Could Shakespeare have been inspired by Arabic and Persian poetry? Did Romeo and Juliet have their origins in the Bedouin nomads of the Levant? Join Francesca Leoni as she takes us through the ancient love story of Layla and Majnun, through the lens of a jewel-like miniature painting in the Ashmolean’s archives. In this episode, you’ll hear the poetry of Shakespeare and Nizami Ganjavi.
Poetry in this episode
Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare
Layli wa Majnun, by Nizami Ganjavi, with a prose translation by Rudolph Gelpke
Artwork in this episode
Page depicting Layla visiting Majnun in the wilderness View this online
Hosted by Lucie Dawkins, with Francesca Leoni. The producer is Lucie Dawkins.
About Objects Out Loud: From a magician who inspired Shakespeare, and poems woven into Japanese prints, to manuscripts illuminated with the ancient love story of Layla and Majnun, this new podcast series will delve into the poetry and literature hidden in the collections at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
Let’s imagine that we have stepped into an artists’ studio in Northern India. It’s the 17th century, and we have found ourselves at the court of the powerful Mughal emperor. He’s a lover of books, and he has become a magnet for the best book-makers and illustrators. No expense is spared, and every book is assembled by a team of ultra-specialists - some draw outlines, some paint the colours, some do only faces, and others still focus on the calligraphy. And they are famous for making masterpieces in miniature, entire galleries which fit within the pages of a single book. Pictures so small that these artists are famous for losing their eyesight early from working away at them. One painter is poring over a tiny picture, no bigger than your hand. It shows an episode from one of the most famous love stories in history, that of Layla and Majnun. In this electric little drawing, they stare across a forest clearing at each other, surrounded by wild beasts, and doomed to never be together. Over time, this one page will become detached from the rest of the book, and eventually find itself in the Ashmolean Museum.
This is Objects Out Loud, an audio adventure through the poetry and stories hidden in the galleries of the Ashmolean Museum. I’m your host, Lucie Dawkins, and this episode is all about going crazy for love.
Today, we’re taking a trip into the Ashmolean’s collection of Islamic and Asian Art, as we track down this eternal tale of troubled love. It’s a story which has been told and retold for millennium, appearing in art, poetry, opera, theatre, and music - and even inspired an album by Eric Clapton and Derek and the Dominoes. To find out more, we are joining Curator Francesca Leoni in the archives, who has Shakespeare on her mind.
Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs
Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers' eyes
Being vexed, a sea nourished with loving tears.
What is it else? A madness most discreet,
A choking gall, and a preserving sweet.
Even prior to meeting Juliet, Romeo’s assessment of love was sharp: unfulfilled desire, sleepless nights, incessant weeping, and “a madness” bittersweet. Yet centuries before Shakespeare’s tale of Verona’s ‘star-crossed lovers’, the story of another doomed couple had captivated listeners and readers from the Arabian peninsula all the way to the Indian subcontinent: that of Layla and Qays, or, as he is best known, Majnun.
This is a tale which stretches back at least thirteen centuries, first circulating with nomadic Bedouin tribes in the Levant, and maybe even inspired by the life of a real man who lived at the beginning of Islam, a certain Qays ibn al-Molawwaḥ.
Here is how it goes. Layla and Qays fall in love quite young, but as they belong to rival tribes, their union is opposed on both sides. Layla is betrothed to another man while Qays, grief-stricken, goes mad and abandons the world for the desert, becoming known from now on through his nickname majnun, meaning “insane” or “possessed” in Arabic.
Though separated by life’s circumstances, the two remain devout to one another. Although married, Layla cherishes news of Majnun’s public declarations of love whilst guarding her virginity against the advances of her husband. Removed from the world and with animals only as companions, instead, Majnun spends his time roaming in the wild and composing verses for his absent beloved, as the distance and the silence between them slowly consumes him.
After years of separation and following the death of his father, Majnun unexpectedly receives news from Layla and, ecstatic, sends a passionate love letter in return. Shortly after Layla arranges a meeting – in a palm grove not far from her dwelling – where the two lovers are temporarily reunited, although at a distance, before parting again. More years pass and recently widowed, Layla is finally released from her legal and social obligations and free to join her beloved. But with Majnun increasingly estranged by this point, it is not long until further separation and grief take hold of her for good. Learning of Layla’s death, Majnun rushes to her tomb and dies instantly, their shared burial soon transformed into a site of pilgrimage.
Such a tale of doomed love has its roots in the Arabic tradition of ‘udhri poetry, a genre which celebrated the passionate desire for unattainable beloveds. The story wandered across many centuries and cultures, until it reached the ears of Nizami Ganjavi in 12th Century. Nizami grew up to become one of the greatest romantic poets in the history of Persian literature, and through his retelling, the story of Layla and Majnun took on a new dimension. To the ancient Bedouin tale, in fact, Nizami added features typical of Persian poetry, including odes in celebration of nature and gardens, and stories hidden within stories meant to provide a moral lesson. Through his pen, the tale also acquired a mystical force; Majnun came to symbolise the ideal lover, who completely renounces the world and its temptations to devote himself fully to the contemplation of the beloved.
Nizami’s extraordinary version of Layla and Majnun in turn inspired many imitations and literary adaptations, like those of Amir-e Khosrow in the 13th century, or Hatefi in the 16th. Translations of it flourished including in languages as diverse as Chagatay Turkish, Azeri, Urdu, and Kurdish. There is also continuous speculation as whether William Shakespeare may have drawn on this tale when writing Romeo and Juliet. While there is no sure proof, there are remarkably strong echoes between Layla and Majnun and Shakespeare’s unfortunate teenagers: both divided by warring families, one is cast out from the city, and both united again in death. So, perhaps one of the greatest British plays had its origins in Arabic and Persian literature…
In addition to possibly reaching as far west as the soggy banks of the river Thames, the story was also known at the Mughal Imperial court. There, artists and calligraphers flocked to create manuscripts filled with jewel-like illustrations to suit the the Emperor’s sophisticated tastes. Layla and Majnun appear all over these precious books and here in the Ashmolean, we are lucky enough to have a page of one of them. As I slide this drawing out from the safety of its archive box, it gives me the tingles...
