16 January, 2012Issue 18.1The ArtsThe Middle EastTheatre

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The Drama of Arab History

Peter Hill

BritishMargaret Litvin
Hamlet’s Arab Journey: Shakespeare’s Prince and Nasser’s Ghost
Princeton University Press, 2011
280 pages.
ISBN: 9780691137803


“Hamlet is an Arab, despite his European clothing, and he is a contemporary despite the swords and castles and ghosts.” This sentence, from the programme notes to a 1973 Syrian adaptation of Hamlet, summarises the phenomenon Margaret Litvin sets out to address. Since the 1960s Shakespeare’s hero has captivated the political as well as the theatrical imagination of the Arab world, as he no longer captivates the English-speaking world. He has come to seem a figure perhaps uniquely suited to express the fraught predicament of the Arab people, whose very existence has often seemed to be under threat, as disasters from the 1948 and 1967 defeats by Israel to the 2003 invasion of Iraq “raised the spectre of national fragmentation or extinction”, in Edward Said’s words. Quoted by liberals, nationalists and Islamists, TV pundits and literary essayists, Hamlet’s most famous line, “to be or not to be”, resonates across the Arab world as a call to arms, a crisis, a dilemma, an opportunity finally and belatedly to be.

No respecter of the boundaries of academic disciplines, Litvin succeeds in describing the Arab Hamlet as a political and sociological phenomenon, without ever losing her grasp on the aesthetic. She is also refreshingly free from literary theory orthodoxies: her explanatory metaphors remain metaphors rather than becoming a strict theoretical framework. Rather, in engaging and lucid prose, she tells a story, and it is a compelling one. The tale of the Arab Hamlet, properly speaking, begins in the mid-1960s, at the height of Nasserism, when the eyes of the world were on Egypt. Influences from across the world—French-influenced adaptations, Kozintsev’s Soviet film version, Olivier’s English one, and the opinions of German, French, Russian, as well as English critics—provided the context for al-Sayyid Bidayr’s grand, classical production of Hamlet, designed to show that the Arabs could do Shakespeare. Thereafter, the Arab Hamlet tradition became more resolutely local. Through a series of original adaptations and rewritings, the play became part of an Arab tradition of political and “post-political” drama, drawing on global references but concerned with Arab dramas and dilemmas far more than Western ones. This, as Litvin reads it, was not a case of “writing back” to the dominant metropolis—in classic post-colonial theory fashion—but of Hamlet going native, becoming spliced into an Arab dramatic tradition and giving it a series of new twists.

Thus allegorical adaptations of Hamlet in the 1960s and early 1970s cast the prince as a revolutionary in a corrupt world: “the time is out of joint” and Hamlet is “born to set it right”. Litvin draws an apt parallel with the play-within-a-play that Hamlet stages before usurping his uncle Claudius. Like Hamlet’s “The Mousetrap, allegorical Hamlets were designed to “catch the conscience” of Arab rulers, for in the heyday of Arab nationalism there was a belief that leaders like Nasser, tyrannical enough to censor plays, were also sensitive enough to understand criticism. After the defeat by Israel in 1967, a huge blow to the status and self-confidence of Arab governments, and the death of Nasser in 1970, political plays tried increasingly to “catch the conscience” of public opinion by exposing their rulers’ injustice. The dead father, calling the Arab hero Hamlet to action, was now reminiscent of the ghost of Nasser and his dreams of an Arab nation unified and strong.

