On the recurrent Kashmiri misreading of Shakespeare

In this piece, the author discusses the ways in which a popular quote from a comedic play by Shakespeare is misinterpreted by certain Kashmiris and the impact such recurrent misinterpretation has on our understanding.

Adages, sayings and proverbs are common to every people, just as they are to Kashmiris. In fact, one could find certain commonalities in the germination and propagation of kahawats within Kashmiri culture and their relation to the comparable manner in which adages, sayings and proverbs emerge and get passed on in other cultures from one generation to the next.

Here, a few similarities come to mind: a) a root in an oral tradition and the passing on of such proverbial wisdom through word of mouth, b) an economy of language in transmitting the wisdom of the ages, and c) the advantageous ability to appear as impersonal or abstract commentary by mode of reference to a “third subject” or a “referent” in a conversation while being completely succinct and to the point, especially while referring to a specific situation, occurrence or individual.

However, “not all that glimmers is gold” when it comes to kahawats and proverbial declarations. In adverse cases, such sayings can, in certain ways, be used to (mis)characterize individuals, or even go to the extent of dehumanizing them by mode of reduction. In fact, in ordinary gossip coupled with the age old tendency of certain groups and cliques to engage in rumor-mongering, kahawats can be misused to belittle, shame, and/or (re)present others as less, as inferior, or simply as objects of mockery, joke, slander and defamation.

And yet even such misuses are not as bad as a particular Kashmiri proverbial misuse of the Shakespeare quote “All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players” borrowed from Act II Scene VII of the Bard’s comedic play As You Like It. While as in the world-renowned Shakespearian comedy these words uttered by Jacques in the Forest of Arden refer to “The Seven Ages of Man” found in the Greco-Roman literary allusions that appear throughout the playwright’s work, in a peculiar Kashmiri reading, the rest of the lines from the play are ignored in order to reduce the Shakespearian kahawat to: “the world is a stage and we are mere actors here to play a role.”

William Shakespeare.

In a positive sense, that particular Kashmiri understanding reflects on the transience of life and also the need to make adjustments between dreams, expectations and outcomes in a world full of inequity and disproportion. However, what is eerily disturbing, as it is equally disruptive, is the self-serving manner in which these two lines are thrown about to also signify that individuals, such as those in Kashmiri society, must put on a mask, play a role, and thereby submit their sense of individual agency and even go further and surrender their moral and ethical values to the whims and ways of society.

To consider this observation further, the original two lines from the Shakespearian play that have made it to the mouths of many a Kashmiris coincidentally begin the twenty-eight line monologue by Jacques, in the second act and seventh scene. However, not any attention whatsoever is given to the fact that the monologue refers to a reflection on human life from birth till death, delineating the periods of growth, change and development that a human being goes through in seven stages. This concrete idea of “The Seven Ages of Man” traverses multiple traditions from the Greco-Roman one to a Christian theological one, both of which Shakespeare borrows from, in his specific style of adopting ideas and stories from a diverse set of myths, legends, folktales and literatures from a variety of cultures.

Nonetheless, the simple manner of engaging with Shakespearean language by only taking two lines from a twenty-eight line monologue can be problematic in concrete and redundant situations when considering the Kashmiri adaptations. For one, ours is a rich culture of kahawats as any other, and yet when some of our own time-tested kahawats are limited given their culture-specific nature and context, we tend to draw upon knowledge and wisdom from other places, and that especially includes sayings, adages and proverbs.

Interestingly enough, from a variety of dialogues with a multitude of people over the years, I have found that the “All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players” adaptation as one that gets frequently thrown around by people in bureaucracy and those who have worked in some or other government job at some point. It is precisely here that the context given to these two Shakespearian lines perplexes since the connotation is one that conveys a simple message: when in Rome, do as the Romans, or better yet, “go with the flow” and do not swim countercurrent.

When applied and put into a current Kashmiri context, “the world is a stage and we are mere actors” is a rehashing of a twisted governing principle, that as members of society and participants in a given culture, we ought to surrender to the ways, values and norms that are dictated by the social system we inhabit and by the inherent weight of such values placed on the individual. This can be seen as a normative dictate or in the worst case as the simple idea that “the world” governs the actions, status, position, thinking, attitude and liberty of the individual and as such the individual is better off subjecting themselves to the rules, forces, governing dynamics and structural impositions of the “world” as “a stage” with its set and affixed parameters, limits and regulations.

An illustration of the play ‘As You Like It’.

It is this context derived from the multiple discussions on the Shakespearian kahawat here in Kashmir that I see clear and unavoidable problematic interpretations. For example, the idea that such a kahawat, when used by people working in office, reflects a justification to abdicate a sense of responsibility and renounce any possibility of individual initiative because of the passive attitude with which such words are appropriated. Taken further, the social construction of self as “professional” or in this particular case “public servant,” goes against the very principles of establishing individual agency and a sense of motivation to do good that is greater than any self-serving one.

