Poets and their visions 34: Shakespeare 4 – Power and the shades of love

In addition to the big five, Shakespeare wrote three other powerful tragedies, which are lumped together as the Roman plays. There was in fact another Roman play, Titus Andronicus, but that was early and is bloody and ghoulish and will not repay analysis. The interesting three deal with important historical figures, two of them with those who exercised the most lasting influences of European history, namely Julius and Augustus Caesar. The latter however has only a minor role in Antony and Cleopatra, which deals with his rival for absolute power in what was to become the Roman Empire. Augustus won out, but the play is primarily about love rather than power.

One can indeed see the three Roman tragedies as also looking at what I have suggested are the primary human motives, love and power and identity. The first part of Julius Caesar is about power in itself, and the characterization of Caesar, brief though it is before he is murdered, vividly lays bare the corrupting impact of unbridled power. The rhetoric with which he rejects the plea for mercy that provides the pretext for his assassination illustrates the insensitivity of arrogance that feels no restraining factors. –

I could be well moved, if I were as you; 
If I could pray to move, prayers would move me:
But I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumber’d sparks,
They are all fire, and every one doth shine;
But there’s but one in all doth hold his place:
So in the world; ’tis furnish’d well with men,
And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive;
Yet in the number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshaked of motion: and that I am he,
Let me a little show it, even in this,–
That I was constant Cimber should be banish’d,
And constant do remain to keep him so.

And if Caesar deludes himself into believing in his indispensability, equally powerful is Shakespeare’s exposition of a different approach to personal power, Antony’s revengeful determination. Continue reading

Acts of Faith – Chapter 1; Pt 1 – Elementary


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acts-of-faithOur hero will be called Shiva, rousing in the minds of the more sophisticated amongst our readers (yourself, for instance) an image of burnished bronze poised between action and inaction, its myriad arms flung out in several directions, pointing, gesticulating, cajoling. Standing as he does for both Creation and Destruction, the one necessarily involving the other, he will not we trust seem irresponsible or undutiful as a hero in dying at the very beginning of the book. Being Tamil, he will go up in a blaze of glory (and in a helicopter too), thus shedding the brightest possible light upon the people and the processes we need to illuminate. Besides, he will have a sort of successor, symbolically enough called Paul, the executor of his will; though whether this is adequate consolation, whether the substitute will prove suitable, must be left for you to judge.

Then there will be a married couple, but a somewhat unusual couple in that it is generally believed, in this appropriately named Democratic and Socialist Republic of Ceylon where all things are canvassed publicly (albeit in whispers) and nothing private is held sacred (except enterprise), that their marriage was never consummated. That they had no children contributed to this assumption. That her name was Diana did not, so sadly has classical learning declined in this perverse generation. His name is Indra and he was an old friend and also a partner, in a variety of businesses, of Shiva who had accompanied the couple on their honeymoon.

Indra and Diana are Sinhalese, and Buddhists too, though only after a fashion. Ironically, Diana is the more devout, although she is racially hybrid. Her father was a Kandyan Sinhalese, an aristocrat from a little village named after his family (or conceivably vice versa) and nestling in the quiet hills overlooking the Dumbara valley. Her mother Phyllis, settled at the time our novel opens in the village (as she portentously termed it), and playing there the lady of the manor with an aplomb her in-laws had never achieved, was a half-caste, the child of a union between the son of a Ceylonese entrepreneur and the daughter of an English grocer. They had met at Oxford in the twenties and, with a disregard for convention their parents deplored but their generation demanded, had romantically married. Phyllis’ own marriage had been arranged by her father as soon as she approached a suitable age. Continue reading

Poets and their visions 33: Shakespeare 3 – Sound and Fury


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Macbeth lies at the centre of Shakespeare’s vision of human nature, and not only in terms of the age of its protagonist. Macbeth is an over-reacher, and resembles two of Shakespeare’s most celebrated villains, Richard III and Edmund in King Lear, in his determination to make of himself more than fate has assigned to him. Such characters need to be examined as closely as those whose problems arise from the clash between their positive approach to the world and the slings and arrows of, not just outrageous fortune, but the aspirations of others too.

