Shakespeare in his native Hindi: Shakespeare and Brexit

Omkara

As an Irish schoolteacher in England I adored teaching Shakespeare.

Not the standard Shakespeare. That one is painful for teachers and students alike. The Shakespeare who is supposed to represent the ‘best of British’, which really means the best of English. Whose language and themes are meant to reflect a better England. It’s not that history isn’t there, but its reshaped and refashioned to be acceptable to the worldview of a particular middle-class English mindset.

So we pump kids full of facts about language, characters, themes and dates in Shakespeare’s plays. But we never allow them to get close to Shakespeare and the plays, because what we are doing is teaching them about a certain English view of our own world.

I’m sure this Shakespeare is the Shakespeare that the Leave campaign would like to see more of. I’m sure this Shakespeare would vote Leave himself.

I prefer the man who rose from relatively humble beginnings to become a key player in what was one of the most cosmopolitan cities of its time. Who wrote sonnets to his lovers; male, female, black and white.

Who never speaks of:

this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,

without a great sense of irony. His most jingoistic, nationalist lines are invariably in the mouths of men who are about to do awful things. His “happy breed of men” are manipulators, often with awful consequences for themselves. The lines might be beautiful, but they’re telling us something. They were certainly telling an Elizabethan audience something, who would have known how to read the context.

It’s why I hate RSC productions of Shakespeare. I’ve seen good ones, but by and large the emphasis is on beautiful lines said by the best actors.

It was why, when I was teaching, I tried to emphasise that Shakespeare was part of a living tradition. That there were other idioms, other languages, in which the plays worked. These weren’t just radical adaptations; they spoke back to the original contexts of the plays by avoiding the pitfalls that the “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” school of  ‘beautiful lines and universal themes’ interpretation failed to acknowledge.

Romeo and Juliet (a play in which two young people defy their parents, their society and their God to get married, to die in a place of worship) can be read in the context of Sharia Law and its similarities to early (and ongoing) European judico-religious narratives. This intersects with an analysis of how people with nascent LGBT+ identities (Mercutio) negotiate their place in such societies.

Hamlet is rarely treated in schools as a history play, but actually it is. It’s about the consequence of war for the “sparrows” (mostly women and children) when elites, when Royals, war; particularly when they treat war like a game of chess. Instead of viewing Ophelia as a drowned Pre-Raphaelite virgin – imagine her as a drowned Syrian child on a beach in Greece. You see the power and context of Shakespeare’s words.

But my favourite Shakespearean lesson was teaching Shakespeare in his native Hindi. This was teaching Othello using the recent Bollywood adaptation Omkara (2006).

All the main plot points are there. There are lines which are directly translated from the original. But Othello (Omkara) is now a gang lord enforcer for a corrupt politician. Iago (Langda) and Cassio (Kesu) are his closest lieutenants.

There is a lot of dancing, which really emphasises the sexual undertones of the play.

But, importantly, the adaptation draws on recent Indian history and politics. My students were able to look this up and use it in essays. It emphasised that Othello’s (Omkara) actions, his downfall in murdering Desdemona, weren’t just a consequence of his “green-ey’d monster” (the tragedy of a great man laid low by a character flaw).

In fact, this “green-ey’d monster” is part of a hyper-masculine violent culture in which he is complicit. The world of crime lords and corrupt politicians. It is this complicity that makes him so easily manipulated by Iago (Langda).

Omkara speaks back to the original text of Othello, to its hyper-masculine and violent world of soldiers and royalty, to remind us that toxic masculinity is not a new concern. It also emphasises that culture is not a one-way street. The constant engagement, enrichment and enlargement that those of us from immigrant cultures bring to what are considered traditionally English or British texts.

Shakespeare in his native Hindi offers us a very different Shakespeare from the one that the Little Englanders would prefer. A Shakespeare who questioned a closed, masculine view of England and of the world. A Shakespeare who cannot be said to be on the side of outsiders, he is rarely on anyone’s side, but who is himself a marginal outsider. I think this Shakespeare would be pleased by the way other cultures, particularly immigrant, have adapted and enriched his legacy. I think he would vote to Remain.

 

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What the Stanford Prison Experiment tells us about rape culture in elite American institutions.

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Over 40 years ago there was a classic, but infamous, study on the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. The research was conducted at Stanford; now infamous for the recent Brock Turner rape case. The study was led by Professor Philip Zimbardo and used Stanford students.

There is a movie about the experiment which has just been released, but I haven’t seen it yet so I can’t comment on it here.

The study is infamous because of how quickly the Stanford students adapted to the roles of prisoner and prison guard, including using psychological harassment and psychological torture. This included Zimbardo in his role as superintendent letting the abuse happen (essentially an active bystander). The study had to be stopped after six days because of this.

This study is much critiqued; particularly in terms of its participant recruitment, its methodological approach and its ethics. It would be almost impossible to replicate the same study nowadays, though there have been similar studies. While they tend to cast doubt on the generality of Zimbardo’s results, they don’t actually disprove the results themselves.

