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Written by Margaret Litvin, Boston University
Shakespeare adaptations have been a staple of the modern Arab theatre since the late 19th century. They respond to a global kaleidoscope of international sources and models: not only British texts but also French plays, Italian operas, German novels and literary criticism, Soviet films, and American productions and adaptations. Most Shakespeare-based works are in standard Arabic, the formal language used by intellectuals for literary and media writing throughout the Arab world. But some Shakespeare adaptations are in colloquial Arabic, and a few, such as the Moroccan Nabyl Lahlou’s Ophelie N’est Pas Morte (1969) and the Anglo-Kuwaiti Sulayman Al-Bassam’s The Al Hamlet Summit (2002), were originally written in French or English. Thus it is more accurate to refer to “Arab” rather than “Arabic” Shakespeares.
The first Arab encounter with Shakespeare was through the Egyptian stage, where Syrian-Lebanese immigrants, many knowing little English, retooled French translations of the plays to please Cairo’s emerging middle class. The point was not to produce literature for reading but to fill theatres. Najib al-Haddad (1867-99) adapted Romeo and Juliet around 1892 as a melodrama, The Martyrs of Love (Shuhada al-gharam).