The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.1711 Monday, 1 September 2003
From: Chris Jacobs <
Date: Monday, 01 Sep 2003 10:48:15 +0800
Subject: Shakespeare - A runner-up?
When the BBC poll reduced Shakespeare to the position of a 'runner up',
it made me wonder about the intellectual level of those who had
participated in the poll. But then I told myself that I must be part of
a very small minority. So, you can very well imagine how heartened I
felt when I read this recent article from "The Hindu" - a daily
newspaper in India.
No doubts about his genius
How could Shakespeare wind up as a `runner up' in any poll to select the
greatest Briton, asks V.S.RAVI.
AN overseas poll conducted by the BBC has concluded that Sir Issac
Newton was the "Greatest Briton" of all time, followed by Churchill and
Newton's enormous scientific achievements seem to have influenced the
outcome; while in the case of Churchill, it was his leadership qualities
during World War II.
Ranking Diana third has destroyed the credibility of the whole
exercise. Her charm, kindness and involvement in charitable causes
contributed greatly to make her an icon all over the world. But that is
where the admiration for her has to stop. Including her in a list of 10
Greatest Britons of all time is carrying things a little too far.
However, I was shocked to find Shakespeare, the greatest genius of all
time, had been relegated to the status of a 'runner-up'. There is also
no justification to deny Darwin his rightful place, in as much as his
contribution to biology is as significant as Newton's is to physics. For
all these reasons opinion polls of this kind are unreliable, misleading
and invite ridicule.
Take a look at Shakespeare's enormous vocabulary. He employed 9,36,433
words in his writings, out of which 27,780 are different words. The
average person uses less than 1,000 words in writing, a little more than
that in speech and has a recognition vocabulary of about 5,000 words.
Some of the greatest writers may have twice this capability.
Today, English has a total vocabulary of two million words followed by
German as a pathetic second with 1,86,000 words, Russian with 1,36,000
words, and French with 1,26,000 words. Thus Shakespeare in the 16th
Century used five times the number of words in modern German!
Shakespeare is the most quoted writer in history. His plays have been
translated into 50 languages. In the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations
containing about 20,000 quotations, Shakespeare alone monopolises a
staggering 60 pages (10 per cent). He coined 1700 new words. Many of the
phrases and terms created by him are in daily use. Some of them have
been used as titles for books and movies.
The vastness of vocabulary and the ability to see the relationship
between words is one of the major factors in measuring genius.
Shakespeare excelled any other human being in this aspect. His
encyclopaedic knowledge of science, history, mathematics, classical
literature sociology, psychology, law, Latin, French politics, music and
art acquired by studying books relating to almost every mental
discipline and observing the habits and style of life of various
sections of people all around him enabled him to draw ideas generously
from all those sources for being used in his plays.
The lyrical grandeur of his language covers every known figure of speech
from metaphor to simile, hyperbole to hendiadys. The alchemic process in
the crucible of Shakespeare's brain transmuted emotions, like ambition,
frustration, jealousy, greed, romantic love, joy, and sorrow he found
all around him in people, into the rich gold of his everlasting plays.
Hence there is no emotion or activity or situation in the human
condition that is not found in his plays.
More people visit the place of Shakespeare's birth than that of any
other human being. More books and articles have been written about him
and his works than about any other individual or even any other single
subject (at least till the age of computers!). Entire libraries and
major sections of many famous libraries whether in Washington D.C or
London are devoted to him.
Shakespeare has inspired more tributes than any other poet, scientist or
painter; in fact some of the people who have showered praises on
Shakespeare, like Coleridge, De Quincey and Dryden, are of such stature
themselves that each would have got two Nobel Prizes for literature if
they had lived in the 20th century.
Then what justification is there for any voter, whatever his profession,
to place this extraordinary man who is " In judgment a Nestor/ In genius
a Socrates/ In art a Virgil" in the position of a runner-up in a ranking
of the greatest Briton ever.
Is it not ironical that a great poet like Coleridge had once equated
Shakespeare to 500 Newtons but the voters who took part in the BBC poll
have placed him far below Newton? Is it not even more ironical that
Churchill, who once attributed his brilliant prose and eloquence to his
having collected the quotations of Shakespeare early in life like
"pennies in a slot", should be placed second in the list far above the
very same man?
Any poll will only succeed in devaluing its own assessment, and lose its
sanctity and credibility, if it denies this "mighty poet", to quote De
Quincey, his rightful place as the greatest genius of all time.
As someone appropriately observed, "it is not only the crowning glory of
England but also the crowning glory of all mankind that such a man as
William Shakespeare should ever have been born".
More than all the triumphs of science and technology, and the glories of
art and music, Shakespeare's poetry alone, with its great soliloquies
packed with metaphors, similes, and every known figure of speech, (that
reflects his flashes of genius and leaps of fantastic imagination), can
be and should be regarded as the topmost achievement of man, on this
planet, the fulfilment of long centuries of human civilisation and
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