Archive for the ‘Essay’ Category

Shakespeare’s Shadow: The Belarus Free Theatre’s King Lear at the Globe Theatre

Monday, August 17th, 2015


“KING LEAR: Who is it that can tell me who I am?

FOOL: Lear’s shadow.”[1]


In 2012, the Belarus Free Theatre participated in the Globe to Globe festival, staging King Lear in Belarusian, radically edited and modernized. The choice to use Belarusian as the primary language of this performance was a daring one, for it is a language that does not exist in a single accepted version and, even within Belarus, is frequently superseded by Russian. An online comment posted under a 2012 review in The Guardian offers a vivid example of indifferent dismissal that such a choice might have produced: “I can imagine few things worse than being subject to Shakespeare in Belarusian. Honestly who’s interested?”[2]

The public response to the decision to stage King Lear in Belarusian on the Globe stage emphasizes the difficulties accompanying a former Soviet republic’s emergence onto the global stage. According to some reports, the Russian-speaking diaspora in London was unenthusiastic about attending a performance in one of the “minor” languages (due, one may guess, to the general idea that Belarusian is somehow less culturally significant than Russian, and perhaps to the potential viewers’ doubts about their ability to follow the text).[3] Reviews in English, while generally laudatory, also tended to perceive the choice of language as detracting from the authenticity of performance. In his online review, a freelance theatre critic Andrew Haydon commented that “the language into which the text has been rendered is demotic, not poetic,” despite, presumably, not actually having command of the language.[4] A year later, when the performance came back to the Globe, Laura Mooney called it “Shakespeare largely without Shakespeare, with all those famous speeches being, from an English-speaking audience member’s perspective at least, absent.”[5] As these comments demonstrate, the Global Shakespeare project depends, to a large extent, on the English-speaking audience’s openness to polyglossia and continuous cultural exchange.

As it turned out, many people were interested. In September 2013, the Belarus Free Theatre’s King Lear was brought back to the Globe to glowing reviews. Produced by a theatre exiled from Belarus (the country sometimes called the last dictatorship in Europe), this performance speaks directly to the questions that emerge, again and again, in Global Shakespeare discussions. Is Shakespeare in translation still Shakespeare? Are the tensions of early modern play really best accessed through painstaking reproduction of the text, however it is defined, with period-appropriate costumes, props, and decorations, or through participating in an ongoing dialogue with present-day socio-political issues?[6] The Belarus Free Theatre’s production of King Lear reaches beyond the “authentic historical Shakespeare” construct, frees the play from the constricting framework of expectations formed over centuries of Western performance and criticism, and brings together a varied array of histories to re-create potent Shakespearean drama for the twenty-first century stage. Intensely metatheatrical, this production repurposes the long Soviet history of making ideological use of Shakespeare to interrogate the performances of totalitarian power in present-day Belarus.

The Belarus Free Theatre draws simultaneously on Soviet and post-Soviet practices of reading and performing Shakespeare, and on the resonances between Lear’s fractured country and the contemporary states created after the USSR collapse in 1991. By explicitly situating the production within a non-Western literary tradition, the creators of the production are able to transcend the limitations identified by Susan Bennett in the second chapter of her monograph, entitled Performing Nostalgia: Shifting Shakespeare and the Contemporary Past. In that chapter, Bennett explores the proliferation of King Lear productions in order, as she puts it, “To focus on Shakespeare’s particular contribution to the macro-nostalgia of contemporary culture.”[7] At the end of the chapter, she concludes that Western or Westernized performances of this play are incapable of challenging the existing power structures:

In a traditional horizon of expectations, it performs a nostalgic identification with greatness – of the text, of Shakespeare, of the history of its mainstream, productions and those who have directed and acted in the play, and of the audiences who recognize those values. The play provides an explicit illustration of the containing impulses of Shakespeare as cultural heritage.[8]

At the same time, in post-Soviet context, Shakespeare – and King Lear in particular, as a play so closely concerned with considerations of power – is unmoored from this horizon of expectation. The play, to be sure, is still very much identified with greatness and viewed as cultural heritage, but the origins of such cultural heritage, the credentials of heirs, and the laws of inheritance have grown muddled. The term “nostalgic,” when applied to the claims made on Shakespeare as cultural property by present-day Russian-speaking countries, has become tremendously complicated. The post-Soviet audience can hardly be suspected of longing for early modern England: their imaginings of the good old Britannia, if any, are rooted in the nineteenth-century novel.

If, for such an audience, the history of the play is radically mediated by the seventy years of communist rules, what values do they recognize in a performance? It is not surprising that, in his overview of Hamlet in Russia, Peter Holland wrote tersely that “The Russian construction […] is neither Shakespeare’s nor our own,” suggesting that the function of the play in Russia is “fragmentary and referential, deriving from an accumulative cultural meaning, which may have only tangential links to the original play.”[9] Holland’s phrasing views “Russian Shakespeare” (an umbrella term that covers, in a swoop, the period from the eighteenth century to the last years of the Soviet Union) as both exotic and marginal, positioning it outside of the dichotomy of “original Shakespeare” and the Western “we” (which presumably interprets the original in a more acceptable manner). Speaking from this marginal position, and disrupting the easy pleasures of nostalgic identification with greatness, post-Soviet productions can complicate the idea of Shakespeare as cultural heritage and mobilize the destabilizing potential of Shakespearean drama.

Consider, for instance, the exchange between Lear and Goneril in Act 1, scene 4, where the king famously complains of being unable to recognize himself, and begs to be told who he is. In the English text (the 1623 Folio version), the Fool’s mocking response is: “Lear’s shadow” (ll. 214-215). In the Belarus Free Theatre production, however, the Fool quips: “Цень атца Гамлета!” [Hamlet’s father’s shadow].[10] This unexpected substitution transforms the line into a catchphrase harking back to the nineteenth-century Russian translations of Hamlet. The translations by Nikolai Polevoy (1837) and Andrei Kroneberg (1844) used the one-syllable Russian word “тень” [shadow] to refer to the ghost.[11] The phrase “Hamlet’s father’s shadow” subsequently passed into Russian language as an idiomatic expression, suggesting overly dramatic self-presentation, and is occasionally used to refer to a vagabond or idle loiterer.

This bold refashioning move creates a moment of intertextual vertigo, pointing, on the one hand, to the status of Shakespearean drama as monolithic cultural capital, with disparate lines and characters merging together, in the public mind, into a continuous outpouring of universal truth. From this point of view, it is indeed difficult to distinguish between the two great shadows. On the other hand, the common usage of this phrase specifically in Soviet and post-Soviet context serves to undercut the idea of universal truth and applicability: in this metatheatrical moment, the audience is reminded that Shakespeare inexorably seeps into the popular culture, giving rise to a series of idiomatic expressions and widely known quotations, but that popular culture, in turn, inevitably colours our understanding of Shakespearean drama. Rather than search for the elusive authentic Shakespeare, the Belarus Free Theatre builds popular culture into the production, endowing the characters with painful awareness of their own cultural significance and transforming Shakespeare, from precious heritage, into hotly contested strategic territory.

Shakespeare in the Soviet Union: Truth in the Presentation of Life and Man

Post-Soviet theatre has a complex relationship with Shakespeare: emerging from the Soviet view of Shakespearean drama as the paragon of realistic writing, it draws on these conventions both to reassess the Soviet past and develop various forms of national identity. Staging Shakespeare in the Soviet Union was intricate and often risky business. As early as 1930s, with the advent of socialist realism, Shakespeare was hailed as one of the great realist playwrights, well deserving of being celebrated, emulated, and staged. Soviet criticism, built on the foundation of communist ideology, postulated that for any literary text, there existed a single correct interpretation, informed by the critic’s grasp of “real life” (which usually translated to the current ideological stance on such things as politics, social issues, or history). Accordingly, all performances of Shakespeare’s drama could be evaluated on the basis of how closely they have come to replicating this perfect reading of the play on-stage. A pamphlet by Mikhail Morozov (a famous Soviet Shakespeare scholar), published in English in 1947 with a preface by Dover Wilson, witnesses to the efforts exerted by USSR Theatrical Society (V.T.O.) to ensure that performances introduced no ideologically unsound elements and did not stray far from the sanctioned version of reality.[12] As Morozov explains, the primary value of Shakespearean drama for the Soviet audiences lay in its “Truth in the presentation of life and man.”[13] A particular production could thus be criticized for its failure to display the ultimate truth about human existence as discovered through the October Revolution: Nikolai Akimov’s production of Hamlet (Vakhtangov Theatre, 1932) is described as being “far removed from life” and therefore unsuccessful.[14]

In a very real sense, Shakespearean drama functioned in the Soviet Union as an instrument, however arbitrary and flawed, of creating a distinct post-revolutionary culture based on “true” understanding of the world, and identifying those who presumably lacked the capacity to become part of this culture. As such, theatrical productions and scholarly articles participated in one of the key trends underwriting the Soviet ideology – the ongoing effort to cleanse the new society by purging socially alien citizens – those who were perceived as threatening to the new ideology due to their ancestry, past activities, or present-day convictions. This effort continued, in different forms and with varying intensity, from the October Revolution of 1917 and until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 (through the purges of 1930s, cosmopolitanism persecutions of 1940s, post-Thaw crackdowns of 1960s, and so on).[15]

In the last decades of the Soviet Union, this concern with forms of belonging, and with one’s relationship to “truth,” was no longer strictly controlled by the official ideology.[16] In fact, Alexei Yurchak demonstrates that in its late stages, Soviet culture – while still operating on the principle of inclusion/exclusion – did not primarily rely on ideological distinctions but on the highly ritualized forms of social discourse linked to political and cultural concerns. In this dense cultural medium composed, as it still is, of immediately recognizable quotations and references, Shakespeare grew unmoored from the official doctrine and thus became available to those questioning the regime. At the same time, those seeking to resist the Soviet ideology and respond to the decades of state terror by re-appropriating Shakespeare and discovering the “real” significance of his works operated within the same horizon of expectations. Their refashioning deployed the same ideologically informed reading mode which posited Shakespeare, “properly” treated, as the means of accessing some higher truth.

A well-known example of such refashioning is Yuri Liubimov’s production of Hamlet in the Taganka Theatre, with the idolized song-writer, bard, and actor Vladimir Vysotsky in the main role, which explicitly linked Shakespearean drama to resisting the regime. This innovative production ran for almost nine years, terminating only with the death of Vysotsky in 1980, and became a symbol of resistance against the stifling state. The performance opened with Boris Pasternak’s famous poem, entitled “Hamlet,” originally written in 1946 and later appended to the novel Doctor Zhivago. This novel, of course, was banned from publication in the Soviet Union and, after having been smuggled out of the country and published in Milan in 1957, received the Nobel Prize for Literature. The speaker of the poem, presumably the writer himself, closely identifies with Hamlet, and the enthusiastic audience response suggests that the concerns of a lonely Soviet poet wandering dangerous ideological terrain were immediately identifiable with the doubts of the Danish Prince. Immense popularity of Liubimov and Vysotsky’s production demonstrates that the perceived potential of Shakespearean drama as a vehicle for ideological doubt only increased with time, even as such potential remained solidly rooted in the Soviet reading practices. Based on the premise that Shakespeare’s works could grant access to some sort of objective truth about the world and social transformations, this approach perpetuated the ideologically enforced modes of engaging with literature and theatre even as it fought against the Soviet cultural project.

Today, Shakespearean drama retains this significance in post-Soviet culture: it is still frequently treated as a viable link to historical and spiritual truth both by those seeking to move fully beyond the Soviet past and by those ardently wishing for the purportedly purer morals of that time. There are some rather startling recent instances of this view in action. Twenty years after the final dissolution of the Soviet Union, Aleksandr Schigolev, a political activist in the Komi Republic (part of the Russian Federation), lodged a lawsuit against the V. Savin Theatre of Academic Drama, claiming 10,000 roubles in moral damages after watching a performance of Hamlet on November 5, 2011 (directed by Oleg Nagornichnyi). In his initial claim, Schigolev described his “complete disenchantment regarding professionalism and spiritual standing” of the theatre, and his “inner turmoil” caused by this modernized staging of the play.[17] Predictably pointing to the key authority of Soviet theatre, he explained that Konstantin Stanislavski would criticize this sort of production, where “bad or incorrect acting does not create an impression of reality” (italics mine); ultimately, however, the issue at stake was the “debasement/degradation of Shakespeare and of the respectable audience.” Schigolev eventually lost his suit, but not until after a formal hearing was held in December 2011, at which he again emphasized his fears that uncontrolled and unconstrained theatrical performance could cause severe moral degradation in the members of the audience and the entire community. In response, experts suggested that, since Shakespeare neglected to specify the precise date of Hamlet, the action of the play could, hypothetically speaking, be taking place in any century. They further argued that the plot of Hamlet did not originate with Shakespeare and, in any case, the production used Pasternak’s somewhat free-handed translation.[18]

The seriousness with which this case was treated clearly demonstrates that in post-Soviet space, Shakespearean drama remains, to an extent, a sacred political property. A stand against “perverting” this sacred property is still seen as a means to bolster one’s influence, and testimony of experts is required to prove that no perversion has taken place. At the same time, Soviet constructs of Shakespeare, deployed by those wishing to question the current socio-political situation on the post-Soviet territory, become a powerful instrument of challenging the status quo, and an informed engagement with Shakespearean drama can enable a theatre to mount a penetrating critique of the state.

The Case of Belarus: Unstable Pasts, Unheard Voices

Belarus presents a particularly interesting case, since, of all the states formed after 1991, it remains one of the most Soviet. Having assumed control in 1994, the dictator Aleksandr Lukashenka still rules the state with an iron hand: elections are rigged, opponents disappear, and theatres are under strict governmental control.[19] At the same time, Belarus continues to struggle with developing a strong national identity, with the continuing debate over the issues of national language and history. In his overview of Belarusian history, Andrew Wilson emphasizes just how fraught with difficulty the issue is: as a traditionally multi-confessional territory located at crossroads and becoming the terrain for multiple wars, drastically affected by the decades of the Soviet regime, with the etymology of its name still in dispute, Belarus lacks solid accumulation of history on which to found its nationhood.[20] The situation is further problematized by the fact that the numbers of people able to speak Belarusian fluently are decreasing, and there are three versions of the language in existence.[21]

The desire and ability to speak Belarusian, as well as the participation in the search for national identity, are obviously not unconnected to the desire for political influence. As Elena Gapova suggests, the pursuit of a national identity clearly originating from pre-Soviet history reflects the interests of the intellectual class, who are concerned with “a general restructuring of political and intellectual spaces” and, moreover, with “opportunities to bring a different group of people into power nationally, to enter the global intellectual market, and to become international players in this field.”[22] These concerns rarely align with the priorities of the general Belarusian population, frequently uninterested either in recovering the pure and authentic national language or in reaching for a national history beyond the Soviet period. The quest for retrieving a solidly defined, uniquely Belarusian past to fuel a passionate sense of united nationhood is, in other words, always doomed to failure. The alternative to this quest, however, is polyglossia: embracing the multiplicity of competing voices (and languages), while acknowledging that no single, stable version of the past may be established.

In a recent essay, Simon Lewis describes the “Belarusian memoryscape” as “haunted not so much by fantastic beasts, as by faint, indistinct echoes of unremembered pasts.”[23] The present project of cultural construction must, as Lewis puts it, reach “beyond a zero-sum game of the politics of national memory” and beyond the insistence that a persuasive version of the national past can and must be uncovered. The case for Belarusian cultural autonomy is to be made not through locating and defending a specific version of its past as a pre-Soviet nation, but through “cosmopolitanization of mourning,” whereby the present is able to establish a conversation with the diverse whispers of multiple “unremembered pasts.”[24] In Lewis’s vision, the local and the global are conflated, and memory is able to “cross boundaries between fact and fiction, across geo-political borders, and in historical time.”[25] Claims to Belarusian cultural autonomy are thus made not through discovering (or creating) a perfectly defined, unique past, but by permitting a multilingual chorus of echoing voices, all equally privileged.

With its considerations of national history and political conflict, as a play (in Bennett’s words) of nostalgia, King Lear is perfectly positioned to serve as a space for these conversations. The Belarus Free Theatre’s performance evokes the Soviet uses of Shakespeare to bolster the state authority and the dissident subversion of these uses while, at the same time, responding to the socio-political situation in post-Soviet Belarus while incorporating traditionally Belarusian clothes and props. The decision of the Belarus Free Theatre to stage King Lear in Belarusian on the Globe stage, and use more than one dialect, further add to the sense of polyglossia: multiple versions of reality are competing for representation but ultimately cannot be untangled from one another. As Keren Zaiontz puts it, “the Belarus Free Theatre’s performance of King Lear in Belarusian does not signal the promotion of national cohesion but national rebellion” against the current political situation.[26] Even as this performance must acknowledge the haunting presence of convoluted post-Soviet nostalgia, it ultimately deploys Shakespearean drama to work toward cosmopolitanization of memory and a national identity based on free cultural exchange.

King Lear and the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945)

As the Belarus Free Theatre’s King Lear opens, the first person on stage is Edmund: he is sitting on a low stool and peeling potatoes into a bucket. His shorn head, black army boots, and an outfit visually alluding to a uniform all suggest that he is serving time in the military. Both Kent and Gloucester have to wheel themselves onto the stage using their mobility devices: their outfits and behaviour signal that these men are military veterans

explicitly gestures at the post-Soviet longing for the lost identity as an ideologically unified and formidable nation, through its allusions to the Soviet cult of the Great Patriotic War (the part of the World War II that specifically involved the USSR, beginning with the German invasion of its territory in 1941). Immediately following the invasion, the war became a fruitful opportunity for intense myth-making, generating such potent models of Soviet resilience and martyrdom as Alexey Meresyev, the hero of Boris Polevoy’s canonical novel The Story of a Real Man (Повесть о настоящем человеке, 1946), and Aleksandr Matrosov, popularized by Leonid Lukov’s film Private Aleksandr Matrosov (Солдат Александр Матросов, 1947).[27] In addition to encouraging self-sacrifice, both in military encounters and on the occupied territories, this myth-making was used to counter the sense of alienation in individual republics and present the unified Soviet people rising as a single body to defend their motherland. After the victory of 1945, the memory of the Great Patriotic War became the single most significant aspect of the Soviet national identity: not only did it serve to reinforce the image of the USSR as a valiant nation under constant threat from the West but, simultaneously, was used to dismiss any challenges to the official ideology.[28] As a study by Zhan T. Toshchenko demonstrates, this function has held strong even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. According to sociological surveys conducted in 1980s and 1990s, the Great Patriotic War remains a key positive historical event in the national consciousness, and the victory of 1945 (unequivocally perceived as the Soviet people’s triumph over fascism) seems to justify the means, including political repressions and strict censorship.[29]

Of course, Belarus directly benefited from this cult due to its extensive participation in anti-German partisan action during the war. Post-1945, it became known as the Partisan Republic and was allotted a certain degree of self-governance, primarily administrated at the local level by the former partisan leaders. Memories of the Great Patriotic War, embodied in the so-called “militaristic-patriotic installations” throughout the country,[30] continue to haunt the landscape, still proclaiming past glories and promising a kind of autonomy. The fact that 2014 was officially declared the year of military tourism in Belarus, with a specific emphasis on the Great Patriotic War memorials, suggests a conscious ongoing investment in the imperial patriotism and a persistent tracing of the national history back to the 1940s.

In the opening scene of King Lear, as staged by the Belarus Free Theatre at the Globe, Kent and Gloucester are linked together precisely by the shared memory of the Great Patriotic War, indelibly written into their bodies. Like the model Soviet “real man” Alexey Meresyev, they have both lost the use of their legs and, despite the visible differences in their social status, share a nostalgic worship of this common past. Kent is easily recognizable as a man brought low by his war injury, not unlike many veterans in the decades following the victory of 1945 in a country unwilling to invest in social assistance and support. His cheap sailor-stripe shirt (decorated with four ostentatious military awards), the primitive wooden board with wheels he is using to propel himself along, and the large red accordion he later picks up all identify him as, on the one hand, a man who has sacrificed his limbs to the victory over fascism but, on the other, as a visual metaphor of social and political deterioration. Gloucester, obviously a high-ranking official, appears in a relatively sophisticated wheelchair; at the same time, his authority seems to rely, in an endless feedback loop, on the continuing acknowledgement of the Great Patriotic War as a foundational event in the history of the state and his own history. Explaining his connection with Kent to Edmund, he refers to him as his “баявы таварыш” (old comrade-in-arms” – literally, “battlefield comrade”) rather than “honourable friend” of the original text (1.1.27).

This shared military history, complemented by the two crippled bodies, signifies valuable ideological capital: Kent and Gloucester metaphorically enable the existence of the state and all its members through the ongoing investment of their own bodily wholeness. This connection is made crystal clear when both of these characters lose their privileged associations with the court: Kent is sent into exile by Lear and must assume a new identity, while Gloucester is blinded and left to wander across the heath. Once their connections to power are severed, the need for continued sacrifice of their bodies to the state paradoxically disappears. Thus, Kent is able to walk when he is temporarily transformed from a veteran into a dangerous former convict, appearing to serve the powerless Lear, and Gloucester gingerly picks his way across the heath following the loss of his eyes. Before these transformations, however, Gloucester emphasizes the constant return to the foundational event by forcing Edmund, with a cuff on the head, to recite a snatch of a popular Russian poem, in Belarusian translation.[31] In this verse, like many a Soviet and post-Soviet child, the speaker expresses deep gratitude to the war veterans for their pain and wounds and, performing a rhetorical gesture typical for Soviet poetry, thanks them for his own happy life.[32]

The mockery and threat of violence offered by the two men in the direction of Edmund throughout the scene immediately challenge the claim to happy life produced by the Great Patriotic War. Instead, Edmund’s quasi-military outfit and his lowly position at court suggests a rigid social hierarchy constructed by the military cult that dominated the Soviet Union and remains active in present-day Belarus and Russia. Edmund’s initial appearance serves to localize Gloucester’s explanation that his son has been “away” from home and will go away again. As both men re-enact a sort of cruel slapstick with Edmund as the hapless object of their physical jokes, the audience is given to understand that Edmund has been fed into the military machine, occupying the lowest rank on the hierarchical ladder. Gloucester’s and Kent’s seeming pleasure in asserting their power over him is reinforced when the forged letter from Edgar is revealed. Gloucester reads the letter while urinating in a basin held by Edmund who kneels in front of him, clearly expecting his son not only to anticipate the trajectory of the stream but also not to be repulsed when his wrists are drenched. As a small cog in the military machine, Edmund is barely human to his authoritative father, and the peremptory confiscation of the letter, in this context, testifies to the complete elimination of private space: all intentions must be known, and all resistance is punishable. Through a complex set of visual clues, the Belarus Free Theatre performance redirects the audience from identifying with a bygone greatness to shrinking back in fear at the palpable threat emanating from the unyielding monolith of the Soviet past and the long shadow it casts on the present.

King Lear and the Totalitarian State

At the same time, the production relentlessly references the Belarusian project of self-recognition, after 1991, as an independent country but also as a totalitarian state, and participates in it by meticulously problematizing any and all displays of power and authority in the play. Although Andrew Dickson, the reviewer for The Guardian, called this performance “a Lear returned vividly to its roots: as a comic folktale that shatters into tragedy” (inserting a hyperlink to “King Leir and His Three Daughters”), the Belarus Free Theatre has not intended to explore the play’s English medieval roots.[33] Instead, as Natalia Kaliada, the co-founder of the theatre, puts it in her interview with the Exeunt Magazine, these are the roots of theatre itself as a potent force of political change: “We perform as an act of non-violent resistance, and to prove that we as theatre makers are much stronger than any dictatorship in the world.”[34] Directly responding to the current situation in Belarus, this production of King Lear ponders the imbalances of power created by tyranny, and individual vulnerability inevitably resulting from it.

As the opening scenes make clear, this Lear is, at least partially, a figure reminiscent of the Belarusian dictator Lukashenka. The connection between the two is cemented when Regan, in her hyperbolical song of praise, addresses Lear as “бацька” – a Belarusian word for “father”: this word has, in the last twenty years, become specifically associated with Lukashenka, who styles himself the father of the nation. Lest the audience misses the significance of this word, Regan repeats it several times, pumping her fist up in the air; the cheer is then taken up by the members of the court, while Lear struts around the stage, raising his arms in gratified acknowledgement. This initial connection complicates any sympathy the audience might subsequently feel for the king, and highlights the ongoing power struggle and anxiety about losing one’s authority in a totalitarian state. Departing for the heath, Lear is coldly menacing rather than wounded by his daughters’ betrayal, threatening to return and take back the state power. Not surprisingly, after he has left, Goneril passionately declares to the Duke of Albany her refusal to live in eternal fear: and who can blame her? Mad Lear’s command to “Let copulation thrive […] for I lack soldiers,” thus, becomes less a sign of his desperate ravings than evidence of conscious power hunger that never quite ceases (4.5.114; 117).

The quasi-military figures in standard-issue trousers, black army boots, and white wife-beater shirts, their heads concealed by black stockings, serve as a constant visual reminder of the raw and impersonal force of a totalitarian state that can be readily turned both to humanitarian ends and to cold-blooded murder. Regan orders them to put Kent in stocks; wearing sanitary masks to appear as an emergency response team, they cart Lear away from the heath and into Cordelia’s care. Of course, only a little while later, just as impersonally and mundanely, they take Lear and Cordelia into custody, seemingly unconcerned with any considerations beyond following the orders of those in power.

The Belarus Free Theatre’s decision to stage the interrogation and execution of Cordelia offers a blunt insight into the ruthless depersonalization of victims. In his review for The Guardian, Andrew Dickson argued that forcing the audience to witness this scene “reduces the impact of this most brutal and shocking of acts, and makes a nonsense of Lear’s entrance with her body.” This could perhaps be true if the production simply introduced a dumb show re-enacting Lear’s account of her death. However, instead, the audience sees bored low-rank interrogators, familiar with the procedure and dimly convinced of their own irreproachability, the very embodiment of the banality of evil, cataloguing the valuable items confiscated from their captives. Lear’s metal gauntlet, formerly an imposing symbol of his authority, becomes the target of silent mockery. The interrogators take turns trying it on, in a visual metaphor for appropriations of authority, while Lear speaks his final speech to Cordelia. This pairing of the poignant words with a derogatory image denies any hope for future existence in a state without respect for law and justice, even before the final orders are received.

