05 May 2014 Books opinion

AD 1564: Two Faces, Infinite In Faculties

Shakespeare and Galileo showed us the work of free will

Marked by animated controversies, the general elections of 2014 undoubtedly make this a special year for Indians. Few would contest that political analysts and cultural theorists will debate the consequences of this key phase in our history in years to come. At the moment, though, little seems predictable. There are waves and groundswells, sound and fury! Is it frivolous, then, to look back in wonder when the present appears so full of puzzles? Perhaps. Yet, in an election where mythic pasts of all sorts have been invoked, it is tempting to point out that 2014 also commemorates the 450th birth anniversary of two of the greatest figures of the ‘Early Modern Period’. If India is a nation attempting to reimagine itself, it might with profit attend to the odd and inventive coincidences of history.

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Galileo Galilei (born February 1564) and William Shakespeare (born April 1564), both children of a Renaissance springtime, were the greatest of inventors. They invented, that is, the conceptual apparatus of their times—and, to a substantial extent, ours. One a representative of the natural sciences and technological advancement, the other of poetry and the performative arts, a backward glance tells us that we still have much to learn from these intellectual giants. For example, the National Geographic argued in a recent article that “Galileo is still in the news” on account of “an optical illusion he discovered in the 1600s [which] caused Venus to appear much larger and blurrier—a ‘radiant crown’, as Galileo called it—when seen through a telescope than when viewed with the naked eye.” According to the magazine, neuroscientists have now discovered that this distortion in perceptual effect is caused by the way in which our brain-cells process information about light. Similarly, Shakespeare continues to offer challenges to our basic understanding of human nature and his plays are appreciated by audiences across the world, including India where, for instance, Bollywood films like Maqbool and Omkara have powerfully reinterpreted classic Shakespearian tragedies in a robust local context.

So what made Galileo’s and Shakespeare’s lives and times so special and what makes their joint anniversary worth celebrating even today? Well, at least three things.

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These were, firstly, men with attitude—specifically, exp­erimental attitude. Let’s begin with a consideration of two iconic sites of such experimentation: the Leaning Tower of Pisa, said to be the place where Galileo conducted his legendary public probe into the momentum of falling objects of different weights; and the Globe Theatre in London, where many of Shakespeare’s plays were staged. As our two architectural star­ting points, these ‘imaginariums’ could help us revisualise, through the lens of that earlier age of accelerated learning, our representations of our own times—in which a major e-revolution at the ‘top’ as well as powerful social movements from ‘below’ are significantly changing a knowledge status quo.

Secondly, Shakespeare and Galileo were ‘inspiring’ in the classic sense that both radically challenged the received wisdom of their times. That is why revisiting their ideas today could prove a major stimulant for educators everywhere. On the face of it, Shakespeare was the less provocative of the two, keeping a politically low profile for the most part; Galileo, on the other hand, was spectacularly hauled up by the Inquisition for reiterating after Copernicus and Giordano Bruno that the earth rev­olved round the sun. It has, however, been argued—perhaps not entirely in jest—that, had Galileo proposed his heliocentric theories in verse, his claims might have gone unchallenged! What is worth noting today is that this tension between the power of science and the seductions of the humanities continues unabated, setting up a dynamic that universities across the world would ignore at their peril. As India takes important decisions on the content and character of learning in the 21st century, on the skill-sets to be acquired as well as the kinds of scholarly research to be encouraged, the works and words of Shakespeare and Galileo may be worth returning to for their prescient wisdom. 

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A third reason for celebrating the lives of Galileo and Shakespeare is, of course, the perennial turbulence of the political. Harbingers of both Cartesian reason and Renaissance humanism, of both Newtonian science and of Miltonian ideals, these men presaged what it meant to be individuals with free will and voice in a modern nation-state, even though neither Europe nor England formally ‘went to the polls’ in their times. That process would have to wait to take shape only after the French Revolution—a reminder that ‘democracy’ in the forms that we know it today is only a little more than a couple of centuries old. However, it could be argued that the early foundations of ‘Enlightenment’ reasoning—political, scientific and ethical—were indeed laid by brave post-Cartesians like our two heroes of 1564. An ironic look at some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines:

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason,
how infinite in faculties, in form and moving,
how express and admirable in action, how like an angel
in apprehension,
how like a god! (Hamlet)

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Locked at this tumultuous time in a fierce political contest whose fateful end is still unknown, we may need once again to appeal to those infinite capacities for reason that Shakespeare invokes—but which we, as a species, do not always act on, occasionally with disastrous consequences. We could also choose to look across the Eurasian landmass from Shakespeare’s ‘emerald isle’ to the political goings-on in the Indian subcontinent of 1564. What was happening in India then? A great deal, it turns out!

During this year, Akbar decisively put down an Uzbek reb­ellion in the north and defeated the exemplary Gond-Rajput queen Rani Durgavati in a battle that established him as a supreme political power. We might plausibly suggest that his often violent confrontation with the varying cultures of this  subcontinent influenced Akbar at least in part to conceptualise that wondrously syncretic religion, the Din-i-Illahi, in 1582. Akbar may have been the only formally illiterate ruler amongst the great Mughals but, once again, his support for pluralism, diversity, theoretical debate, practical reason and exchanges of opinion remain an object lesson. This is a trait he shared with Galileo, whose capacity for obs­ervation, innovation and accurate and bold intellectual conjectures continues to amaze us, as well as with William Shakespeare, whose immortal writings on human emotion and imagination remain  fascinating. Our intellectual lineages, we urgently need to remind ourselves, come from eve­ry­where and that there must not be meum-tuum or tu-tu-main-main wars when it comes to these shared sources of our knowledge. With a past human heritage as rich as that emblematised by Akbar, Galileo and Shakespeare, not to mention Rani Durgavati, there is then some reason, however down we may on occasion feel, to be hopeful, if not exactly sanguine, about our common future. “O brave new world that has such people in’t!”

(Writer and critical theorist Rukmini Bhaya Nair is a professor at IIT Delhi)

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