February 11, 2018

Zia Mohyeddin reads Shakespeare to a full house at the KLF 2018.

KARACHI: The Karachi Literature Festival (KLF), which has a tradition of being more political than literary, on February 10 paid homage to the greatest dramatist of all time. At its 9th annual offering, organised by Oxford University Press Pakistan at the Beach Luxury Hotel, the KLF hosted a session titled ‘Why is Shakespeare Shakespeare?’ Readings of the works of William Shakespeare were carried out by Zia Mohyeddin, a veteran actor, director, writer and broadcaster.

Mohyeddin described Shakespeare as a “universally recognised genius,” whose plays resonate with audiences and readers to this day, despite having been written 400 years ago. Alongside the readings, Mohyeddin offered his personal interpretations of the various themes within the plays.

“Shakespeare crystallised thoughts into memorable sayings and phrases,” said Mohyeddin. “He had a wonderful manner of portraying human feelings; this is what makes him stand out.”

Referring to the historical backdrop of Shakespeare’s time, he said that 26 years after the playwright’s death, near the end of Charles I’s reign, Puritans in the English Parliament passed a law in 1642 banning the production of plays. This was followed by the demolishing in 1847 of all theatres in England. “Under Oliver Cromwell, theatres remained closed for 13 years,” said Mohyeddin, only to be restored during Charles II’s reign.

“During the Restoration period, Shakespearean plays were in decline,” he continued. This was because in Charles II’s court it was widely believed that tragedy should be written according to the template provided by Aristotle. Shakespeare, however, had disregarded the rules of classical Greek tragedy. “They believed Shakespeare to be ignorant — since he had never attended university,” said Mohyeddin. “He was judged to be artless,” he continued, adding that Shakespeare was unique precisely because he didn’t adhere to classical dramatic norms.

Among his many roles, Mohyeddin is known to have played the character of Shylock, in the Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s 1968 production of The Merchant of Venice. “Anti-semtism was rampant in the early Elizabethan era,” said Mohyeddin. Shakespeare would have had to be careful not to appear too sympathetic to the Jews, he explained, or else he would have been thrown in the Tower of London.

Shakespeare scholar Adrian Hussain told Newsline that, “Shylock is a villain and much more. There is a fine ambivalence about many of Shakespeare’s plays, which allows us to see several sides of one question.” Hussain added that as a character, Shylock towers above all others and has a tragicomic quality. “He was a reflection of where the Jew stood in Christian society.”

The writer is a staffer at Newsline Magazine. His website is at: www.alibhutto.com