The production does not stop at Cordelia’s death and seeks to erase her existence entirely. We see the interrogators, galvanized into action by the appearance of their superior, destroying the record of the search and creating a document that links the captives to public unrest, terrorist threat, and economic sanctions. For those who understand Belarusian this is a moment of very black and bleak humour: the Shakespearean heroine’s sentence is composed of the canned rhetoric painfully familiar from the post-Soviet media. At the same time, this destruction of the original record creates a terrifying hole in the dramatic narrative. Where Shakespeare’s text delivers only Lear’s grief over the death of his most loving daughter, the Belarus Free Theatre asks us to witness the stark spectacle of her death – the spectacle that, with the forging of the record, is on the brink of being utterly lost from the human memory. Lear himself, of course, is quite unreliable as a witness: his claim to have “killed the slave that was a-hanging” his daughter is recognized, in this production, as an empty boast by the audience who observed the actual hanging (5.3.251). Excising the neat ending of King Lear, this production creates in the final scene a vacuum of power, in which the living and the dead are given the same theatrical authoruty and become indistinguishable from one another. A single, authoritative version of national history, based on decisive battles, lives lost, and power gained, is thus rejected, and no promised kingdom is forthcoming.

Conclusions: the Belarus Free Theatre’s King Lear and Global Shakespeare

In subverting the audience’s expectations for a cathartic ending in which King Lear fully gains moral and narrative authority, the Belarus Free Theatre forcefully disrupts what Bennett called “a nostalgic identification with greatness.” This production does not look back to Shakespeare’s England as a source of clarity and power, refusing, as it does, to wrap up with a promise of a new, better kingdom. Instead, the production raises the local dead: the three sisters end the performance by singing a mournful Belarusian chant, simultaneously a prayer and a plaintive wail.

This chant is a mourning song for the present-day Belarus, and perhaps for the entire Soviet history, but also for the fetishized illusion of authentic Shakespeare who, speaking through centuries, can offer succinct answers to our burning questions. The Belarus Free Theatre’s production explodes this illusion by staging a spectacular collision between the spectre Peter Holland identified as “our own” Shakespeare, and the Soviet ideological claims to possessing the “true” Shakespeare. Openly acknowledging its inability to step out fully from its own cultural context, this performance embraces Shakespeare produced through amalgamation of versions rather than an attempt to return to a purified original. It suggests that, removed from the purely Western horizon of expectation, Shakespearean drama can perform a decisive rejection of any identification with imagined, unifying greatness, whether it be the Golden Age of merry olde England, the dream of orderly and egalitarian USSR, or the mythical free and happy Belarus governed by its wise father-ruler. Instead, the Belarus Free Theatre draws on a variety of reading practices and haunting memories to make an argument for fluid, cosmopolitan Belarusian identity, while producing powerfully anti-ideological Shakespeare for the new, global age.

Let’s call it Shakespeare’s dancing shadow.

[1] The Tragedy of King Lear: 1623 Folio Text, ed. Stephen Orgel, in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, gen. ed. Stephen Orgel and A.R. Braunmuller (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 1.4.214-215. All further references are to this edition. Note that the 1608 Quarto gives both lines to Lear.

[2] Andrew Dickson, “King Lear – Review,” The Guardian, May 23, 2012, accessed June 11, 2015 [], comment posted on May 23, 2012 by BimpuraChakrabarti.

[3] Zaiontz?

[4] Andrew Haydon, “Belarusian King Lear – The Globe,” Postcards from the Gods, May 19, 2012, last accessed June 11, 2015 []

[5] Reviewed by Lauren Mooney, “King Lear at Globe Theatre,” Exeunt Magazine, 23-28 September, 2013, last accessed June 11, 2015 []

[6] These questions were reinvoked, for example, during the Global Shakespeare session at the Renaissance Society of America conference (2015), and especially by the presenters Katherine Schaap Williams and David Schalkwyk.

[7] Susan Bennett, Performing Nostalgia: Shifting Shakespeare and the Contemporary Past (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), 39.

[8] Ibid., 77.

[9] Peter Holland, “More Russian than a Dane: The Usefulness of Hamlet in Russia,” in Translating Life: Studies in Transpositional Aesthetics, ed. Shirley Chew and Alistair Stead (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999), 315-338, esp. 316.

[10] Because the Fool is speaking in trasyanka, a colloquial mixture of Russian and Belarusian, he uses the Belarusian word for “shadow,” which is “цень” rather than “тень.”

[11] The considerations of meter do not allow for a literal translation, as the Russian word for “ghost” is the five-syllable “привидение.” Pasternak’s more recent translation uses “дух” [spirit] instead, while the phrase “Hamlet’s father’s shadow” began its own independent existence in the colloquial language.

[12] Mikhail Morozov, Shakespeare on the Soviet Stage, trans. David Magarshack, with an introduction by J. Dover Wilson (London: Soviet News, 1947).

[13] Ibid., 13.

[14] Ibid., 41.

[15] See Vladimir Brovkin, Russia after Lenin: Politics, Culture and Society, 1921-1929 (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), see esp. chapter one, “Extracting Socially Alien Elements.”

[16] Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006).

[17] The text of this claim is widely available in the Russian sector of the Internet after Schigolev posted it in the opinion section of the Komi news site 7×7: Novosti, mneniia, blogi, posted on December 13, 2011, last accessed June 11, 2015 [http://7×]. Interestingly, this seems to be part of his self-promotional campaign, as he ran for a position in the National Council of the republic in 2012 and, most recently, in September 2014. A severely truncated description of the events in English with no author’s name provided is available at “Ophelia Raped in Russian Theater, Hamlet at Large,” RT, posted on December 18, 2011, last accessed June 11, 2015 [].

[18] The response of the experts is given in the formal verdict, available on the Komi news site 7×7: Novosti, mneniia, blogi, posted by Rebekka Magomedova as “Gamlet. Reshenie suda,” on December 27, 2011, last accessed June 11, 2015 [http://7×].

[19] David R. Marples offers a detailed examination of the early years of Lukashenka’s reign in Belarus: A Denationalized Nation (Amsteldijk: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1999). See also Andrew Wilson, Belarus: The Last Dictatorship in Europe (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011) for a description of more recent events, including the rigged election in 2010.

[20] Wilson, Belarus: The Last Dictatorship in Europe.

[21] Wilson, 123-12.

[22] Elena Gapova, “The Nation In Between; Or, Why Intellectuals Do Things with Words,” in Over the Wall/After the Fall: Post-communist Cultures through an East-West Gaze, ed. Sibelan Forrester, Magdalena J. Zaborowska, and Elena Gapova (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004), 65-87, esp. 85

[23] Simon Lewis, “Toward Cosmopolitan Mourning: Belarusian Literature between History and Politics,” in Memory and Theory in Eastern Europe, ed. Uilleam Blacker, Alexander Etkind, and Julie Fedor (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 195-216, esp. 202.

[24] Lewis, 213; 202.

[25] Ibid., 213.

[26] Keren Zaiontz, “The Right to the Theatre: The Belarus Free Theatre’s King Lear,” in Shakespeare beyond English: Global Experiment, ed. Susan Bennett and Christie Carson (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013), 195-207, esp. 196. See this article for a detailed description of language politics of the performance.

[27] The emphasis on unequivocal admiration and emulation of such models was brilliantly parodied in Viktor Pelevin’s post-Soviet novella “Omon-Ra” (1992), the characters of which are forced to undergo the same mutilations as the sanctified heroes so as to demonstrate the strength of their dedication to the state.

[28] See, for example, Nina Tumarkin, The Living and the Dead: The Rise and Fall of the Cult of World War II in Russia (New York: Basic Books, 1994).

[29] Zhan T. Toshchenko, “Historical Consciousness and Historical Memory: An Analysis of the Current Situation,” Russian Studies in History 49.1 (2010): 37-52, esp. 41-42.

[30] I borrow the term from the Belorussian Military Newspaper, published by the Defence Ministry of the Republic of Belarus (“Partisan Republic: Concluding the Year of Military Tourism,” interview by Anna Karpuk, issue 230, 10.12.2014, Not only does this publication construct a mythical history for itself, claiming that it has been published under different titles since 1921 (the year when the Bolshevik government and the Republic of Poland came to an agreement in dividing the Belarusian lands and signed the Treaty of Riga), but it is also is published in Russian and uses the outdated Soviet spelling for its title, suggesting an active alignment with the pre-dissolution past (on the information page:

[31] Edmund recites a loose translation of the concluding lines from Aleksandr Frolov’s “Bowing to the Ground” (Земной поклон): “За вашу боль, за ваши раны, / За жизнь счастливую мою, / Земной поклон вам, ветераны!” (For your pain, for your wounds, / For my happy life, / I bow to the ground to you, veterans!”. These lines proliferate, in various incarnations, over the Russian Internet. By now, they have become an authorless meme, placed on postcards, borrowed by inspiration sites, and frequently incorporated into inept but patriotic poetic creations posted online.

[32] This expression of thanks is immediately reminiscent of the Soviet slogan, typically placed into the mouths of children and used without the slightest sense of irony: “Спасибо товарищу Сталину за наше счастливое детство!” (We thank Comrade Stalin for our happy childhood!). Both sentiments point to the assumption that one’s personal happiness necessarily constituted a debt to others’ sacrifice, but also the assumption that, after the sacrifice had been made (whether Comrade Stalin’s or the veterans’), one was duty-bound, as a citizen, to be happy.

[33] Andrew Dickson, “King Lear – Review,” The Guardian, May 23, 2012, assessed June 11, 2015 [].

[34] Ella Parry-Davies, “The Total Immersion Method” (Interview with Natalia Kaliada, co-founder of Belarus Free Theatre), Exeunt Magazine, September 19, 2013, last accessed June 11, 2015 [].

Natalia Khomenko is an Instructor at York University in Toronto, Canada, where she received her Ph.D. in English in 2013. Her research interests include early modern drama, hagiographic and martyrological literature, literary adaptation, and Global Shakespeare studies. Her current project explores the cult of Shakespeare in the Soviet Union, and the strategies of selective reading and active refashioning used to produce ideologically sound socialist versions of Shakespearean drama.


Western Influence on Asian Theatre: Taiwan

Sunday, July 20th, 2014

Western influence on Taiwan’s theatre, felt in both performance styles and repertoire, did not start until the 1960s, when theatre artists and scholars began returning from the West, and when censorship became less strict. Theatre artists not only appropriated Western performance idioms (such as illusionist and environmental theatres) but also adapted plays by Western playwrights, including Brecht, Maeterlinck, and Pirandello. Shakespeare in translation—the majority directed by Wang Sheng-shan (Wang Shengshan, 1921-2003)—played an important role in popularizing Western classics and stagecraft, which laid the groundwork for more innovative adaptations. Lee Man-kuei, the first serious Western-conscious playwright and director, pioneered the introduction of Ibsenian realist and illusionist theatre to Taiwan. She founded the Huaju Promotion Committee in 1962, starting a local tradition of adapting Western dramas. It organized and sponsored annual World Drama Festivals that produced as many as 236 performances of Western plays (in English or Chinese) between 1962 and 1974. Not only were such plays adapted and performed, new ones were written under the influence of Western performance theory. Yao I-wei’s Jade Bodhisattva (Nian yu guanyin, 1967) used non-illusionist expressive modes inspired by Brecht’s epic theatre and xiqu. Ma Sen’s Flies and Mosquitoes (Cangying yu wenzi, 1967) was influenced by the Theatre of the Absurd.

In the 1980s, Lee’s successors, notably Yao I-wei, extended her project to create hybrid performing idioms by bringing Western and Chinese (both xiqu and huaju) theatres together. Yao launched five annual Experimental Theatre Festivals between 1980 and 1984, where a wide range of Western performing methods, such as Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, were tested out on stage. At the first Experimental Festival, Lanling Theatre Workshop (Lanling Jufang, 1976-1990) staged a romantic comedy, Hezhu’s New Match (Hezhu xin pei, 1980), to critical success. Using a hybrid style taken from both illusionist and jingju theatres, the play reframes the jingju Hezhu’s Match (Hezhu pei) in modern language (Mandarin) and context (Taipei). While Lee Man-kuei believed that playwriting, not performance, is the key to developing a proficient theatre culture, Yao and his followers emphasized the contingency of performance.

The 1990s saw more varied and successful engagements with theatrical interculturalism. Godot Theatre (Guoduo Juchang, founded 1988), a major musical . theatre company(gewu ju), staged retitled adaptations of classics, such as Kiss Me, Nana (Wenwo ba Nana, 1995) and Oriental Rock Midsummer Night’s Dream (Dongfang yaogun zhongxiaye, 1999). The Contemporary Legend Theatre (Dangdai Chuanqi), a Westernized jingju company, has innovatively staged a series of jingju adaptations of Greek tragedies and Shakespearean plays since it was founded in 1986. These productions are not confined to small audiences as are many experimental works but are very popular both at the local and global levels. They have created new local traditions of engaging Western theatre cultures.

Further Readings:

Huang, Alexa “Impersonation, Autobiography, and Cross-Cultural Adaptation: Lee Kuo-Hsiu’s Shamlet.” Asian Theatre Journal 17:2 (Spring 2005): 122-137.

Weinstein, John B. “Multilingual Theatre in Contemporary Taiwan.” Asian Theatre Journal 17:2 (Fall 2000): 269-283.

Shamlet: Shakespeare as Palimpsest by Alexa Huang

Sunday, July 20th, 2014

This article investigates one of the most traditional yet uncanny literary recursions in recent practices of cultural translation—the turn to Shakespeare.[i] It explores a range of questions regarding the mediated nature of transnational experiences. How, for example, does this mediation articulate a diverse range of ethnic and cultural identities in the visible, palpable and audible world of theatre? Why Shakespeare? How do stage translations of Shakespeare evince very specific ways of adapting culture in the postmodern Taiwanese context? What is the relationship between cultural translation and national imperatives?

The case in point is an adaptation of Hamlet produced in Taiwan that has successfully toured several different cultural locations: Lee Kuo-Hsiu’s avant-garde play, Shamlet.[ii] As a dynamic event in the field of transnational cultural production,[iii] this performance constitutes ‘an act of violence’ against the cultural Other it attempts to ‘translate’.[iv] It manipulates and parodies the Other—as represented by Hamlet—through displacement of the foreign. This strategy to engage the Other is both an initiation and a result of changes in postmodern Taiwanese literary sensibility.

From this central set of questions and theoretical engagements emerge more precise topics for exploration. The supposedly self-contained meanings and signifying milieus of a complex early modern play like Hamlet are hard to reconcile with a performer’s impulse to re-invent these meanings. What is the relationship between the formation of transnational culture and canonical foreign texts? How does Shakespeare—a form of early modern English cultural consciousness—operate in this multicultural and increasingly globalised world? What are the peculiar conditions and forces in the making of this cultural constitution? As Li Ruru notes, since the inception of modern Chinese theatre, ‘Shakespeare has served as a powerful external force propelling [it].’[v] However, standing at the turn of the twenty-first century and witnessing what W.B. Worthen calls the ‘dramatic performativity’ of global Shakespeare, we must also ask what the forces are behind such signifying practice rooted in transnational cultures.[vi]

One of the most important forces is not the deconstruction of canonical texts but their parodying. In the late twentieth-century Taiwanese literary scene, improvisation and parody are new strategies to translate items of non-Taiwanese cultural capital that are identifiably foreign yet not exotic enough to qualify as truly such – for instance, Hamlet. The play, like the name of Shakespeare, constitutes internationally circulating cultural capital; they have formed a global cultural institution. Audiences of Shamlet are familiar with the themes and story of Hamlet through its circulation in popular culture, the educational system, and Hollywood films. This awareness constitutes a very different dimension in the engendering and reception of a cultural translation of the play. While the study of modern Chinese appropriation of non-Chinese literary texts (almost exclusively fiction) and its relationship to the engendering of modern Chinese literature is relatively well developed, the dynamic role and regulating position of cultural translation in postmodern representational practices (such as drama and film) have not been adequately studied.[vii] Shamlet, among other reframings of non-Chinese texts, are intriguing sites for further exploration.[viii]

This operation naturally calls into question a prevalent critical perspective known as presentism, a critical operation that brings contemporary events to bear on premodern works. Rewritings of canonical texts—a phenomenon that existed for centuries—are often met with sceptical eyes and historically conscious criticism, because these performances are perceived to be evading the historical specificity of the texts they seek to represent. However, the situatedness of the practice of literary interpretation and the reader’s localities and temporalities should be acknowledged and confronted. The urge to privilege the present and to re-invent the repertoire of meanings is a response to the urge to restore literary works to their earliest historical circumstances. As opposed to the approach to read Shakespeare historically according to an exclusive set of knowable ‘facts,’ presentism is invested in the validity and value of contemporary critical responses. It also brings to light the intricate relationship between history and epistemology, past and present, and text and performance. History can never be reduced to a series of ‘facts,’ preserved in a pristine state, as it were. Similarly, texts do not and cannot mean by themselves. As Terence Hawkes points out, texts have to be represented and connected. We mean by the texts we choose.[ix] Lee’s reading of Hamlet clearly espouses some of the corollaries of presentism.

Shakespeare & Theatrical Interculturalism

Performing styles further complicate this presentist approach to Shakespeare. I would like to begin by taking a closer look at the palimpsest-like nature of dramatic translation and intercultural performance. Rather than blending foreign sources into a reframed master narrative in the sense of ‘classical’ translation, intercultural theatre exposes the cracks and traces of cross-cultural encounters, in Walter Benjamin’s terms.[x] By such exposure, it repositions literary and cultural texts. The key to theatrical interculturalism is the conscious process of exhibiting ‘incongruent’ foreign elements, or the simultaneous juxtaposition of the local and the foreign. The fabula of the foreign play—or its cultural location(s)—is recycled and reassigned to a new local context through theatrical (re)production. Bewildered and annoyed at one moment or another, the audience sees the concealment of old lines and the revelation of new ones. In this sense, cross-cultural stage translation resembles the making of a palimpsest. It is also a frequently adopted strategy to perform a hegemonic text.

Further, because of the multiple layering of texts, contexts, translations and performances that grows larger every year, ‘Shakespeare’ has become a palimpsest on which performers constantly erase, re-write and gloss. These performances present a layered intertextuality and refer to one another, as well as to the barred ‘original’. On a palimpsest, new writings can never quite conceal the old writings that have been partially erased. The point at issue is how new layers permeate the old, and how all these new texts refer to the original Shakespearean text and to the Elizabethan field of reception, which is referenced but intentionally lost.

The process of the making and reading of the intercultural theatre work, Shamlet, is a good example of Shakespearean palimpsest. The play is wittily titled Shamlet: A Revenge Comedy, which signifies not only its genre, i.e. satire, but also its genealogy with Shakespeare. Intertextuality, theatrical interculturalism, and the readers’ location(s) are intertwining threads that contribute to the complexity of producing and reading a performance. On top of the layering of cultures and signifying milieux, patchy fragments of plot and speeches are other features that stand out in Shamlet. Intercultural theatre, more so than writing, often represents only one narrative out of the infinite narratives that are possible in a written play. Such kind of theatre works like a fragmentary quotation of the play-text and of the author’s world, while always extending beyond that quotation and its pretext. Intercultural performance inevitably quotes fragmentarily from foreign and domestic contexts and play-texts. It challenges audience members to step down from the comfortable saddle on which they ride daily. Intercultural theatre, as Robert Wilson characterises it, is not something that is ‘finished, put in a box and wrapped up with a bow’.[xi]

Not surprisingly, with a close link to Western experimentalism and American postmodernism, Shamlet opens as a quotation—a quotation with typos to be more precise—from Hamlet. The title of the play, Shamuleite (Shamlet), combines the first character of the Chinese transliteration of Shakespeare (sha) and the last three characters for Hamlet (muleite). Set in a playful tone, Shamlet also contains the sounds of ‘sham’ and ‘shame.’ The multiple layers of the title itself reveal Lee’s intention to use comedy and farce to impart social commentaries that can be read on different levels.

By turning the high tragedy into low comedy, the director of Shamlet claims to have deconstructed Shakespeare and resisted the hegemonic power Shakespeare’s plays hold in a global context. The question then becomes whether Shamlet has really subverted the cultural ‘hegemony’ represented by global Shakespeare. Further, in the name of what authority has the interpretive license been acquired? In whose terms and to which end does Lee translate and perform Shakespeare? If the performance, informed by presentism, could not and would not communicate the meanings prescribed by Shakespeare’s text, what do Shakespeare’s plays do in the theatre? What are their functions? What are they for?

The play offers no easy answer, but I would like to extrapolate a few principles behind the creation and circulation of the new international currency of Shakespeare suggested by this play.

Reading a Palimpsest

Renwei: I have written a song for you.

Juanzhi: Your sister has delivered the lyrics to me.

Renwei: I envisioned your relationship with Zhengzheng as that between Hamlet and Ophelia on the stage.

Juanzhi: The relationship between us has not been that tragic and melancholic!

Renwei: Yes, that’s why I made it up. Just as the script is invented, so are the lyrics . . . Will you sing with me?

—Act 9[xii]

This witty exchange sums up Lee’s understanding of the uneasy relationship between script and stage representation. Shamlet’s structure disrupts and reverses the hierarchies of text/performance, past/present, and dead masters/living actors. Yet at the same time, it demonstrates an unusual affinity with Shakespeare and with modern performances of Shakespeare. Lee did not have direct access to the English texts of Hamlet; he worked with Mel Gibson’s film version and two popular twentieth-century Chinese translations by Liang Shiqiu and Zhu Shenghao. The genealogical link between Shamlet and the Hollywood film remains unclear, but Lee indicates in an interview that the film has inspired him to stage Hamlet in his own terms. Attracted by Shakespeare’s treatment of death scenes, Lee focused on a few scenes from Hamlet that either deal with death philosophically or visually represent death and violence. Lee does not regret not being able to read Shakespeare in English. On the contrary, he is against staging straightforward literary translations of foreign plays, because he believes that spin-offs and adaptations offer more exciting creative possibilities. He claims, ‘If one chooses to stage a translated foreign play and follow it line by line, s/he will be deprived of the opportunity to create and re-write.’[xiii]

Thus, Lee does not use any readily available Chinese versions of Hamlet. He creates a play that rests partly on Hamlet and partly on the transnational culture in Taiwan. He envisions the relationship among its actors and characters in Hamletian terms: miscommunication, non-communication, hesitation, and a skeptical attitude. Here I would like to offer a reading of the production and the matrix of textual relations it entails. The actors on the intercultural stage move back and forth between the invisible realm of locus, the imagined locale of the story, and platea, a platform where the play is being performed before spectators. The exchange quoted above from Shamlet showcases how the actors freely move between the story being staged and the stage that sustains that story. Actors often break out of their roles in Hamlet and step into their roles in Shamlet. This movement is especially evident vis-à-vis the play-within-a-play, which enhances the multiple layering and framing of the plot of Shamlet within Shakespeare’s plot. The play manifests a strategy of intervention in the global politics of Shakespearean performance.

The characters in Shamlet are no Chinese counterparts to those in Hamlet. The story of Hamlet is framed by the story of a second-rate and ill-fated theatre company rehearsing and staging Hamlet on a tour of Taiwan. The play is titled Shamlet because of a printing mistake. The fabula of the tour itself formed a very interesting layer when the play was actually being staged in different Taiwanese and international venues.

There are at least two signifying milieux in Shamlet: that of the story of non-communication and procrastination in Hamlet (which is being parodied), and of the story of the failure of the theatre company (which is framed by their rehearsals of Hamlet). The play moves back and forth between the actors’ quarrels, affairs, life offstage, and the moments in which these actors bring private matters onto the real stage while rehearsing or staging Hamlet. As selected scenes from Hamlet are rehearsed, the motifs and fabulae of these scenes are also echoed in incidents happening in the theatre company. Actors move from their real identities, as the persons putting on the play Hamlet for the real audience, to their identities as actors in the story of the play, to their phantom identities of Hamlet, Ophelia, Gertrude, etc. in the play-within-a-play (the failed production of Hamlet in Shamlet), and finally to their identities as actors in the dumb show (a play-within-a-play within the play-within-a-play) that Hamlet arranges for Claudius.

Moving among these four different sets of identities, the characters explore their local identities as actors from a typical Taiwanese theatre troupe. They are tormented by the difficulties facing all small and experimental theatre companies. These problems echo the difficult situations that Hamlet faces. Shamlet presents Hamlet’s procrastination and difficult choices through the framework of a dull-witted theatre company called the Fengping Theatre Troupe. The name parodies that of the real company putting on the play, the Pingfeng Theatre Troupe. Word play, anagrammatism and acrostic puzzles of names are as significant in Lee’s play as they are in Shakespeare’s. The plot revolves around Fengping Theatre’s backstage rehearsals and onstage productions. The success of this production is their only hope of rescuing the theatre company from its financial straits after years of poor performance, especially a catastrophic spell three years ago.

Whether or not the company’s luck will turn for the better depends solely on the success of this production and, more importantly, on resolving the entangled relations and negative emotions its members have towards one another. For example, the ‘director’ is preoccupied with proving his talent to his sceptical wife, who is having an affair. The ‘director’s’ name, Li Xiuguo, is an anagram of the playwright’s name and a mirror-image of him. The ‘director’ takes theatre as a profitless venture and seeks a career in film and television. The contingencies of their lives and comedic accidents dictate the contingencies of performance.

