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Years of birth and death unknown. Georgian poet of the 12th century; author of the narrative poem The Man in the Panther’s Skin (also known as The Man in the Tiger’s Skin).
Little is known about Rustaveli’s life. The chief source of information is the prologue to his masterpiece, dedicated to Queen Tamara, who reigned from 1184 to 1213, and to her husband and coruler, David Soslani. Thus the work, which was not Rustaveli’s first, was written between the late 1180’s and the year 1210. It may be assumed that Rustaveli was born about 1170. The author’s last name is mentioned twice in the prologue as Rustaveli or Rustveli, which means “master of the Rustav estate” or “a person from Rustavi.” The name Shota is found in iconographic and literary works beginning in the 13th century. Rustaveli is thought to have been the queen’s state treasurer and to have restored and embellished with paintings the Georgian Holy Cross Monastery in Jerusalem. A fresco that scholars believe to be a depiction of Rustaveli has been found on a column of this monastery.
The Man in the Panther’s Skin is one of the greatest narrative poems of world literature. Its characters represent different peoples, both real and imaginary. Making skillful use of allegory, Rustaveli truthfully depicted contemporary Georgia. The work combines two main narrative cycles: the Indian, as seen in the narrative of Tariel and Nestan-Darejan, and the Arabic, as seen in the narrative of Avtandil and Tinatin. Rustaveli’s main innovations were his penetrating insight into the characters’ psychology and his depiction of the inner meaning of events. He created a gallery of vivid, full-blooded, rounded characters. Self-sacrificing and fearless fighters for justice and happiness, they are generalized and stylized images of progressive people of 12th-century feudal Georgia.
The heroine of The Man in the Panther’s Skin, the virtuous and gentle Nestan-Darejan, rebels upon learning that a forced marriage awaits her. She bravely undergoes imprisonment in the Kadzheti Fortress, a symbol of tyranny, barbarity, and ignorance. Three knights who are sworn brothers are successful in their efforts to free Nestan. The poem is based on the optimistic concepts of the triumph of justice over tyranny and of good over evil; if man has the courage to dare, he can attain complete happiness on earth.
Rustaveli’s narrative poem is a paean to free, earthly, pure, and exalted love. The poet rejects crudely sensual and basely carnal love. The concept of the veneration of woman is vividly expressed and the possibility of moral and intellectual equality between men and women is give poetic justification.
Some scholars have suggested that the theme of brotherhood and friendship prevails over the theme of love in the work. However, Rustaveli’s knights became sworn brothers specifically for the triumph and salvation of love. Thus, the two themes may be said to have equal importance in the poem.
Rustaveli’s epic is imbued with patriotism. His political ideal is a unified, strong, and autocratic state ruled by an enlightened and humane king. The poet condemns feudal strife and the separatist aspirations of the aristocracy. He values a life of reason, worthy of noble man. His heroes have no fear of death. The poet stigmatizes pseudo knights, craven and contemptible warriors, base cowards and traitors, and perjurers, flatterers, and hypocrites. He extols knightly valor and courage.
Rustaveli was one of the first in world literature to give a vivid, realistic picture of merchant life, to which he contrasted an idealized courtly and chivalrous milieu.
The Man in the Panther’s Skin undeniably bears some resemblance to Western European tales of chivalry and Eastern epic and romantic narrative poems of the Middle Ages, but on the whole, Rustaveli followed an independent path. He was a great humanist who, to counterbalance the church’s ascetic morality, rejected predestination and proclaimed the freedom of the individual and of thoughts and feelings. Rustaveli embodied the ideals and aspirations of his own people, but narrow nationalism was alien to him. The realm of his ideas is universally human, and his freethinking anticipated the humanist ideas of the early Renaissance.
Nourished by the rich ancient Georgian literary culture and at the same time following the best folkloric traditions, Rustaveli elevated Georgian poetry to a great height. His narrative poem is written in the graceful, light, and melodious meter of shairi, a verse form that Rustaveli standardized and of which he was an unsurpassed master. His poetry has an abundance of metaphors and aphorisms. The plot is colorfully enhanced and the narration enlivened by lyric preludes and epistles that do not impede the dynamism of the action. Rustaveli was the founder of modern literary Georgian.
More than 50 editions of the narrative poem exist in Georgian. The first published edition, edited and with commentary by Vakhtang VI, appeared in Tbilisi in 1712. The work has been translated into many national languages of the USSR and into foreign languages. Five complete translations were made into Russian, by K. D. Bal’mont, P. A. Petrenko, G. Tsagareli, Sh. Nutsubidze, and N. A. Zabolotskii. The Georgian State Theater, the Theatrical Institute in Tbilisi, and the Scientific Research Institute of Georgian Literature of the Academy of Sciences of the Georgian SSR have been named after Rustaveli.
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Marr, N. Ob istokakh tvorchestva Rustaveli i ego poeme. Tbilisi, 1964.
Berkov, P. “Shota Rustaveli v russkoi literature.” Izv. AN SSSR: OON, 1938, no. 3.
Gol’tsev, V. Shota Rustaveli, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1956.
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Shishmarev, V. “Shota Rustaveli.” In his book Izbr. st., Leningrad, 1972.
Konrad, N. “Vitiaz’ v tigrovoi shkure” i vopros o renessansnom romantizme.” In his book Zapad i Vostok: Stat’i, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1972.
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Shot’a Rust’aveli: Saiubileo krebuli. Tbilisi, 1966.
C’aishvili, S. Vep’xistqaosnis tek’stis istoria, vol. 1. Tbilisi, 1970.
Metri da rit’ma vep’xistqaosanshi. Edited by Ceret’eli. Tbilisi, 1973.
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Kekelize, K. Rust’velologiuri narkvevebi. Tbilisi, 1971.
A. G. BARAMIDZE