Similarly – although the study is critiqued as noted above – it’s a set text across a range of undergraduate disciplines. It may not tell us a lot about how general populations respond to extreme peer pressure, but it does illustrate one particular population very well. Which may explain why so many academics were at odds with its implications.

It tells us about male Stanford academics and male Stanford students at that time. How they responded to peer pressure concerning psychological violence and cruelty.

It illustrates that male students and academics at a privileged academic institution, presumably from privileged backgrounds, found it remarkably easy to transition into non-consensual sado-masochistic roles. There has been a concerted effort since the study to imply that the recruited students were particularly prone to sado-masochism. I think that quite misses the point; the study only ceased when a graduate female student objected to it continuing.

Perhaps a better question to have asked is why particular populations, such as privileged male students and academics, are especially prone to peer cultures that enable non-consensual behaviours? They’re not the only ones, but here I think the Stanford Prison Experiment could still teach us difficult lessons about what we consider to be evil or appalling actions.

Hannah Arendt, in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, points out that those who do things we consider evil or appalling (like rape) are not always those we consider to be evil (like privileged students). That sometimes makes it difficult for some people to judge them as perpetrators (like the judge in the Brock Turner trial). It’s only by recognising that these actions are ‘banal’, relying on a cliched type of peer pressure (the type of claims made by Brock Turner’s father), that we can begin the process of destroying the cultures they are supporting.

Oh Micky you’re so fine…: Observing a female sex harasser as a male feminist

On Friday night I went to the Donkey pub in Leicester with my partner Gavin. Our friend Carol was singing with a soul band collective, brilliantly. Actually the Donkey is a great live music venue; mostly for jazz, folk and blues. It tends to get a slightly older crowd who don’t get too drunk. It’s a nice venue to hear music where the audience are appreciative, but never too rowdy.

Friday was no exception. It was a great evening, except for one person. There was this small, quite pretty woman, aged about 25/30. She was with a group of other women who were celebrating a birthday, but she kept breaking away from them and wandering through the crowd. When she did this she invariably bumped into people. She gave the initial impression of being quite drunk, which I don’t think was actually the case (I’ll explain why in a minute). When she did bump into people she would smile and apologize. But she went much further. She would touch them. She would stroke them. Very often, her hand would linger.

Watching her, I began to realise there was a pattern to the people she was mostly bumping into. She occasionally bumped into women or couples. Then, her hand would just briefly tap them on the shoulder in apology and she would move on. But mostly she was bumping into men who were standing on their own. They were doing nothing to solicit her behaviour. In fact, given the clientèle of the Donkey as I mentioned, there wasn’t a single man she approached in this way that didn’t seem uncomfortable with her behaviour. Most of them recoiled, but she had already moved on. Watching her I realized, despite her gender and appearance, I was observing a classic sex harasser at work.

At one point I found myself outside on my own in the smokers’ space (the last stage of a PhD will do that to you). She had found her way out there. She came up to me, said something inane and went to stroke my face. My response was pretty emphatic. I said quite loudly “I don’t want you to do that!” Her demeanour completely changed. She straightened up and, started saying “What’s you’re problem? Enjoy the night!” She then went back into her previous behaviour, smiling and gurning at everyone as if it was something I had done. I could see this guy across from me nodding sympathetically at me, clearly she had done the same to him, but I could also see two women stare at me.

I realized a couple of things quickly. Firstly, that she wasn’t as drunk as she initially seemed. Secondly, that she had a practised spiel to cover herself for her behaviour. This spiel made it incredibly difficult for the type of men who come to the Donkey to challenge her behaviour. I imagine that the gendered way in which we frame sex harassment would make it difficult for cis-gendered hetero-identified men to challenge anyway. Men who act like this are sex harassers and sex pests; women are simply being leery or making themselves vulnerable (which is not to deny that that may be the case).

One of the men she had bumped into early in the night had very clearly, but politely, said no to her. By the end of the evening he was quite drunk (probably the only person in the Donkey who I saw who was inebriated). As Gavin and I were leaving I saw her with her hands around him. He really wasn’t in a state to say yes or no by then. But most people, seeing them, would have probably read her as the vulnerable party.

I have to admit I was still having misgivings about how I was reading the situation, because he was quite a large guy and she was a small woman, so I mentioned my feelings to Gavin. He told me that he been watching her all night and had felt exactly the same as I had. She was clearly a predator. I wonder if a man had been acting like that, in the same type of bar, would he have been asked to leave? Would his friends have not noticed? Probably not. The sad truth is that men often act like that. But as sad a truth is that women do also. As indeed do lesbian, gay, trans*, et cetera, individuals. Framing harassment as a predominantly hetero-male cis-gendered act doesn’t protect the vulnerable; it only emboldens others in their own behaviours.