Unlike the vast majority of Shakespearian protagonists, and like Richard III and Edmund, Machbeth treats others, including those that trust him, as simply instruments of his own ambition. But unlike them he is also unquestionably a hero, and is characterized by a host of memorable lines that convey the universality of what he goes through, even though his precipitation of his fate is peculiar to himself. He is also unlike them, in that he does not begin as an outsider, a bastard or a younger brother apparently fated to lurk in the shadows, and challenging the established order to overcome this – like also another distinctive though less prominent Shakespearian villain, Antonio in The Tempest. Nor does he have the excuse of an Iago, disappointed in his desire for promotion.

Macbeth, unlike these, is on the ladder of deserved success. What he does then can be seen as taking to a conclusion the logic of ambition and talent. Initially propelled to this by the three witches, he is hardened in his determination by Lady Macbeth, who seems to epitomize the converse of the innocence of the leading women of the other great tragedies. Continue reading

Rajiva Wijesinha’s The Past Is Another Country – Down memory lane Jean Arasanayagam


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The Past is Another Country is a series of interviews with individuals distinguished for their contributions to culture and to society. In addition to discussing their individual contributions, the programmes explore the context in which each of them functioned. The interviews, by Rajiva Wijesinha, cover a range of developments in post-independence Sri Lanka, and present a panoramic view of social change in the latter half of the 20th century.

Jean Arasanayagam is a poet and writer who has chronicled both her heritage as a member of the Burgher community, and the traumas of racial violence which she suffered from, because of her marriage to a Tamil. A teacher, and lecturer at the Penideniya Teacher Training College, she also describes the clash of cultures experienced through her marriage into a conservative Jaffna family.

Poets and their visions 32: Shakespeare 2 – Questions of identity


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Having looked at the heroines of two of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, I thought of considering another couple from the great tragedies. I refer here to what is commonly seen as his most remarkable works, the five tragedies that between them span the different ages of man.

The first of these is Romeo and Juliet, which deals with youth. The last, King Lear, is about old age and. if Lear is not quite in the seventh stage that Shakespeare describes in As You Like It, still we are clearly looking at a man nearing the end of his tether. In between we have Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello, and I will look today at the heroines of the first and last of these.

Ophelia and Desdemona are also innocent victims, which I think serves to make clear that Bloom missed the point when he thought Juliet’s lack of responsibility for what happened to her made the play ‘a tragedy of circumstance’, and in effect therefore a contradiction of the Aristotelian view of tragedy. Aristotle was talking about the tragic hero, and the problem with tragic heroes is that their flaws lead to suffering for others as well as themselves. The most obvious victims of the destruction such heroes cause are their loved ones, and in particular lovers and wives, as we see with Juliet and Ophelia and Desdemona (and I suppose daughters as in Lear are an extension of this for the old and already bereaved).

I would however posit a difference between the two ladies in the tragedies of youth and age, and those I will look at today. Though the latter two are innocent, there is a sense in which they fuel the suspicions of their loved ones, which contributes to the psychological neuroses that are the springs of tragedy in either case.

Continue reading

Rajiva Wijesinha’s The Past Is Another Country – Down memory lane with Anne Ranasinghe



The Past is Another Country is a series of interviews with individuals distinguished for their contributions to culture and to society. In addition to discussing their individual contributions, the programmes explore the context in which each of them functioned. The interviews, by Rajiva Wijesinha, cover a range of developments in post-independence Sri Lanka, and present a panoramic view of social change in the latter half of the 20th century.

Anne Ranasinghe is a German of Jewish origin, whose entire family was killed by the Nazi regime. She escaped by being sent on her own to England as a child. Having then married Prof D A Ranasinghe, she brought up a family in Sri Lanka, where she has lived for over 60 years. A distinguished poet, she has also been an inspiration to young writers through her stewardship for many years of the English Writers Cooperative.

Poets and their visions 31: Shakespeare 1 – Love’s Innocence


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I have long been hesitant in writing about Shakespeare, because it seems almost inconceivable that something new could be said. However, in writing a series about the visions of English poets, to leave Shakespeare out would obviously leave an enormous gap.

