S.Rajam’s (Music Appreciation notes)

Wednesday, 20 December 2017


Shakespearean riddle

Indira Parthasarathy

A good deal has been written about the plays by Shakespeare, which could fill the shelves of several libraries, but not much has been told about his sonnets. Like, as in the case of our own Subramania Bharati, whose poems have drawn much attention more than his equally illuminating prose works.
I must confess I started reading Shakespeare’s sonnets much later as suggested by one of my literary friends in Delhi. To my great surprise, I found  that Shakespeare’s sonnets  have a close resemblance to the Tamil ‘akam’ (interior) poems of the Sangam era.  The sonnets can be interpreted as ‘drama’. They have action  and heroes. The action consists of lyrical sequences, which slowly mount to tragedy. There are three characters, a man, a youth  and a woman. They go through all stages of love, physical infatuation,  sentimental odysseys, separation,  infidelity and death.
In Tamil akam poetry  also there are three main characters—the hero, heroine and  the heroine’s  alter ego, an inseparable female companion.  All aspects of love are exhaustively studied in these poems, except, true to Tamil culture, the heroine can never be shown as given to faithlessness!
In Shakespeare’s sonnets there is a fourth character as well. This is ‘Time’ which destroys and devours and is the ultimate arbiter of all values. But ‘Time’ is an important character in the ‘puram’ (exterior)  division of Sangam poetry, where the transitory  nature of human life is discussed.
It seems the cruel aspect of Time in its finiteness provides the subject-matter for melancholic hangover for all the poets and artists. Leonardo da Vinci says in one of his brilliant lamentations:
‘Oh! Time! Thou that consumest all things! O envious age, thou destroyest all things with the hard teeth of the years, little by little is slow death! Helen, when she looked in the mirror and saw the withered wrinkles which old age had made in her face, wept, and wondered why ever she had been carried away twice.’
Leonardo speaks of three kinds of time: geological—the time of the earth, of oceans, and mountain erosion; archaeological time, for all history  becomes archaeology in the end—ruined pyramids, temples and kingdoms; and thirdly, human time in which the proximity of the grave to the cradle  reminds  us of our mortality!.
The three kinds of time as spoken by Leonardo constitute the bottom line of all Shakespearean sonnets and all his tragedies. In one of the Tamil ‘puram’ poems, an old man with a hunched back and holding a battered walking stick, reminisces about his past as he sees young girls and boys diving in a river. His lament is dramatic when he cries ‘Oh! Time!’
The first theme of the Shakespearean sonnet in its dramatised version is to preserve beauty and love from the destructive action of time. A son or daughter is not only the descendant of a family, not only a continuation, but above all, the repetition of the same face and features, literally making time stand still. Shakespeare says in one of his sonnets:
“Now is the time that face should form another.”
Reminding  us of the old man’s deep anguish in the Sangam ‘puram’ poem that sums up the drama of human life, a Shakespearean sonnet echoes:
‘ ... ... when alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from  Time’s chest  lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?’
Shakespeare’s sonnets  have their own poetic diction, like the Sangam poems, their own drama rehearsed  lyrical monologues and their own metaphysics. One hundred and twenty-six of them are addressed to
the young, and in the remainder, he addresses the Dark Lady. The dramatic action consists in the double treachery of the youth and the woman. 
It is a Shakespearean riddle yet to be solved who the youth and Dark Lady are. It is, in a way, akin to the grammatical  dictum followed in the Sangam love poems that the name of the hero or heroine  should not be mentioned but have to be referred to only as ‘he’ or ‘she’.               
Indira Parthasarathy, renowned author of plays, short stories and novels in Tamil, Padma Shri awardee, writes on plays, playwrights and theatre-related issues in this column.

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