Rehearsed ‘Improvisation’

In addition to characters bringing private matters to bear on the play they are performing, Shamlet lays bare the process of mechanical reproduction of literary texts. ‘Improvised’ scenes are rehearsed prior to the actual performance. The fact that scenes with mechanical failures are also rehearsed gives Shamlet an unmistakable aura of theatre that challenges established modes of reading. It brings to light a key paradox of live theatre that stages a well-rehearsed illusion of a ‘life’ that is taking place for the first time on stage. Marvin Carlson calls this capacity the ‘ghostliness,’ one of the ‘universals of performance.’[xiv] Richard Schechner refers to this phenomenon as ‘twice behaved behaviour’ in theatre.[xv] While Shamlet bears out an important front of this theoretical engagement with rehearsed ‘improvisation,’ it also complicates the issue of the stage being haunted by experiences of previous productions of the same play. It might be true that, for the Western audience, Hamlet has always already begun, far before the performance is staged. The motifs and story of Hamlet have been circulating in print, on stage, on the screen, in the education system and in popular culture for centuries. For the Asian audience, this part of collective literary memory is more distant and vague. Therefore, Shamlet is not haunted by previous productions of Hamlet but by Lee’s preoccupation to create a new theatre that invites the actors and audience to ‘write’ and ‘read’ between the lines of the play. Shamlet opens with a ‘rehearsal’ of the duel scene in Hamlet—in which the actors get all the lines wrong—and closes with Fengping Theatre Troupe’s ‘production’ of the same scene that is as disoriented as previous ‘rehearsals’. Malfunctions in the routine mechanical business of the theatre, like the failure of the mechanism for the ghost to ascend or actors forgetting or accidentally switching lines, exhibit a translation in process.

These ‘errors’ diminish the tragic sense in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The character of the director keeps worrying about his wife, who is having an affair, while wanting to prove to her his capability and talent in performance. The troupe members also have troubled relationships with one another involving love, hatred, and jealousy. Unfortunately, the director is not the person to solve these discords within his troupe and their ill-fated production. Rather, the contingency of life is woven into the contingency of improvised performance. The audience reads the palimpsest on stage, where Shakespeare, the actors’ lives, Hamlet, and Shamlet meet in various narrative frames, so that neither centre nor structure is left. The working process of cross-cultural staging is laid bare, since Shamlet dramatises the failed rehearsals and ridiculous productions of a third-rate theatre troupe trying its hand at Shakespeare’s revered masterpiece, Hamlet.

Reading the production thus comes to resemble the act of unpacking Russian dolls: each one is empty, but serves as a frame for the others inside. This production, like many intercultural performances, does not seek to reconcile the authenticity of the texts and the authority of performance. These two poles do not exist for Lee. Performance is his way of interpreting himself to himself.[xvi] In Shamlet, Lee reinvents texts for his own ends, and what survive are a few central issues raised by Hamlet rather than anything that might be thought genuinely Shakespearean, or a residue from Elizabethan and Jacobean cultural contexts.

Shamlet also refers to editing problems that have long plagued critics and directors of Shakespeare’s texts. Set in the genre of parody-comedy, Shamlet, with its triptych of rehearsals and productions of Hamlet, stages the process by which Shakespeare’s play gets passed from one rehearsal to another, one actor to another. In Shamlet, the Fengping Theatre’s production of Hamlet—the play-within-a-play—turns out to be a total disaster, and Shakespeare’s tragedy is diminished, or reborn if you will, into a revenge comedy. Even the title for their play, Shamlet, is an accident, a typo:

Yiling: Mr. Director, I received a letter from a spectator after our performance in Tainan City a few days ago.

Xiuguo: Has he got something to say about our production?

Yiling: She said that Shakespeare wrote 38 plays during his lifetime, but there is none that is called Shamlet. It should be Hamlet.

Zongji: Isn’t this letter somewhat too late?! We have had so many nights.

Xiuguo: We should respect our scriptwriter. When I went to get the play from Lee Kuo-Hsiu, I argued with him. I said the first Chinese character should be Ha and not Sha, but he insisted on Sha and not Ha.

Zongji: He phoned me and said it is Ha and not Sha. It was a typo.

Xiuguo: A typo? When did he call?

Zongji: This morning.

Xiuguuo: This morning! And you are telling me now? I am the director, and I am the last one to know. Fine! Fine! Now go and get a pen. Get the programme notes. Simply changing one word will do. … [Pause] Oh, forget about it! No one ever buys our programme notes anyway.

—Act 9[xvii]

This scene questions what’s in a name and deconstructs the authority of the original text. The joke about typo actually identifies one of the core problems in Shakespeare’s texts. As has been noted by various modern scholars like Leah Marcus, the notion of a printed text as a site of materialized and fixed authorial intentions is foreign to the Renaissance playhouse. Just as there are many provisional and, sometimes, bad versions of fragmentary scenes of Hamlet in the rehearsals in Shamlet, there is no single authoritative version of Shakespeare’s plays—contrary to what Shakespeare’s first editors hoped for. Marcus pictures the conditions of theatrical production in Renaissance London as follows:

Rather than flowing effortlessly and magically from Shakespeare’s mind onto the unalterable fixity of paper, the plays were from the beginning provisional, amenable to alterations by the playwright or others, coming to exist over time in a number of versions, all related, but none of them an original in the pristine sense promised by [John] Heminge and [Henry] Condell.[xviii]

Heminge and Condell believe that an author’s ‘mind and hand [go] together.’ Further, commenting on the ‘stolen’ quartos, they wish in their prefatory epistle that ‘the Author himself had liv’d to have set forth, and overseen his own writings.’ There is a pristine sense of a self-sustained and perfect original. Heminge and Condell go on to condemn the ‘surreptitious copies, maim’d and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious impostors, that expos’d them.’[xix] When we speak of the ‘original’ Shakespeare, though assuming some degree of stability, we inevitably have to specify which Shakespeare: First Folio, Second Folio, First Quarto, or modern synthesis like the Arden or Riverside Shakespeare. The conditions of editing problems of Hamlet relates directly to the typo from ha to sha in the title of the production. Its strategy of reading and writing the palimpsest is an aggressive one. The play establishes its authority by proclaiming up front that there will be no fidelity to Shakespeare or to Elizabethan cultural contexts. It does so by writing forcefully on the palimpsest, though it is not able to conceal everything.

The title Shamlet, and the multi-layering of plots that repudiates the integrity of the Hamletian plot, all parody Hamlet. Lee claimed in the programme that Shamlet is a ‘revenge comedy’ that ‘has nothing to do with Hamlet but something to do with Shakespeare’. Interestingly, Shakespeare’s revenge story is intricately woven into the plot of Shamlet when one of the actors puts laxatives in an actress’s drink to avenge his unrequited love. The conspiracy is successful: she rushes off the stage during a performance, ruining her reputation and the production. Pace Lee, Shamlet has everything to do with Hamlet. Much in the manner of postmodern productions such as Stuart Sherman’s eighteen-minute dumb-show Hamlet,[xx] Shamlet has four actors (characters) for the title character Hamlet. Both plays feature a carousal display of a number of different Hamlets. The stage upon a stage in Shamlet presents the making of the theatrical. The real actors are telling the stories of the actors in Shamlet, who are enacting the story of Hamlet with misreadings and accidents. Multiple layering and multiple narrative frames are characteristic of postmodern productions like Shamlet, but they are inherent in any theatrical production. In this sense, the play is not so much a parody of Hamlet as a parody of Taiwanese society, seen through the lens of a theatre practitioner.

The absurdity of the title Shamlet, engendered by the accident of a typo, repudiates the dichotomy of centre and border in cultural bodies on the one hand; but it also explores, on the other, the possibility of intercultural theatre as a hybrid yet integrated form of artistic expression. A multitude of possible meanings are woven into many confusing layers of signification. Its witty title and plot development that parallels those of Hamlet. The biographies of the actors make Shamlet resemble a palimpsest that unfolds itself, page by page, in front of the audience. Meanings are constantly being inserted through improvisational acts on stage. As such, the play destabilises the conceptual hierarchies of play texts and performances and past playwrights and contemporary directors.

Act Ten is most pertinent Lee’s effort to foreground the contemporaneity and contingency of theatre making and live performance. Fengping Theatre (the name of the theatre company in the play) is in Taichung, one of the cities they are touring. During a stage performance of the duel scene (adapted from Hamlet 5.2.224ff.), Li Xiuguo, who plays the role of Laertes, forgets almost every other line, since he is forced to take up the role without preparation owing to quarrels among the troupe members and last-minute emergencies. The one who was assigned the role has left the scene at the last minute, thereby engendering chaos. The troupe has to cover up the absence of several actors, either by having doubles or through improvisations. Li, playing Laertes, cannot remember what to say in response to Hamlet’s speech, translated from Shakespeare’s line ‘Give me your pardon, sir. I have done you wrong’ (5.2.225). As Laertes struggles with his half-forgotten lines on stage, Claudius, played by Chen Zongji (the character of an actor within the play), improvises and tries to smooth over the apparent glitch. A court lady prompts Li and tries to help him remember his lines. Unfortunately, all attempts fail, and she is forced to take out the prompt book from her pocket and start reading Laertes’s lines out loud. However, even this desperate attempt to rescue the production does not work. Halfway through her reading, she accidentally drops the prompt book. The pages fall and scatter on the stage. Stunned, Laertes and other characters deliver lines that are now out of order. This improvised play-reading disrupts the performance of Shamlet and intervenes with the otherwise linear progression of the plot line of Hamlet that actors in Shamlet are performing. The scattered prompt book pages—filled with ‘facts’ and prescribed lines—constitute a powerful image that simultaneously questions the viability of historical knowledge and transforms a tragedy that relies on rehearsed chronology into a playful comedy that espouses a new concept of authorship.

The collective authorship in Shamlet can be found on another level. In several scenes, the actors reflect the absurdity and ‘logical errors’ of Shakespeare’s plot. They travel across the stage to find and present the ‘real’ Hamlet— only to find themselves and a projection of their world. They seek revenge on their fellow actors for trivial matters, and ironically, by the end of Act Ten, their fate and the theatre company’s failure almost completely express Hamlet’s dilemma. They are players and spectators at once, both on and off the virtual stage in the play. What they see as ‘universal’ in the text of the Other—Shakespeare and all cultural contexts connected with the name—turns out to be the particular in their contexts of theatrical circles in Taipei, a bustling city in late twentieth century East Asia.

The overwhelming pressure of swapped and switched roles eventually paralyses the production. According to Lee Kuo-Hsiu, this is his way of deconstructing Shakespeare, an icon much revered by the Taiwanese audience. Lee questions this reverence and asks ‘what Shakespeare’s plays have to do with Taiwanese [actors and audiences].’[xxi] In a number of scenes, the line ‘To be or not to be’ is projected in English on a screen above the stage, forming a backdrop of confused yet interchangeable identities. While the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy forms a central theme in Shamlet, its presence does not invoke the image of the philosophical Hamlet or Shakespeare’s reputations. It serves to initiate a series of dialogues among the characters who tackle the question: ‘Who am I?’ from different vantage points. This is done in an improvisational mode involving multiple role-switching.

Qianzi: May I ask a question? Who is Horatio now?

Chengguo: Every one knows. Horatio is…

Xiuguo: Yes, I am Horatio.

Chengguo: Then who am I?

Xiuguo: [improvising and trying to smooth over the glitch] Who am I? Ha! What a great philosophical question. Who am I? Every person will experience this self-interrogation, often in the middle of the night, when standing in front of a mirror. He will ask himself: ‘Who am I?’ … Now, let me tell you who you are.

—Act 10[xxii]

As a commercial production for entertainment rather than a political theatre, Shamlet is not saturated with direct political comments. However, the comedy does offer a few political comments on at least two different levels. In the duel scene, when an uncostumed stagehand brings two swords on stage, several characters comment on her ‘foreign’ identity.

Gertrude: Is that person one of us Danes?

Horatio: Probably not, Your Majesty. She looks like one of those Taiwanese from the East.

Gertrude: Then take no more notice of her. I do not like foreigners meddling in our internal affairs.

King: That’s right! Danish affairs should be resolved by Danes!           —Act 10[xxiii]

It should be noted that this witty exchange was added in the ‘Millennium Edition’ produced in 2000, four years after one of the worst Taiwan Strait crises in March, 1996, when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) launched missiles and carried out military exercises on the sea in close vicinity to Taipei. The exercises were meant to demonstrate the People’s Republic of China’s military prowess and its readiness to use military force to subdue the pro-independence voices within Taiwan and even to take over Taiwan. The United States sent two carrier battles groups to the area near the Taiwan Strait to ensure that the situation does not escalate into an invasion. After the reversion of Hong Kong (1997) and Macao (1999) to China, Taiwan became the focus of the Chinese government’s imperial project to recoup territories ‘lost’ in the nineteen or twentieth century. Whether Taiwan has belonged to, or should be, part of the jurisdictional or political map of China has been a hot topic for debate. The crises in the Danish court in Hamlet and Hamlet’s escape from the clutches of the English power can never be read in Asia after 1996 in quite the same way that the play could be read before 1996.

The exchange in this scene simultaneously comments on the foreignness of the Taiwanese actors to the scene being represented and China’s thinly veiled threats against Taiwan and other countries such as the U.S. that might intervene. The dialogue echoes Chinese government’s statement that foreign powers should not intervene in the ‘Taiwan problem,’ which is China’s internal affairs. This dialogue also dramatises the Taiwanese government’s retort that the political future of the island can and should be determined by the will of the Taiwanese people alone. On yet another level, this exchange brings out the irony of a Taiwanese troupe performing a foreign play. Taiwan, with its geographical and cultural locations in the Pacific Rim, is very receptive to foreign cultures and prides itself on being able to assimilate them. Shamlet questions the relevance for Taiwan of some of these cultural parameters, such as a Western cultural icon represented by Shakespeare. Commenting on cultural hegemony, Lee asserts that ‘[he] has one advantage over Shakespeare: the great British playwright is dead, but he [a Taiwanese playwright and actor] is alive.’[xxiv] This emphasis on contemporaneity and living the moment on stage becomes a principal force behind the making of Shamlet.

New Modes of Cultural Exchanges

Reinventing Shakespeare, as Gary Taylor cogently argues, is the business of reinventing an author to support ‘a series of conflicting values’ in societies of different periods.[xxv] To that end, I would add, reinventing Shakespeare in the intercultural theatre is also a business of setting up a venue to establish a cultural identity, as epitomised in Shamlet. In the process of making Shakespeare Taiwanese, Shakespeare is there and not there. Throughout the performance, the directorial voice of Lee emerges from the text in the background and the ‘text’ represented on the stage through the spontaneity and improvisation of Lee’s theatre. On another level, transparent at one moment and powerful at another, there is Shakespeare’s presence. On yet another level are the dynamics particular to Taiwanese society, perhaps best summarised as short-sightedness in pursuing immediate profits. In Shamlet, the characters that are actors engage in conflicts with one another both on and off the ‘stage,’ and thereby upset the production of Hamlet they staging.

Regarded in this light, to stage intercultural performances is not only to stage difference; it is about containing these issues in various frames. The interculturalism of theatrical transformation has to be connected to the phenomenon of globalisation and to Shakespeare’s global presence. If, targeting the illusion of origin and Shakespeare-ness in performance, Shamlet has successfully framed Hamlet and contemporary Taiwan in a postmodern pastiche, it suggests the emergence of a globalisation that both diffuses and sustains the pastiche of various origins.

Shamlet presents a pastiche of Shakespearean and Taiwanese cultural locations through postmodern, monotonous repetitions. For example, the duel between Laertes and Hamlet appears three times in a rehearsal and in stage performances: in the first, fifth and seventh scenes. The fact that the actors take turns in playing different roles in the play promotes a postmodernist reading of both plays, Hamlet and Shamlet. ‘Mediocre’ and ‘ordinary men’ are key words in the stage performance of Shamlet, suggesting that every one is Hamlet. The long shadow of a larger-than-life tragic protagonist is dissolved in dry runs of actors and comic rehearsals by common men. Shamlet tells a story of intrigues and trivial love affairs among members of a theatre troupe through the rehearsals of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It incorporates declaredly autobiographical traits of its director Lee.

In addition to the aforementioned repetitions that diminish the solemnity of the tragic dénouement, Shamlet also enacts a Hamletian culture of accidents through mechanical errors and switched roles, all of which contribute to its deconstruction of theatre as an unfolding one-time event experienced in forward linear time. Act 2 of Shamlet is set on the stage-upon-the-stage where the Fengping Theatre is performing Act 1 Scene 5 of Hamlet in Taichung, the second stop of their tour of Taiwan. The mechanical failure in this scene problematises the illusion that naturalist theatre with a proscenium stage strives to contain. After informing Hamlet of his grievances and urging Hamlet to avenge him, the Ghost is supposed to ascend on a steel rope as he delivers his last lines ‘Adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember me’ (Hamlet 1.5.91). A mechanical problem prevents this from happening, and the Ghost is stuck on the stage. The actor playing Hamlet is paralysed, and Horatio enters, as directed by the script. His comments are under heavy irony.

Horatio: My lord! My lord! My lord! Anything wrong?

Shamlet: How strange! [Looking at the stranded Ghost.]

Horatio: Speak to it, my lord!

Shamlet: Never ever tell what you see tonight.

Horatio: I will not tell. [Improvises] And I hope no one saw it! [Looking at the stranded Ghost and then the audience.]

Shamlet: Come! Swear by your conscience. Put your hand on my sword.

[Shamlet discovers that he does not have the single most important prop for this scene—his sword.]

Horatio: [Filling in and improvising] Use my sword, my lord!

Shamlet: [Soliloquising] Rest, rest, perturbèd spirit. I… [Forgetting his lines] I’ve forgotten what I had to say!

Horatio: [Prompting and reciting the lines for Shamlet] Perturbèd spirit, please remember that whatever historical period it is, you shall keep your mouth shut [referring to the stranded Ghost who is ruining this performance]. The time is out of joint. O what a poor soul am I that I have to set it right!

Shamlet: Yes, indeed!

[The Ghost, still stranded, keeps trying to see if he can be lifted up. Light dims.]                                                                                                             —Act 2[xxvi]

Snatches of familiar dialogue from Hamlet are transmogrified by errors and accidents. In Act Three of Shamlet, when the scene has been changed to Polonius’s house, the Ghost is still stranded by the malfunctioning steel rope. The unduly presence of the Ghost complicates this ‘stage production.’ Not without irony does Laertes tell the Ghost to leave them alone as he imparts advice to Ophelia. These accidents—while rehearsed and scripted—undermine the theatrical illusion that a naturalist theatre is supposed to sustain. Accidents and the advent of the unexpected lead to tragedy in Hamlet; whereas in Shamlet, these elements contribute to its comedic overtone.[xxvii] The character of the director, Li Xiuguo, is as indecisive as Hamlet, but his indecisiveness only leads to a comedic staging of the play.

As a comedy, Shamlet marks a departure from such practices of cultural translation as adapting the original play to a contemporary setting. In Shamlet, only seven selected scenes from Hamlet are represented, and that in an improvisational manner, inserted into scenes about the Fengping Theatre Troupe in Shamlet. Thus whisked back and forth between the beginning and ending of Hamlet and between the frames of Shamlet and Hamlet, the audience follows the actors’ hastened steps. Identities become interchangeable: one man often plays many parts. The actor playing the character of an actor in Shamlet attempting the role of Shamlet recognises different levels of consciousness in all these identities.

In this sense, Shamlet has most curiously enacted Hamlet‘s central theme of accident by employing interchangeable identities, a purloined letter, and switched lines for characters. Hamlet is filled with accidents. In a significant number of stage and film interpretations, Hamlet kills Polonius in an accident. He is supposed to die in another planned ‘accident’ when being sent off to England by Claudius, only to be saved by his capacity for counter-espionage. He switches crucial lines in the secret letter and sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to death in his place. In his feigned madness, Hamlet takes up various roles, from a bookish intellect to a solemn avenger, a melancholic prince and a self-proclaimed pirate. Even though Lee starts out with the proclaimed goal of deconstructing Hamlet, his adaptation features the Hamletian motif of accidents through the actors’ daily life.

Through Lee’s distinctive style of palimpsestical play-within-a-play performance, Hamlet is ruptured by quarrels among the actors and discussions between the characters of the director and actors. The audience finds itself looking into the box of the proscenium stage, looking at a play within a play, with an acute awareness of the contingencies of performance. The life inside the theatre (i.e. rehearsal) and outside the theatre (i.e. love affairs) of this group of mediocre actors is presented through Lee’s production, in which the emotions of the Shakespearean Danish prince are retained. The audience is offered the opportunity to undergo similar emotional upheavals and disturbances through Shamlet.

As a new model of localisation, Shamlet shares some similarities with Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser (after King Lear, 1980) in terms of form. However, Shamlet retains a sense of scepticism toward scripted performance. Actors and actresses are at once in and out of their characters. The gist of the play-within-a-play, metaphors of dilating, and the manifested culture of accidents in Hamlet has been preserved in a most peculiar way. Ironically, in creating Shamlet, Lee transplanted the original play into his context and enhanced the canonicity of the original play. The relationship between this transnational performance and the Shakespearean play is at once symbiotic and mutually resistant, operating on a level of newfound cultural semiotics.

Conclusion: Shakespeare as Palimpsest

What Lee did to Shakespeare, changed contexts of presentation could do to Lee’s own text. In Taiwan, Shamlet was popularly received as a topical satire. But at the second Chinese International Shakespeare Festival in Shanghai in 1994, the precise point of its jests and allusions were lost to the alien audience. This may have been partly due to dual directorship and lack of co-ordination between the Pingfeng Acting Workshop of Taiwan and the Modern People’s Theatre.[xxviii] But the anomaly indicates how any adaptation of a text, like the original it adapts, is attuned to a particular context of composition and reception.

Local (Asian) readings of a global (or Western) text induce the creation of new hierarchies of original and secondary. Through rehearsed improvisation that brings the actors’ multiple identities to bear on the careers of Shakespeare’s characters, Shamlet encourages the fusion of local and personal perspectives and a global text. Thus Shamlet demonstrates a very different force of transnational culture. On the pragmatic level, Shamlet fuses fictional characters with the vita of the performers (e.g., parallels between the fate of Hamlet and the life of the actor-character performing the role); on the philosophical level, it adapts the identity politics in Hamlet.

In cultural transference, Shakespeare has become a parchment on which modern cultures write. Shamlet showcases Lee’s admittedly uneasy relationship with Shakespeare’s play while capitalising on the global economy of Shakespeare. In Shamlet, the act of questioning the logic of the plot of Hamlet becomes a critique of contemporary experimental theatre. After enjoying almost ten years of popularity and becoming part of the theatre’s repertory, Shamlet has become a new force of transnational culture in Taiwan. It also exemplifies a new aspect of the international currency of Shakespeare. Presentism and theatrical interculturalism continue to complicate the horizon of inquiry.

[i] I use the term ‘cultural translation’ to refer to modes of cultural production (such as performance) that re-produce and manipulate contents of foreign literary and cultural texts. The term is used in opposition to various parameters associates with ‘literary translation’. While printed translations of literary texts share similar features with cultural translation, their material existence usually lacks the performative aspect of cultural translation that extends beyond the printed texts. Theatre often represent the cultural Other in visual and theatrical terms.

[ii] Shamuleite: yige fuchou xiju (Shamlet: A Revenge Comedy), a ten-act comedy, was written and directed by Lee Kuo-Hsiu and staged by the Pingfeng Acting Workshop (Pingfeng biaoyan ban, organized in 1986). Pingfeng means screen that divides the front stage and the back stage. While being experimental and aesthetically innovative, Shamlet has been a commercially successful production since it premiered in Taipei in 1992. It was revived several times. The play toured Taiwan in a revised version in 1995, and Toronto, Canada in 1996. It was also staged in Shanghai on September 16, 1994, at the second Chinese Shakespeare Festival, through collaboration between Pingfeng Acting Workshop and the Modern People’s Theatre (Xiandai ren jushe). A ‘Millennium Edition’ of the play—the third edition—was staged in Taipei to full houses in August 2000, testifying to its unfailing popularity in the local communities that fostered it. Note on Romanisation: In this article, Chinese names in English will follow the convention of placing family names first. All transcriptions of Chinese are in pinyin, except for the cases in which the Wade-Giles system was originally adopted. All translations are my own unless otherwise noted.

[iii] The concept is adapted from Pierre Bourdieu’s characterisation of the structure of the modern French literary field as a ‘field of cultural production.’ See Pierre Bourdieu, ‘The Field of Cultural Production, or: the Economic World Reversed,’ Poetics 12 (1983), pp.311-56; Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993, p.164.

[iv] I am invoking Victor Hugo’s concept in a different way. In his preface to his son’s Shakespeare translations, Hugo points out that a translated text will almost always be received by the local culture as ‘an act of violence against itself’, because ‘such a widening of the horizon [of one’s] own national poetry’ constitutes a ‘rebellion’: quoted in André Lefevere, Translation/History/Culture: A Sourcebook, London: Routledge, 1992, p.18.

[v] Li Ruru, ‘Shakespeare on the Chinese Stages in the 1990s’, Shakespeare Quarterly 50 (1999), p.367.

[vi] In his new book, Worthen uses the concept of ‘performativity’ (p.117) to explore the relation between Shakespeare’s text and meanings of modern performance, including international and intercultural performances that are vested in a ‘global performance economy’ (p.148): W. B. Worthen, Shakespeare and the Force of Modern Performance, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

[vii] Important studies of the connections between literary translations of foreign literature and Chinese modernity include: Lydia H. Liu, Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity—China, 1900-1937, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995; Torbjörn Lodén, ‘World Literature with Chinese Characteristics: On a Novel by Gao Xingjian,’ The Stockholm Journal of East Asian Studies 4 (1993), pp.17-39; and Michel Hockx (ed.), The Literary Field of Twentieth-Century China, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1999. All the essays in this last collection deal with ways in which foreign elements have been incorporated or resisted in modern Chinese literary practice.

[viii] Dramatic translation and stage representations of non-Chinese cultures have traditionally received less scholarly attention, with the exception of a few recent studies that deal with dramatic Occidentalism, viz., Chen Xiaomei, Occidentalism: A Theory of Counter-discourse in Post-Mao China, 2nd ed., Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002, especially the chapter on Chinese productions of Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Brecht; Claire Conceison, Significant Other: Representations of the American in China, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2004.

[ix] Terence Hawkes, Shakespeare in the Present, London: Routledge, 2002, p.3

[x] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Task of the Translator,’ Illuminations, trans. Hannah Arendt, New York: Schocken, 1968, pp. 69-82.

[xi] Robert Wilson, ‘Theatre That You Have to Rethink,’ The Chronicle of Macbeth Programme Notes (1992).

