Home > Essays > Creative Unity > The Religion of the Forest

The Religion of the Forest    

III


Strangely enough, in Shakespeare's dramas, like those of Kalidasa, we find a secret vein of complaint against the artificial life of the king's court - the life of ungrateful treachery and falsehood. And almost everywhere, in his dramas, foreign scenes have been introduced in connection with some working of the life of unscrupulous ambition. It is perfectly obvious in Timon of Athens - but there Nature offers no message or balm to the injured soul of man. In Cymbeline the mountainous forest and the cave appear in their aspect of obstruction to life's opportunities. These only seem tolerable in comparison with the vicissitudes of fortune in the artificial court life. In As You Like It the forest of Arden is didactic in its lessons. It does not bring peace, but preaches, when it says:

 

Hath not old custom made this life more sweet

Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods

More free from peril than the envious court?

 

In the Tempest, through Prospero's treatment of Ariel and Caliban we realize man's struggle with Nature and his longing to sever connection with her. In Macbeth, as a prelude to a bloody crime of treachery and treason, we are introduced to a scene of barren heath where the three witches appear as personifications of Nature's malignant forces; and in King Lear it is the fury of a father's love turned into curses by the ingratitude born of the unnatural life of the court that finds its symbol in the storm on the heath. The tragic intensity of Hamlet and Othello is unrelieved by any touch of Nature's eternity. Except in a passing glimpse of a moonlight night in the love scene in the Merchant of Venice, Nature has not been allowed in other dramas of this series, including Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra, to contribute her own music to the music of man's love. In The Winter's Tale the cruelty of a king's suspicion stands bare in its relentlessness, and Nature cowers before it, offering no consolation.

 

I hope it is needless for me to say that these observations are not intended to minimize Shakespeare's great power as a dramatic poet, but to show in his works the gulf between Nature and human nature owing to the tradition of his race and time. It cannot be said that beauty of nature is ignored in his writings; only he fails to recognize in them the truth of the interpenetration of human life with the cosmic life of the world. We observe a completely different attitude of mind in the later English poets like Wordsworth and Shelley, which can be attributed in the main to the great mental change in Europe, at that particular period, through the influence of the newly discovered philosophy of India which stirred the soul of Germany and aroused the attention of other Western countries.

 

In Milton's Paradise Lost, the very subject - Man dwelling in the garden of Paradise - seems to afford a special opportunity for bringing out the true greatness of man's relationship with Nature. But though the poet has described to us the beauties of the garden, though he has shown to us the animals living there in amity and peace among themselves, there is no reality of kinship between them and man. They were created for man's enjoyment; man was their lord and master. We find no trace of the love between the first man and woman gradually surpassing themselves and overflowing the rest of creation, such as we find in the love scenes in Kumara-Sambhava and Shakuntala. In the seclusion of the bower, where the first man and woman rested in the garden of Paradise -

 

Bird, beast, insect or worm

Durst enter none, such was their awe of man.

 

Not that India denied the superiority of man, but the test of that superiority lay, according to her, in the comprehensiveness of sympathy, not in the aloofness of absolute distinction.