SHAKESPEARE : DEATH AND IMMORTALITY
Fiji’s leading writer says the passing of Shakespeare was really about life for so many writers
Last Saturday afternoon I attended a lecture at the National Library of Australia. The lecture was on ‘The Death of William
Shakespeare’: the playwright’s death quarter-centenary fell on April 23, 2016. He had died on April 23, 1616, and quietly buried in his birthplace, Stratford.
Immortality of Shakespeare’s verse
Decades later a Shakespearian industry developed that had proved more enduring and encompassing than the British Empire: Not marble, nor gilded monuments Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme, he wrote in sonnet 55. The immortality of Shakespeare’s verse is now universal: his writings are full of ‘quotations’ as a young student found out much to his amazement. Among his creative contemporaries, he lived the longest: most died before the age of 50; Shakespeare lived until the age of 53. The publicly unmourned death of the greatest poet in English was the central theme of Emeritus Professor Ian Donaldson’s hour-long lecture delivered in the most engaging tone and with a deepening sense of humility and adoration for he was talking about the world’s most sublime and celebrated writer, sensitively aware of the global modernity of his verse and its profound resonance for us today.
Shakespeare; ‘not for an age but for all time’
More than Shakespeare, on this occasion, I was there to listen to an extraordinary literary scholar currently at the University of Melbourne. His book, Ben Jonson: A Life, is what I’ve been reading lately.
The rare Ben Jonson, (1573-1637) was a generous and large-hearted friend of Will Shakespeare who immortalised him in a phrase: ‘He was not for an age but for all time’.
One’s life is influenced and shaped by many individuals: for better or worse, they flow like rivulets in the mainstream of one’s life of the mind and imagination. Professor Ian Donaldson, a former Regis Professor at Edinburgh, Oxford and Cambridge, has had a lot to do with my destiny and present destination. In the autumn of 1974, I’d arrived in Canberra with my young family to pursue my studies and write my doctoral thesis on Australia’s literary Nobel laureate Patrick White’s fiction. Patrick White brought about a seachange in my thinking about Australia: I’d read only two of his novels, The
Tree of Man and Voss, in a London hotel. Both books had been published in the 1950s when I was studying in Nadi for that ubiquitous examination, Senior Cambridge. Australia was a faraway dark continent for me. India was more meaningful to me in its myths and fables and peoples.
Arriving in Canberra
When I arrived in Canberra, I knew nothing about Australia, though we were neighbours of sorts: my four Girmit grandparents and my parents had cultivated sugarcane for the CSR company . During my growing up days White Australia policy was in full swing: ‘Two Wongs don’t make a White’, was a common and crude definition of it. The 60,000 Indian indentured labourers didn’t feature in the island-continent’s consciousness.
It’s seldom recognised though that Indians were defending and contributing to the British Empire long before Australia was officially settled in 1788. So my coming to the ANU in the middle of autumn was a fortuitous choice—since then all members of my immediate family completed their postgraduate studies at this university that had begun as a college in 1946. One of its first lecturers in English was A D Hope, the civilized poet and a distinguished literary critic. In 1975, ANU constructed a new and elegant building named after professor and poet A D Hope. Alec Derwent Hope became one of my favourite poet-friends—he taught me to drink wine and together we travelled to Delhi in 1977, much to the delight of Indian students and scholars—more theses are written on A D Hope and Patrick White in Indian universities than possibly anywhere else. In 1974 Professor Ian Donaldson became the foundation director of the Humanities Research Centre(HRC), the first of its kind in Australia and it attracted writers and scholars from many parts of the world.
Australian literature part of our literary explorations
A group of us also introduced new writers from the Commonwealth countries to our department and audiences in Canberra through Radio 2XX. Those days were, one might say, glorious Indian summer of the humanities at the university.
