COMPARING ANTON CHEKHOV WITH WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE
by Tanvir Nebuchadnezar
Anton Chekhov is a better Writer and author than William Shakespeare and so are Sigmund Freud and Lev Tolstoy.
If you ask somebody to at least name one author, he or she will probably answer William Shakespeare in many cases. If you give choices to recognise an author from given names, William Shakespeare is more likely to be chosen.
William Shakespeare wrote about 500 years back in Britain. He was a Poet, Writer , Playwright writer, and Actor. During his lifetime he was pretty popular in Britain along with 3 or 4 other writers. But his works were not that well acknowledged after his death for the next 300 years. Though, many of his plays were put on stage in Britain and some other parts of the world.
But, with the rise of the British empire, William Shakespeare again rose to colossal heights and has been the most well known author ever since. Mostly it was the influence of British empire on its subjects and the spread of English as a language around the world. The British chose William Shakespeare to hype the most because he was in pretty distant past with some obscure mystery surrounding his life. And he was very good at what he wrote.
If we read most works of William Shakespeare, they are pretty melodramatic and many were to be played on stage. There is a certain loudness about them.
Now, as far as originality of his works is concerned, they were either copies or inspired from or derivatives of greek and Babylonian mythologies and stories, though a few originated in British society as well.
Thus, William Shakespeare wrote poems and used similar lyrical language to write prose for both his dramas and stories. This might be considered a unique way of writing but to the reader who wants to read hardcore prose, it comes as a slight disappointment. The excessive use of the words like Thee, Though etc., which mainly fits religious text also takes some shine off the quality of prose expected either in a drama or story.
I read William Shakespeare during my school days and later as well. It was much later that I read the works of Sigmund Freud, Lev Tolstoy and Anton Chekov.
Recently I read a collection of 100 stories by Anton Chekhov. It sat me thinking and took me back to my school days and I wondered why any of these wonderful stories were not included in the school English curriculum. The answer is obvious. India has been ruled by British for over 150 years and still possesses a British slave mentality. So, if British say that William Shakespeare is the epitome of English literature and literature in all languages overall, Indian English Curriculum will be full of his stories and other British authors.
But, Once I wondered about Anton Chekhov, I drifted back to Sigmund Freud and Lev Tolstoy as well. My mind started comparing Anton Chekov, Lev Tolstoy and Sigmund Freud with William Shakespeare. I found all three authors better writers than William Shakespeare in terms of originality, story, story telling, story composition, sentence construction, paragraph construction and most importantly the overall impression the story leaves on the mind.
The irony of all this is that these three authors never wrote in English. I was reading the English translations of these authors. Sigmund Freud wrote in German, Anton Chekhov and Lev Tolstoy wrote in Russian. I wondered if their English translations could be better than Original English works of William Shakespeare, what exquisite joy will be there to read their works in their original language and manuscript.
Some may wonder what has a scientific author like Sigmund Freud, who almost mostly wrote on Psychology, been included in the comparison. The answer is simple. A writer of nonfiction and scientific works is also a author, tells a nonfiction story, which has a language, a story, story telling, story composition, sentence construction, paragraph construction and has an overall impact on the mind of the reader. Hence I treat, and all should treat non-fiction authors at the same level as fiction authors, if praise of story and story telling is the criteria.
Now, coming to Anton Chekhov, he was a Russian Doctor and writer, between 1860 and 1904. He died at relatively young age of 44 due to Tuberculosis. We might not know how many more great stories he might have written if there was cure for Tuberculosis during his time.
But, when I say that all three Anton Chekhov, Lev Tolstoy and Sigmund Freud are better writers than William Shakespeare, the most important factor is the “Effective Force” of their stories on your mind as a reader. They are way above others in this department. All three were great psychologists, in fact Sigmund Freud was a scientific genius of psychology and established the modern branch of psychology. They understood the psychology of their readers and the characters in their stories so well and thus their stories have a terrific impact on the psyche of the readers.
Many critics say that Anton Chekhov wrote about the trivialities of everyday life. I disagree. Anton Chekhov wrote about the dark side of the human mind. He wrote about the dark side of human psychology. That is why he had to use very common characters and social situations. Because these are the people in which and the circumstance in which, you can find dark psychology most well developed and it was easy for Anton Chekhov to explain and write his stories using these characters.
That is why even a one page story like “ In the Graveyard”, jolts you to the core and you start wondering at life and death and what it can throw at you.
I remember that one of his stories “ The Bet” was shown as a serial episode on Television. I don’t remember if any credit was given to Anton Chekhov from which it was translated into Hindi. It had quite an impact on me even at that time.
Now, when I read the story “The Bet”, some more thoughts came to my mind. Why did the Better, after spending nearly 15 years walked away before completion and getting his due of 2 million roubles. You wondered if he got wise with age and all the reading and writing during this time. But I think the true reason is that at near 15 years he realised that he had wasted the best years of his life, the part of life which is the most joyous, most happy , most pleasurable, most memorable and the most sensuous part of life, locked in a room for a bundle on money. This realisation was enough and he walked off to escape and get a few hours of precious time that was still left of the bet. In the end he realised that even a few hours of freedom and youth is more precious than bundles of money which cannot buy any of these things back. This is the essence of the story and that is why it is so hard hitting.
