“Could Shakespeare’s Cymbeline have been influenced by Rustaveli, the national poet of Georgia?” was the question asked in a packed lecture room at London’s Royal Asiatic Society

As the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death is celebrated around the world, Georgia has been marking the 850th anniversary of Shota Rustaveli, a medieval poet whose writing helped preserve his country’s unique language.

Over the centuries, the fiercely proud nation of Georgia has fought to maintain its independence during domination by Persians, Turks, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Like England, its national symbol is the cross of its patron saint, St. George.

Tamar Beruchashvili, Ambassador of Georgia to the UK

Tamar Beruchashvili, Ambassador of Georgia to the UK

The London event was organised by the Embassy of Georgia in partnership with the British Council in Georgia, Georgian Art Palace, British-Georgian Society and Royal Asiatic Society. Launched on the night was a catalogue of Shakespeare in Georgian Theatre full of fascinating items illustrating how strongly Georgia has embraced Shakespeare over the years.

Professor Elguja Khintibidze of Tbilisi State University presented his theory that Rustaveli’s tale The Man in the Panther’s Skin was a source for Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.

Rustaveli’s The man in the Panther Skin

Rustaveli’s The man in the Panther Skin

A chivalric romantic tale of court intrigue, The Man in the Panther’s Skin may have inspired two plays by Beaumont and Fletcher (A King and No King and Philaster) that were familiar to the Bard. Khintibidze believes that Beaumont and Fletcher followed the manuscript directly, and that Shakespeare then followed Beaumont and Fletcher.

Shakespeare would also have known of the 1590s travels of Sir Anthony Sherley, Ambassador to Shah Abass of Persia. Sherley’s expedition was itself turned into a play, and seems to have been referenced in Twelfth Night.

Dr. Graham Sheffield, Director, Arts of the British Council; Director of the British Council in Georgia Mr. Zaza Purtseladze; Ambassador of Georgia Tamar Beruchashvili

Dr. Graham Sheffield, Director, Arts of the British Council; Director of the British Council in Georgia Mr. Zaza Purtseladze; Ambassador of Georgia Tamar Beruchashvili

Professor Khintibidze pointed out a dozen plot details that were very similar between The Man in the Panther’s Skin and Cymbeline. Most sound familiar from many myths and legends (and other Shakespeare plays) but altogether the similarities seem strong.

The Shakespeare-meets-Rustaveli theme was the brainchild of former Georgian Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili, now the Ambassador to the UK. The idea was supported by former British Ambassador, Alexandra Hall-Hall, a popular figure in Georgia, and by the new British Ambassador Justin McKenzie Smith.

Artwork from the event

Artwork from the event

The audience also heard an entertaining and informative lecture by Professor Donald Rayfield on the problems of translating Rustaveli (several Soviet era translators came to sticky ends), and Dr. Nikoloz Aleksidze on the “social lives of manuscripts”. Aleksidze cited a bishop who denounced the religiously ‘ecumenical’ Rustaveli as a “writer of vile poetry” who “preached profanity”, and George Bernard Shaw criticising the lack of moral social heroes in Shakespeare.

Rustaveli was first translated into English in the 1890s by Marjorie Wardrop, sister of the first British consul to independent Georgia. Wardrop’s papers form an important part of the Bodleian Library’s collection of Georgian material.

Audience at the event

Audience at the event

Since the 1980s, the Rustaveli Theatre has been internationally famed for the Shakespeare productions of Robert Sturua. However, as early as 1925 it had staged an acclaimed version of Hamlet.

Go here to find out more about the Rustaveli Theatre in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Comments

  1. Tony birtill says:

    Shakespeare and Georgia! Who would have thought it? Very interesting .

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