self-discovery and, indeed, of birth, death and redemption.

I shall also talk about the plays in which new life has to begin at the shoreline, particularly following the metaphorical calamity of shipwreck in, for example Twelfth Night or The Comedy of Errors. And we’ll touch on plays where war is fought across the waters –Antony and Cleopatra, say, or Troilus and Cressida­­ - and where commerce, including the commerce of human relations - is determined by the sea’s implacability, most notably The Merchant of Venice.

Would you say Shakespeare's engagement with Europe's changing worldview affected the audiences of his own time - other writers or thinkers, perhaps?

Shakespeare’s period of writing coincided with Britain’s earliest mercantile adventurism – the disgraces of early colonialism were to peak in later decades. But there is a clear psychological and metaphysical sense of expansionism and unbounded limit as the Renaissance human spirit recognises its capacity to conceive and control greater territories of the mind and spirit as well as terra firma. Terra incognita begins to beckon and seduce where it was, to the Medieval mind, frighteningly out of bounds. The great dramatist of excessively expansionist vision and ambition is Shakespeare’s exact contemporary Marlowe –stretching the bounds of knowledge in Dr Faustus, of ‘infinite riches’ in The Jew of Malta and of land and imperial power in Tamburlaine. But, in every play of Shakespeare, the dominant pulse is the realisation that each drama is creating its own uniquely real new world.

Britain's maritime history is also, in one sense, its colonial history. How much of a sense of the momentuousness of what was to come do we get from Shakespeare?

It was all yet to come, but Shakespeare’s psychology clearly premeditated it. He is compelled by the means by which people exert control over each other – be it an Iago over Othello, his daughters over Lear, Shylock over Anthony and then Portia over Shylock. And his geographical vistas are wide. Shakespeare was a country boy from the centre of an island nation and we have no evidence whatsoever that he even saw the sea let alone crossed it. But the majority of his plays are set in distant lands and, in some plays – Anthony and Cleopatra for example – the boundaries of his play find synonymity with the boundaries of the known world. ‘All the world’ – the beckoning expanding world of renaissance Europe - really does become ‘a stage’ in the Shakespeare canon.

[A version of this appeared in Verve Magazine's January issue.]

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