Measuring a mere 19 by 11 cm, this drawing is like a tiny window within a larger book page with gold-tinted floral margins and a blue border of diaphanous lotus flowers and twisted leaves. Like others, it once sat in an album or muraqqa’ – a portable picture gallery meant for private delectation and usually designed to gather works of eminent painters and calligraphers collected by the individual who commissioned it. Maybe more such tales once filled the original manuscript’s pages, unique yet familiar images which like this one celebrated the stories of fabled couples like Mihr and Mushtari, Farhad and Shirin, Zal and Rudabeh, Yusuf and Zuleykha …. With the rest of the manuscript now gone, however, we will never know and we are only left to contemplate love’s power and fragility through the melancholic gaze of our troubled Bedouin friends.
Inside the frame of bright blue and gold, the picture is delicate, drawn in faint lines and pale colour washes. It shows the fleeting moment when Layla and Majnun meet for the last time, surrounded by the wild animals that have become Majnun’s only friends. They face each other across a clearing, evoking the intensity of their feeling at the same time as the distance between them, even at this moment, when circumstances have brought them together again.
Transfixed by Layla, Majnun sits beneath a palm tree, surrounded by his companions - “a king among his court, like Solomon,” as Nizami recounts. He writes:
“Among them were animals of every kind and size, but – what a miracle – they did not attack each other, and lost all fear, as long as this trusted stranger stayed in their midst… Does one not think of a vulture as a bone-picker? And was not Majnun merely a skeleton covered with skin? Yet he rested peacefully in the shade of the vultures wings, which at noon protected him against the heat of the sun… Guided by the vultures’ example, the other beasts of prey also lost their urge to kill. The wolf no longer devoured the lamb, the lion kept his claws off the wild ass, the lioness gave milk to the orphaned baby gazelle and the jackal buried his age-old feud with the hare. It was a peaceful army that travelled with Majnun as he roamed the wilderness, his animals always at his heels.”
نه خوي دد و نه حيطه دام \ با دام و ددش هماره رام
آورده بحفط دور باشي\ از شير و گوزن خواجه تاشي
هر وحش كه بود در بيا بان \ در خدمت او شده شتابان
از شير و گوزن و گرك و روباه /لشكر گاهي كشيده بر راه
اشان همه گشته بنده فرمان \ او بر همه شاه چون سليمان
از پر عقاب سا يبانش \ در سايه كركس استخوانش
شا يش بغايتي رسيده \ كز خوي ددان ددي بريده
افتاده ز ميش گرك را زور \ بر داشته شير پنجه از گور
سك با جر گوش صلح كرده \ آهو بره شير شير خورده
او ميشد جان بكف گرفته \ و ايشان پس و پيش صف گرفته
And here Majnun is, surrounded by his furry and feathery courtiers, the said vultures sitting just behind him, alongside parrots, hoopoes, peacocks and even phoenixes – symbol of divine wisdom and perennial rebirth – as well as lions, tigers and cheetahs next to hares, deer and buffalos, all at peace and all mesmerised by their starved and love-stricken sovereign.
Delicate pastel hues highlight their plumage and coats, while light green and azure washes bring life to the surrounding hills and sky. Almost all the animals are in pairs, appearing two-by-two like in Noah’s ark. There is a tragic irony, as if everything in the natural world is united with its true love, except for the protagonists of our story.
Layla in fact sits a few steps away, her cameleer just around the corner and their attire – the silk-draped palanquin, the brocaded robes and bejewelled accessories – sharply contrasting with Majnun’s deprivation and frugal existence, so eloquently captured by his ragged loin cloth. Distance is chosen neither for fear nor for rejection though; Nizami has Layla say: “Noble Sir, So far I am allowed to go but no further! Even now I am like a burning candle. If I approach the fire, I shall be consumed. Nearness brings disaster, lovers must shun it. Better ill, than afterwards to be ashamed of the cure…”
فرمود به پير كاي جوانمرد \ زين بيش مرا نماند ناورد
گر پيشترك روم بسوزم/ زينگونه كه شمع ميفروزم
تا چون كه بداوري نشينم \ از كرده خجالتي نبينم
With these words, Layla chooses the spiritual and emotional yearning over the short-lived gratification of her desire. For her and Majnun, love is a journey of self-annihilation in the beloved. “I am Layla and Layla is I” Majnun once announced to his skeptical critics, “If you knew what it means to be a lover, you would realise that one only has to scratch him and out falls his beloved.”
And so they sit in this little drawing, so near and yet so far from each other, burning to cross the space and join their other half, like the animals all around them, but refusing to give into the impulse.
This fragile image is a window into the ecstasy and pain of love. It is almost uncanny how familiar this story feels, even though it has travelled through many centuries, languages, and cultures to find its home in the Ashmolean today. Love, it would seem, hasn’t changed all that much since, continuing to delight and trouble all those who fall on its path.
Thank you to Francesca - and if you want to take a look into this jewel-box of a picture, with all its pairs of animals surrounding the two lovers, then all you need to do is follow the link in the podcast notes. This was the last in this series of Objects Out Loud, but there are more Ashmolean podcasts on the way soon. In the meantime, you can also find our other series, Museum Secrets, on the Ashmolean website, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you’re enjoying what you’re hearing, please rate, review, and share - it helps other listeners to find us.