[xii] Lee Kuo-Hsiu, Shamuleite, Taipei: Shulin Publisher, 1992, p. 119. English translation from Alex Huang, “Impersonation, Autobiography, and Cross-Cultural Adaptation: Lee Kuo-Hsiu’s Shamlet,” Asian Theatre Journal 22.1 (Spring 2005): 126-127. Renwei (the name of the character playing Horatio) and Juanzhi (the name of the character playing Gertrude) are rehearsing the play in this scene. Renwei and Juanzhi bring their love affairs to bear on Hamlet when they step out of their characters.

[xiii] Wang Shu-hua and Perng Ching-hsi, Interview with Lee Kuo-Hsiu, Taipei, 13 November, 1998. I am very grateful to the authors for making the unpublished transcript of the interview available to me.

[xiv] Marvin Carlson, The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001, p. 173.

[xv] Schechner, Richard, “An Intercultural Primer,” American Theatre (Oct. 1991), p. 36-37.

[xvi] See Li, Liheng, Oh? Lee Kuo-Hsiu! (Oh? Lee Kuo-Hsiu!), a biography, Taipei: Shibao, 1998, p.105.

[xvii] Shamuleite: Fuchou xiju, p.121. Huang, p. 132.

[xviii] Leah Marcus, Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and Its Discontents. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988, p. 44.

[xix] John Heminge and Henry Condell, ‘To the great variety of readers,’ Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, and tragedies by William Shakespeare. London: Printed by Tho. Cotes, for Richard Hawkins, and are to be sold at his shop in Chancery Lane, neere Serjeants Inne, 1632.

[xx] See Elinor Fuchs, ‘Presence and the Revenge of Writing: Rethinking Theatre After Derrida’, Performing Arts Journal 36 (1984), p.170.

[xxi] Li, Liheng, p.105.

[xxii] Huang, p. 129.

[xxiii] Huang, p. 130.

[xxiv] Wang Shu-hua and Perng Ching-hsi, 1998 interview.

[xxv] Gary Taylor, ‘Introduction,’ Reinventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History from the Restoration to the Present, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, p.3-6.

[xxvi] Ibid. 48-49. The use of Shakespeare’s original text in my English translation here is intended to alert the reader to the fact that this passage in Shamlet is a direct line-by-line Chinese translation (such as ‘perturbèd spirit’).

[xxvii] A representative work on the Renaissance conception of accident and contingency is Michael Witmore’s cultural anatomy of accidents as philosophical problem and theatrical conceit. Michael Witmore, Culture of Accidents: Unexpected Knowledge in Early Modern England, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001.

[xxviii] Li Ruru and David Jiang, ‘The 1994 Shanghai International Shakespeare Festival: An Update on the Bard in Cathay’, Asian Theatre Journal 14 (1997), pp.104-9. See also Li Ruru, ‘Shakespeare on the Chinese Stages in the 1990s,’ Shakespeare Quarterly 50 (1999), pp. 364-5.

Yukio Ninagawa as a Great Shakespearean

Sunday, July 20th, 2014

“Yukio Ninagawa as a Great Shakespearean” by Katherine Bradshaw (Dean’s Scholar in Shakespeare, George Washington University)

Japanese director NINAGAWA Yukio

Japanese director NINAGAWA Yukio

Japanese theatre guru Yukio Ninagawa has earned international recognition through his stunningly beautiful interpretations of Shakespeare. He has directed almost all of the 37 plays, and will finish the canon in 2016. But, did you know that he never intended to become a Shakespearean director? Learn about Ninagawa’s fascinating journey and productions in Alexa Huang’s absorbing new essay “Chapter 3: Yukio Ninagawa” (in Brook, Hall, Ninagawa, Lepage: Great Shakespeareans Vol. 18, edited by Peter Holland). Huang places Ninagawa’s mesmerizing productions in their national, personal, and theatrical contexts, showing what makes Ninagawa a “Great Shakespearean.”

Find out what makes Ninagawa’s directorial style so successful. Huang sets Ninagawa in the context of Japan’s multiple theatrical techniques. The traditional Kabuki and Noh are heavily stylized, while the modern Shingeki emphasizes realism. Ninagawa was exclusively trained in the Shingeki method. Interestingly, Huang suggests that Ninagawa successfully combines older styles with Shakespeare because both are not his familiar format.

Ninagawa originally studied painting, which might explain his knack for stunning visuals. Yet, after attending a visual art program during college, he began training as a Shingeki actor. After he became an experimental theatrical director, Ninagawa had a strange and terrifying experience that confirmed that he should continue as a director. A young man threatened to murder Ninagawa if Ninagawa faltered in his commitment to theatre. So, Ninagawa always directs as if 1,000 young men sat in the audience, their knives ready to kill him.

Examine the results of Ninagawa’s commitment and dive into his awe-striking 1980 production The Ninagawa Macbeth. Huang unpacks the opening scene of the Ninagawa Macbeth ( She explains the significance of the performance’s set – a gigantic Buddhist altar.

Ninagawa Macbeth

Many of Ninagawa’s other productions are similarly surprising. Ninagawa’s Pericles opens with the sounds of an aerial bombardment and Ninagawa sets the play in a time after an unidentified war ( This interpretation is refreshingly unconventional, since the play’s text does not explicitly include war. Huang explains all. Early in Ninagawa’s career, he was a heavily political director of controversial new plays. Although he has moved to older material, Ninagawa still retains his desire to explore the themes of war, social unrest, and violent protests.

Ninagawa takes more than a purely academic interest in political and international friction. In fact, as Huang relates, Ninagawa strives to foster intercultural communication through his adaptations. Of course, there is the obvious trans-national connection to Shakespeare. Yet, Ninagawa went even further during his tri-lingual production of Euripides’ play The Trojan Women. Discover how Ninagawa did this, and what happened during that production.



Interview of Ing K, Director of Shakespeare Must Die

Saturday, August 31st, 2013

Interview of Ing K, Director of Shakespeare Must Die, by Colleen Kennedy (PhD Candidate in English, Ohio State University;


1. Shakespeare Must Die was the first and only film to be partially funded by the Culture Ministry’s Office of Contemporary Art and Culture (under Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva). Was this an optimistic moment for the arts? Are there any art projects funded under the new administration of Yingluck Shinawatra?

At least 50 other film projects received this funding. Some for script development, some for production, one for distribution (The 2010 Palme d’Or winner ‘Uncle Boonmee’). Recipients include studio films as well as independent films. In fact the studio films got the lion’s share; the amount also varied greatly. For instance, out of the 200 million baht fund, one big epic, ‘The Legend of King Naresuan’ received 49 million; and ‘Headshot’ by Penek Rattanaruang got at least 8 million. Most received between 5 and 1 million. Our 3 million is therefore on the lower-middle end.  (30 baht = 1 USD)

So no, ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ is most definitely NOT the only film funded by the Abhisit government’s film fund under the Creative Thailand Fund (the Thai name, Thai Khem Khaeng Fund, literally means “Fund to Strengthen Thais”.  For industrial applications, to increase the value of goods by improving the design; for cultural and educational projects, to stop the dumbing down of the population). ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ was in fact the very LAST film to receive funding (though not the last to be finished; many other projects remain unfinished at this time, August 2013) , as some funding committee members were concerned about our depiction of the regicide scene.

(A few years back, Bangkok Opera got into absurdist trouble with the Cultural Ministry over its production of the ‘Ramayana’. They were told not to portray Rama’s slaying of the Demon King on stage. He might be a demon, but he was still a king, went the argument. The Ramayana! They were not banned from doing so, but would not be allowed to use the Ministry’s prestigious venue. The ministry claimed that it was against tradition to kill a king on stage. This is entirely false. I distinctly remember seeing this very scene on stage at the National Theatre. This shows how unpredictable it can be. The film ‘Suriyothai’, a historical epic, has very graphic scenes of regicide.)

So we had to shoot the scene and show them all the uncut footage before they would approve our funding. No other applicant had to do this. Everyone else only had to submit a synopsis and treatment. We told them that we would stick to Shakespeare’s staging of the scene, namely, that everything happens off-stage: all we see are their bloody hands, all we hear are their thoughts.  Just as Shakespeare intended, I believe, since the focus is not the murder but its effects on the Macbeths, before and after.

After viewing this footage, they were convinced of our Shakespearean sincerity, some even commending that it was in fact a moral undertaking because it “explores the nature of sin and karmic retribution”.

Therefore, far from being a ‘propaganda film funded by the Eton and Oxford-educated Evil Elite Royalist Abhisit to make fun of Champion of Democracy Thaksin’, as claimed by Thaksin apologists, ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ was actually the most scrutinised film and barely received the funding at the very last minute.

The Democrat Party is highly unlikely to choose me as their propagandist! My first fictional feature, ‘My Teacher Eats Biscuits’ was banned in 1998 by the Democrat government, Abhisit’s party (though he was just an MP, not the PM at the time). Unless you’d insist that by revealing the truth about the tourism/real estate and golf course industries, I made green propaganda films, I can honestly, and proudly, say that I have never made a propaganda film. Most other Thai filmmakers have, including well-known festival darlings who now portray themselves as anti-royalist and therefore democratic. Even Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Penek Rattanaruang have made government-funded films extolling the king. (Not part of the same film fund but a series of shorts funded by the Cultural Ministry to glorify the king’s 60 years on the throne, a project called ‘Nhang Nai Luang’—“The King Movies”, a way to make propaganda sound cool, with cool shorts from cool filmmakers.) No one would dream of approaching me to join such projects. I just wouldn’t do it. It would make me physically ill. Nothing against the king, but such overkill glorification is detrimental to society and the monarchy itself. I think such projects only provoke an understandable backlash.

The Creative Thailand film fund was the first and last of its kind, open to all types of film and filmmakers, without a stated theme (such as to extol the king or save the environment). It no longer exists; the Yingluck government has no film fund. It’s not very interested in our mental improvement.


2. Why did the Ministry of Culture fund this particular film? Did you apply for funding? Were you approached by the Culture Ministry? If the latter, why?

Please see above. No, we were not approached; we were in fact barely tolerated!


3. Even before Shakespeare Must Die, you were known as a provocative filmmaker.  Your documentary titles Thailand for Sale (1991), Green Menace: The Untold Story of Golf (1993) and Casino Cambodia (1994) all demonstrate your ability to highlight and portray the problems of Thai society. Your film My Teacher Eats Biscuits was banned from a film festival for its “depravity.” How does Shakespeare Must Die fit into your oeuvre?

I switched from print journalism to filmmaking because I needed to show rather than tell. As the first writer to focus on environmental problems in Thailand, at a time (1980’s) when the environment was not yet considered real news in the world, I often encountered scepticism and antagonism from editors. They just wouldn’t believe that things could be so bad.

The advent of Hi 8 video made filmmaking accessible to outsiders like me. ‘Thailand for Sale’ (which I wrote and narrated but didn’t direct, for the BBC and the Television Trust for the Environment) and ‘Green Menace’ are obviously straight-forward visual extensions of my green investigative journalism. ‘Casino Cambodia’, initially about Cambodia becoming a casino for the world’s speculators as armed conflict ended, came from my further past as a UNHCR volunteer in a Cambodian refugee camp on the Thai border. Ultimately, it poses the question: who gets the right to write the accepted version of history? Henry Kissinger is not demonised like Pol Pot; instead he gets the Nobel Peace prize–why?

‘My Teacher Eats Biscuits’ seems a weird departure from all this seriousness. It was my experiment to make a 16 mm film with a very low budget; it was actually the first independent Thai film, made by people totally outside the system. I wrote a script around what I had or what I could beg and borrow, so my dog became the arch villain, a sacred dog worshipped as His Holiness in a New Age ashram. I wanted to examine the nature of rationalisation, of worship and belief. I had the mistaken trust that a comedy would get away with more. It turned out that people get even angrier when you make them laugh in spite of themselves.

In the above list you left out ‘Citizen Juling’, my documentary about the unrest in the Muslim-majority South of Thailand, which centred on an idealistic  young Buddhist teacher from the North who volunteered to teach art in the war zone of the south and was beaten into a coma, apparently by enraged Muslim housewives (untrue—turns out they were male terrorists in burqas). This film, permeated with a terrible sense of loss, consumed me with its grief, and when it was rejected by every documentary festival under the sun, the only way I could deal with it was to set myself an overwhelming task, my version of a Herculean labour, namely to translate ‘Macbeth’ into Thai. The sheer difficulty (perhaps impossibility) of it would leave me with no idle brain space for unproductive thinking.

I thought it would take years. But the task gripped me utterly and after locking myself away for four months, not just the straight translation but the whole script was done. (Oddly, as soon as this was done, ‘Citizen Juling’ was invited to Toronto and Berlin Film Festivals out of the blue.) ‘Macbeth’ as ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ is a totally natural outflow, of blood and tears if you will, from our conversations with the grief-stricken people of the South, Muslims and Buddhists, who have suffered most from Thaksin’s rule by fear and violence.

While Thaksin’s crimes did inspire me to reread and then translate the world’s best-known study of tyranny, in my mind were also all the local mafia figures in nearly every Thai village who rule with fear. Thaksin is just their overlord. According to Human Rights Watch researcher Sunai Phasuk as well as other sources, many people believe that Thaksin (who had been a police colonel—he studied criminology in Texas–before becoming a telecommunications billionaire and then politician) achieved his monopoly on Thai tyranny by getting rid of all opposing local influential figures, many of whom were local canvassers for other political parties, through his War on Drugs, which killed at least 2,500 people in police-perpetrated extra-judicial killings, including women and children. My killing of Lady Macduff and her child comes straight from this: the official-looking checkpoint on a lonely road at night, the menacing group of men in uniform-like safari suits. Thaksin’s (and his wife’s) well-known interest in the occult is by the way; all tyrants seem to share this supernatural interest: Hitler, Idi Amin, Hun Sen, Burma’s Than Shwee, you name it. It’s hard to find one tyrant who was or is not into the occult.

I first encountered ‘Macbeth’ as a 15 year old at school in England. My English was barely serviceable at the time. But the play has haunted me all my life. Tyranny in the form of bullies is a fact of most people’s life; my own childhood was rich with them, so they have always fascinated me.


4. Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn claims that you are denied your rightful place as a Thai filmmaker, as a female director, and as director of cult films, and goes on to compare My Teacher Eats Biscuits to John Waters’ Pink Flamingoes. Could you comment on the following description of your film?

I now realise that to call My Teacher Eats Biscuits a dangerous, depraved film, is the equivalent of the Thai government accusing Pink Flamingoof national treachery, or of clinging to the logic that the films of Paul Morrissey have the power to destroy religion.That’s because My Teacher Eats Biscuits is a ‘cult’ film in the spirit of John Waters. It’s low-budget, stars friends of the filmmaker, and is shot in the back of somebody’s house. The resulting film is one that had myself and a group of friends helplessly laughing every five minutes when we finally got to see it.

Was this film ever officially released? What is the status of this film?

I do love John Waters. He showed me and other guerrilla filmmakers of my generation how it was possible to make a film without real actors and with very little money. The key is to write dialogue that would sound funny even when recited, deadpan. I didn’t consciously copy ‘Pink Flamingo’ otherwise, except perhaps to force my lead actor (now a bona fide movie star but this was his first movie) to eat dog shit (actually just mashed up candied durian).  The film has not been released. It exists as one 16 mm print. It premiered at the Hawaii International Film Festival before it was banned.

Many people have suggested that I should resubmit the film to the censors. That would have to wait for the end of the ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ and ‘Censor Must Die’ struggle. It would be too exhausting otherwise. However, along with the fact that these are the worst times for Thai freedom of expression in my living memory, it’s unlikely to pass for a very odd reason. In recent years, some ultra-royalists have taken to wearing pink to show their love for the king. The ashramites in the film wear pink and kowtow to a dog. They might even say I’m depicting the king as a dog, even though this film was made years before all this colour-coded nonsense. My actors wear pink because it’s the Ashram of Boundless Love. If they had worn red, no doubt they’d say I’m depicting Thaksin as a dog. When people see everything through the prism of propaganda, you can’t win; to argue with them is a total waste of energy.

Last year someone suggested to the National Film Archive to include this film, the first shoestring independent Thai film, in their list of national film heritage, but their committee rejected it. Not serious enough, probably.

My style does seem to change from film to film, because surely the style must serve the story. I work with the limitations that I have and make them work for me.


5. Can you tell us briefly about Shakespeare Must Die? Why use Macbeth as your source? What is it about Shakespeare that transcends time and space?

As for the title, Shakespeare must die because true artists (as represented by Shakespeare), by their very existence, threaten tyranny’s sense of security by shaking their flimsy constructs and versions of reality; by tyrants I mean those who would rule the world with fear and lies.

The film’s use of the Shakespearean play within a play device is appropriate as well as being affordable. It would’ve been delicious to have tanks in the streets, helicopter shots of Macbeth on a penthouse terrace over the Bangkok skyline at sunset etc., but that is not within our reach, so I couldn’t write that script. Cheap swords on a stage would have to work somehow, and the only way for that to work is to stage such scenes on a theatrical stage. The fake theatrical violence then serves to emphasize, by contrast, our bloody ending of a realistic lynching (of the play’s director) with echoes of the bloodiest chapter in contemporary Thai history (October 6 massacre in 1976, when a mob, incited by lying propagandists to become enraged by a protest play at Thammasaat University, massacred student protesters, Rwanda-style—some girls were staked through the heart like vampires. At least I didn’t depict that—perhaps I should have. I do imply it with a brief shot of two girls backing away from a threatening group of men.)

Shakespeare transcends time and space because, one: he’s just so damned good, regardless of all this clever postmodern deconstruction, this plague of pseudo-intellectual profundity in contemporary art today, any truthful person can recognise truth and beauty (as in John Keats) when they experience it; two: his subject is the human soul and he has the gift of ecstasy; three: he deliberately and joyously plays with time and space, through his sudden gear-shifting from one dimensional reality to another without any warning nor excuses; his trippy visuals; his synaesthesia; his magic (literally, as in invoking, incantational power), so much so that his world view, or view of the whole cosmos, is more akin to quintessential Hinduism, Buddhism and Sufism than his own cultural context of social Christianity. Naked Hindu mystics on the banks of the Ganges are more likely to understand and relate to Shakespeare than the average Englishman today. His structural reality (and lack thereof) is universal, therefore. To me, Shakespeare is not only a poet, the poet, of unimaginable power, he is also a prophet, as great or greater than most accepted religious and philosophical figures. (Now you see why I should be burned at the stake.) His art leads us to self-knowledge and divine communion in the deepest sense.

While I was astonished that it took me only four months of total immersion to translate ‘Macbeth’ into Thai, I soon realised this was because there is something innately universal, quintessential, about his music, his rhythm, his very sound. Like the Hindu mystics (and the bible, actually), I do perceive the physical universe as the manifestation of sound: “OM”; “the music of the spheres”; “In the beginning was the word.” That’s why I worked so hard to keep Shakespeare’s sound. Interestingly, I had terrible problems with some passages, which I later found were suspected by some to be later additions to the original play.


6. Is Shakespeare an aspect of the Thai educational system? Are there Shakespearean theatre companies or other cinematic adaptions of Shakespeare’s works popular in Thailand? How and why does Shakespeare speak to or for modern Thailand?

Shakespeare is part of the syllabus for the last two years of high school, but only for those on the liberal arts course rather than the sciences. They learn from King Vajiravudh’s (first world war era) translations of ‘Merchant of Venice’ and ‘As You Like It’. (This was a man who should’ve been a writer/poet rather than king. He was a genuinely gifted poet but he bankrupted the country.) They are not direct translations but ornately rendered into a very rigid form of Thai poetry called the verse of eight. It’s a virtuoso performance, a genuine achievement; one particular part (“The quality of mercy is not forced…”, which he translates as “Un Kwarm Garuna Pranee/ Ja Mee Krai Bangkup goh hamai”) has entered the stream of common usage, but nothing else has. We can’t relate to it because it doesn’t sound like speech. It’s not easy or natural for actors to say. He directed and even performed in them himself at court, using not real actors but his intimate circle; the performances were not for the public. They haven’t caught on despite being part of the high school syllabus.

Real Shakespearean studies exist only at university level, where they actually study Shakespeare’s original texts.

No, there are no Shakespearean theatre companies, though one theatre group recently staged a loose adaptation of Lear called ‘Lear and His 3 Daughters’. Chulalongkorn University (the Thai equivalent of Harvard)’s Liberal Arts School staged the only nearly full-length (cutting out the ‘boring’ and problematic ‘English scene’ with Malcolm and Macduff which discusses the divine right of kings) performance of ‘Macbeth’ while we were still editing our film, using our Macduff as their Macduff and our Macbeth as their Lennox. It was directed by one of their lecturers, Noppamas Waewhongse (not sure about the correct spelling, just a straight transliteration), who used her own translation, which she did years ago. Since it hadn’t been published, I wasn’t aware until I was casting the film that there was already a translation by a Chula liberal arts professor. The actors told me about it. Macbeth had been an obsession of hers for years; I met her once and her joy in it was obvious.  A news talk show tried to use her to discredit me, but they didn’t expect us to get on so well, because of our common obsession.

They put us together on TV, to find out why her play was attended by the king’s daughter and upset no one, while my film was doubly banned (once by the censors then by the actual Film Board). She said it was because she stuck to Shakespeare and set it in 11th Century Scotland, with authentic armour and costumes. I said if I were to do that, I’d have to shoot in Scotland, the budget would be extreme, and besides there would be no point. Those films have been made; they’re not my story to tell.

My aim was to make an emotionally and spiritually authentic ‘Macbeth’, that brings the joys of Shakespeare to Thai people who must at the same time be able to relate to it. That’s why I changed Norway, England and Scotland to censor-taunting obvious mythic names from the realm of poetry and fantasy like Shangrilla, Atlantis and Xanadu. This is very much a Thai folk opera tradition. (I love ‘likay’, or Thai folk opera. They’re travelling theatre groups equipped with not much more than two canvas backdrops, usually one of a throne room and one of a forest, with singers/dancers/actors in fantastical sequin-encrusted costumes, including since the 19th century Western ballgowns and Napoleonic coats. I took liberally from likay but, since I was making a Shakespearean film for Thai people rather than to seduce international curators, decided against the outright exploitation of such Thai exotica as it would get in the way. For, say, Midsummer, it could be fun.

Thailand, or Siam by its true, pre-fascist name, is nearly unique historically in that it was never colonised by Western empires. (Don’t worry, the West got its revenge on the king who kept them off his land by caricaturing him as Yul Brynner, Rex Harrison and Chow Yoon Fat in Hollywood and on Broadway.) Indian society, for instance, has a close relationship and familiarity with English literature, especially Shakespeare.

Most Thai people do not speak a second language. Shakespeare is heard of as a name, a ‘high-end brand’, like Gucci or Chanel. That’s why it was so exciting to attempt such a challenge, in the most ideal conditions, impossible elsewhere, to perform Shakespeare with actors who would speak every word “as if for the first time”. One girl looked up from the script after trying out for Lady M and said, with genuine wonder, “Oh my God, what a character this woman is. I love her. I’ve never seen such dialogue.”  (She was reading “The Raven himself..” and “I have given suck..dash the brains out.” Alas she did not get the part.)

‘Shakespeare Must Die’ is the first and so far only Thai cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare. But because of the ban and no one has seen it, you really have to say there’s been no Thai Shakespearean film and there won’t be any if the court decides against us.

The appeal of Macbeth to the Thai public is obvious. We are living under a real live Macbeth, albeit one with an army of international spindoctors; we are living through Shakespearean times and the world beyond our borders does not know it. High drama in the streets, in the courts, in parliament, everywhere we go. Rage and hatred, operatic villainy, extreme fear and violence, spindoctors staging obscene plays within the play, piling lies upon lies, you name it. The play also contains, in the so-called ‘English scene’, a discussion on the divine right of kings, of leaders and rulers of men, which is the discussion we desperately need now.

I’m quite unrepentant. I went in with my eyes open, fully aware of the sensitive nature of my choice of play. Its relevance is the very reason to do it. It’s absurd that we’re not allowed to film a play that’s taught to 15 year old school children in English-speaking countries all over the world.  It would be obscene to surrender to such a silly fear, even if—surely, especially when—the threats arising from this silly fear are very real.


7. Shakespeare Must Die is labeled a horror film. Can you elaborate? Is Macbeth a horror story? Is your adaptation more apt to be labeled horror? How so?

Like many people, I think Macbeth is the archetype of the horror genre. (The Odyssey is full of monsters, it’s true, but it’s an adventure story rather than a horror story, the blood wedding notwithstanding.) On the surface witches, dark prophecy, hallucinations, apparitions and the slaughter of innocents; then beneath that exotic manifestation we have the real horrors of spiritual corruption, guilt, insanity and torment, the ultimate horror being of course the loss of his “eternal jewel”. As the first Thai version of Macbeth, for an audience that’s mostly never heard of it, I felt the film had to deliver the eye of newt and toe of frog, both as gleeful Hallowe’en fun and as a device to emphasise, by contrast, the true horror of the Macbeths’ disintegration, again as I believe Shakespeare intended. Witches for a laugh and Lady M for shivers.

To be honest, I’d always longed to make a horror film. People have often told me that all my films including the dog-god black comedy have been horror movies at heart. As a horror movie junkie, I’m not offended. It is a genre that allows free exploration of the soul; heaven and hell, good and evil. Sacred texts like the Ramayana is at times a horror epic, not least because the hero makes his wife walk through fire to prove her fidelity. The bible has incredible horror scenes. It’s not a genre that’s taken seriously because it’s so enjoyable.

8. What are your inspirations or filmmakers (especially Shakespearean) you consulted when working on this project?

One major source of inspiration for ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ was TV melodrama: Thai soap operas and Mexican telenovelas gave the film its look and vibe (though with Caravaggio colours and lighting). This makes it instantly accessible for the soap-addicted Thai audience. The shock is also greater when it is delivered through this familiar guise. Where they expect mental comfort food served by vacuous TV stars mouthing inane TV scripts, they get, instead, powerful actors speaking Shakespeare’s intense words.

