Manthara and the Winter of Our Discontent

Manthara and the Winter of Our Discontent

A comparative analysis of the Manthara episode in the Ramayana with the famous opening soliloquy of Shakespeare's play Richard III


TRANSCENDENCE IS A GREAT HALLMARK of classicism in art. Transcendence bestows the capacity to a classical work to generate delight and joy from reading lines or verses at random. It is akin to listening to an aalpanam of the same raga sung by the same artist on different occasions. From a limited perspective, both the artist and raga are nimitta, the core is the quality, impact and experience of ranjanaa — indeed, the definition of the term Raga is Ranjayati iti ragah — that which delights is Raga. In the brilliant aphoristic commandment of Acharya M. Hiriyanna,

The value of art… consists not in providing mere delight for us, but in the totality of experience for which aesthetic contemplation stands...the feeling of pleasure is, no doubt, there, but only as an aspect of that experience. This is the significance of the term rasa, used in Sanskrit for aesthetic value…[it] implies that art valuation is an active process of which delight is only a characteristic feature. ”

From Maharshi Valmiki in Bharatavarsha to Shakespeare in England, all of the world’s acknowledged classical works exhibit the same traits albeit in varying degrees and intensity. 

In his Ramayana Darshanam, the eminent litterateur K.V. Puttappa pays floral poetic homage precisely to this universal classical tradition when he extols Valmiki, Homer, Dante, Milton, Shakespeare et al. This, in a 20th century retelling of the Ramayana in Kannada. He thereby upholds another eternal value embodied in the famous Rg Vedic maxim, ā no bhadrāḥ kratavo yantu viśvatah. 

Among the proverbial common folk, few read the Ramayana or the Mahabharata or Shakespeare’s plays in their entirety in a repeat mode. Fewer even have read these works cover to cover. This applies even to scholars, teachers and devout connoisseurs of such classical works. But what is undeniably true is that all of them have personal favourites in these works — selected verses or prose passages or dialogues — to which they turn repeatedly or have memorised. Another great testament to this is how these verses, etc., have become proverbs and cultural idioms: rāmo vigrahavān dharmaḥ; yato dharmastato jayaḥ; sabhavāmi yuge yuge; neither a borrower nor a lender be; the way to dusty death; The mind in itself, can make heaven of Hell, and a hell of Heaven. In general, both the part and the whole of classical works produce and contribute to the “totality of aesthetic experience” that Acharya Hiriyanna alluded to. Likewise, each new reading evokes a fresh thought or produces a heightened insight. 

These apart, classical works produced by disparate civilisations and cultures lend themselves to comparative analyses in a manner that the so-called “modern” works don’t. This is because of their aforementioned universality or transcendence. Sri Arjun Bharadwaj’s recent work, Indian Perspective of Truth and Beauty in Homer’s Epics is a valuable contribution in this domain. Thus, just as a comparative analysis can be done betwixt say, the Ramayana and Odyssey as a whole, a comparative analysis of selected episodes too, can be done. Indeed, we notice a profusion of such analyses published in the scores of literary and other journals during the era of the Modern Indian Renaissance. It is eminently regrettable that this profound culture has all but disappeared today in “mainstream” academia.   

Manthara and Richard III

THE EPISODE OF MANTHARA poisoning Kaikeyi’s mind and the splendid soliloquy with which Shakespeare’s Richard III opens, offer striking parallels and a range of insights. 

Both episodes occur in the backdrop of the vicious impulses that shape momentous political decisions behind the scenes. Decisions, whose worth and wisdom can only be judged by the consequences they unleash. Both episodes are brilliant studies in the psychology of jealousy. 

Richard is a lowly Duke (of Gloucester) infected with a tearing kingly ambition. Manthara is lowlier in status than Richard — she is Queen Kaikeyi’s favourite servant maid — but is motivated by no ambition except spite. It is spite untainted by any redeeming quality. Manthara is what Duryodhana will look like sans royalty.

Both Manthara and Richard are physically deformed in a pronounced fashion. The deformity is itself a great metaphor. Throughout Sargas 7 - 9, of the Ayodhya Kanda, Maharshi Valmiki applies the adjectives, kubjā (hunchback) and pāpadarśinī (evil-minded) to her almost like a refrain, emphasising the point, embedding the episode in the reader’s mind. Shakespeare, in the very first line of Richard’s soliloquy, makes him explicitly declare to the audience that he is a villain and explain both the cause and the operative aspects of his villainy. 

“Now is the winter of our discontent…” ranks as one of the greatest opening lines in the history of the world’s dramatic lore. This is how Richard describes his physical deformity: 

“But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,

Nor made to court an amorous looking glass;

I, that am rudely stamped and want love’s majesty

To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;

I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,

Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,

Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time

Into this breathing world scarce half made up,

And that so lamely and unfashionable

That dogs bark at me as I halt by them — 

Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,

Have no delight to pass away the time,

Unless to see my shadow in the sun

And descant on mine own deformity.

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover

To entertain these fair well-spoken days,

I am determinèd to prove a villain.” 

While Maharshi Valmiki merely stops at kubjā and pāpadarśinī, Shakespeare is thoroughly unrestrained. The difference is caused by the demand of the medium — the written word and the stage. 

To be continued

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