When you are asked to write a memoir or something about Shakespeare, you should know that you have reached your expiration date. For me, a memoir is a synonym for epiphany, the final effort to rewind and re-watch a life 'full of sound and fury,' which may have 'signified nothing' in the end. And for an English professor, Shakespeare is an epiphany of being and nothingness; there was nothing before Shakespeare, and without Shakespeare, there is nothing. As I sit on the other side of the seas (both literal and metaphorical), musing on Shakespeare, I realize it's happening sooner than I expected. By urging me to write a piece on Shakespeare, the clever editor has in fact asked me to write a memoir: my life with Shakespeare.
In a colonized world, Shakespeare always enters as an undersized English man—abridged, simplified, and at times rewritten in simple English, and harmless. The only harmful impact the abridged Shakespeare might have had in my teen mind was the overpowering sweet smell of the rose: we can call a rose by any other name, but that sweet smell? That fragrance itself is what a rose should smell like. I mean, if we were to name that sweet smell, we could call it a rose, or a not-rose. Bottom line, my first encounter with a fat, abridged Shakespeare was sweet. But my Shakespeare lost his charm when I met him in a classroom of Dhaka University's English Department. This Shakespeare was moodier than the mad-eye Moody, more deceptive than the pensive Snape, and way more complicated than the almost mighty Dumbledore. Sadly, Harry Potter was yet to be written and I had no magical wand. So I sat powerless and watched Prospero's tyranny. And no, I am not talking about the imaginary character named Prospero, who colonized an island and mishandled its occupants. I am talking about the Prospero who ruled that class like a tempestuous tormentor. He was known to his students as SMI, and we never had the courage to add an 'l' and an 'e' with those initials - not even for fun's sake. His was not a simple infectious smile. It was a sneer, a roar, a boisterous wind that destroyed my fragile passivity and opened a brave new world before me. And the hero in my brave new world was not Ferdinand. It was Caliban who haunted me with his sublime, charmed me with his poetic imagination, and provoked me to question boundaries. I was yet to read Aimé Cesaire, Albert Memmi, Frantz Fanon, or Edward Said, but my ignorance did not stop me from understanding this creature who dreamt of clouds. Syed Manzoorul Islam, my classroom Prospero, used his vicious wand to direct me toward the world of mistreated merchants and misguided kings. Tempests rose in my heart when I saw Shylock's diminished identity or when I heard the mad king Lear, screaming in desperation, “kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill.” I heard a cry for annihilation of all senses and all feelings.
Miranda was a sweet girl, Cordelia was naïve, and Portia was a pawn in that patriarchal world. Shakespeare was a typical 'man-writer' and I was being 'man-taught.' I am using the term 'man-taught' with utmost honesty here. The only female teacher who ever taught us something Shakespearean was Professor Benazir Doordana. She introduced me to the vivacious Rosalind and the tenacious Isabella. After I met Rosalind, I forgave Shakespeare for creating Miranda. And after meeting Isabella, I learned to admire this man who extended the horizon of my Caliban clouds and provoked me to dream. And in my dreams, I saw the clouds open and show riches that were ready to drop upon me, and such dreams were so intense and so powerful that “when I waked, I cried to dream again.”
I cried, feeling the miseries of a blind Othello, and the perplexities of a hesitant Hamlet. And my empathy was possible because of Khandakar Ashraf Hossain's passion. He also dealt with Macbeth, and I say 'dealt' because he spent more time in explaining the three witches, a little time on Lady Macbeth, and zero time on the hero. Now that I am reminiscing, I can understand his witch-obsession. Being a poet, my professor had the ability to see the sublime in the fierce foresight of those three women. And knowing what I know now, I admire Shakespeare—not for creating all those strong and weak heroes, but because of his women characters: Miranda, Portia, Cordelia, Ophelia, Rosalind, Cleopatra, Isabella, Lady Macbeth, Desdemona, and the Dark Lady of the sonnet world.
But the three men who ousted all the good Shakespearean heroes for me were: Caliban, Shylock, and Iago. Khandakar Ashraf Hossain always recited the last soliloquy of Othello –“put out the light, and then put out the light…” in an attempt to put out the light of our doubt regarding Othello's passion and Desdemona's devotion. And yet, I am not ashamed to say that it was Iago who intrigued me the most. My professors tried their best to persuade me into believing that Iago's was a 'motiveless malignity,' but I stayed unconvinced and suffered its consequences. Professor Shamsud Doha gave me an F in a tutorial essay for not agreeing with that motiveless malignity argument. He then asked me to rewrite the essay, if I wanted to keep my reputation (as a nerd) intact. Needless to say, I lacked Iago's manipulating confidence.
My “Shakespeare—moir” will be incomplete if I do not mention Professor Imtiaz Hasan Habib, or IHH as we called him. We were mortified of him. Walking to his class was a nightmare and surviving the whole class time was a Kurtzian horror—especially if for the nerd who sat on the first bench. The first day he walked in, he wrote “Richard of Bordeaux” on the board. Then he turned around and asked in a stern voice, “can someone read for me what I've just written?”
“Bordox,” said a shaky voice from somewhere in the back of the classroom.
“Spell it,” said the professor.
“B, o, r, d, e, a, u, x, bordox,” stammered the petrified young man.
“Excellent. You ate up a bunch of vowels and decided to keep the x,” said the tormentor. “Now leave my class.”
Oh, dear reader, do you remember Tennyson? “There is not to reason why, there is but to do or die.” That was the kind of terror we felt as we watched a fellow classmate run away in fear that day.
Then he looked at my nerdy face and said, “how about you?”
How about me? Oh my goodness! There was nothing important about me! I was just a book-loving weirdo who had read enough Sidney Sheldon and Jeffrey Archer to know when to swerve my vowels and when to swallow my 'x.' I, therefore, survived.
And then the most miraculous thing happened. The angry man opened his Bitten-old Shakespeare and started reading, like one hell of a king, ordering John of Gaunt to bring before him Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray. The King wanted to hear:
“the accuser and the accused freely speak.
High-stomach'd are they both, and full of ire,
In rage deaf as the sea, hasty as fire.
As he kept reading and pausing occasionally—to explain relevant historical events—Professor Habib's rage went “deaf as the sea” and my desire to know grew “hasty as fire.” That day, in a dingy classroom of Dhaka University's English department, I fell in love with William Shakespeare: the man who wrote such a powerful play about a passionate king who had the courage to admit, “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.”
I have not given up on Shakespeare since then.
Fayeza Hasanat teaches at the University of Central Florida.