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Birjees Hussain: A warning about Mr Shakespeare
November 10, 2017
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What do “Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble”, “Out damn spot, out I say” and “A pound of that same merchant’s flesh is thine. The court awards it, and the law doth give it. A pound of this merchant’s flesh is yours” all have in common?

Firstly, you are absolutely right in that they are all from Shakespeare’s plays but what else do they have in common? Yes you’ve guessed it correctly again. But if you haven’t, did you notice how each one of the above quotes is either bloody, gory, violent or just plain murderous? The first two quotes are from “Macbeth” and the second is from ‘The Merchant of Venice”

Shakespeare’s plays are known as the epitome of English Literature and the English Language worldwide. His plays are on almost every English Literature course everywhere. Quotes from his plays are used to make a point in everyday speech all over the world. But here is the disturbing thing. Though considered the ultimate in literature, the above two plays are not the only ones that are disturbing. Every single one of his plays includes either all or at least one of the following themes: incest, rape, murder, suicide, racism and general blood and gore!

Because of these unpleasant themes, some universities have now begun to issue special warnings to students who are undertaking a course in literature that includes Shakespearean plays. Granted, not all universities have taken this route but that’s only because they don’t actually have a policy in place that requires them to do so. Moreover, a lack of policy in place is not because they do or do not think that Shakespeare only seemed to write about gory, vulgar or disturbing subject matter but because they want to leave the students to draw their own conclusions. They have also left it to their lecturers/language departments to do so at their own discretion.

I think all this is a little weird. Why do universities feel that students need to be warned? Why now? Shakespeare’s plays have been studied for decades and many students have come out with their language degrees completely unscathed but highly skilled in the English Language. The majority of them haven’t come out murderous, violent, vulgar or inclined to anything disturbing. In fact, I can think of so many other things that can cause individuals to become unhinged.

Let’s talk movies for example. How many movies can you think of that are based on some kind of violence? Okay, let’s list some of them. Face/Off, Kill Bill and all its volumes, Die Hard and its entire series, Psycho, American Psycho, Rambo 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, I think there was a 5, Scream and all its volumes and the most classic one of them all and one which takes the cake in terms of classic movies, The Godfather parts 1, 2 and 3.

Furthermore, moving away from cinema, there are plenty of violent computer games involving gunfire, bombs and other weaponry that give individuals an adrenaline rush when they are playing them.

I agree that these are not being studied on literature courses but when a literature student leaves his classroom he may go to the movies or settle down in front of his computer to play a violent computer game. And studies have shown that watching violence or playing violent computer games makes people emulate the violence more so than when they are reading about it.

And one last point, there’s something unusual about Shakespeare’s violence in that although it is about violence, the language is so poetic that an average reader will focus on the poetry more than what it means. In fact, many average readers may read these quotes and not even realise how violent, disturbing or gory the scene actually is. If you think about the first quote, ‘Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble’, who cares what the witch looks like or what nasty and gross things she’s dumping into her burning cauldron as she is casting her spell? After all, it’s just poetry that sounds nice.

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