Australian literature and an interest in ‘Commonwealth literature’ became part of our literary explorations and the cultural cringe of Australian universities was slowly disappearing in the bushland and the surf of the blue ocean waves. It even affected Gough Whitlam’s politics. That was a truly exciting time to be in Australia. Professor Anthony Low, whose book on the Indian National Congress is the definitive history of the freedom party of India, was the then vice-chancellor. He made significant difference to many lives; the Professor for Asian Studies was A L Basham, whose book The Wonder that was India, we carried in our satchels but didn’t read it with any seriousness. He often invited some of us to have Indian tea with him. Humanities then Down Under were given great importance and there were poets like Bob Brissenden, and Judith Wright, historians like Manning Clark and Oscar Spate, one encountered on the campus of a very generous institution. For me Ian Donaldson was the noblest and most learned creative catalyst. The Humanities Research Centre was a haven for most of us and Ian went on to be one of the finest literary scholars in the world. I got to know him and he used to attend our postgraduate seminars to encourage us in our pursuits by his very presence.
Returning to Suva
Then I returned to Suva in December 1977 and by June 1978 I was in politics writing speeches and messages for the Opposition. I was subsequently elected to Parliament in 1982. All this was exhilarating at one level but Ian had given me a fellowship at the HRC to come and convert my thesis into a book. I was pleased but couldn’t accept the offer. So it remained dormant. And thereby hangs a significant part of my story. In 1987 two coups happened in Fiji – their effects of course were devastating for many. I’d lost two jobs in two days. The military regime wouldn’t let some of us leave the country or allow us to rejoin our jobs– people were being off-loaded from flights on Air Pacific at Nadi Airport.
Donaldson’s fellowship offer after 1987 coup
Six months after the first coup, I received a letter from Ian Donaldson inviting me to come to the HRC on a fellowship he’d offered to me in 1981. He had renewed the offer for the summer. Armed with this letter, I went alone to the Queen Elizabeth Barracks. I give an account of my visit to the RFMF barracks to get permission to leave Fiji for a while in my book The
Wounded Sea (1991), launched in Canberra by the late and deeply-lamented Don Dunstan. The letter from Ian Donaldson had had its impact. I was given permission to leave and was escorted out of the barracks by a kindly officer with great courtesy. The gates closed behind me. But many doors opened before me. I flew to Canberra in December 1987 and never returned to Fiji for five years and three months and eight days.
My little knowledge of Shakespeare gave me courage during 1987 coup
Why did I remember this as I listened to Ian Donaldson’s lecture? I wondered who was that officer who was so courteous to me in the military barracks? Where did I get the courage to go to the barracks when my friends didn’t wish to accompany me? I now feel it had a lot to do with my small knowledge of Shakespeare. Literature is about courage in life and the freedom from fear of any kind. And the capacity to face the fatal reality called death.
Shakespeare on death
And no one has written more heartbreakingly about death than William Shakespeare in King Lear: As the old, unaccommodated King holds his murdered daughter in his arms, he howls: Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life And thou no breath at all? Never, never, never, never, never. Pray undo this button.
His mighty heart breaks. And he dies.
There’s never an answer to this vital, final question. But Shakespeare conveys it with simplest of words and the commonest images from our daily life. It’s this quality in William Shakespeare that I find most extraordinary and unique, comforting to the brain and a comfort even in death.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about this: only last week I received a message that a young mother we’d known and who had tragically died at 36; that her 41-year old daughter had suddenly died in New Delhi.
Years ago, as a student, I’d compiled a scrapbook of Shakespeare’s famous speeches - on one page was a picture or a portrait and on the other page was a quote from my favourite Shakesperean plays and poems.
When I left Delhi, I’d given the scrapbook to ‘Anupam’ as a gift.
Shakespeare’s death really about life
The lecture by Ian Donaldson on the death of Shakespeare was really about life for so many of us. Shakespeare illuminated our lives with such radiance of thought, feeling and beauty. That breaking news from New Delhi, though heart-breaking, I’d lived many times in my readings of William Shakespeare. Last Sunday morning Shakespeare had brought us together-six of us-after several years, to share a breakfast in a hotel not far from a lake in Canberra. For me that was joy enough.