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 Subhramanya 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 the Tamil akam poetry also there are three main characters, 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 also. This is ‘Time’ which destroys, devours and is the ultimate arbiter of all values. But ‘Time’ is an important character in the ‘puram’ (exterior) division of the Sangam poetry, where the transitory nature of human life is discussed.
It looks like that the cruel aspect of Time in its finiteness provides the subject-matter for melancholic-hang over 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, when 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 reminding 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’ poets, an old man with a hunched back and holding a battered walking stick reminisces 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 Shakespearean sonnets in its dramatized 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 faces 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 echo:
‘……. 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 are addressed to the youth; in the remainder, he addresses the Dark Lady. The dramatic action consists in the double treachery of the youth and woman.
It is a Shakespearean riddle yet to be solved who the youth and Dark Lady are, which, in a way, is 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’.