For its inner truth, I decided to trust the text unreservedly, no matter how unfashionable or scary that might turn out to be. I tried to be as free of preconceptions from existing Shakespearean cinema as possible, and did not show any Shakespearean film to my cast and crew. I didn’t want them to try to sound ‘Shakespearean’, but just to revel in the actual text. This was easier than it sounds as I haven’t actually seen that many Shakespearean films. I suppose my favourite Shakespearean film would be the Richard 3rd film set in 1930’s fascist England starring Sir Ian McKellen. I love Kurosawa’s Lady M, and the opening scene of Polansky’s ‘Macbeth’, with the witches spitting into a noose on a Scottish beach. I’ve been told that Orson Welles’ version is the only one that doesn’t delete the ‘English scene’, and I’d love to see his treatment of it, but I haven’t seen it yet.


9. How can a 400-year old Shakespearean play cause such controversy? Now? In another country? Can you comment on the censorship concerning depictions of the Thai monarchy?

I’ll answer the last part first, as it’s crucial to understanding. ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ was not banned out of fear of the monarchy. It was banned out of fear of Thaksin Shinawatra.

As I explained earlier, we had to show uncut footage of the regicide scene before they’d fund us. They even praised the footage and greenlighted the money. That was under the previous government, a ‘royalist government’. So the Yingluck Shinawatra administration could not, cannot, use that old chestnut against us. The incredible scrutiny, meted out to no other film project, that we received from the Cultural Ministry during the funding process has turned out to be a blessing. Because of it, this government was robbed of its favoured tool, Article 112 or Lese Majeste law, which the Thaksin juggernaut exploits to burnish his ‘democratic’ credentials while soiling the king with a tar brush. Even so, as the ban made international news, Thaksin’s spindoctors did their best to portray that it was banned because of the king. You can read their handiwork in the news slant. It didn’t matter what I said, the story was already written to fit the Thaksin script. As a former journalist, I knew that, but there was nothing I could do about it.

I am not fond of Article 112; my family has suffered greatly from it, has even joined a campaign to amend this law. Now that it has become a much-abused political tool, all true reformers have been forced to retreat; we’d just get lumped in with Thaksin’s red shirts. Deliberate Thaksinite provocations (such as by uploading on YouTube a picture of the king with someone’s feet above him, which provoked the predictable hue and cry to force the Abhisit government to object and thereby appearing to be less ‘free’ than Thaksin) have also caused ultra-royalists to become hyper-sensitive. When Abhisit, as PM, said 112 should be amended, their reaction was so strong that he instantly retreated and has not mentioned it again. All thinking people in Thai society are stuck between Scylla and Charybdis.

The greatest irony is the king himself has publicly spoken against this law, on TV, broadcast nationally, on record.  But never mind him. Things that deviate from the script must not exist. Like the film censorship law which was ostensibly designed to protect the public from social poison but ends up harming the people by blind-folding them, the lese majeste law is meant to protect the monarchy and therefore national unity (as in “The king and the land are one so the king can/must do no wrong”), but its effects have been to harm the monarchy and divide the land. Who is the beneficiary?

The old divide and conquer strategy has been as fruitful for Thaksin and his corporate colonial cohorts as it was for the Western colonial powers in these savage lands. Thaksin would be the last to desire the amendment of Article 112. The knee-jerk reactions of ultra-royalists play straight into his hands.

The simplistic script as written by his spindoctors, and as slavishly followed by the international press, is this: Thais are not individuals with our own thoughts; Thais can be divided neatly into evil elite royalists and brave Thaksin democrats. People like me are inconvenient to such spin, so we cannot be allowed to exist. Thus ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ is banned not only domestically but, through such spin, internationally. A business tycoon first and foremost, Thaksin thoroughly understands and exploits ‘soft power’; he’s smarter than the Iranian mullahs. I may not be in jail like Jafar Panahi, but in some ways I’ve been more banned than even him.

Thaksin’s best known spindoctor is Lord Tim Bell, whose most celebrated client was Margaret Thatcher. (This is why our fembot clone PM Yingluck was celebrated as one of the world’s great women by Newsweek, alongside Aung San Suu Kyi and Hilary Clinton.) I’m sure this is why BBC and CNN didn’t touch the story of the banning of Shakespeare in Thailand, though Al Jazeera covered us twice. This is why the AP wire story was removed from the New York Times website not long after it appeared there—it never made it into print, of course. This is why BBC radio in London immediately cut short their interview with me the second I replied that no, we were not banned because it offended the king. I’d done other, formally set up interviews with the BBC, TV and radio, before. Normally it’s set up in their local office. BBC radio in London must’ve seen the wire story and decided to do the story themselves, so this was not set up in their office. I could hear the interviewer’s surprise at my answer and the sudden ending of the interview, as if someone came in and instantly shut it down.

Macbeth’s relevance to contemporary Thai society is almost literal: a man of insatiable greed for power who sets himself up as an enemy to the king. That’s why it had to be a faithful adaptation, an extreme close-reading even, of Shakespeare. The usual cinematic solution of Macbeth as a gangster, say, would be a coy distraction. It has to be political for these words to make sense: “Alas poor country, almost afraid to know itself. It cannot be called our mother but our grave…”  Ross’ lament is the reason I made ‘Shakespeare Must Die’. It’s even our theme song.

As for the depiction of Thai monarchy, filmmakers have mostly avoided it. This is because the visible and invisible rules are so unpredictable and the law is often used to discriminate against opponents. This means avoiding political and historical stories. That vast store is off-limit to us, incredible as it may seem.


10. Who has seen Shakespeare Must Die? Censor Must Die? (art galleries, international viewings, etc. I’ve seen that the Asian Shakespeare Association, for example, will screen the film at its conference)

Much of this I’ll answer along with question 11.

It’s funny to think now that while we were making the film, the people we feared most were not the censors but Shakespeareans, since I’m no Shakespearean scholar but an art school drop-out making a horror movie. As it turns out, most of the moral support we’ve received has come from Shakespeareans. Apart from local Shakespeareans, Professor Mark Burnett of Queen’s University, Belfast and the Indian director Rustom Bharucha have seen the film and given us wonderful feedback. Rustom Bharucha will hold a talk with me after the Asian Shakespeare conference screening. This should go ahead unless they too are deluged by emails from Thai Studies types, warning them not to show an anti-democratic evil elite propaganda film…(see below)


11. Are there possibilities of the film(s) being screened at international film festivals (such as Cannes, the Toronto International Film festival, etc.)?

No, there is absolutely no possibility of ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ being shown at Cannes, Toronto, Venice, Berlin etc. None, and not because it’s a crappy movie. I stand by this comment absolutely.

All, and I mean all, Asian cinema presented at the world’s great film festivals are controlled by the same small group of curators. They send scouts to our third world countries on film selection trips. (Such scouts even tell people how to cut their films. If you don’t obey the dictates of their tastes, you do not ‘go international’. That is why East Asian films shown at festivals are of the same type. This wouldn’t be so bad if local critics, colonially-shackled and lacking confidence, didn’t take their cue from these festivals. Thus entire national cinematic cultures are sacrificed at the altar of the festival circuit. I refuse to do this, so I do have this monolith against me as well as the Thaksin machine. If I had made my witches screechy ‘lady boys’, a Thai cliché, life might’ve been easier.)

The Cannes scout did come to my editing room. He said: “The politics are too specific.” He also “hated” my M and Lady M. Also, why make such a faithful Shakespeare adaptation, how unimaginative of me, how can I hope to compete with “real Shakespearean actors like Judy Dench etc.” as if we the savages have no right to ‘do’ Shakespeare unless we exoticise it, local colour being our only conceivable and acceptable contribution to Shakespearean cinema.

After we were banned, a French sales rep with Cannes connections asked for a DVD; he was initially ecstatic about the film and its chance of getting in at the last minute. Then silence. It was definitely shown to the selection committee. They would’ve consulted the scout in any case.

The Venice scout adored the film in the editing room, said it should be in competition blah blah, told me to rush the film’s completion for him, then at the last moment sends an email that it was not good enough to show to the selection committee, even saying that “the subtitles are in such weird, old-fashioned English”. The subtitles are of course the original text, “the work of one William Shakespeare”, as I put it to him.

Berlin, which had shown our ‘Citizen Juling’ not long before, said ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ “does not fit into our theme”—if we hadn’t been rejected, ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ would’ve been in Berlin the same year ‘Caesar Must Die’ won the Golden Bear.

Toronto asked for a DVD, then silence. None of which surprised me as the aforementioned Cannes film scout is also consulted by Berlin and Toronto, both of which that year, last year, showed just one Thai film, the same film, ‘Headshot’, a gunman movie incidentally co-produced by the very same film scout (and also funded by the Creative Thailand Film Fund, 8 million).

The very recent case of ‘Boundary’, a documentary described by many as sympathetic to Thaksin as it tells essentially the same version of events as Thaksin’s sister’s government, illustrates my point succinctly. It was the only Thai film at this year’s Berlinale. It was co-produced by Thai Palme d’Or winner Aphichartpong Weerasethakul and the same Cannes film scout (though he’s credited only as a Thank You) and funded by numerous Western film funds whose logos appear on film. After its Berlinale premiere, it was submitted to censors. What happens next says it all.

‘Boundary’ was at first banned by a censors’ committee headed by the most senior bureaucrat (non-politician) in the Ministry of Culture who accused it of distortion—a serious charge for a documentary. Unlike with ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ which was just vaguely charged of being a threat to national security, for the ‘Boundary’ ban the censors had a proper long list of their objections, minute by minute. (I haven’t seen it and can’t give my opinion, though I don’t believe in the banning of any film. People whose opinion I respect have gone so far as to describe it as a ‘red shirt film’ and ‘hate-speech’. I’m sorry to say I was invited to the local premiere but didn’t go. I’m too angry with this government to expose myself to unnecessary aggravation.)

Even so, in no time (just over 24 hours) the ban on ‘Boundary’ was suddenly lifted. This is legally impossible. Normally you have to file an appeal to the Film Board to reverse a ban; you have to do this within 15 days then the Film Board takes another 30 days to decide. These people hadn’t even filed an appeal. The censors actually phoned the director to “apologise for the misunderstanding”. The film then received an 18 rating (for those 18 and older), which is not even the highest rating (20), which the appeal committee told us to expect for ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ (and which we didn’t get, receiving instead an 18 to 4 vote to uphold the censors’ ban, along with additional charges of being a disgrace to good public morality and national dignity).  To save face, the censors told them to mute some harmless sound from a scene of a celebration for the king’s birthday, so that it appears to have been banned for less than 2 days in order not to offend the king.

The ‘Boundary’ ban reversal is a great embarrassment for many. For us it’s a boon as we’ve been able to use it, as further irrefutable evidence of discrimination and political interference, to bolster our administrative court case. Also, we’ll be able to cite it if they do decide to ban our utterly truthful and factual documentary, ‘Censor Must Die’.

When ‘Citizen Juling’ was taken in hand by the same powerful film scout and invited to both Toronto and Berlin, he told me that when the title appeared on Toronto’s list of films in its official announcement, the festival was “deluged” with emails from Thai Studies academics, American professors at US universities whom he would not name, telling them to scrap ‘Citizen Juling’ from the programme—“You cannot show such an anti-democratic film” is one example as quoted by the film scout. Yes, the word used was not ‘undemocratic’ but ‘anti-democratic’, as in anti-Christ. “But the festival has decided to stand by your film,” was his conclusion then.

I have no proof that festivals received similar emails about ‘Shakespeare Must Die’, but given the film’s far-higher profile and Thai politics’ further infernal descent since then, as well as the merry go round of ecstatic-then-silent reactions, it’s not unreasonable to assume that they did. I do have an actual eye-witness to one incident: the director of a prominent contemporary art museum “furiously” told a film festival at that venue to remove the film from their list, “because we can’t upset another country’s government.”  (I only happened to hear of it because the girl who was “screamed at in the middle of the museum office” is friends with an artist I know well.)

People aware of the situation did try to save us. In the end we screened at one festival in Seoul described as “middle-level but fiercely independent” called CinDi, where people sat around muttering stories about “the festival mafia”, even as members of that mafia appeared at the parties and at least one sat on the jury. CinDi was set up to fight the mafia, but now it no longer exists; that was the last edition. I’ve been told we got great press, but alas I can’t read Korean.


11. Last year, 37 plays in different languages from different countries came to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. The Guardian was running a feature asking directors and actors “Why Shakespeare is … French/German/South African, etc.?” So, I ask you “Why Shakespeare is …  Thai…”

The fact that they banned our film shows how very Thai Shakespeare is.

Shakespeare transcends cultural differences because his focus is the universal human soul. He is especially relevant for Thai people because we are literally living through Shakespearean times.


12. In your public panel discussion on “Art and Censorship” (given at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, 5 July 2012), the language that you use to describe Thai censorship and media control sounds very much like a dystopian novel: the popularity of mindless entertainment shows such as reality TV and game shows, the commercialization and politicization of dumbed down media, and, of course, the banning of difficult and intelligent films that may force viewers to think. Is Thailand heading into Orwellian territory here? What can be done to create smart, demanding, and problematic film and television options? Are there other filmmakers, directors, or artists that you feel are really pushing against this?

Of course we are in Orwellian territory. Bangkok has become the city with the highest number of facebook users in the world because under the Thaksin regime everything else is so heavily censored and spinned. But now Thai people can’t even speak freely on Facebook.

I’m not exaggerating. Thailand’s best loved political cartoonist, Chai Rachawat, an elderly man, is fighting a libel case, brought against him by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, in criminal court, for a comment on his own facebook page. He was just letting off steam over a speech she made abroad with the line: “A prostitute sells only her body, but an evil woman sells out her whole country.” It’s not a cartoon in a newspaper, just a somewhat sexist personal comment to his facebook friends. He didn’t even name her. In another case this very week, the computer crimes police are interrogating four people including the senior political commentator at Thai PBS TV, for “spreading rumours of a coup d’etat” on his facebook page. He’d said that it was unlikely to happen.

Another example, a personal one. Last week at the last minute I was asked to be on a talk show at Thai PBS to defend the evil media against a family values media watchdog. It was obvious they couldn’t get anyone else to sit in the hot seat. The Family Foundation woman was upset with the dangerous behaviour of young people as portrayed by a cable TV series called ‘Hormones’, you know, kids taking drugs, sex and highly daring full frontal close-ups of bloody sanitary pads. (She was especially upset by that.)The damnedest thing that I should’ve been the one chosen to defend the very fortress that keeps me out. The director of the series, a famous film director, should’ve been the one to answer her, and I’m sure they tried but his producers must’ve told him not to feed the controversy. I haven’t even seen the series.

They did try but failed to get the president of the Thai Directors Association, Tanwarin Sukhapisit, whose film ‘Insects in the Backyard’ was banned for obscenity. She bravely fought the ban and was the first filmmaker to sue the censors in both the Administrative Court and the Constitution Court. (These courts did not exist when ‘My Teacher Eats Biscuits’ was banned.) She gave us the nerve to do the same, and stood by us as we went through the process. She used to be extremely outspoken, but she has since become very successful, making films for the biggest studio. This means she now has a lot to lose and has probably been told by studio handlers to downplay the warrior image. As directors’ guild president, she has vowed to continue campaigning for the end of the banning clause. (Our legal teams, along with Banjong Kosalawat, a distinguished director who has been fighting the banning clause for thirty years, have joined forces to propose a new film law.) Tanwarin lost her case at the Constitution Court (to interpret the banning clause as being unconstitutional), but her Administrative Court case, like ours, is still pending. We didn’t file with the Constitution Court—our more experienced human rights lawyer said it would hold everything up and be a waste of time.

Thai PBS ended up calling Manit Sriwanichpoom, my producer, who really couldn’t go. Normally he’s our spokesman, unless it’s in English. He told me I had to do it or no other filmmaker will defend our rights. In this climate of fear and rage, everyone’s afraid for their careers; I’m the only one with nothing left to lose but life and liberty. Manit is the one who’s actually had to face the censors and the film board in our fight to free ‘Shakespeare Must Die’, while I followed him around with a camera as a witness. He’s the star of ‘Censor Must Die’. But that day he really wasn’t free.

There was also a police psychologist and a media academic. The taping went fine. Except that when they aired it, they cut out everything I said about corruption (as in “Thai society’s concept of morality has been so distorted by fascist cultural engineering that we get upset by tops with spaghetti straps, though our quite recent ancestors wore even less; meanwhile a recent survey says 65% of Thais accept corruption so long as they personally benefit…We’re barking up the wrong tree.”), or anything else remotely connected with the Yingluck administration. This was a programme called ‘Thiang Hai Ru Ruang’ (“debate for clarity”), sponsored by a German foundation, to help to heal divisions in Thai society. So much for clarity.

I also said instead of fearfully banning evil, we should promote thought-provoking media and remove censorship so such media could flourish. Censorship is the very reason our media products are so bad; we’re prevented from touching real drama; our story-telling is so limited hence the prevalence of these slap-and-kiss fests that the Family Foundation is so concerned about. They cut that too. I said Tanwarin’s film is not porn as it was not made for sexual arousal; it’s a sad movie about love-starved people who try to fill their lives with sex and just get even sadder. You have to see the maker’s intent. They cut that too.

The show has an infantile gimmick: they tell “the opposing sides” to shake hands at the end. It was like a sitcom, so I hugged her instead. Ah, reconciliation achieved. I told you this long-winded story to show from my personal experience how out of fear even Thai PBS censors itself and collaborates with the spin.

Art and theatre have remained under their radar so far. Nevertheless, in a subtle way, Thaksin’s spindoctors are causing damage and distortion to Thai contemporary art. Now that every artist knows that the sure-fire way to ‘go international’ is to appear to criticise the monarchy or display some other marker of ‘controversy’, ‘democracy’ and ‘political integrity’, that is the way to go.


13. What would you be willing to do to make Shakespeare Must Die be released nationally? If the Censorship Board stated cut out this or that reference or allusion (e.g. the allusion to the 1976 Bangkok student uprising), what could/would you remove without harming the integrity of this film?

That decision is long past. The censors asked for “corrections”, which we refused to make. They objected to so many things: our use of red, Lady M’s jewellery, the lynching scene, on and on and on in a never-ending run-around.

From my contact with them, from their extreme reactions, I believe the thing that’s shaken them to the core is none of these things. Yes, they fear Thaksin, but they also fear William Shakespeare. They’d never seen or heard Shakespeare before, that’s all. This must seem incredible to you. But imagine that you’ve never experienced Shakespeare in any shape or form (except perhaps Zefferelli’s or Baz Luhrman’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’) and never in your own tongue, then suddenly you’re hit on the head with ‘Macbeth’ which, incredibly, is just like your own country. You’ve only ever heard straight-forward, predictable Thai dialogue, then suddenly you’re hit by Lady M, in Thai, but Shakespeare’s words, invoking evil spirits to enter her. Nothing in your life has prepared you for such an assault. It’s in verse but it’s totally natural, and oh so intense. Meanwhile the English subtitles appear, Shakespeare again, floating in and out like a moving Shakespearean graphic novel, emphasizing it still more that it’s the exact translation, no hanky-panky from me.

Perhaps because of our Buddhist background, Thai people tend to mistrust intensity; it’s just not good for your mental health. It’s obvious to me that it just blew their minds. They’d never heard words used like this before; the power and the intensity thrilled and terrified them. You can see this clearly in ‘Censor Must Die’. Manit is convinced that it doesn’t matter what we cut, they’d still feel threatened by it. The most-rewarding response I’ve ever received was from an economics professor after a screening at Chula University, who said he now understands why ‘farangs’ (white foreigners) enjoy Shakespeare. He could never see the point before.

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For a non-Thai audience, I can easily remove the long talky ‘English scene’. I was tempted to remove it even before we shot it, since it’s extremely sensitive politically,  hard to do well and potentially boring: talking heads, a man weeping, discussion on the divine right of kings. Uncinematic and risky in every way. Who wants to touch that? But its relevance for the Thai audience cannot be denied so I couldn’t cut it with a good conscience, out of sheer cowardice. For the Thai audience, I can remove nothing without harming the integrity and impact of the film. Other Thai films have portrayed October 14 and October 6 events. The censors’ objection is not the real one. We are being discriminated against. They only latched onto that scene because, horrors, it’s the October 6 massacre!!!


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14. Is the Censorship Board missing all of the irony of banning your film, which is all about the banning of Shakespeare’s play?

They are too fearful to care about irony.  Manit did point that out to them, but they didn’t care.

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15. Finally, what is the current status of Censor Must Die? When will you hear more about Censorship Board’s decision?

The censors have been silent as the grave. They have until August 22nd (ten more days) to decide the fate of ‘Censors Must Die’, and may or may not summon us for questioning before they do. The ‘Boundary’ farce must tie their hands somewhat. It’s not going to be decided by them in any case. The current Minister of Culture is the husband of the then Minister of Culture (that’s how it works with the Thaksin regime), who looks none too good in the film. A summon is not a good sign, so there’s hope yet.


Sulayman Al-Bassam’s The Speaker’s Progress: Introduction

Friday, July 26th, 2013

The third installment of Sulayman Al-Bassam’s Arab Shakespeare Trilogy premiered in New York in 2011. The Speaker’s Progress used Twelfth Night as a starting point to explore events in the Middle East. The play transformed Shakespeare’s comedy into a satire on the political inertia of the Arab world, and a theatrical metaphor for the mechanisms of dissent.  The production was strongly coloured by the ‘Arab Spring’, the succession of revolts against established regimes that have begun to rise up across the Arab world. Al-Bassam comments:

A new history is finding its voice among the millions across the Arab world who stood up and continue to stand—and fall—for dignity and freedom after decades of shame and oppression. This play, forged at the cusp of these two eras, has the fortune—and the responsibility—to be one of its platforms.

In an unnamed Arab country theatres have been shut down and theatrical performance criminalized. From a lectern, a former theatre producer, played by Al-Bassam himself, explains to the audience that what he is presenting is not a play, but a reconstruction of a 1960s production based on the story of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The costumes and set resemble a scientific rather than an artistic context, with the actors wearing laboratory coats. Men and women remain at a distance from one another. An ominous camera sits in front of the stage, suggesting universal government surveillance.

The 1960s production of Twelfth Night, we understand, had the radical spirit of its time, especially in its irreverence toward moral and political authority.  We see parts of it parts of it in black-and-white film on a large screen onstage, and hear Shakespearean dialogue adapted to a radical contemporary agenda:

Music is the food of love and love is the blood of freedom and freedom is the mother of progress. . . . How can you transform a country if you don’t put women at its center?

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The government-sponsored revival played out on stage tries to empty the performance of any radical sexual or political content. But the actors run into trouble, simply by having a woman dress as a man. Shakespearean drama becomes a metaphor for radical dissent.

The reconstruction is performed by eight actors who are also ‘not actors’, the Speaker emphasizes, but ‘envoys’ from the Tourist Board and the Council of Virtue. Initially the actors obediently deliver the official programme. Gradually they begin to deviate from the script, and wander into politically dangerous territory. They burst into song; women change into dresses and take off their head scarves; they cry ‘Freedom!’  People are arrested; voices are silenced; disobedience repressed. But the energy and humour of the Shakespearean drama continually explodes through the barriers of oppression. The Speakers Progress is Sulayman Al-Bassam’s Arab Spring.

Sulayman Al-Bassam’s The Al-Hamlet Summit: Introduction

Friday, July 26th, 2013


Shakespeare touched the Arab world astonishingly early. In 1608, during the 3rd voyage of the East India Company, on the island of Socotra at the entry to the Gulf of Aden, the crew of the Red Dragon staged a performance of Hamlet, a play then less than a decade old, and published only 5 years previously.  The ship’s captain William Keeling obviously shared Shakespearean interests with his patron (and major East India Company member) the Earl of Southampton (see Holderness and Loughrey, ‘Arabesque’, 2006).

Socotra is now an integral part of the Arab Republic of Yemen; and Hamlet needs of course no introduction. Shortly after the First World War, F.S. Boas conferred on the English Merchant Navy ‘the proud distinction of having been the pioneer in carrying Shakespearean drama into the uttermost ends of the earth’ (Boas, p. 95).  Yemen no longer seems quite so distant from the United Kingdom, but this example of Hamlet exported to the Middle East by agents of a nascent British Empire certainly confirms Michael Neill’s judgement that Shakespeare’s plays were ‘entangled from the beginning with the projects of nation-building, empire and colonization’ (Neill, p. 168)

Shakespeare re-entered the Arab world in the late 19th century as theatre; that is, the plays were translated and adapted specifically to form the repertoire of dramatic companies in Egypt and other Arab countries. Hamlet was first performed in Egypt around 1893, and was immediately popular with local audiences, who had a strong taste for ghosts, revenge and madness. Productions were based on translations derived from 18th century French versions of Shakespeare. Hence the play was radically adapted, with whole scenes deleted and songs introduced; with Hamlet making love to Ophelia in the language of Arab love poetry, and with all obscenity discreetly purged. Above all the play was converted from Shakespeare’s tragedy into a historical romance, in which Hamlet defeats his uncle, ascends the throne, and reigns with the Ghost’s blessing: ‘may you live a joyful life on earth, pardoned in heaven’ (translation by Tanius ‘Abdoh, quoted by Al-Shetawi, p. 44).  The ‘happy ending’ Hamlet of the French versions, though clearly shaped by Enlightenment views of Shakespeare, were actually more faithful to the story of Amleth in Saxo Grammaticus than was the Shakespearean tragedy, just as Nahum Tate’s notorious happy-ending King Lear restored the Lear-tale to its original romance form. In Egypt in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Hamlet flourished as a stage show, independently of textual scholarship, and appeared in radically revised, rewritten, and reconstructed adaptations. Early Arab Shakespeare shared this wide liberty of adaptation with the Restoration and 18th century theatres, where (as David Scott Kastan puts it):

On the stage … Shakespeare was not merely modernized, but aggressively modified to satisfy the expectations of the fashionable audiences that filled the theatres … turned … into a contemporary playwright, at once modern and highbrow, for the theatrical environment in which he was now performed …   (Kastan, p. 14).

