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The Arabic Shakespeares: Subversive, political, and entertaining Open in fullscreen

Marcia Lynx Qualey

The Arabic Shakespeares: Subversive, political, and entertaining

People wear William Shakespeare masks to commemorate the great Bard's death [Getty]

Date of publication: 23 April, 2016

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Arabic adaptations of Shakespeare's plays have been popular since the 1800s, but they differ from the original in key aspects, scholars and translators say.

It was 1608 when the crew of the Red Dragon - under the leadership of Capt. William Keeling - set down on a small island that was then part of the Sultanate of al-Mahra and Socotra, now Yemen. While there - according to Shakespeare scholar Graham Holderness - the crew put on a performance of a relatively new play called Hamlet.

Eight years later - on 23 April 1616 - England's beloved playwright and poet died.

This April, theatres around the world are celebrating  "Shakespeare 400" - the 400th anniversary of the playwright's death. Special productions will be put on in theatres from Chicago to London to Cairo, where Hani Afifi's award-winning I Am Hamlet is appearing at the Gomhouria Theatre.

Shakespeare did not appear immediately in Arabic. Nearly three hundred years passed between the impromtu 1608 staging in Yemen and the first time Hamlet was given a public voice in Arabic.

This 1893 translation of the play - which came through a French version and was further adapted for Egyptian audiences - was immediately popular. The Egyptian theatre-goers of the time, Graham Holderness has written, "had a strong taste for ghosts, revenge and madness".

This Hamlet had followed an 1892 performance of Romeo and Juliet, also from the French. These plays - like Shakespeare's originals - were not for a rarified intellectual viewing, but entertainment for the wider public.

Shakespeare did not appear immediately in Arabic. Nearly three hundred years passed between the 1608 staging and the first time Hamlet was given public voice in Arabic.

In the late 19th and 20th centuries, Shakespeare adaptations into Arabic blossomed. This wasn’t just a conversation with the English; Arab stagings were particularly influenced by French and Soviet versions.

Overtly political adaptations began to appear on Egyptian stages around the First World War, as a way of talking back to increasing British control in the country. Although Arab Shakespeare scholar-translator Margaret Litvin points to Hamlet as the most popular play among Arab playwrights, there were politicised adaptations of Lear, The Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth, Othello, and others.

Indeed, young Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser starred in a production of Julius Caesar in 1935. In that staging, Litvin writes, Caesar was a "vanquisher of the British".

But while the other plays carried weight, Hamlet held a special place in the Arab theatrical imaginary. An anthology of Four Arab Hamlet Plays - co-edited by Litvin - was just released this Spring. It features four different adaptations of Hamlet from four different playwrights hailing from four Arab countries.

Why Hamlet? Because, Litvin says, it was there. But also: "the time is out of joint, the state is rotten - and it's not some Arab malcontent diagnosing these problems, but the most prestigious character in the history of world literature."

Not that 'to be or not to be' guy

Arab Hamlet is not identical to the Anglophone Hamlet. At a mid-March launch event for Four Arab Hamlet Plays in New York City, Litvin asked audience members what gesture they most associated with Hamlet.

Several audience members stretched out an arm, as though clutching a skull. This, however, is not the gesture of the Arab Hamlet, who's "not the 'to be or not to be' guy that you know from Lawrence Olivier," Litvin said. Instead, the Arab Hamlet's gesture could be "a fist in the air revolutionary or dreamy Che Guevara revolutionary."

The gesture could also be, "lifting a wine bottle to his mouth because he knows he should be a revolutionary but has given up".

Arab writers came to see Hamlet as a text about political dispossession decades before mainstream Anglo-American criticism came to see him that way, Litvin said. It's only since 2003 that Anglophone Shakespeare has been reinvigorated with the same sort of politics that have infused Arabic Shakespeares for decades.

Arab Hamlet is not identical to the Anglophone Hamlet

A Shakespearean mask to confuse the censors?

There are other reasons for Arab playwrights to be interested in Shakespeare, according to prominent translator and playwright Sulayman al-Bassam. He said, in a 2012 interview with BBC, that Shakespeare offers the Arab playwright a way to escape the censor.

"Shakespeare is often a way through which I can explore issues of great political moment or social moment without having to expose myself, without having to fall into the trap of "oh well you are trying to say this and therefore you should be accused of this".

Arab writers came to see Hamlet as a text about political dispossession decades before mainstream Anglo-American criticism came to see him that way

"Yes but no," Litvin says. "Macbeth wasn't staged in any Arab country for years because everyone knew exactly what it was about. The censor isn't stupid but it does give the artist some plausible deniability."

Shakespeare isn't always political, of course. Sometimes, doing Shakespeare is a way to seem as though you're up to something serious, Litvin said. "Mamduh Adwan's play Hamlet Wakes Up Late is one of several to make really caustic fun of that."

Hamlet Wakes Up Late (1976) is one of the four plays included in the new collection.

The play mentions nothing "explicitly Arab or Muslim", Litvin notes in her introduction, but even readers unfamiliar with the region will be able to reconstruct many key concerns of 1970s Syria. Hamlet's madness is staged as a resigned intellectual's alcoholism, while Ophelia has a "pseudo-liberated sex life" that brings her no joy and "turns her into a disposable tool of the men around her".

At a launch event and reading in New York City in March, a short section of Hamlet Wakes Up Late was read. The first thing that leapt out is how funny it all still is: how Shakespeare doesn't just offer a lens to examine surveillance states, kangaroo courts, entrenched power, and political incapacity, but a chance to laugh.

English-language audiences knew little about the variety of Arab Shakespeares, which offer both a new way of seeing regional politics and a new way of seeing the Bard

For years, English-language audiences knew little about the variety of Arab Shakespeares, which offer both a new way of seeing regional politics and a new way of seeing the Bard.

It was 2007 when the Royal Shakespeare Company staged its first production in Arabic, Sulayman al-Bassam's Richard III: an Arab Tragedy. Several Arab and Arabic Shakespeare adaptations followed at 2012 UK festivals, many of which explored nascent uprisings.

Shakespeare continues to be an interpretive lens on contemporary politics. In 2015, a Syrian Romeo and Juliet was staged on Skype between a refugee camp in Jordan and players in Homs, Syria.

Egyptian Shakespeare scholar and scriptwriter Noha Ibraheem said that Arabs interested in Shakespeare "seem to always have the feeling of alienation in our societies". But reading the four Arab Hamlets is not a political or academic exercise.

What makes these plays work is their wit. Perhaps what has kept the bard alive in the Arab theatrical imagination is not just his commentary on being "out of time", but also the rich palette of humour.

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