Friday, November 18, 2005

Short shrift

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

- T.S. Eliot

I've never understood the point of abridging Shakespeare. As a child, I remember reading this book called Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb - the book left me completely cold. The stories seemed lifeless, needlessly complex and, in most cases, fairly absurd. I wondered what the fuss was about. Then, at fourteen, out of sheer boredom, I read Twelfth Night, and "felt like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken". It seems a trite thing to say, I know, but that one afternoon, rich with its intimations of poetry, of the dizzying possibilities of language, changed my life forever.

The point is not simply that the Lamb book was a henious travesty of the original. The point is that it was a dangerous travesty - because it offered the reader the seductive idea that he / she knew about Shakespeare or had 'read' him, whereas in reality nothing could be farther from the truth. This wasn't a harmless little book - it was the vilest, most potentially damaging book you could give your child to read - I'd rather give an eight year old a copy of Playboy than a copy of Tales from Shakespeare (and no, for a change, I'm not trying to be cruel to children!). In general I'm not for censorship, but if there's one book that I would support making bonfires of, one book whose copies should be rounded up and burnt in the public square, it would be Tales from Shakespeare.

So you can imagine how horrified I was to read this. (hat tip: Prufrock) Classics on sms? Why don't they just offer free lobotomies instead? They'd probably be more painless. It almost makes you hope that cell phone radiations are actually carcinogenic and all the people who subscribe to this service are going to end up with brain tumours because, let's face it, it's their only shot at mental growth. Classics on sms forsooth!

Why? Why can't people just leave the classics alone? Isn't there enough crap published every year for them to mess around with? All those thousands of books that are steadily reversing the process of paper making and converting perfectly good paper back into pulp? If you want to save the forests, go convert the Da Vinci code to an sms ('Gibberish, gibberish, gibberish' - there, now you can claim to have read it) or murder hacks like Chetan Bhagat (I'd pay for an sms version called One very, very short night at the call centre - at least the grammar would be better). Why go after Shakespeare for God's sake? It's bad enough that we have random film versions of Austen - but at least those have Keira Knightley - but this? Who says the classics should be made more accessible, anyway? That's all wrong - the classics are books you deserve, books you earn the right to read. I wouldn't consider someone who's only read the sms version of Romeo and Juliet literate, let alone educated.

The thing I was reminded of while reading the article was a phrase from Martin Amis' Yellow Dog - 'high IQ morons'. That's what we're creating, a society of digitised souls, of miniaturised intelligences. A society where technological savvy has become a substitute for good, old fashioned thought. I'm no Luddite, but I think it's time we realised that intelligence is only marginally about fact and analysis, that there are deeper wellsprings of creativity and silence that go into the making of intellect, the making of what we once called (even the word seems archaic now) wisdom. Yeats writes: "How can they know / Truth flourishes where the student's lamp has shone / And there alone".

Meanwhile, of course, I'm waiting to get my sms version of Aristotle.


Jabberwock said...

check this sometime:

Falstaff said...

Jabberwock: Nice. Haven't seen Titus or the Olivier films. Didn't think that much of the Branagh productions - Hamlet was okay, but didn't like Much Ado. Polanski's Macbeth was awesome though and I liked the Welles, even though it's a play I'm not that fond of.

Isn't it amazing how Kurosawa manages to make Shakespeare come alive even without the words - both in Throne of Blood and also in Ran. Personally, I just think of it as an awesome movie, if not quite SHAKESPEARE :-).

Neela said...


nice quote. you should blow it up and put it on the door of your office - or have you already?


Neela said...

Personally, falstaff, I don't know. Some versions of
accessible classics are quite cool. Think Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet! Think dangerously hip African-American Mercutio spouting Shakespeare! Surely you wouldn't deprive me of that pleasure? Although its balanced by the eminently sinkable Leo Di Caprio playing Romeo.

On the other hand, stuff like Baby Mozart CDs and Baby Bach CDs (especially when they take out all the fun stuff and change the tempo!) is worse I think than SMSing Will Shakespeare's gems. (I particularly like how Hamlet's soliloquy is reduced to an equation - neat!!). Because then you're influencing the neural pathways of the next generation and clogging it with bad versions of Mozart. Surely that must do something to their aesthetic abilities.

On the other hand, undergrads neural pathways are probably already clogged with cheap alcohol, Dan Brown and Brad Pitt, so a little bit of the Bard in whatever shape or form can only do them good.

And yes,I was one of those who read the Tales From Shakespeare. I thoroughly enjoyed the stories I must add, though, unlike the abridged version of The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo, the Lamb book nevermade me want to read the originals.


Falstaff said...

Neela: What, and have everyone come and ask me if that's my research question? No thanks.

Hmmm...I'm not a big fan of Luhrmann's R+J but let me say that a) I think it's interesting when people try to do something new and artistic with Shakespeare, rather than just trying to simplify him - I seriously doubt that Luhrmann's film was more accessible to audiences than the original play. b) Variations on Shakespeare are valid if they work on their own merit and don't really claim to be Shakespeare; the best examples I can think of are the Kurosawa films (see comment above) and Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet. These are sublime works of art, which are only tangentially related to Shakespeare.

Totally agree about Baby Bach CDs and the like though - come to think of it they probably are worse.

Mrudula said...

I read about it in The Hindu today. I am aghast!

I remember watching a Russian version of King Lear (don't remember who directed it). It was brilliant.

wildflower seed said...

Hi there
Kurosawa made at least one other film inspired by Shakespearean themes - The Bad Sleep Well. Although he did not explicitly credit any part of this film to Shakespeare, Donald Richie works out the analogies quite convincingly in his book on Kurosawa. And how about Bollywood adaptations? In my opinion, Angoor and Maqbool are both excellent reworkings of Shakespearean plays. Cheers.

Falstaff said...

vblues: Haven't seen the Kurosawa you mention, so can't really comment (please, no jokes about how that hasn't stopped me before).
Angoor was a little overdone, I thought, but overall not too bad an adaptation.
I didn't care for Maqbool that much. I loved the way they did the witches, but otherwise I thought the love-interest angle totally ruined the logic of the original; Macbeth changed from being an ambitious and overleaping villain to being a tragic and romantic hero who knowingly gives his all for love - a figure much closer to Tristan than the Macbeth of the original. Plus I thought the movie did too much violence to the pacing of the play - it took ages for Duncan to get killed and then everything happened so fast.

Accidental Fame Junkie said...

When I first came to know about Classics on SMS, my first reaction was to wonder how to fit in all those lines! It's, I know now, just a summary of the plot of the play. Yes, I don't see how this helps anyone. Even if - by some stretch of the imagination - SMS can be seen as a complimentary guidebook, it still doesn't help any English major gain any insight into what the Bard was trying to say..

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