This ungenerous view of the Restoration theatre is echoed in Mahmoud Al-Shetawi’s harsh judgement of early Arab Shakespeare: ‘Overall, the early stage productions of Hamlet were crude, vulgarizing Shakespeare’s masterpiece in order to please the illiterate audience’ (Shetawi, p. 46). Alexander Pope said much the same of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Free adaptation from French models continued to be the norm in Arab cultures:  the translation of Hamlet made by Khalil Mutran from the French (1916), in which Hamlet kills Claudius and ascends the throne, remained popular in Egypt for many years.

Shakespeare’s absorption into Middle Eastern culture was not therefore by any means a simple process of imperialist transmission and passive colonial reception. ‘Shakespeare’ wrote Nadia Al-Bahar ‘was transplanted into Arab soil’ (Al-Bahar, p. 13).  ‘Transplanted’ indicates not a simple exchange but a cross-cultural migration across borders, in which the artefact becomes rooted in different soil, and there adapts itself to the local climate and conditions. Hamlet has been ‘assimilated’, said Al-Shetawi, thoroughly woven into the ‘fabric of Arab creative processes’ (p. 60).

Hamlet was continuously produced in Egypt from the late 19th century onwards, in several different translations. This performance tradition did not on the other hand produce a consistent ‘Arab’ interpretation of Hamlet. ‘The play’, writes Al-Shetawi, ‘has always been known to the Arab audience and frequently staged in the Arab world’; but it has also ‘always been adapted to suit the conditions of local Arab theatres and native culture’. Appropriations have for example been sharply divided between heroic and anti-heroic Hamlets: sometime in the late 1970s, Hamlet the romantic freedom fighter of the postcolonial tradition gave way to a series of Hamlets disarmed, impotent and emotionally crippled by the weight of their destiny. These divergences can be seen in  productions and adaptations from Egypt, Syria and Tunisia: Hamlet wakes Up Late (Syria 1976); A Theatre Company Found  a Theatre and Dramatized Hamlet (Tunisia and Jordan 1984); Dance of the Scorpions (Egypt 1989); Forget Hamlet/Ophelia’s Window (Egypt 1994). All these plays deploy technical devices to challenge the norms of conventional theatrical representation; all are sceptical about the power of words to achieve change. Claudius is invariably the powerful Arab despot, while Hamlet is the ‘Arab intellectual, a figure who is commonly portrayed as impotent when it comes to responding positively to the miserable conditions of his country’ (Al-Shetawi, p. 48).

This complex tradition was one of the starting-points for Sulayman Al-Bassam’s The Al-Hamlet Summit, first performed, in Arabic with English surtitles, as part of the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival, in August 2002, where it was awarded the Fringe First Award for excellence and innovation in writing and directing. It was subsequently presented at the 14th Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theatre, in September 2002, where it won Best Performance and Best Director Awards. Subsequently it has played at the Riverside Studios in London (March 2004), the Singapore Arts Festival (June 2005), and at Elsinore Castle in Denmark (August 2005).

The work had previously been through various adaptations of the Shakespeare text, from 2001 onwards, performed by the Zaoum Theatre Company: Hamlet in Kuwait, performed in Kuwait (2001), and The Arab League Hamlet, performed at a festival in Tunisia (2001). The earlier versions were both adaptations of the Shakespeare text.  The Al-Hamlet Summit by contrast jettisoned Shakespeare’s language and rewrote Hamlet into modern English with a strongly Arabic flavour, producing what the author called a ‘cross-cultural construction’ (Al-Bassam 2003). Al-Bassam produced and performed versions in both Arabic and English. This edition for the first time makes available a definitive text of The Al-Hamlet Summit in both English and Arabic.

Al-Bassam’s play maps a Middle Eastern political tragedy onto the template of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The key characters carry Shakespearean names, and occupy parallel situations within their own modern Middle Eastern world. Hamlet’s father, the old ruler, has been poisoned, and his position usurped by Claudius his brother, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Saddam Hussein. Gertrude and Ophelia, Polonius and Laertes all play roles comparable to those of their Shakespearean namesakes, but redomesticated into an Islamic Arab context.  The regime is threatened, as Denmark is threatened at the beginning of Hamlet, by Fortinbras’s troops lining the borders, and internally by the ‘People’s Liberation Brigade’, which has been distributing leaflets claiming Old Hamlet was assassinated.  Where Claudius in Shakespeare’s play resolves the Norwegian threat by diplomacy, Claudius in Al-Hamlet responds with violence and atrocity:

POLONIUS: I’ve got 300 men working round the clock gathering up the leaflets.

CLAUDIUS: Forget the leaflets, burn the townships, all of them – I want them all burnt by dawn.

Fortinbras’s army is backed by the West, ‘armed with millions of dollars of foreign equipment’. Behind the suggestions of foreign intervention lies the West’s greed for Arab oil (Claudius is obsessively concerned to protect the pipelines from sabotage).

In a scene which is the equivalent of Hamlet 3.3, instead of displaying remorse and praying for forgiveness, Claudius voices what is virtually a religion of oil and dollars:

Oh God: Petro dollars.  Teach me the meaning of petro dollars. I have no other God than you, I am created in your image, I seek guidance from you the All Seeing, the All Knowing Master of Worlds, Prosperity and Order …

At the end of the play Fortinbras clearly intends to sustain this policy and this faith: ‘It won’t be easy, terrorism is not yet defeated, but the pipeline will be completed within a year’.

The West appears in the play in the shadowy persona of the Arms Dealer, who spoke English in the Arabic version, and was played by a woman in the English version. The Arms Dealer converses with Hamlet, Ophelia, Claudius and finally Fortinbras.  S/he will provide weapons to anyone prepared to pay, even if s/he is arming opponents.  S/he remains in place at the end: ‘As the lights begin to fade, the Arms Dealer enters and walks downstage incredibly slowly.

Just as in Hamlet Claudius recognises that the real enemy of his regime lies within, so Claudius and Polonius in The Al-Hamlet Summit are vigilant against signs of domestic subversion. Opposition and dissent are read as fundamentalist terrorism. Polonius sees in Hamlet’s letters to Ophelia the ‘apocalyptic imagery’, the ‘yearning for violent and comprehensive change to the world order’ which are naturally linked with ‘terrorist activities’. Both Hamlet and Ophelia become Islamicised, adopting traditional Muslim costume; and both become from the perspective of the ruling regime ‘terrorists’. Ophelia is associated, as Yvette Khoury has observed, with the Palestinian cause (Khoury 2005), and dies as a suicide bomber; Hamlet (who adopts ‘shortened muslim dress and long beard’) shoots Polonius, and at the end of the play is seen leading the liberation army.

CLAUDIUS: Just two hours ago, our forces began an attack on terrorist positions belonging to Hamlet and his army.  These continue as I speak.  This conflict began when Hamlet laid siege to our democracy, our values and our people through a brutal series of kidnappings and terrorist bombings that have killed many innocent victims and shocked the world community.</p

The equation between Islamic fundamentalist and terrorist militant is one that Hamlet internalises. This is the equivalent of Hamlet’s revenge, a vindictive fantasy bloodbath explicitly expressed in the language of the Holy Q’uran:

I bear witness that there is no God but Allah and that Mohammad is his messenger… I will clean this land, I will make it pure, I understand, I do understand, but I will cleanse it for you, I will prepare it for your return, even if it costs me my life, I will clean it, I will purge it, blood will flow, I will make blood flow in torrents, I swear in my father’s name, I swear in the name of Allah.

Where does this adaptation sit vis-à-vis both Arab Shakespeare and dominant theatrical interpretations of the play in the West?  Al-Bassam’s Hamlet is not the passive figure of recent Arab plays, but rather recalls  the hero Hamlets of the 1960s and 1970s. In some ways Al-Bassam has by-passed the previous two decades, and reconnected with an older Arabic tradition. The Al-Hamlet Summit is divided into sections corresponding to the Islamic times of prayer, which seems to echo Riyad ‘Ismat’s 1973 Damascus production, where the play was divided into three parts – huzn (sorrow), al-thawra (rebellion), al-shahadah (martyrdom) (see Al-Shetawi, p 48).

On the other hand the figure of the Islamic militant which Al-Bassam’s Hamlet grows to resemble, cannot be so easily identified with the heroes of a previous century, though he is certainly an active crusader against corruption and a militant for justice:

HAMLET: The real enemy is here, in the palace, amongst us.

LAERTES: There will be no nation to fight over unless we defeat Fortinbras.

HAMLET: We’ll have no nation to lose unless we destroy the rot that devours us from within.

Hamlet becomes wholly the man of action, rejecting language and the intellect, committing himself unequivocally to violence:

HAMLET: … the time for the pen has passed and we enter the era of the sword … No more words … Words have been killed, they died on our tongues and in our ears, words are dead. We cannot us them anymore, now we must speak with our flesh.

On the other hand, although Hamlet’s death is a significant gesture of martyrdom (‘I do not approximate God/I come closer to him/in giving of myself’), it is only one detail in the final scene of universal carnage, where a failed coup-d’etat, the converging of Western power and Fortinbras’s assumption of authority are all presented with the excited objectivity of a media event. If Hamlet does ‘clean this land’ it is only to create an empty space into which Fortinbras can move his troops. Islamic militancy has not provided a solution, only a dramatic denouement:

FORTINBRAS: I have biblical claims upon this land, it is empty and barren and my presence here is a fact that has not been invented.

Insofar as there was a separate, local Arab tradition of adapting and appropriating Shakespeare, Al-Bassam’s work is obviously part of it. But by writing also in English, Al-Bassam has also chosen to work partially inside an Anglophone culture (or set of cultures), which is, as Michael Neill phrases it, ‘saturated with Shakespeare’: ‘Our ways of thinking about such basic issues as nationality, gender and racial difference are inescapably inflected by his writing’ (Neill, p. 184). Al-Bassam has explicitly confirmed that the work is ‘cross-cultural’, speaking from an Arab perspective but also to an English-speaking audience.

The script was written from a contemporary Arab perspective. It carries many concerns and issues of today’s Arab world and its relationship to the West. At the same time, it addresses these concerns to an English-speaking audience. The cross-cultural construction of the piece creates a sense of implication in the affairs of the other. (Dent 2003)

This sounds like the cultural ‘hybridity’ that occurs when an imperial discourse penetrates a post-colonial culture and merges with local and native materials to produce a synthetic fusion. But The Al-Hamlet Summit does not fit so easily into this or any of the available models provided by post-colonial criticism. Any writer who so deliberately places his work on a cultural or national margin, or seeks to work across territorial and historical borders, is seeking a difficult and precarious balance, and is likely to find himself challenged from all sides, as Al-Bassam himself confirms:

For some The Al-Hamlet Summit was the work of a Westernised traitor that falsely approximated between Islam and the propagation of violence. For others, and I’m happy to say the majority and particularly the young, The Al-Hamlet Summit gave vital and much-needed expression to today’s Arab concerns and presented them to the West in a sophisticated and human form (Al-Bassam, 2003).

Even Al-Bassam’s admirers have found themselves questioning his position. Peter J. Smith (2004) asks:

Is it not the case that the portrayal of Hamlet and Ophelia as Muslim fundamentalists and suicide bombers will have the effect of exacerbating – even promoting – the racist assumptions typified by the tabloid press? (74-5).

But then Smith questions his own authority to make such judgements: ‘Who am I as a non-Muslim, non-Arabic speaking Englishman to tell Sulayman Al-Bassam how to write and direct his adaptation?’ (Smith, p. 75).

These critical responses are all however testimony to The Al-Hamlet Summit’s capacity to generate dialogue across borders, dialogue that challenges and questions and enters reservations, but remains fundamentally an international conversation. As such it offers an alternative, an urgently imperative alternative, to mutual misunderstanding and reciprocal violence. What Al-Bassam called the ‘cultural symbiosis’ manifest in the play was clearly designed to form a ground of dialogue between East and West. The move from the earlier versions, which were adaptations of the Shakespeare text, to a more contemporary form which allowed for the fuller expression of Arab experience, was clearly critical in this process.

The writing of The Al-Hamlet Summit  began with the experience of globalisation:

I was in Cairo with an exiled Iraqi theatre director and a Palestinian theatre troupe from Ramallah drinking coffee in the bazaar when a boy came running past us, chanting: ’Al-Kull murtabit / Am-reeca qarabit’ (’Everything is linked /

America just got closer…’). It was September the 11th and news from New York was just beginning to stream across the television screens. In all the confusion of that night, I remember the words of one of the Palestinian actors: ‘The hell in New York today will bring hell to Ramallah tomorrow’ (Al-Bassam 2003).

9/11 is the supreme instance of globalisation, viewed here from a range of different perspectives. The boy’s chant seems to celebrate with a certain triumphalism the shrinking globe and the ease with which Islamic terrorism can reach to the very heart of America’s political and economic institutions. The Palestinian actor thinks ruefully of the consequences, immediate reprisal not from America but from Israel, and against the Palestinians. Global events know no barriers of time and space.

In an article on 9/ll British Prime Minister Tony Blair echoed these sentiments exactly. 9/11 ‘brought home the true meaning of globalisation’:

In this globalised world, once chaos and strife have got a grip on a region or a country, trouble is soon exported.… It was, after all, a dismal camp in the foothills of Afghanistan that gave birth to the murderous assault on the sparkling heart of New York’s financial centre (Blair 119).

This is the negative side of globalisation. But from Blair’s perspective, globalisation also provides the potential solution to such problems. Blair reflects that the West can ‘use the power of community to bring the benefits of globalisation to all’ (121) in the form of truly universal values: ‘values of liberty, the rule of law, human rights and a pluralist society… Values that are “universal and worthy of respect in every culture”’ (122). The vehicle for disseminating these values globally is economic penetration: increased trade flows, and greater involvement of the private sector in public finance (121).

Al-Bassam clearly intended the The Al-Hamlet Summit as an intervention into this fraught conversation:

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The globalisation of politics is deceptive. Every Arab knows that George Bush said ‘either you are with us or you are against us’ and everyone in the West now knows that Saddam is bad. This is globalisation of politics, but it does very little to increase dialogue between cultures. All it does it promote vacuous ‘world views’. This is where culture and theatre become vital. They permit complexity and difference and they permit the weak to be other than pitied and the cruel to be other than hated. Theatre challenges the accepted world views and breaks the mirrors of authority. Shakespeare understood that power very well (Dent).

Globalisation is not only inevitable but desirable, since it is the only route to mutual understanding and a stable world. Everything really is linked, as the Arab boy recognised. The problem is how to develop those links without conflict and violence; without the supremacy of the West; without the suppression of alternative cultures and consequent global homogenisation. In this process theatre has a critical role to play:

The events of 9-11 and the political fallout since have drawn to light the inextricable intertwining of the fates of Arab peoples and those of the West.
Everything is linked and the much-touted ‘clash of civilizations’ simplifies and tries to obscure what is a complex series of overlapping and interpenetrating cultural realities that are tied together in fatal symbiosis (Al-Bassam 2003).

This is quite a different approach from Tony Blair’s vision of a universalisation of enlightenment values of liberal democracy via the spread of free-market capitalism. Though he does not speak for Islamic fundamentalism or terrorist violence, Al-Bassam shows them as the inevitable consequences of an alliance between native Arab despotism and the economic machinations of the West. In Shakespeare Hamlet is driven reluctantly towards revenge, and in The Al-Hamlet Summit Hamlet and Ophelia seem to have no option but the bloody and suicidal course they undertake.

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Between 1608, when Shakespeare’s lines echoed emptily from the deck of the Red Dragon around the Arab world, and 2001, when Al-Bassam’s adaptation found a common acceptance across both East and West, empires rose and fell. But one thing changed. In 1608 Shakespeare was virtually talking to himself. In 2001 Shakespeare was the substance of a global conversation. ‘Everything is linked’ in the globalised world, either through violence or through an acceptance of reciprocal ‘implication’. The Al-Hamlet Summit opens a conversation over the ground of our reconciliation.

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Works Cited

I am very grateful to Margaret Litvin, Yvette Khoury, Peter J. Smith and Sulayman Al-Bassam for providing material used in the writing of this introduction.


Al-Bahar, Nadia, 1976. ‘Shakespeare in Early Arabic Adaptations’, Shakespeare Translation, 3.

Al-Bassam, Sulayman, 2003. ‘Introduction to the publication of The Al-Hamlet Summit’ in Theatre Forum Magazine, 22 ( Winter/Spring).

Blair, Tony, 2002. ‘The Power of World Community’, in Mark Leonard, ed. Re-Ordering the World. London: Foreign Policy Centre.

Boas, Frederick S., 1923. Shakespeare and the Universities and Other Studies in Elizabethan Drama. New York: Appleton.

Dent, Shirley, 2003. ‘Interview: Sulayman Al-Bassam’, Culture Wars. N.p. [Available at] [Accessed 11 November 2005]

Holderness, Graham and Bryan Loughrey, 2006. ‘Arabesque: Shakespeare and Globalisation’. Essays and Studies: Globalisation and its Discontents. English Association/Boydell and Brewer.

Kastan, David Scott, 1999. Shakespeare After Theory. London: Routledge.

Khoury, Yvette, 2005. ‘”Glaring Stare”: Middle Eastern Presentation of Ophelia’. Paper presented to the Modern Language Association, 2005 Annual Convention, seminar on ‘Gender in Arabic Interpretations of Shakespeare’, Washington DC.

Litvin, Margaret, 2005. ‘Sulayman Al-Bassam’s Al-Hamlet Summit in the Arab Hamlet Tradition’. Paper presented  to the American Comparative Literature Association, 2005 Annual Meeting, Pennsylvania State University.

Loomba, Ania  and Martin Orkin, eds, 1998. Post-colonial Shakespeares. London: Routledge.

Neill, Michael, 1998. ‘Postcolonial Shakespeare? Writing away from the centre’, in Loomba and Orkin (1998) 164-185.

Smith, Peter J., 2004. ‘Sulayman Al-Bassam’s The Al-Hamlet Summit in an Age of Terrorism’. Shakespeare Bulletin, 22:4, 65-78.

Arabesque: Shakespeare and Globalisation

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

[Originally published in Globalization and its Discontents: Writing the Global Culture. Essays and Studies, English Association and D.S. Brewer, Cambridge , pp. 24-46. Reprinted by permission of the author.]

By Graham Holderness and Brian Loughrey

1. Shakespeare Comes to Arabia

On April Fool’s Day 1607 the crew of the Red Dragon weighed anchor off the coast of southern England and set sail into global history –mercantile, cultural, and imperial. The flagship of the Third Voyage of the East India Company, the Dragon (as it was almost invariably known) was under the command of William Keeling, who inspired the trust of the Company and his crew, according to the Minutes of the Court of the East India Company 1614, through ‘good command of his men abroad (whom they loved and respected for his kind usage of them)’ (Strachan and Penrose 31). The Dragon was accompanied by the Hector under the command of William Hawkins and — nominally at least — by the Consent, although her commander, David Middleton, had for unexplained reasons left ahead of his companions and later rendezvous proved elusive.

Keeling’s instructions were to lead his fleet to Bantam (the first English trading ‘factory’ to be established by the Company in the Far East at Java) by way of Socotra, Aden, and Surat, the principal port of the largely land-locked Mughal empire. The purpose of the voyage was threefold. To identify additional potential markets for English broadcloth (the Company was perennially optimistic that the inhabitants of the tropics could be persuaded to wear woollen clothes). To explore the prospect of shortening extended trade routes to the South China seas by obtaining spices from the entrepots of Aden and Surat. And, ideally, to establish a ‘triangular trade’: selling broadcloth for cash around the ports of the Arabian sea; purchasing with the proceeds cotton cloth in Surat and the Coromandel coast of India for export to Java; exchanging there cotton for spices through the Company’s Bantam factory, in the process boosting economic activity sufficiently to justify investment in defences against local and Dutch predation; and returning finally to London laden with hopefully profitable cargoes of spices. The Third Voyage thus carried with it a vast array of woollen commodities; a second-in-command, William Hawkins, with diplomatic credentials who was sufficiently fluent in Turkish, the lingua franca of the largely Islamic ruling classes of the region, to undertake trade negotiations; and sufficient firepower both to solace friend and deter foe.

Having missed the trade winds, progress proved painfully slow. By August the Dragon and Hector had reached only the West Coast of Africa where they found themselves becalmed off the coast of modern-day Sierra Leone. Keeling’s enlightened concern for the welfare of his crew was remarkably demonstrated during this enforced leisure. To maintain morale and keep his men from what he called ‘idlenes and unlawfull games, or sleepe’ (Rundall 231) he encouraged theatrical entertainments and, in the event, the crew of the Dragon gave a landmark performance of Hamlet before an audience that included not only officers but a visiting African dignitary. As far as we are aware, this was the first performance of a Shakespeare play outside of Europe; the first performance of a Shakespeare play on board a ship; the first amateur performance of a Shakespeare play; and presumably (given that the visiting dignitary understood Portuguese but not English) the first performance of a Shakespeare play to be translated. Nor was the repertoire of the Dragon limited to a single play: a little later the crew provided a command performance of Shakespeare’s Richard II while Keeling entertained his second-in-command Hawkins to dinner.[1]

After further frustratingly slow progress, in late April 1608 the Dragon arrived off the shores of Socotra, a safe haven commanding entry to the Gulf of Aden.  Then a desolate island noted principally for its strategic position (which had led to its brief occupation by the Portuguese in the early 1500s) and as a source of aloes, Socotra is now an integral part of the Arab Republic of Yemen, and a thriving Eco-tourism destination. Here during an extended stay Keeling learnt rudimentary Arabic, and the theatrical talents of the Dragon’s crew were again exercised with a reprise performance of Hamlet. Shakespeare thus entered the Arab world through performances enacted by servants of a nascent nautical empire, directed by officers of a capitalist enterprise engaged in bitter trade rivalry with European competitors, and before a local audience that was in all probability either uncomprehending or entirely absent.

The members of the Third Voyage took various paths from Socotra. The Dragon loaded nearly a ton of aloes and sailed direct to Bantam, encountering strong opposition from Dutch forces intent on preserving their trade monopoly. Keeling’s perseverance however earned the respect of the Company’s Directors and in 1615 he was reappointed as Commander of its Fifth Voyage with plenipotentiary authority to implement far-reaching reforms to the Company’s by then extensive organisational presence in the Far East, establishing an administrative regime that subsequently underpinned an indirect colonial rule. Keeling retired in 1617 to become Captain of Cowes Castle, a sinecure almost certainly in the gift of the Governor of the Isle of Wight, Shakespeare’s patron the Earl of Southampton (Strachan and Penrose 6). This connection might well explain why Keeling had in his library, as early 1607, copies of more than one Shakespeare play.

By the time Keeling set sail from Socotra, Middleton had already begun his return journey from Java, having purchased a cargo of cloves for £3,000 that would be sold on the London market for £36, 000.  The stupendous profit margin was critical in persuading the largely risk-averse directors of the East India Company to invest heavily in developing the Far East market. Middleton became one of their most influential officers in the venture.

After his departure from Socotra Hawkins followed his specific commission, setting sail for Surat in order to ‘proceed to the Court of the Great Mogul at Agra, and there to present his credentials’ to the Emperor Akbar as agent of the Company in the hope that trading privileges in Western India might be secured (Strachan and Penrose 22). The negotiations proved tortuous in the extreme but eventually led to a successful treaty. The Battle of Plessy, which effectively established de facto English rule in India, was ostensibly fought to protect the terms of Hawkins’s treaty.

The East India Company returned to Socotra in 1834, annexing the island in order to protect trade routes to India, the jewel in the British imperial crown.

2. Will and the World

In 1923 F.S. Boas recalled and celebrated this event in the accents of high imperialism: ‘At a time when our mercantile marine has been covering itself with glory on every sea, it is an act of pietas to reclaim for it the proud distinction of having been the pioneer in carrying Shakespearean drama into the uttermost ends of the earth’ (Boas 95).  In the 1980s the BBC broadcast a series of language programmes entitled ‘The Story of English’.  The series was announced in the Radio Times by means of a spectacular cover design showing a version of the Droeshout engraving of Shakespeare, with the familiar exaggeratedly domed forehead; and printed across the forehead, a map of the world. The caption read: ‘From Will to the World: the great adventure which transformed the island speech of Shakespeare into the world English of 1,000 million’.

The effigy of this linguistic imperialism was therefore the head, and by implication the mind, of Shakespeare as a microcosm of ‘the great Globe it selfe’ (Shakespeare 33). The linguistic achievements of that microcosmic globe-shaped brain have imprinted themselves on the global map, facilitating the universalisation of English around the world. This was only possible, however, because the Shakespearean mind was capable of conceiving and mapping such a global image. The world can know itself in Shakespeare because Shakespeare knew the world. Mary Thomas Crane traces this process from micro- to macrocosm via the physiology of the brain:

Portraits of Shakespeare emphasize the large dome of his forehead, accentuated by a receding hairline; he must have had a brain….And if Shakespeare’s brain functioned as most normal brains do today, then the formation of a sentence… probably involved activity first in the occipital, posterior superior parietal, and posterior inferior temporal lobes, central to the generation of mental images, and then in the perisylvian cortex (those regions of the brain located near the sylvian fissure, also called the lateral sulcus), where the images… would be associated with appropriate words and formed into a grammatically acceptable sentence.The construction of the sentence would probably have involved the formation and linking of several ‘mental spaces’ or temporary areas of knowledge … that could be mapped onto a more abstract conceptual space (Crane14-15).

‘What a forehead!’, as A.L. Rowse exclaimed. ‘What a brain!’ (Rowse 5-6). Here the creative functioning of the spherical brain in that rounded skull produces a mental ‘mapping’ that aligns Will and world, Shakespeare and the globe.[2]

The naming of the theatre most familiarly associated with Shakespeare’s dramatic work as the ‘Globe’ compounds this identification between mind and world, globe and skull. Between the microcosmic globe-shaped head and the thick rotundity of the planet lies the circular hollow of the Globe Theatre, the medium through which this global vision was able to print itself into universal consciousness. The ‘wooden O’ of the Globe took its shape from that of the world, even boasting a ‘heaven’ in its overhanging penthouse roof. But it functioned as an empty space, the tabula rasa on which images of the world could be printed; a vacant womb, impregnated by poetic genius to deliver a theatrical world. Over the stage of the Globe passed a phantasmagoric representation of the globe itself, ‘Asia of the one side’ as Sir Philip Sidney complained, ‘and Africa of the other’ (Sidney 65). The round skull of the poet mapped the vast known world within this concentrated space of theatrical representation.

