Tagore and Shakespeare

(Prof. Hazara Singh)

            A few remarks of English politicians and even men of letters about Shakespeare put me to serious heart-searching and head-scratching. In their urge to extol Shakespeare, they displayed a lot of ignorance about the culture, literature and heritage of other countries and appeared to be rabid propagandists of imperialism.

          Carlyle in his celebrated essay ‘The Poet as a Hero’, observed that, called upon to choose between the British Empire and Shakespeare the English would prefer the latter. The rugged Scot outraged and disparaged the vast Empire, which represented a rich heritage of superb cultures. The Duke of Marlborough exclaimed that all the knowledge of English history which he possessed, was gathered by him from the plays of Shakespeare. The landmarks in English history like Magna Carta which preceded Shakespeare and played an outstanding role in the shaping of English Parliament find no mention in all the 39 plays of this renowned dramatist. Shakespeare creates anachronisms and displays utter geographical ignorance about many places. Matthew Arnold spoke of Shakespeare in a sonnet as follows :

            Others abide our question. Thou art free

            We ask and ask. Thou smilest and art still

            Oat-topping knowledge. For the loftiest hill

             Planting his steadfast footsteps in the sea,

             Making the heaven of heavens his dwelling place‘

            Spares but the cloudy border of his base

                         This is a full—throated tribute to Shakespeare by an imaginative poet and a celebrated critic, appreciative in spirit but exaggerated in expression.

It is not my intention to find fault with the art of Shakespeare. Rather l am simply trying to point out that Carlyle was prejudiced, Marlborough ignorant and Matthew Arnold hyperbolic. We have a man of letters in India, who was an artist, poet, novelist, dramatist, calligraphist, and in the words of Dr S. Radhakrishnan ‘the poet of the 20th century’. He surpasses Shakespeare in his scholarship, art and insight. This towering figure is Rabindra Nath Tagore, in whose literary works the oppressed humanity sees ray of hope, the lovers of literature discover redeeming knowledge and even profound philosophers find an innovative approach. I present here only a few contrasts.

                      Though an unsurpassed descriptive artist, not even missing to note dew drops sparkling on dry blade of grass in the morning, Shakespeare had a rather perverted view of mankind. He is convinced that only the rich merchants, generals and princes are fit to become the heros of his plays. Whenever common people appear in his works, they are presented as uncouth jesters and clowns. True, Shakespeare lived in a predominantly feudalistic society, not yet rocked by the slogan of equality, fraternity and liberty. Son of a butcher or a wool-trader, he did not get chance of pursuing higher education. If he could become an artist, acceptable to the Puritan Milton, why should he deride, satirize and misrepresent that stock of posterity, which is the very salt of human race? Shakespearean art is amusing, often thrilling, yet devoid of clear vision or message. He witnessed the cruel religious intolerance of his age, yet never protested against it. There were signs of disintegration in his nation; as a civil war was in the offing. Shakespeare did not care. His art amused society but did not enlighten it. Each and every work of Tagore strives for this lofty yearning to diagnose and to heal. Take his story “Cabuliwala”. Apparently the two male characters of the story. Rehman and the Bengali Babu (Bhadur Lok), have little in common, Rehman, a Muslim by faith, Aryan by race, and a Pathan by nationality is a hefty hawker in the streets of Calcutta. He comes from a dry land, where the mountains are rugged, nature is harsh, and the people are illiterate. No doubt he is honest at heart, but for settling disputes, he prefers to use his knife to the advancing of an argument. The Bengali Babu, Mangoloid by race and Indian by nationality, believes in Hindu faith. He lives in cosmopolitan Calcutta and is a writer by profession. The sky there is often covered with dark clouds inspiring poetic fancies. The subtle art of Tagore creates an invisible relationship between the two. The Bengali Babu lives with his family enjoying the bliss of paternal affection. Rehmansuffers from the pangs of separation, and the only consolation he gets is the occasional look at the crumpled paper bearing the impression of his daughter’s palm. Though outwardly there is nothing in common between the two, yet both Rehman and the Babu, are fathers. One realises the hardship of another father, yeaming to meet his lonely child in a far off land, and readily cuts the unnecessary expenses on the marriage of his only daughter, so that with the money, thus saved, an anguished person may return home and meet his long separated daughter. Through its latent sympathy the story has served more than its purpose of uniting mankind.

                      Characterization of Shakespeare jolts in a few deep ruts. His heroines are as a rule orphan; the rich are wise and the poor clownish. The heroines always display their best in male attire, may be because his art is subordinate to the stage. Actually he has heroines and no heroes; the male characters are mediocres and the women superlatively virtuous, enlightened or villainous.

                   Rabindra Nath Tagore is a prophet speaking for oppressed humanity. He felt sorely the curse of imperialism and was depressed by a society consisting of touch-me~nots and untouchables. His play Mukatdhara foresaw a liberator, Dhananjaya Vairagi practising non-violent and truthful means to fight against a callous administration. Natir Puja is an artistic indictment of untouchability and religious intolerance. Chandalika is a fascinating study of the human mind, the depths to which it can fall and the sublimity it can achieve. The down-trodden sections of society find freely a place as heroes and heroines of Tagore, without his being a committed ideologue. He beautifully puts forth that wisdom is not the exclusive monopoly of the rich, nor folly in unshared heritage of the poor. His art is independent of the stage requisites. He wants to usher in an era.

‘Where the mind is without fear

And the head is held high’.

             Such exalted expressions are rare in Shakespeare; Shylock protesting against the high-handedness of Christians may provide a solitary example. As the art of Shakespeare is subordinate to the stage he has often to amuse the groundlings. Lines and paras, sometimes pages from his plays, had to be deleted to make them presentable to persons of superior taste. As is well known, Tolstoy on reading Shakespeare suffered much repulsion, weariness, and bewilderment. Indeed he was not prepared to admit Shakespeare as a writer of great genius. Tagore is invariably refined in his language and presentation.

             Shakespeare presents the English crowd of carpenters, cobblers and other workers of his time in the streets of Rome in the play Julius Ceaser; unware of the fact that manual labour was a disqualification for Roman citizenship. In Merchant of Venice the imprint mentioned on the gold coin is that of Queen Elizabeth I, whose reign cannot by any stretch of imagination be made to synchronize with the Augustean Era in Roman History. The forest of Orleans in France, as mentioned in As You Like it, is the wood near Stratford, the birth-place of Shakespeare.

             This appraisal is merely suggestive and not exhaustive.

_ 0 _