It’s Shakespeare centrestage, yet again
Reviewed by Shelley Walia

Subalterns in Shakespeare: A Postcolonial Review
Ed Anand Prakash. 
Shakespeare Association,
Kurukshetra. Pages 240. Rs 795

It is interesting to note that for years the debate between the conventional literary critics and the postcolonial revolved around the need to move away from the cultural hegemony of the canon, the power structures implicit in the curriculum around the world. "Will is no great shakes" was a statement that did provoke the Shakespeare lobby which would react by asserting that the postcolonial studies was more of a bandwagon, a fiefdom of no significant consequence. Interestingly, Shakespeare’s return to English Studies is ironically via the postcolonial.

"History from below" was a democratic norm that was adopted by critics who began to bestow on the concept of the ‘subaltern’ a political currency seldom witnessed in contemporary critical practice. The application of this approach to Shakespearian studies described a new perspective told from the point of view of the subjugated, something that the Marxist critics adopted in their view of history from the proletarian standpoint. As Anand Prakash explains in the book edited by him: "The term ‘subaltern’ signifies and denotes a sensitive existence in the midst of self-serving cynicism. To be a subaltern in Shakespeare is to be a bystander, an observer, a commentator and a non-participating, yet emphatic presence."

Bhim S. Dahiya, making a lucid and compelling demand for Shakespeare Studies to return to its genuine calling, expands the scope of the subject further and provides a detailed analysis of the notion in Shakespeare’s context arguing that "Subalterns in ancient Athens, poets and painters, servants and slaves, all are a class based on their economic condition. They are conscious of it too, but they are not as yet a political entity in the state." Dahiya regards Shakespeare as a truly committed writer who in subtle ways the ruling order and its inherent injustice and inequality against the common people, the subalterns."

Girija Sharma goes on to examine Caliban and Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest from the point of view of genuine sympathy to characters not receiving support or protection in their surroundings. This is one kind of bias; another is that people with evil intentions stand squarely accused. Sharma explains that "Shakespeare has portrayed both Caliban and Prospero with a lot of sensitivity. If there exists a world full of evil in the play, it is not associated with Caliban but with Antonio, Sebastian and others."

Discussions in the book cover a wide range of characters. R.W. Desai’s comment is insightful that in Shakespeare’s world, Iago’s ancestor is none other than Falstaff and that the former "has some of the fat knight’s chromosomes in his genetic make-up." For Desai "both men are hard-nosed realists". The survival instinct operating in Iago has its source in the urgency with which he intervenes in the existing world and gives enough tough time to his superiors.

There is an eclectic feel about the book that despite its main focus diverges on many significant counts. There is a marked feminist bias in a number of essays. Apart from Girija Sharma, Loveleen Mohan and Monika Sethi, Pankaj K. Singh and Gitanjali Mahendra also speak from the standpoint of the critically-oriented woman. There is a clear stress on the working of the state vis-à-vis broader masses, as the discussions by Hema Dahiya, Richa Bajaj and Payal Nagpal testify. The three offer a close textual analysis to prop up the view that Shakespeare sensitively grasped the political structures in both Roman and Elizabethan times.

Broadly submissive and at the receiving end, the subalterns are shown to "think actively and pass judgment by rejecting the reigning paradigm." Problematising the theoretical aspect of the subaltern, the book projects Shakespeare as a writer who transcends any strict ideological affiliations: "Commitment as we know the term didn’t suit Shakespeare… He is seldom a writer with a position. (If his) characters leave an affirmative or negative impact on the audience, this has to do more with the audiences than the characters themselves." It is in the dexterous recuperation of the subaltern subject matter and its re-emergence in Shakespearian criticism that the book, I hope, will have a broad-based following, especially as it pits a materialist dialect at the service of the downtrodden. The book is indeed one more step in the hugely extensive scholarship of Shakespeare. Moving well beyond all moralism, it expands on the idea of giving a voice to those who have not been heard till now.