The successful Elizabethan theatres did more however than show the world its own features. The construction of purpose-built playhouses in liminal but accessible districts of London created the possibility of a ‘national theatre’, which then automatically became the site of an international cosmopolitan economy of cultural exchange. Foreign visitors gravitated towards these palaces of entertainment in the 1580s exactly as they do now. As we have shown elsewhere, the ‘tourism’ dimension of the Shakespeare industry has a history coterminous with the origins of the plays themselves (Holderness 2001 133-6).  Much of the most significant evidence in existence about the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatres originates from the recorded observations of travellers.  The only visual documentary record of an early Elizabethan public playhouse, the Swan, is the familiar sketch made by the Dutchman, Johannes de Witt.  The recorded observations of tourists provide much more information about the theatres than any home-grown, native evidence:  the Germans Samuel Kiechel, Thomas Platter, Paul Henzner; the Venetian Busino, who visited the Fortune in 1617; the French ambassador who took his wife to the Globe to see Pericles in 1607; the Spanish ambassador who went to the Fortune in 1621, and afterwards banqueted with the players; and a stream of titled dignitaries who patronised the playhouses, such as Prince Lewis Frederick of Württemberg, Prince Otto of Hesse-Cassel, Prince Lewis of Anhalt-Cöthen and Duke Philip Julius of Stettin-Pomerania (Chambers 367-9).

An important consequence of the establishing from the 1570s of a centralised metropolitan theatrical profession, occupying purpose-built theatres around London, was the provision of a specific cultural venue to which tourists might be drawn.  As the theatre became incorporated, notwithstanding complex and pervasive conflicts of interest, into the new political and cultural hegemony of the metropolis, so the drama became a prestigious possession of the new national state; as Thomas Heywood testified:  ‘Playing is an ornament to the city, which strangers of all nations, repairing hither, report of in their countries, beholding them here with some admiration:  for what variety of entertainment can there be in any city of Christendom, more than in London?’ (Heywood sig. F3). This partly explains why the Elizabethan drama, especially the plays of Shakespeare, was so strikingly international. Shakespeare’s plays are always set elsewhere, in time or space, never (with one exception) in contemporary England. But internationalism is paradoxically a way of defining, even of constituting, the nation, characterising Tudor England over against all the foreign languages and influences that penetrated and populated its cosmopolitan stage (Holderness 1992 115-29).
The system of correspondences between these various spherical objects is perfectly rounded, complete. The Shakespearean skull, working through the theatrical Globe, produces the great globe itself. And the people of the globe flock to the Globe to see and hear themselves represented.

3. Postcolonial Shakespeare

It was a beautiful model while it lasted. But this great chain of being, linking the smooth creative head, the fertile rotundity of the theatre and the unified perfection of the represented world, has been thoroughly fractured on the anvil of modern Shakespeare studies. The composite brain has been split into fissured subjectivities; the round theatre exposed as a symptomatic product of Tudor cultural nationalism; and the Shakespearean world-map torn up to reveal a globe ravaged by empire and its legacy of poverty, disease and war. These changes have been brought about by developments in poststructuralist, Marxist, feminist and psychoanalytic criticism. But it is specifically postcolonial analysis that has shown how, over the previous two centuries, Anglo-American criticism consolidated an imperial Shakespeare, one whose works testified to the superiority of the civilised races, and could be used to establish and maintain colonial authority (Loomba and Orkin 1). The Radio Times’s innocent view of the ‘adventure’ that turned English from a parochial island tongue into the ‘world language of 1,000 million’ masks a much more violent process involving subjugation of native peoples, extirpation or annexation of native cultures, and the imposition through administrative and educational systems of Anglocentric norms and ideologies.

The various forms of colonial response have been well studied and well documented. Subjugated cultures could engage in imitation and mimicry, assisting the domestication of a foreign power. Or native intellectuals could challenge colonial culture in favour of their own native literatures, initially by exposing the conscious or unconscious racist content of imperial fictions. When in 1975 Chinua Achebe declared that Joseph Conrad was ‘a bloody racist’ (Achebe 8), postcolonial criticism was born. Later trends extended these possibilities by for instance re-reading Shakespeare from a colonised viewpoint, and finding there comfort and support for the oppressed; or producing versions of Shakespeare that in some way merge imperial with native materials, constituting what has been called cultural ‘hybridity’. Postcolonial criticism also re-evaluated the early modern period in which empire had its origins, and demonstrated that colonial discourse was no mere passive backdrop to Shakespearean drama but rather one of its key discursive contexts (Barker and Hulme 198). In other words, these plays were immersed in the formation of empire before they became its tools, ‘entangled from the beginning with the projects of nation-building, empire and colonization’ (Neill 168).

The final outcome of this now familiar process is an Anglophone culture (or set of cultures), which is, as Michael Neill phrases it, ‘saturated with Shakespeare’ Neill’s conclusion is that this saturation is constitutive and inescapable. ‘Our ways of thinking about such basic issues as nationality, gender and racial difference are inescapably inflected by his writing’ (Neill 184). Yet if the Shakespeare dispersed by linguistic imperialism around the globe is also a Shakespeare wholly or partially ‘hybridised’ by contact with other languages and cultures, then is it still the same old imperial Shakespeare? Or is it possible, as Dennis Kennedy puts it, that ‘ almost from the start of his importance as the idealized English dramatist there have been other Shakespeares, Shakespeares not dependent on English and often at odds with it’ (Kennedy 2); that Shakespeare ‘goes native’ every time he crosses a geographic or national border, and ‘may thus be construed as the repositioned product of a complex of social, cultural and political factors that variously combine under the pressure of colonial, postcolonial and more narrowly national imperatives’ (Cartelli 1)?

4. Global Shakespeare

This question takes on particular force as the language of the ‘postcolonial’ is replaced by the language of ‘globalisation’. Globalisation is a contested term. In the definitions of some social scientists, globalisation entails a subsumption of the nation into international political and economic structures, and a corresponding diminution of the power of the national state in favour of international governmental organisations such as the United Nations, the European Union or the World Trade Organisation, and transnational corporations. In economic terms, globalisation is defined as ‘a process of emergence of global product markets and global organisation of production’ (Perraton 672). Free trade areas reduce the regulatory authority of the state over economic activities; and increased mobility of capital and labour, with corporations relocating production to cheaper locations, triggers the mass migration of workers across borders. Culturally globalisation is considered to produce homogenisation of both production and exchange. Electronic communications render borders easily permeable by global knowledge and information. As Liam Connell puts it:

These processes of political, economic, social and media convergence combine to paint a picture of a world in which traditional political structures are in decline, where the private sector has an increasingly influential role and where social, economic and hence cultural practice is increasingly homogenised. (Connell 80)

Globalisation is seen alternately as the beneficial universalisation of the capitalist system, and with it economic opportunity, liberal democracy and enlightenment values; or as the continuance of imperialism and colonialism by more subtle methods. As long ago as 1976 Raymond Williams anticipated this difficulty:

If imperialism, as normally defined in late nineteenth-century England, is primarily a political system in which colonies are governed from an imperial centre, for economic but also for other reasons held to be important, then the subsequent grant of independence or self-government to these colonies can be described as … ‘the end of imperialism’. On the other hand if imperialism is understood primarily as an economic system of external investment and the penetration and control of markets and sources of raw materials, political changes in the status of colonies or former colonies will not greatly affect description of the continuing economic system as imperialist. (Williams159-60)

In this definition what is now widely called ‘globalisation’ is nothing more than a protraction of economic imperialism beyond the demise of imperialism’s political and military institutions. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman, using a similar Marxist terminology, explicitly define globalisation in this way:

Colonialism, the conquest and direct control of other peoples’ lands, is a particular phase in the history of imperialism, which is now best understood as the globalisation of the capitalist mode of production, its penetration of previously non-capitalist regions of the world, and destruction of pre- or non-capitalist forms of social organisation. (Williams and Chrisman 2)

Is global Shakespeare then still imperial Shakespeare? Has the Shakespeare myth simply extended itself into what Bourdieu (Bourdieu 38) called the ‘justificatory myth’ of globalisation?

5. Postcolonial Hamlet

Just as feminist criticism of Shakespeare initially targeted those plays that answered most readily to its preoccupations and priorities (The Taming of the Shrew, Antony and Cleopatra), so postcolonial criticism has naturally favoured plays with broader horizons and a window onto the wider world (The Tempest, Othello). Hamlet will seem immediately resistant to global reading: resolutely Northern European, incandescently white, a story straight from the Scandinavian Viking roots of Englishness. A tale, one might almost say, using D. H. Lawrence’s terminology, of ‘The white races, having the arctic north behind them, the vast abstraction of ice and snow’ (Lawrence 159).

Modern adaptations of Hamlet reinforce this perception of Eurocentric insularity. In John Updike’s novelistic ‘prequel’ Gertrude and Claudius (2001), the physical whiteness of Horwendil (Old Hamlet) represents the dullness and conventionality of an insular warrior culture that stifles Gertrude, and exposes her to the seductions of Feng (Claudius).  Feng is cosmopolitan and travelled, suave and courtly, a soldier of fortune rather than a pillar of the state. He is Heathcliff-dark against his brother’s northern whiteness (like Othello, he woos Gertrude with tales of the dangers he had passed); associated with Mediterranean adventures and Provençal poetry; and an eloquently seductive hedonist beside the stiffly conventional husband.  The Nordic whiteness of Scandinavian culture is contrasted, in very Lawrentian terms, with the dark vigour and energy of the South. Claudius is an outsider who trails with him an ambience of otherness, and as such proves irresistibly attractive to Gertrude.

Similarly, when Jacques Derrida wrote of Hamlet, he imagined the haunted castle of Elsinore as the ‘old Europe’, which Marx saw as haunted by the spectre of communism: ‘It is always nightfall along the “ramparts” on the battlements of an old Europe at war. With itself and with the other’ (Derrida 14). For Derrida the scene is automatically Marx’s ‘Europe’, not mediaeval Denmark or Jacobean England, since his parallel draws in part on Paul Valéry’s 1919 essay ‘La crise de l’esprit’, which imagines a ‘European Hamlet’ surveying the continent in the immediate aftermath of the First World War:

Now, on an immense terrace of Elsinore, which stretches from Basel to Cologne, that touches on the sands of Nieuport, the lowlands of the Somme, the chalky earth of Champagne, the granite earth of Alsace – the European Hamlet looks at thousand of spectres. But he is an intellectual Hamlet. He meditates on the life and death of truths. His ghosts are all the objects of our controversies; his remorse is all the titles of our glory.… If he seizes a skull, it is an illustrious skull – ‘Whose was it?’ – This one was Lionardo… and this other skull is that of Liebnitz who dreamed of universal peace. And this one was Kant qui genuit Hegel, qui genuit Marx, qui genuit … Hamlet does not know what to do with all these skulls. But if he abandons them!… Will he cease to be himself? (Valéry in Derrida 5).

The vista from those displaced ‘battlements’ is the Europe of 1919, a waste land populated by millions of ghosts, littered with innumerable skulls.  The Danish ‘prison’ of Hamlet becomes the fortress of European empire, picking over its dead white bones, perpetually at war with itself and with the other.

Hamlet is a play that seems to trade in whiteness, especially theatrically: ghosts, white faces in the darkness, the pallor of melancholy, the bleached candour of the exhumated skull. Classic monochrome film versions such as Olivier’s or Kozintsev’s reinforce this chiaroscuro reputation. And yet paradoxically this is the play of all plays that has the largest pretensions to universality, ‘directly valid for all relations within a particular situation, and at least indirectly valid for all relations of the same type’ (Hallward xxi). It is understood to universalise the experiences of revenge, bereavement, alienation; to portray images of fundamental human emotions such as mother-love, father-hate, the desire not to be. Read as a classic formulation of the Freudian Oedipus complex, Hamlet can be viewed as a repository of universal human truth, transcending all boundaries of race, ethnicity and culture.

6. Hamlet Black and White

In a fascinating document prefiguring Shakespearean globalisation, the psychoanalytic study by Wulf Sachs of the African John Chavafambira, the tragedy of Hamlet is represented as the tragedy of every race, colour and creed: ‘I discovered’, says Sachs in Black Hamlet, ‘that the manifestations of insanity, in its form, content, origin, and causation, are identical in both natives and Europeans’ (Sachs 11). John believed that his father, who was a ‘nganga’ or healer, was murdered by his own brother. John has dreams in which he sleeps with his mother (179).  Like Hamlet, John possesses a conscious desire to revenge a father’s murder, and in both cases the murderer is the uncle (180).

Claudius has committed in Hamlet’s eyes two crimes: the killing of Hamlet’s father and his marrying Hamlet’s mother – crimes which the psychoanalyst has proved to exist in the fantasies of childhood. Thus the reality has fulfilled Hamlet’s forbidden and successfully repressed desires, and this is the cause of his tragic fate.

Now, the situation which occurs in Hamlet is common to all humanity, and this is the primary reason why Shakespeare’s tragedy appeals to men of all races and nations. In Hamlet, Shakespeare, with the intuition of genius, penetrated the depths of man’s innermost conflicts and illustrated in an unprecedented and unexcelled manner the tragic outcome of such conflicts (177).

Shakespeare’s tragedy then, despite apparent cultural differences, is truly global, ‘common to all humanity’ (177): ‘Hamletism is a universal phenomenon’ (176).

Sachs’s work has naturally been viewed from very different perspectives. To argue in the 1930s that black and white psychology were indistinguishable was an extraordinarily liberal gesture; as Saul Dubow puts it ‘greatly in advance of its time’ (Dubow 520). On the other hand his work can be accused of reproducing the native African in the image of white imperialism, ‘colonisation by other means’ (Deleuze and Guattari 170), subjecting the colonised to what Bourdieu called ‘the imperialism of the universal’ (Bourdieu 19). Shakespeare forms a robust template to which any clinical observations can readily be assimilated, and the black man is seen not for what he himself is, but as an honorary white man. ‘Prone to see Oedipus everywhere they look’, in Diana Fuss’s words, ‘Western ethnologists are impelled to find their own psychosexual pathologies duplicated in their objects of study’ (Fuss 33). The whiteness of Hamlet is that abstract whiteness that goes beyond skin colour, and renders white supremacy a natural condition of existence, ‘the invisibility that fuels white hegemony’ (Hall 181).

Sachs’ Black Hamlet was produced by eliding the differences between European psychoanalysis and the mental operations of an African. Shakespeare and the English language form the common currency, the lingua franca that bridges the gap, sutures the divide. In Shakespeare blackness and whiteness meet and harmonise, ebony and ivory. And yet for many native English speakers the language of Shakespeare is no more a natural form of speech than it was to a speaker of John Chavafambira’s tribal dialect. In contradistinction to ‘black Hamlet’ we can pose ‘white Hamlet’, the bizarre and obscene parody published by Richard Curtis and known as the Skinhead Hamlet. Here the ancestral whiteness of the old Scandinavian tale is thrown violently back at Shakespeare in a grotesque echo of a lost white supremacy.

The ‘skinhead’ is a prototype of disaffected youth culture that developed initially in the 1960s and saw resurgence in the 1970s, centred particularly around the young white working-class male. Where the earlier ‘Mods’ affected a flamboyant style, Skinheads adopted the shaved heads and steel toecaps of East End dockers. Though initially Skinheads fraternised with West Indians, sharing their music and dance, in a context of high unemployment and immigration their culture became increasingly associated with racism, neo-Nazism and street violence. Skinhead culture overlaps with the cultures of football and of militarism.

Richard Curtis’s Skinhead Hamlet is a brief parody of Shakespeare’s play consisting of some 600 words, 44 of which are variants on ‘fuck’. It is not an instance of working-class writing, and can hardly be described as ‘Skinhead Literature’, which might seem a contradiction in terms (though see Allen). At one level Skinhead Hamlet is a travesty, a grotesque imitation producing irony by improbably juxtaposing alien contexts (like the famous Monty Python football match between the Great Philosophers and the Long John Silver Imitators). ‘Our hope was’ says an ironic prefatory note, ‘to achieve something like the effect of the New English Bible’; in other words to facilitate a parodic subversion of linguistic power by contemporary banality. On the other hand if one considers Hamlet as a quintessentially ‘white’ drama, then the juxtaposition of white extremism with the world’s greatest Nordic masterpiece is productive of more than comedy.

Hamlet may seem from a global perspective firmly attached to Northern Europe and Caucasian ethnicity. Yet from the Skinhead viewpoint adopted by Richard Curtis, Hamlet is written in what is virtually a foreign language that needs to be retranslated into demotic Skinhead idiom:

HAMLET: (Alone) To fuck or be fucked.

[Enter OPHELIA.]


HAMLET: Fuck off to a nunnery!

[They exit in different directions.]

Shakespearean rhetoric appears in this context an alien imposition to be robustly challenged and rudely rejected:

[Enter PLAYERS and all COURT.]

I PLAYER: Full thirty times hath Phoebus cart…

CLAUDIUS: I’ll be fucked if I watch any more of this crap.


Saxo Grammaticus’s saga of Danish history, refurbished and updated by Shakespeare’s Tudor English nationalism, has by the twentieth century come to be perceived as the exclusive preserve of a middle-class culture far removed from the earthy demotic of Skinhead vulgarity.

Postcolonial criticism operates within a framework consisting of a unified imperial culture and a fragmented diaspora of colonial outposts.  ‘Shakespeare’ is assumed to be an integrated ideological commodity before its exportation to the rest of the globe. Yet Skinhead Hamlet discloses a relationship of contestation between the imperial culture and its own unwelcome bad conscience, the white supremacist fantasies of the working–class youth it has dispossessed. Imperial Shakespeare is challenged from within by his own white shadow. In a globalised world where power has shifted from the old imperial centres to international capital and global bureaucracy, Shakespeare can be more ‘foreign’ on the Isle of Dogs than in Delhi or Cairo. The point is made eloquently by Egyptian writer Adhaf Soueif, whose Mezzaterra (2004) movingly celebrates the achievements of cultural globalisation.

Growing up Egyptian in the Sixties meant growing up Muslim / Christian / Egyptian /Arab /African / Mediterranean / Non-Aligned / Socialist but happy with small-scale capitalism. On top of that if you were urban / professional the chances were that you spoke English and / or French and danced to the Stones as readily as to Abd el-Hakeem….

In Cairo on any one night you could go to see an Arabic, English, French, Italian or Russian film. One week the Russian Hamlet was playing at Cinema Odeon, Christopher Plummer’s Hamlet at Cinema Qasr el-Nil, and Karam Mutawi’s Hamlet at the Egyptian National Theatre.

The fragility of this increasingly threatened world was savagely emphasised on March 19 2005, when in the theatre in the British School in Qatar a bomb exploded during the second Act of an amateur performance of Twelfth Night mounted by the Doha Players, killing the Director. No doubt the primary motive was to attack a target frequented by Westerners on the eve of the second anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. The suicide bomber was identified as a 39-year-old Egyptian. Here Shakespeare in Arabia is the ground for global violence rather than global understanding. From a western perspective such atrocity can be guaranteed to symbolise Al-Qaida’s assault against the power of British culture. Shakespeare, wrote United Press International editor Martin Walker, ‘stands for the Western invasion of Islam’s holy peninsula. He is the symbol of the English language that he helped perfect, and thus he also symbolizes its steady advance into the mouths and sensibilities on a generation of educated Arabs.… This means that an educated Arab is increasingly likely to know more of Shakespeare than of Abu Tammam’ (Walker 2005).

7. Arabia Comes to Shakespeare

Suleyman Al-Bassam’s The Al-Hamlet Summit was first performed as part of the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival, in August 2002, where it was awarded the Fringe First Award for excellence and innovation in writing and directing. It was subsequently presented at the 14th Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theatre, in September 2002, where it won Best Performance and Best Director Awards. The work had previously been through various adaptations of the Shakespeare text, from 2001 onwards, performed by the Zaoum Theatre Company: Hamlet in Kuwait, performed in Kuwait, and The Arab League Hamlet, performed at a festival in Tunisia. The earlier versions were both adaptations of the Shakespeare text.  The Al-Hamlet Summit by contrast jettisons Shakespeare’s language and rewrites Hamlet into modern English with a strongly Arabic flavour, producing what the author called a ‘cross-cultural construction’ (Al-Bassam 2003). Al-Bassam produced and performed versions in both Arabic and English[3].

Al-Bassam’s play maps a Middle Eastern political tragedy onto the template of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The key characters carry Shakespearean names, and occupy parallel situations within their own modern Middle Eastern world. Hamlet’s father, the old ruler, has been poisoned, and his position usurped by Claudius his brother, a dictator with more than a passing resemblance to Saddam Hussein. Gertrude and Ophelia, Polonius and Laertes all play roles comparable to those of their Shakespearean namesakes, but redomesticated into an Islamic Arab context.  The regime is threatened, as Denmark is threatened at the beginning of Hamlet, by Fortinbras’s troops lining the borders, and internally by the ‘People’s Liberation Brigade’, which has been distributing leaflets claiming Old Hamlet was assassinated.  Where Claudius in Shakespeare’s play resolves the Norwegian threat by diplomacy, Claudius in Al-Hamlet responds with violence and atrocity:

POLONIUS: I’ve got 300 men working round the clock gathering up the leaflets.
CLAUDIUS: Forget the leaflets, burn the townships, all of them – I want them all burnt by dawn.

Fortinbras’s army is backed by the West, ‘armed with millions of dollars of foreign equipment’. Behind the suggestions of foreign intervention lies the West’s greed for Arab oil (Claudius is obsessively concerned to protect the pipelines from sabotage).

In a scene which is the equivalent of Hamlet III, iii, instead of praying for forgiveness, Claudius voices what is virtually a religion of oil and dollars:

Oh God: Petro dollars.  Teach me the meaning of petro dollars. I have no other God than you, I am created in your image, I seek guidance from you the All Seeing, the All Knowing Master of Worlds, Prosperity and Order … This for the MD of Crude Futures: all of Heaven’s gifts down to the cracks of their arses and I, the poor, sluttish Arab, forgoing billions to worship you … Is it not charm, is it not consummate charm to slouch on silk cushions and fuck and be fucked by all the flesh dollars can buy? … In front of your benificence I am a naked mortal, full of awe: my ugliness is not unbearable, surely it is not?  My nose is not so hooked is it, my eyes so diabolical as when you offered me your Washington virgins and CIA opium.

At the end of the play Fortinbras clearly intends to sustain this policy: ‘It won’t be easy, terrorism is not yet defeated, but the pipeline will be completed within a year’.

The West appears in the play in the shadowy persona of the Arms Dealer, who spoke English in the Arabic version. The Arms Dealer converses with Hamlet, Ophelia, Claudius and finally Fortinbras.  He will provide weapons to anyone prepared to pay, even if he is arming opponents.  He remains in place at the end: ‘As the lights begin to fade, the Arms Dealer enters and walks downstage incredibly slowly.’

Just as in Hamlet Claudius recognises that the real enemy of his regime lies within, so Claudius and Polonius in The Al-Hamlet Summit are vigilant against signs of domestic subversion. Opposition and dissent are read as fundamentalist terrorism. Polonius sees in Hamlet’s letters to Ophelia the ‘apocalyptic imagery’, the ‘yearning for violent and comprehensive change to the world order’ which are naturally linked with ‘terrorist activities’. Both Hamlet and Ophelia become Islamicised, adopting traditional Muslim costume; and both become ‘terrorists’. Ophelia dies as a suicide bomber; Hamlet shoots Polonius, and at the end of the play is seen leading the liberation army.

CLAUDIUS: Just two hours ago, our forces began an attack on terrorist positions belonging to Hamlet and his army.  These continue as I speak.  This conflict began when Hamlet laid siege to our democracy, our values and our people through a brutal series of kidnappings and terrorist bombings that have killed many innocent victims and shocked the world community.

The equation between Islamic fundamentalist and terrorist militant is one that Hamlet internalises. This is the equivalent of Hamlet’s revenge:

I will clean this land, I will make it pure, I understand, I do understand, but I will cleanse it for you, I will prepare it for your return, even if it costs me my life, I will clean it, I will purge it, blood will flow, I will make blood flow in torrents, I swear in my father’s name, I swear in the name of Allah.

The fantasy of a vindictive bloodbath is explicitly expressed in the language of the Koran:

I bear witness that there is no God but Allah and that Mohammad is his messenger… I, Hamlet, son of Hamlet, son of Hamlet am the rightful heir to this nation’s throne.  My rule will crush the fingers of thieving bureaucrats, neutralize the hypocrites, tame the fires of debauchery that engulf our cities and return our noble people to the path of God.  Our enemies comprehend only the language of blood for this, the time for the pen has passed and we enter the era of the sword.  We crack the skull of falsehood against a rock and lo! Only the Truth remains.  Let it be so and may God raise the profile of his martyrs!

8. Hamlet and Globalisation

The writing of The Al-Hamlet Summit began with the experience of globalisation:

I was in Cairo with an exiled Iraqi theatre director and a Palestinian theatre troupe from Ramallah drinking coffee in the bazaar when a boy came running past us, chanting: ’Al-Kull murtabit / Am-reeca qarabit’ (’Everything is linked /

America just got closer…’). It was September the 11th and news from New York was just beginning to stream across the television screens. In all the confusion of that night, I remember the words of one of the Palestinian actors: ‘The hell in New York today will bring hell to Ramallah tomorrow’ (Al-Bassam 2003 28).

9/11 is the supreme instance of globalisation, viewed here from a range of different perspectives. The boy’s chant seems to celebrate with a certain triumphalism the shrinking globe and the ease with which Islamic terrorism can reach to the very heart of America’s political and economic institutions. The Palestinian actor thinks ruefully of the consequences, immediate reprisal not from America but from Israel, and against the Palestinians. Global events know no barriers of time and space.

In an article on 9/ll British Prime Minister Tony Blair echoed these sentiments exactly. 9/11 ‘brought home the true meaning of globalisation’:

In this globalised world, once chaos and strife have got a grip on a region or a country, trouble is soon exported.… It was, after all, a dismal camp in the foothills of Afghanistan that gave birth to the murderous assault on the sparkling heart of New York’s financial centre (Blair 119).

