24 December 2009

Before Shakespeare: The forgotten playwrights of Elizabethan England

Think of Elizabethan England and immediately Shakespeare comes to the mind. Nay, think as much as of English Literature and Shakespeare looms large, an interminable specter of bardic grandiloquence. To the lay man Shakespeare is synonymous with English Literature, with all its ancient and sublime grandeur, with that very essence of Englishness which makes it a class apart, in a niche well above the others. Five centuries after his death Shakespeare continues to inspire and provoke alike, all in a manner which is typically him, typically Shakespeare. The Bard lives on…

To the perdition, however, of others. For with all our emphasis on Shakespeare we forget to take into account his contemporaries, more so his predecessors who laid the foundations of Elizabethan theatre and made it possible for a genius like him to make all the world his stage. The general impression, even amongst Literature students, seems to be of a bearded Shakespeare standing aloft a high pedestal with a fallen Marlowe on one side, a foxy Jonson on the other and a philosophic Bacon somewhere in the controversial background. This is all that is commonly taken as the range and expanse of Elizabethan theatre so that probing the average DU Literature student for more would yield disappointing results.

Students are not to blame in this though. The syllabus is constructed in such a fashion as to reinforce this overwhelming centrality of Shakespeare. At the undergraduate level the English Renaissance is only a part of a much larger structure covering some two hundred years of English Literature from Chaucer onwards. It is meant essentially to impart generals, to give learners a very broad idea of the evolution of the English tongue and the socio-political circumstances which made Elizabethan theatre possible. One hears vaguely, for instance, of Gorboduc, of the ingenious Burbage, of the Master of Revels and Court diktats but that is all: everything else remains shrouded in that characteristic bogginess which so typifies general attitude to Shakespeare- a beacon of brilliance out of impenetrable darkness…

Current classroom pedagogy only reinforces this misconception. It is forced, of course, to follow constrains dictated by exigencies of syllabus and examinations but then, perhaps by way of habit, it also naturalises these into general truths. The impression which comes across thus further entrenches Shakespeare as the only Elizabethan dramatist of count.

One may argue that at this level students are supposed to engage with texts on their own, to explore conscientiously the various strands of background handed unto them by professors. Indeed, one may do so, for the pivotal aspect of higher education is self-study- but then while arguing so one must also take into consideration the lamentable infrastructure available to students in this University. Libraries are mostly tailor made to aid tutoring and address concerns issuing out of prescribed texts; the bigger ones usually broaden their range without including exhaustive matter on this so-called background. The Ramjas College Library, for instance, has a shelf and a half of Shakespeare and related criticism but only three books dealing with his contemporaries. Of these, only one has entire full length plays, and those too of mostly his Jacobean successors- the other two are histories of drama wherein are dedicated compact chapters to the early pioneers of Elizabethan theatre. Faced with this inadequacy, one cannot but be disappointed.

Of course, one may expect this disappointment to be ameliorated at the postgraduate level but alas, by all indications there seems only further disappointment in store. Once again, the syllabus is structured to assert Shakespeare’s centrality: a compulsory paper covers four of his plays while Jonson, Middleton and the like are clubbed together under the broad rubric of an optional course. After imparting generals and introducing students to the genres at the undergraduate level, the University of Delhi persists in delaying specialisation by extending the same logic to post-graduation as well.

This is in no way to deny Shakespeare’s significance: no, instead it is to call for change, for a reworking of the syllabus which would holistically take in account the tradition which leads up to-and in some ways culminates with-Shakespeare. That there are no holy cows is by now well established: we need therefore, not as much as to de-sanctify Shakespeare as to move beyond that stage, to broaden our outlook-and thus to change the processes by which it’s generated-by bringing greater flexibility and choice in the way Elizabethan drama-and by extension Literature in English-is taught and thought of. And even though we need not necessarily go the way Poona University has and make Shakespeare optional, we need to acknowledge that our current zeal for Shakespeare makes us gloss over those who made him possible.

It’s a classic case of marginalisation within the mainstream, by the mainstream, of the mainstream. We need to go beyond and look back. To make available infrastructure and provide options. To see what came before.

Before Shakespeare.


Anonymous said...

A thrilling masterpiece! Already!

AP said...

Er, yeah, right! Hope you'll be able to say that now!

Anonymous said...

Background topic in Paper III 'Development of English Drama' is expected to fill the lacunae that the writer speaks of. A syllabus is as good or as bad as the people using it.as sleary would have put it,make the best of it,not the worst.cynics always fight losing battles.

AP said...

Ah, my dear Anon, you're right, very much so!

Yet, is it not true that the infrastructure, if you're aware of it, is quite inadequate, and that classroom pedagogy (whose vagaries might for you be a happy memory of the distant past) often fails to fully address the concerns raised here?

And will you not, dear madame/sir, agree I make good use of my syllabus and instruction? In highlighting the deficiences of these same, I am of course indebted to them for providing me much of the tools and vocabularly for doing so!