In trying to think of a new angle, or at least to approach Shakespeare in a way that would provide some fresh ideas, I was inspired by something Harold Bloom said in Genius, his provocative and illuminating account of inspired writers. Naturally he has Shakespeare at the top of the list, and I suspect no one would disagree – though I cannot but recall here a virtuoso performance by the American critic George Steiner, called ‘A Reading Against Shakespeare’, which he delivered with aplomb at the annual literature seminar that the British Council used to run in Cambridge for many years.

His thesis, or rather one of the most important criticisms he made amongst many, was that there was really no order in the way Shakespeare constructed his world. I still remember the example he used to make this point, his account of the death of Cordelia in King Lear, which he said occurred simply because the message to save her went too late. He contrasted this with the failure to save Antigone in Sophocles’ play of that name, which he noted occurred because Creon the errant protagonist, had to reverse the wrongs he did in order, rather than rescuing Antigone first.

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Personal Perspectives – Richard’s Mother


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Over a decade ago I wrote the following in a series that appeared in over a couple of years in the Island Newspaper. I had forgotten it until it was sent me by those seeking to revive the memory of Manorani Saravanamuttu, Richard de Zoysa’s mother. At a time when ‘Ceylon Today’ is reproducing ‘The Terrorist Trilogy’ which was written with Richard and about him, I thought it fitting to republish this piece

Chanted loudly, chanted lowly
Till her blood was frozen slowly


unnamedI was out of the country when Manorani died, just as I had been when her son Richard de Zoysa was abducted and killed, 11 years previously. And it was before I came back that Victor Ivan published in the ‘Ravaya’ an article that led to a very forceful critique of Richard in the ‘Island’. Those raise issues that I suspect will have to be addressed shortly. However, for the moment it is time, as Evelyn Waugh put it about another woman of extraordinary beauty, to speak of Manorani.
The last time I saw her was in the intensive care unit in January, which was a terrible experience. She was unconscious, and under heavy medication. Yet there had also been reason for regret on previous occasions I saw her, for her memory had faded. On the last of those, her 71st birthday I think it was, one tried to take comfort in the fact that she was no longer tormented by thoughts of Richard and his death. But her contentment was that of a child, so that, that too was upsetting, for the two qualities one remembered most strongly in her were both lacking – her tremendous dignity and her passion. These are qualities one does not often associate, but Manorani had them both in abundance.

I had got to know her well, as all Richard’s friends did, for their lives were shared in a very deep sense. This was inevitable in that, after she and her husband parted, she embarked on a new life and career in Africa, but gave them up to come back to Richard. He in turn recognized what she had given up for him and felt equally committed. They both, only half jokingly, felt they had been together in previous lives – I still have a copy of a poem he sent her shortly before his death, a poem about commitment in various incarnations. His comment was that they were not the only two in a time warp.

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The colours will still revolve in the sky


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Speech of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha

At the launch of The Terrorist’s Daughter

By Thisuri Wanniarachchi

At the Taj Samudra Hotel, August 14th 2014

The Terrorist's daughter

It is a pleasure to speak at the launch of Thisuri Wanniarachchi’s second novel, The Terrorist’s Daughter. But I must confess that I wondered initially what had prompted a young lady I did not know to ask me to do this. Though I spent many years promoting Sri Lankan writing in English, at a time when the academic establishments of the day tended to look down on this, that was a very long time ago.

Yet having read through the novel, I began to understand. One of my criticisms of the literary establishment at the time was its celebration of what I termed the ‘village well’ syndrome. So Punyakante Wijenaike’s brilliant and very sophisticated novel Giraya was torn to pieces, but there was adulation by a Colombo academic of the wife in This Waiting Earth, as representing the real village woman. The sharp social criticism of a village elite in the later novel was not highlighted, nor was James Goonewardene’s The Awakening of Dr Kirthi, still perhaps the best analysis of what had destroyed the administration of this country.

I have long felt that works dealing with these higher levels of society are also important, because after  this is where decisions that affect larger groups of humanity are made. My own writings, uniquely at the time, dealt with the very highest echelons of power, in that my first novel was based on the ethnic violence of 1983 and I indicated there that that violence had received the blessings of the highest level of decision making. So the entire Terrorist Trilogy dealt direct as it were with the events of 1983 and 1987 and 1989-90. My next novel, Servants, was in a different vein, but its subject matter was similar, since it too, if more obliquely, addressed social and political developments during that long drawn out period of crisis.

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