US scholar keen on Shakespearean theatre in India

New Delhi: James Shapiro, the author of ‘1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare’ and ‘Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare’, wants to tour India and the rest of the world to see how the bard has been given life in fresh ways by different cultures.

"India has the wonderful Shakespeare troupe, ‘Shakespeare Wallah’. I have read about it because much has been written about it by scholars," Shapiro said in a chat at the Jaipur Literature Festival.

"I have not known the company but I want to come to India to know Shakespearean theatre. I want to see how Shakespeare has been brought alive in new ways," the acclaimed Shakespeare scholar said.

Shapiro, who teaches Shakespeare and the early modern period at the Columbia University in New York, tries to bridge the gap between the exponents of Shakespeare`s plays on stage and scholars of his dramatic legacy with knowledge-based interface. His books are investigations into the life of the 16th century English playwright.

"After writing ‘1599...’, I spent a lot of time working with theatre groups in Britain and the US," the Samuel Johnson prize winning author said.

"I worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company in London - I watched the group rehearse which was unusual because other drama companies do not allow anyone to sit through their rehearsals," he said.

It was a really lovely creative exchange between those who write about Shakespeare and those who bring it to life, Shapiro said, recalling his days at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. "They would ask me about what a word meant or what the political context was when Shakespeare wrote a certain scene... The first thing they (Shakespeare performers) thought I had more answers than them... But actually it is a process of exploring the works together," he added.

Explaining the process of exchange, he said "after staging ‘Romeo and Juliet’, they thought that everybody in Shakespeare`s England got married at 14, whereas the average age of marriage was 25".

"Then what do you do between the time when you fall in love and sleep with him - the actors were shocked to learn this. I asked them to think about the violence and frustration in the play. They had to repress their desires... These are small details everybody should know," Shapiro said.

"There is a lot of misunderstanding about his world among those who perform his plays," the scholar observed. Shapiro served as the Samuel Wanamaker Fellow at the Globe Theatre in London in 1998.

The scholar, who believes that Shakespeare was a "real person who wrote plays for living in 16th century England and debunks myths about his existence and works", hated the bard in school. In the late 1970s and 1980s, Shapiro began to travel around Europe and watched "some extraordinary Shakespeare productions in Britain".

He kept coming back over the years - and eventually linked up to Shakespeare through a combination of experience (of watching some legendary production) and scholarship. Shakespeare is universal, Shapiro said. "Shakespeare is the only playwright in the English-speaking world whom no one has to pay for staging his plays - you have to pay Tom Stoppard to stage his plays. Shakespeare is for everybody," he said.

"Half the school children in the world have been exposed to Shakespeare. It has influenced so many different cultures," he added. Shapiro read Shakespeare in January in Africa. "Shakespeare gets reborn and transformed in different ways," he said.

The author has also written about the ancient ‘Passion Play’ of Bavaria in Germany - inspired by the plague and the Bible. He spent considerable time with the actors in the Bavarian villages to record the tradition.

"Jews and Christians have different ways of telling a story about the Bible. I love the conflict in them," Shapiro said of his work in Bavaria.

His book ‘Oberammergau’ is a meticulous document of the tradition which began in 1634.