Can ‘Hamlet’ be an Arab?

Image: Gamal Abdel Nasser with the cast of Merchant of Venice in
Damascus, 1961.”( From Hamlet’s Arab Journey: Shakespeare’s Prince and Nasser’s Ghost).

By Maria Khan

Margaret Litvin’s work Hamlet’s Arab Journey (2011) explores the performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the post 1952 Arab world. Her analysis shows how the political and social consciousness of an Arab person found an uncanny and genuine relationship with Hamlet. Shakespeare, she finds, was not read and received in the Arab world as a British legacy, but as a global text. The English version of Shakespeare was not known to many Arab playwrights, political theatre makers and artists, but most of the Arab renditions were inspired by French and Russian translations. Litvin introduces the idea of Shakespeare as a Global Kaleidoscope.

Her work, in her own words, is ‘to see Hamlet splinter and be reconstituted; serve as a mask, a megaphone, and a measuring stick; and tell a story as revealing of his host’s identities as his own’[1]. She explores the presence of ‘Hamlet’ in Arab contexts – as both a play and a character – in various forms, shapes and images, with the last chapter of her book examining six Arab Hamlet off-shoots staged between 1976-2004. The common denominator of these productions is how they reveal the political and social consciousness of the theatremakers staging the various productions. The most striking for me is a Tunisian production called Ismail/Hamlet, staged first in 1999 and 2001 and reprised in 2010-11.  Produced by a Damascus-based theatre company, the performance replayed the Hamlet narrative as a background to a story of political usurpation and abuse felt by many in the Middle East during that time. ‘Hamlet’, renamed as ‘Ismail’ in the play, is a middle-aged man who shares few qualities with Shakespeare’s character, but strives to achieve justice, fails to sustain these same qualities in himself, and in the end dies as a tyrant, just like his step-father. Here, the Hamlet narrative is twisted, but the core emotional material of the original play offers an opportunity to give voice to this contemporary political narrative.

Performing Faust in classrooms allowed the students to recognise choices and decisions made by the characters that aligned with their own.

Inspired by scholars such as Litvin, my own research examines the reception of Goethe’s Faust among Turkish-German secondary school students. In the quest to assess their degree of cultural integration, instead of asking them their stories of migration or conducting interviews, Faust became a vessel for them to express their identity. Performing Faust in classrooms allowed the students to recognise choices and decisions made by the characters that aligned with their own. The conversations which took place within these sessions allowed them to face difficult memories, and question problematic ideas and values.

The aim of my research is to examine the role of canonical texts in helping understand human conditions which are universal, and in enabling the statement of certain truths. By looking at these old ideas, we are able to dig deep into that which needs to be said, and that which has not been said. In my experience certain texts have a power over us, enter our consciousness like a hook, grab an emotion out of us and reveal that which has been hidden and locked away.

Hamlet can remain a polysemic text to baffle and confuse audiences all around the world, while also finding a home in places such as Nasser’s Egypt, where political confusion and lack of social order needed to be seen and expressed.

The idea of what could be selected as a canonical text has become a deeply problematic question, especially in recent educational debates. A demonstration of this was seen at the Decolonizing Curriculum Rally in Cambridge last year, organized by students and faculty members across disciplines. On one side are scholars such as Bloom, who propagate an idea of Western canonical text as something which defines the moral and ethical foundations of ‘our ‘culture[2]. On the other are researchers and scholars who protest against the narrow-mindedness of the current canon, as lacking diversity and being unrepresentative. While this debate exceeds the scope of this article, in the light of Litvin’s work, I want to point out that while canonical works such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Goethe’s Faust might originate from a particular culture or time, they nevertheless achieve a universality and timelessness about them as a result of the history of their widespread repetition. Inclusion of any text as part of a curriculum, be it English, German or Persian, can appeal to a wider audience in a corresponding manner. Hamlet can remain a polysemic text to baffle and confuse audiences all around the world, while also finding a home in places such as Nasser’s Egypt, where political confusion and lack of social order needed to be seen and expressed.

[1] p.1, Margaret Litvin, Hamlet’s Arab Journey. (2011). Princeton University Press.

[2] Allan Bloom, Closing of the American Mind. (1987).

 

This piece was written by Maria Khan.

PhD student in Modern and Medieval Languages, University of Cambridge.

https://www.mariakhan.work/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s