Furthermore, the passivity of the individual is what bothers me when observing the context and the connotation attributed to this world famous kahawat. More specifically, the notion that individual liberty is limited to the scope of roles operating within the domain of self-interest. Now, this would be understandable in other societies, but here in Kashmir, I run into far too many people employing this very proverbial set of lines, while either working in public office or as retired bureaucrats, who have been tasked with the role of “public servants” in various government sectors at the present or in the past.

Nonetheless, the manner in which this Shakespearian saying is adopted and explicated by such people reveals the inherent ills of the system that is supposed to empower them to serve others. Contrary to this principle of “public service,” I more often than not find the saying employed to justify a lack of commitment to service, and not merely that, but to a greater extent an unwillingness to raise questions, promote independent and critical thinking while articulating positions of criticality that would lead to direly needed improvements and urgently required changes.

Now, if one considers the context of Shakespeare’s two lines (“All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players”) from that perspective, it can be reduced to passive acceptance to an unchanging “world” where a set “stage” brings about no progress whatsoever and guarantees no room for improvement, growth or willingness to recognize any inherent stagnation, dysfunction or systemic failure from within.

Taken to a greater extreme, the same saying disassociates a sense of individuality from any “role” to be played. And as it stands, current and previous members of bureaucracy, particularly those who valorize their knowledge of English literature, appear to contradict themselves far too much when using these age-old words by the English playwright to suggest that it is easier to “go with the flow,” or go with the motions of their world (the bureaucratic one) as mere actors detached from a personal investment in beliefs and values, and more importantly, faith. In any context, it is faith that drives the world to act (as in take action), and here I am not referring in any way to religious faith. Rather, it is faith that drives people to better themselves and others for a greater good from which a sense a community is derived, sustained and passed on.

As such, the world being a stage and people mere actors is an absurd notion when one considers the recurrent manner in which two lines by Shakespeare are employed to renounce any sense of obligation, be it a moral or ethical one, or even a vocational or professional one. The playwright’s two lines then suffice to sever ties with a greater demand for good, equality and harmony beyond one’s own radius of interest and sphere of influence. It further promotes a malleable subject, one willing to compromise and one willing to submit to any power (social/political) that seems beneficial to such a subject’s immediate interests.

For some odd reason, I am reminded here of the relationship between remoras, a species of suckerfish, and sharks. The remora follows the shark around where the predator of the seas cannot reach it (around the belly and on its back) and feeds on the parasites found on the shark’s skin along with any leftovers that the shark leaves trailing in the water and in some cases even its feces. As for “The Seven Ages of Man” that is central to Jacques’ monologue in As You Like It, these include the seven phases of manhood according to the Greco-Roman tradition that Shakespeare appropriates far too often: the infant, the schoolboy, the lover, the soldier, the justice, the pantaloon and finally the elderly. However, when the saying is employed by many a Kashmiri, never are these core and essential details of the seven ages referred to, much less (re)cited.

Finally, the “All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players” lines are also alluded to by far too many Kashmiris to rationalize the idea that whatever one does or any activity one engages in is for some sort of public recognition, accolade or acclaim. If one writes, one must write to publish and if one works, it is to exhibit one’s position as a key “player” in society.

This, I believe, sets a rotten example for younger generations to emulate, one that communicates that whatever one does, must be for show, or to use the proverbial term dikhawat, and that too in this day and age where social media “hypervisibility” dictates the shifting perceptions of what self, persona, personhood and individuality mean and can potentially come to signify. As a result, too much importance and priority is given to the external, extrinsic and superficial, and too little attention is focused on the internal, intrinsic, and implicit. The objective governs the subjective just as the subject is reduced to object, one devoid of subjectivity and individuality and ruled by the doctrines of a set “stage” more apt for “actors playing stooges.” Such a world as stage does not invite room for subjective depth, critical reflection, independent thinking and cannot in any way, shape or form, benefit or promote a healthy and sustainable model of a society.

In that sense, since “the world’s a stage,” one must effectively present oneself as if one were a “player” or an “actor,” and then act accordingly. Again, this mode of interpreting or rather misinterpreting Shakespeare’s writing further promotes a culture where individuality and individual uniqueness is governed by norm, be it a social norm, a cultural or a political one. And if a profession or a job position is defined by all three aforementioned, well then a misreading of Shakespeare suffices to attire a donkey in royal clothes, place it on an altar and crown it king.


Amjad Majid is an art critic, educator, researcher and IT consultant.


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