But from the mid-1970s the mood grew altogether darker. There was a growing sense of a political order deaf to irony, intractable to moral pleas, and yet utterly secure in its position. Moreover, especially in Egypt under Sadat, the theatre (and art in general) was becoming reduced despite itself to a form of entertainment—dumbed down for a mass commercial public or made postmodern for a blasé cultural elite. The response from the Hamlet tradition was a host of ironic rewritings. The ghostly father receded into the background or became an unheroic figure; the young prince became powerless and incoherent; and Claudius the tyrant grew to almost godlike proportions. Denmark was rottener than ever. In one play (Mamduh Adwan’s Hamlet Wakes Up Late) Ophelia becomes a whore and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern police informers; in another (Hakim Marzougi’s Ismail/Hamlet) Hamlet himself seems set merely to replace his uncle as tyrant; in a third (Khazal al-Majidi’s “Hamlet” Without Hamlet) he is shipwrecked and drowns on his way to his father’s funeral, leaving the other characters to “muddle along without him”.

As Litvin describes these rewritings we draw closer to the grim heart of the “Arab predicament” of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. They reshuffle and parody the Shakespearean text, with Hamlet himself tongue-tied or emptily bombastic, and his lines quoted back at him by other characters. They offer not the old heroic challenge of “to be or not to be”, but a gloomy hopelessness, a sense that Hamlet has come too late to be anything at all. Here Litvin deftly incorporates a political argument drawn from Lisa Wedeen: the productions’ portrayal of the tyranny of Claudius and his spymaster Polonius in fact confirms the political status quo by showing just how unassailable Arab regimes had become. Far from being vulnerable to exposure by satire, a regime may be all-powerful because it is transparent, as Wedeen argued for the Syrian Ba‘th Party (Ambiguities of Domination, 1999).

In the face of the haplessness of all potential actors and the sheer absurdity of the situation, Litvin detects a move toward “post-political” laughter in Sulayman al-Bassam’s The Al-Hamlet Summit. This English-language rewriting of 2002 offers a pastiche of the world media’s Middle East: al-Jazeera, an Arab League summit; Hamlet an Islamist revolutionary locked in conflict with the tyrant Claudius. The Arab nations are placed firmly within a global context, for even Claudius is subordinated to a shadowy arms trader, missionary of the Western-capitalist God to whom he prays: “I want your pimp ridden plutocracies; I want your world shafting bank; I want it shafting me now….” The last version Litvin describes, Hani Afifi’s I Am Hamlet (first staged in 2009 and due in London for the 2012 Olympics festival), casts George W. Bush as Fortinbras.

One aspect that Litvin notes but does not explore in detail is that even within these “dark meditations” on powerlessness before domestic and international tyranny, one can hear echoes of the old intransigent hero. In Jawad al-Assadi’s Forget Hamlet (1994) these come not from the prince himself but from others. Ophelia is thrust into activism against Claudius’s tyranny despite herself, by the uselessness of all potential male heroes. Laertes, another dissident, before being imprisoned and killed, cries: “Claudius killed the just king! Which of us does not know that! And Hamlet responds to his father’s murder with ‘to be or not to be.’ Be, just for once be, you rat!” From a scene of “post-political” paralysis and despair a line or two thus seems to be directed outwards, a challenge to the sloganeering political world.

One wonders if that world has begun to provide some kind of response in the last year. Since the Arab Spring, Hamlet’s slogan has moved from columns and chat shows to election posters, graffiti, and placards (see Margaret Litvin’s blog for some examples). What might a post-2011 Arab Hamlet look like? The state of Denmark perhaps a little less rotten than it was; the ghosts of past heroes still haunting the stage; tyrant Claudius reduced from monstrous to human stature, but far from dead; secret policeman Polonius up to his tricks again; a shadowy (American?) Fortinbras waiting in the wings; Prince Hamlet regaining something of the aura of a hero, revolutionary, and martyr, but still divided against himself, uncertain of his role. Will he rise to the challenge? Might others, like Ophelia or Laertes, not cast as the hero, defy the scriptwriters and rise to it instead? Will they succumb to paralysis, leaving an omnipotent Claudius to rule on, or to be replaced merely by a Hamlet corrupted into the likeness of his uncle? The scenes play out before not only an Arab but a world audience; the curtain is up, and the ending undecided.

Peter Hill is reading for a MSt in Oriental Studies at St John’s College, Oxford.