“ Kings never bet
Wise almost never bet
Common people sometimes bet
fools bet at every opportunity
and bloody fools die betting”
In the end, the paying better who was to offer money, kept on betting in other ways and lost all his money and wouldn’t have been able to pay the youth better, who became an old man during the course of the bet.
Again in “ Ward no. 6”, in which the treating Doctor is himself confined to the asylum for taking humane and doctoral interest in one of the patients is a deep dissection of the human mind. Anton Chekhov tells through this story that what is normal behaviour and what is normal behaviour is not objective and is subject to human prejudices, judgement and errors.
A conclusion I drew from this story is that instead of focussing on what is normal behaviour and what is abnormal or psychiatric behaviour, we must focus more on whether a certain behaviour is harmful to other persons and society or not.
This story also leaves a deep impression on your mind and you wonder whether you should help others or keep yourself safe. It is a moral dilemma.
Than there are many stories in which Anton Chekhov has explored the dark side of female-male relationships like “Love”, “A Transgression”, “The Lottery Ticket”, “ The Trousseau”, “ The Cook’s Wedding”, “ Ariadne’, “ About Love’, “The lady with the Dog”, “ An Inquiry”, “ The Head of the Family”, “A Joke”, “ Betrothed”, “A Blunder”, “Anyuta”,, “The Looking Glass”, “Polinka”, “Neighbours”, “A Story without an End’.
Some of these stories are about Adultery, some about lost love and some about finding love but all explore the mind of females and males as lovers who want to love each other but there are social problems and many mental blocks. Some are able to overcome them and find love and some are unable to find a path which leads to their misery and unhappiness.
Through these stories Anton Chekhov reminds the readers the dark side of both female and male sexuality and what female and male expect of each other when they are courting each other or when they are in a marriage.
Than there is the story of a “The First Class Passenger”, in which two persons are travelling in a first class compartment of a train. They start a general discussion about fame and what does being famous constitutes.
One of the Passengers explains that he had built two dozen bridges in Russia, laid aqueducts, is an author of several treatises and his work is in the foreign manuals of chemistry and yet he sadly remarks that hardly anybody knows him
Than he goes on to tell a story about his friendship with an actress. People knew the name of actress’s friend but still could not recognise him. In one ceremony of the inauguration of a bridge, he had engineered, he was standing there and hoping for appreciation for his work from the public but nobody took notice of him. When his actress friend arrived late, everybody looked at her and started discussing her. The Engineer asked the person standing next to him, who she was, he answered so and so. Than he asked who his current boyfriend was, to which he replied an engineer named Krikunov. But he still could not recognise the Engineer Krikunov who was asking all these questions.
The above story about fame leaves you perplexed and sad and challenged at the same time. If all you require to be famous is being beautiful than all the beautiful creations of the beautiful minds of brilliant scientists seem worthless.
Even in daily life we see that most famous are people seen on Television and Movies. May be a brilliant mind does not communicate enough and a picture (Television, Movies) is able to fill the gap more effectively.
In the end one feels that fame alone cannot be and should not be the only criteria to measure one’s or other’s success. If one has led a satisfactory life and has been able to achieve and do what one’s own judgement is of one’s best capacity, I think that is the most satisfying feeling and should give happiness and joy to oneself. Any amount of fame is never enough but achievements can be satisfactory and happy.
Anton Chekhov has also explored the dark side of religion and Spirituality in stories like “The Murder”, “The Shoemaker and the Devil”, “A Slander”, “ The Black Monk”, “The Orator”, “The Requiem’.
It is not that Anton Chekhov is critical of religion but he explores and says in his stories what many authors dare not do. He shows that people do use religion and spiritual beliefs for their own glorification and benefit and in no way benefits the society. In this way Anton Chekhov warns people and society to be vigilant against such kind of people, to protect themselves and others in the society. In this way his stories are educational and instructive.
Than there are stories of extreme poverty and misery and sorrow like “Oysters”, “Misery”, “Sorrow”, in which Anton Chekhov explores the poverty and misery present in the society. He also shows how other people can be so regardless of people in such conditions. In this way, he is suggesting that a better way ought to be developed in a civilised society in which people with extreme poverty or misery can be helped within the society. In fact, it is one of the purposes of civilised society.
Than Anton Chekhov writes many stories about everyday happenings which may seem trivial in themselves but collected over a period of a lifetime, define your life and determines your past, present and future.
Overall I found the Anton Chekhov stories extremely well written and constructed. They are a joy to read and than savour and than think about them for a long time after reading them. Such is the beauty of his stories and story telling.
But to enjoy the most out of Anton Chekhov stories, there is a certain way you should go about reading them. Read the story slowly and after finishing one story, give a 5 to 10 minutes to think about it. This is the period when you will enjoy the story the most.
Also do not read too many stories in one sitting, even with gaps. Just read 2 to 4 stories with gap in one sitting and 5 to 7 stories a day at most.
This way you will be able to enjoy and derive the most out of these brilliant stories written by a great writer and author Anton Chekhov.
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