This is the negative side of globalisation. But globalisation also provides the potential solution to such problems. Blair reflects that the West can ‘use the power of community to bring the benefits of globalisation to all’ (121) in the form of truly universal values: ‘values of liberty, the rule of law, human rights and a pluralist society… Values that are “universal and worthy of respect in every culture”’ (122). The vehicle for disseminating these values globally is economic penetration: increased trade flows, and greater involvement of the private sector in public finance (121).

Al-Bassam clearly intended the The Al-Hamlet Summit as an intervention into this fraught conversation:

The globalisation of politics is deceptive. Every Arab knows that George Bush said ‘either you are with us or you are against us’ and everyone in the West now knows that Saddam is bad. This is globalisation of politics, but it does very little to increase dialogue between cultures. All it does it promote vacuous ‘world views’. This is where culture and theatre become vital. They permit complexity and difference and they permit the weak to be other than pitied and the cruel to be other than hated. Theatre challenges the accepted world views and breaks the mirrors of authority. Shakespeare understood that power very well (Dent).

Globalisation is not only inevitable but desirable, since it is the only route to mutual understanding and a stable world. Everything really is linked, as the Arab boy recognised. The problem is how to develop those links without conflict and violence; without the supremacy of the West; without the suppression of alternative cultures and consequent global homogenisation. In this process theatre has a critical role to play:

The events of 9-11 and the political fallout since have drawn to light the inextricable intertwining of the fates of Arab peoples and those of the West.
Everything is linked and the much-touted ‘clash of civilizations’ simplifies and tries to obscure what is a complex series of overlapping and interpenetrating cultural realities that are tied together in fatal symbiosis (Al-Bassam 2003).

This is quite a different approach from Tony Blair’s vision of a universalisation of enlightenment values of liberal democracy via the spread of free-market capitalism. Though he does not speak for Islamic fundamentalism or terrorist violence, Al-Bassam shows them as the inevitable consequences of an alliance between native Arab totalitarianism and the economic machinations of the West. In Shakespeare Hamlet is driven reluctantly towards revenge, and in The Al-Hamlet Summit Hamlet and Ophelia seem to have no option but the bloody and suicidal course they undertake.

9. Mezzaterra

Liam Connell distinguished between texts as ‘objects of globalisation’, texts which may contain an implicit critique of global power relations, but are circulated through the very economic and cultural systems that support and maintain the existing global powers; and narratives ‘capable of signifying globalisation’, texts that manage to get underneath the mythology of new universalism and reveal the contradictions that lie at its heart (Connell 80). The Al-Hamlet Summit belongs to the latter rather than the former category.

            Al-Bassam spoke of divergent reactions to the play:

For some The Al-Hamlet Summit was the work of a Westernised traitor that falsely approximated between Islam and the propagation of violence. For others, and I’m happy to say the majority and particularly the young, The Al-Hamlet Summit gave vital and much-needed expression to today’s Arab concerns and presented them to the West in a sophisticated and human form (Al-Bassam, 2003 29).

The ‘hybridity’ of the piece, what Al-Bassam called its ‘cultural symbiosis’ was clearly designed to form a ground of dialogue between East and West. The move from the earlier versions, which were adaptations of the Shakespeare text, to a more contemporary form which allowed for the fuller expression of Arab experience was clearly critical in this process.

The script was written from a contemporary Arab perspective. It carries many concerns and issues of today’s Arab world and its relationship to the West. At the same time, it addresses these concerns to an English-speaking audience. The cross-cultural construction of the piece creates a sense of implication in the affairs of the other. (Dent 2003)

‘Everything is linked’ in the globalised world, either through violence or through an acceptance of reciprocal ‘implication’. The The Al-Hamlet Summit opens a conversation over the ground of our reconciliation.

10. Globalisations

The Red Dragon touched the shores of Socotra early in the first global age, at the incipience of modernity. From the sixteenth century onwards, travel and commercial traffic were opening the world up to a familiar pattern of conquest and counter-conquest, colonisation and resistance. The East India Company was not only ‘discovering’ and encountering the wider world, but mapping and charting its geopolitical contours, and in the process beginning to delineate a global consciousness.

This awareness of the globe in terms of extent and diversity is one of the core meanings of ‘globalisation’. The Red Dragon’s Shakespearean experiments introduce another definition of globalisation, which has to do with colonisation and empire, the exploration of ideas and manners – in short of culture – worldwide from powerful metropolitan centres. In this paradigm Shakespeare is a potentially global commodity to be broadcast and disseminated to a passive or subjugated global population, ‘Will to the world’.

By the twenty-first century Shakespeare has become, as the examples discussed here clearly demonstrate, a vehicle of global communication, a repository of universal themes that facilitates multi-cultural diffusion from a plurality of centres. Shakespeare belongs wholly to the flux of global culture, and is no longer the property of any one national constituency. Shakespeare is irreversibly part of that ‘process by which a number of historical world societies were brought together into one global system’ (Modelski 2000: 49).

These three meanings of globalisation – global consciousness, cultural imperialism, universal communication – are historically linked, but distinguishable, and frequently in conflict one with another. Universal features of human existence common throughout the globe (such as love, or death) have no necessary relationship with the globe as a context or concept; and many products of globalisation (such as Coca-Cola) have no credible claim to universality. If Shakespeare has in fact survived the experience of empire in such a way as to import a potential universality of interest into a genuinely global consciousness, then this represents a remarkable transformation that should prompt us to look again at the map on the forehead on the cover of the Radio Times. If Shakespeare is now, to use Thomas Cartelli’s useful term, ‘repositioned’ beyond national boundaries and colonial authority, then he inhabits a genuinely non-national and multi-cultural global universe. And this is something new.

The Al-Hamlet Summit is a representative product of multicultural communication in a global frame. It occupies one of innumerable local sites that have no territorial linkage, yet reflect specifically on global events, defined as events that implicate humankind as a whole. This is the ultimate globalisation of Shakespeare; but it is also the ultimate localisation of Shakespeare, since it implies an infinite multiplicity of local/global Shakespeares. The term ‘glocalization’ was specifically coined to address this condition:

Glocalization is marked by the development of diverse, overlapping fields of global-local linkages … [creating] a condition of globalized panlocality…. This condition of glocalization… represents a shift from a more territorialized learning process bound up with the nation-state society to one more fluid and translocal. Culture has become a much more mobile, human software employed to mix elements from diverse contexts. With cultural forms and practices more separate from geographic, institutional, and ascriptive embeddedness, we are witnessing what Jan Nederveen Pieterse refers to as postmodern ‘hybridization’. (Gabardi 33-4)

This is not then an inevitable movement towards the universalisation of culture in a wholly homogenised world. Globalisations can also work against each other, as The Al-Hamlet Summit speaks so strongly against international capitalism.  All that links these phenomena together in a global age is their common subordination of national considerations, and their shared reference to the globe, especially as the planet.  The Al-Hamlet Summit belongs to the ‘Global Age’ (see Albrow 1996), but it sits uneasily beside the rhetoric of Tony Blair’s Third Way globalisation. Even the globe has no universal or univocal interpretation (see Featherstone 1995). Between 1607, when Shakespeare’s lines echoed emptily from the deck of the Red Dragon around the Arab world, and 2001, when Al-Bassam’s adaptation found a common acceptance across both East and West, empires rose and fell. But one thing changed. In 1607 Shakespeare was virtually talking to himself. In 2001 Shakespeare was the substance of a global conversation.[4]

Works Cited

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            in Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965-1987. Oxford: Heinemann.

Al-Bassam, Suleyman, 2002. The Al-Hamlet Summit.  Performance text provided by the author.

Al-Bassam, Suleyman, 2003. ‘Am I Mad? Creating the The Al-Hamlet Summit’. Theatre Forum, 22 (Winter/Spring 2003). 28-9.

Albrow, Martin, 1996. The Global Age: State and Society Beyond Modernity.

            Cambridge: Polity Press.

Allen, Richard, 1994. ‘Trouble for Skinhead’, ‘Skinhead Farewell’, ‘Top-Gear Skin’,

             The Complete Richard Allen. Dunoon: Skinhead Times Publishing.

Barker, Francis, and Peter Hulme, 1985. ‘”Nymphs and Reapers heavily vanish”: the

            Discursive Con-texts of The Tempest’, in Drakakis 1985: 191-205.

Blair, Tony, 2002. ‘The Power of World Community’, in Mark Leonard, ed.

            Re-Ordering the World. London: Foreign Policy Centre.

Boas, Frederick S., 1923. Shakespeare and the Universities and Other Studies in

            Elizabethan Drama. New York: Appleton.

Bourdieu, Pierre, 1998. Acts of Resistance: against the new myths of our time.

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Cartelli, Thomas, 1999. Repositioning Shakespeare: national formations, postcolonial

            appropriations. London: Routledge.

Chambers, E.K., 1923. The Elizabethan Stage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Connell, Liam, 2004. ‘Global narratives: globalisation and literary studies’. Critical

            Survey, 16 (2): 78-95.

Crane, Mary Thomas, 2000. Shakespeare’s Brain: Reading with Cognitive Theory.

            Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Curtis, Richard, 1984. ‘The Skinhead Hamlet’. The Faber Book of Parodies, ed.

            Simon Brett. London: Faber and Faber.

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix, 1983. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and

            Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane.

            Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Dent, Shirley, 2003. ‘Interview: Suleyman Al-Bassam’, Culture Wars.


Derrida, Jacques, 1994. Spectres of Marx: the state of the debt, the work of mourning

            and the new international, trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York and London:


Drakakis, John, ed, 1985. Alternative Shakespeares. London: Methuen.

Dubow, Saul, 1993. ‘Wulf Sachs’s Black Hamlet: a Case of “Psychic Vivisection”?’

            African Affairs, 92: 519-56.

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            Modernity. London: Sage.

Featherstone, Mike, Scott Lash and Roland Robertson, eds, 1995. Global

            Modernities:  From Modernism to Hypermodernism and Beyond. London:


 Fuss, Diana, 1994. ‘Interior Colonies: Frantz Fanon and the Politics of

            Identification’. Diacritics, 24 (2): 20-42.

Gabardi, Wayne, 2000. Negotiating Postmodernism. Minneapolis: University of

             Minnesota Press.

Hall, Kim F., 1998. ‘Literary Whiteness in Shakespeare’s Sonnets’, in Loomba and

Orkin 1998: 64-83.

Hallward, Peter, 2001. Absolutely Postcolonial: writing between the singular and the

 specific. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Held, D. and A. McGrew, eds, 2000. The Global Transformations Reader. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Heywood, Thomas, 1612. An Apology for Actors. London: N. Okes.

Holderness, Graham, 1992. Shakespeare Recycled: the making of historical drama.

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Holderness, Graham, 2001. Cultural Shakespeare: essays in the Shakespeare myth.

Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press.

Holderness, Graham and Bryan Loughrey, 1991. ‘Shakespearean Features’, in

Marsden 1991.

Joughin, John J., ed, 1997. Shakespeare and National Culture. Manchester:

Manchester University Press.

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‘Discoveries’ in the Early Modern Period. New York: Palgrave.

Keay, John, 1991. The Honourable Company: A History of the East India Company.

London: Harper Collins.

Kennedy, Dennis, ed., 1993. Foreign Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lawrence, D.H., 1982. Women in Love. London: Penguin.

Loomba, Ania (1997) ‘Shakespearian Transformations’, in Joughin (1997)

Loomba, Ania  and Martin Orkin, eds, 1998. Post-colonial Shakespeares. London:


Marsden, Jean, ed, 1991. The Appropriation of Shakespeare: Post-Renaissance

Reconstructions of the Works and the Myth. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester


Modelski, George, 1972.  Principles of World Politics. London: Free Press.

Modelski, George, 2000. ‘Globalization’, in Held and McGrew 2000: 49-53.

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            Captain William Keeling and Master Thomas Bonner, 1615-17. Minneapolis:

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[1] See Strachan and Penrose, and Keay; though Keay appears at some points to confuse details of the third and fifth voyages of the East India Company, both commanded by Keeling (Loomba 111-14; Taylor).

[2] See Holderness 2001 141-3; Holderness and Loughrey 183-4.

[3] The Al-Hamlet Summit will be published by University of Hertfordshire Press in May 2006. ‘Introduction’ by Graham Holderness, ‘Preface’ by Suleyman Al-Bassam.

[4] The authors are deeply grateful to Professor Martin Albrow, both for his pioneering contributions in the field of globalisation, and for his immensely helpful commentary on an early draft of this article.

From Summit to Tragedy: Sulayman Al-Bassam’s Richard III and Political Theatre

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

[Originally published in the Critical Survey , vol 19 , no. 3 , pp. 124-143. Reprinted by permission of the author.]

Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s best-known characters, a familiarity independent of the history plays, Henry VI and Richard III, in which he appears. This celebrity has less to do with Richard’s historical reputation, and more with the way in which great actors of the 19th and 20th centuries gave the role status and popular visibility, particularly perhaps via Laurence Olivier’s 1955 film version.[1] Just as Hamlet is automatically identifiable by black suit and prop skull, Richard is immediately recognisable by his legendary deformity (mandatory hump, optional limp), and by the famous opening lines of his initial soliloquy:

Now is the winter of our discontent…

The phrase has also of course escaped from Richard, as he escapes from the play: it was much used in Britain during the successive years of bitter labour dispute in the early 1970s, becoming inseparable from an environment of strikes, picket-lines, power cuts. But it still belongs to Richard. When Peter Sellers guested on the Muppet Show, he delivered ‘the soliloquy from Richard III’ (with a distinct resemblance to Olivier), ‘whilst (and at the same time) playing tuned chickens’.[2]

Spectators of Sulayman Al-Bassam’s adaptation of Richard III, An Arab Tragedy, performed at the Swan Theatre in Stratford in February 2007, encounter from the outset an immediate disruption of convention and expectation, since the first person on the stage, the first to speak, is not Richard at all, but a woman, Queen Margaret.

– I am Margaret…

…You needn’t be concerned about me…

…We lost…

…It is your right to ignore me. I would ignore myself if my history let me…

…I don’t want your loans, your gifts, your reconstruction grants.
I don’t want your pity…

…We lost…

…All I ask from you is not to question my thirst for revenge…

…It’s not because I’m Arab…

…I have a degree …

…anyway, my name is not Margaret…

…But our history is so awful, even the victors have changed their names (ATS, p. 1).[3]

Margaret traverses the stage with a suitcase, which she opens and closes to reveal bundled clothes.[4] She establishes an immediate link between the different ‘pasts’ of the play – c. 1400 and the early 1590s – and the present. In the dimension of the play’s historical subject, the Wars of the Roses, she is representative, as widow of Henry VI, of the defeated Lancastrian faction. In the late 16th century domain of the play’s composition, she speaks for vengeance, especially through the languages of revenge tragedy and witchcraft. But in the present of the spectator’s existence, she is immediately identifiable as a refugee, dispossessed and rejected, ignored by history and the politics of power. Stateless, propertyless, abandoned, her suitcase contains the few belongings she has managed to keep with her. She has changed her name, lost her identity, is insulted and patronised by the fake philanthropy of post-invasion reconstruction. But she retains enough pride to muster a fierce rejection of the audience’s ‘pity’.

Al-Bassam begins his play, then, not with a man, but a woman; with a woman who is not English, but declares herself to be Arab; not with a theatrical star, but with a marginal figure; and not with one of victors who, in Walter Benjamin’s formulation, normally have the privilege of writing history, but with one of the defeated. Expecting Richard III and ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’, the audience instead encounters a figure instantly recognisable as an Arab refugee, Lebanese or Palestinian or Iraqui, of the type who appears daily on our television screens.[5] Although this is Shakespeare, she speaks Arabic, and the non-Arabic-speaking British spectator has access to her words only through translation. The Arabic text actually spoken by the actors was formed from Al-Bassam’s English adaptation of Shakespeare’s play; and the English surtitles read by the audience derived from the Arabic version (Al-Bassam adapted the play in English, then had it translated into Arabic, then produced an English version of the Arabic text to serve as the parallel English medium of performance). Languages divide and interweave, past and present diverge and assimilate, East and West are contrasted and temporarily merged.[6] Is this here, or there? Now, or then?[7] Self, or other?

When Richard does speak, it is with an effect ‘as strangely familiar as it is alien’:[8]

– The earth has changed its robes. The sorrows of winter and the cold bite of metal given way to the lazy warmth of spring…

…War is too fat for its armour, too drunk to roar.
And all we hear today are the blasts of pleasure giggles,..

…Fighters who waged the valiant fight are seen today  clean whiskered, soft skinned, slipping around in a lover’s bed…

…oiling whisper lusts with pleasure screams…

…But I, whose chest is weighed with a weatherproof heart…

…Dispossessed of a mug  to draw a lusty female eye;
I, who was born to a mother with a narrow pelvis…

…who spat me into this world so battered, beaten, buckled  and underdone that even dogs bark at me!…

…Therefore since I cannot prove a lover I am determined to prove a villain,… (ATS, p. 1)

In the Shakespearean ‘original’[9] of this speech, Gloster’s climatic metaphors are closely bound up with political references (‘sun of York’, ‘clouds that loured upon our house’), and his discourses of war and peace are heavily influenced by the poetics of mediaeval chivalry and courtliness. In Al-Bassam’s version, the metaphorical horizon has shifted. The images of seasonal change are more elemental and pastoral; the erotic fantasies more orientalized; and the personal conviction of physical difference localized into a different paradigm of gender and family relations (‘born to a mother with a narrow pelvis’ is quite different in its impact from ‘deformed, unfinished, sent before my time’). Al-Bassam’s Richard has neither hump nor limp, though he later protests a physical affliction symptomatised by a neck-brace concealed beneath his military uniform. Reviewers and spectators saw him as charismatically handsome rather than hideously deformed. The language is Shakespeare and yet not Shakespeare; classical and demotic; poetic and idiomatic; Eastern and Western. In Al-Bassam’s initial adaptation text (ATT), the soliloquy was much closer to the Shakespearean ‘original’.


The earth has changed its robes

The sorrows of winter and the cold bite of metal

Have given way to the lazy warmth of spring …

But I, whose chest is weighed with a weatherproof heart

Have no joy in such tricks –

I lack the frail agility of the soft men

And want the fashionable virtue of eunuchs …

Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity ..
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days. (ATT, p. 1)

Here the modern, idiomatic and transcultural improvisations are cast into verse form, and modulate easily into a passage of unaltered Shakespeare. Al-Bassam preserves the Shakespearean rhythm with its effortlessly self-generating poetry, so that the decision to ‘prove a villain’ flows spontaneously from Richard’s scholastic discourse. By the time the text reached performance it had been through what Al-Bassam calls ‘a layered process of “arabisation” and re-appropriation’[10] , and emerged as a dramatic medium with an entirely different rhythm and structure.  In the ATS text Richard seems to tear his choice of villainy violently out of his complaint of deformity. There may be logic to this deduction, but it is the arbitrary logic of a megalomaniac will.

Al-Bassam has formally distinguished different conceptions of history at work in his play. Richard stands for a ‘linear’ teleology of history, planning, setting and seizing objectives, the iron will moving inexorably against obstacles to reach its targeted goal. Buckingham, Richmond and all the other political agents and instruments stand for an ‘East-West’ historical paradigm, still bifurcated by empire and its modern versions, history as manipulation and corruption, assassination and show trial. In Margaret, on the other hand, Al-Bassam saw a different kind of history: history as a cyclical recurrence, in which the past rises to meet the present, the dead wake, ghosts haunt the living, curses are efficacious and the passion of revenge never sleeps.[11] A scene where Margaret casts bones to foretell the future symptomatises this history of omen and portent, the dark shadows of a buried past and an unrevealed futurity.[12]

Richard III: An Arab Tragedy represents Sulayman Al-Bassam’s fourth Shakespearean experiment, and the third Shakespeare play he has adapted. Prior to his work on Richard III, he had written and produced an experimental improvisation on Macbeth, and three different versions of Hamlet. Hamlet in Kuwait, a version of Shakespeare’s text performed in English, was initiated in January 2001, in association with a cultural festival ‘Kuwait 2001: Cultural Capital of the Arab World’, a historic celebration of national independence and autonomy which marked the 10th anniversary of Kuwait’s liberation from the Iraqi invasion.

Born in Kuwait, son of a Kuwaiti father and a British mother, Al-Bassam was educated in Britain and now resides in Kuwait. He speaks Arabic, and writes in English; his works are translated from English into Arabic by others, with his own participation.[13] Al-Bassam’s position within Kuwaiti society is that of a loyal citizen, but also that of an internal émigré, capable of viewing his country with a critical scepticism. He has expressed gratitude to the United States and its allies for the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, but offers an unqualified critique of American foreign policy.[14]  He is committed to the cultural development of the Kuwaiti nation, but is also acutely conscious of the nation’s need for radical political reform and cultural change.

Hence Hamlet was reoriented to highlight social and political parallels. Claudius is the Arab despot, ruling over a corrupt oligarchy. The young prince, struggling to define himself in a hostile environment, suggests the disillusioned but resourceful youth of Kuwait, resistant to the authority of the older generation, but diffident about the possibilities of action. The Ghost was a symbol of the Gulf war, a disturbing past that still haunts the people of Kuwait. The production performed 20 times to capacity audiences, playing to a mixed audience of Arabic and English-speakers.[15]

In speaking of his decision to choose Shakespeare for this exercise, Al-Bassam focuses on the political parallels that can be drawn from the plays, and on the classic status of Shakespeare that provides a kind of shield or mask for the radical dramatist.

Shakespeare seemed a natural choice. In addition to being rich, malleable and volatile material, Shakespeare guaranteed me my ‘green card’ past the Cyclops of the state censor and the prejudices of a largely conservative society.[16]

To some extent Shakespeare was a ‘Trojan Horse’ for Al-Bassam, a cultural monument that enabled him to smuggle critical views on his own society past the authorities and to the greedy intelligences of the theatre audience. Hamlet in Kuwait ‘encoded’ its meanings within a Shakespearean register ‘a cultural encoding that would allow the work’s meanings to override the various linguistic, cultural and political barriers in Kuwait and permit its meanings to explode in performance’.[17]

Al-Bassam’s next Shakespearean experiment, entitled The Arab League Hamlet and produced first in Tunisia later in 2001, was an adapted version of the Shakespeare text, with scenes cut and re-arranged, and the cast reduced down to a few principal players. The revised Jacobean text is punctuated with short scenes and interspersed lines in modern colloquial English. For the first time Al-Bassam used the ‘summit’ setting which added much to the success of The Al-Hamlet Summit. The characters occupied a space akin to a political assembly, sitting at and moving around desks and chairs.  In this new staging all of the characters were visible all of the time. Projection screens displayed the larger context of ‘an empire desecrated by war’ and the characters ‘adopted the grammar of diplomatic negotiations in a fight for their own survival’.[18]

The new setting threw the emphasis on explicit political parallels between the world of Shakespeare’s court and the modern Arab world, and invited response as to a piece of political theatre.

The Kuwait experience had taught me that Arab audiences are very quick to extract political meaning from theatrical signifiers. In fact, as a result of decades of censorship, they had grown to almost demand political significance from ‘serious’ work. They enjoyed searching for it, hungrily reading metaphors into scenes and digging for signs of dissent in the work- sometimes finding it where there was none intended! … I was actively feeding the Arab audience’s hunger for political statement and controversy. Indeed, audiences and critics in Tunisia immediately read the work as a piece of radical agit-prop.[19]

When The Arab League Hamlet was performed to an invited audience in London it was far less successful. In Al-Bassam’s view this was because while the Arab audiences were skilled in reading political meaning from dramatic texts, and saw the play as ‘a politically hyper-loaded piece that touched at the very heart of their feelings of despair in the political process’, the Western audience ‘regarded it as little more than a “clever” adaptation of Shakespeare’. ‘The political overtones did not translate’.[20]

In fact it is far more likely that English spectators encountered the ‘political overtones’ not as indecipherable but as all too familiar. A ‘clever adaptation of Shakespeare’ using modern dress and settings, insistently contemporary parallels, back-projected newsreel footage is something of an everyday occurrence. When Peter Culshaw saw The Arab League Hamlet he had no problem in reading this dimension off the very surface of the production:

The Hamlet I saw in London began with the characters seated behind desks as though at a summit, complete with name tags and headphones. This set the scene for an evening of power struggle, negotiations, compromise and tragic chaos. The overheated, incestuous atmosphere built up (‘something rotten in the state of Denmark’) with Claudius as a western puppet and the confused Hamlet outraged by the corruption.[21]

Al-Bassam was correct however in surmising that the production took the British audience into Shakespeare rather than into Arab culture and psychology: ‘I had wanted to put the English-speaking spectator inside the head of the Arab spectator in Kuwait and Tunisia …  I had wanted the English spectator to experience the same sense of strangeness in familiarity the Arab one had felt and, above all, the same degree of implication in the events presented to them on stage’.  But The Arab League Hamlet simply did not provide the Western spectator with a theatrical language powerful and suggestive enough to facilitate that cultural leap into such unfamiliar territory. ‘I was wrong’.[22]

The Al-Hamlet Summit was first performed in English as part of the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival, in August 2002. The newly-modernised English script, combined with the political assembly ‘summit’ setting devised for The Arab League Hamlet, played naturally into the category of political theatre. Al-Hamlet is if anything more overt in its agit-prop relevance and immediacy than its predecessors. Philip Culshaw said that it ‘makes explicit what was implicit’[23] in the Arab League Hamlet. Al-Bassam identified the play’s themes as ‘political corruption, the twisted relationship between willing puppets and their imperial masters, the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism; suicide as a desperate form of political self-expression’.[24] The parallel between Claudius and Saddam Hussein was further exaggerated; Ophelia is more closely linked to the Palestinian cause; and Hamlet himself more decisively characterised as an Islamic fundamentalist, goaded to violence by internal betrayal rather than by external aggression.

This emphasis on specific contemporary political issues offers the play to audiences as a piece of dramatic journalism, or a roman-a-clef from which obvious contemporary analogues to the Shakespearean characters can readily be identified. This is exactly how the play was read by many spectators:

Polonius is a devious spin-doctor, Hamlet moves from indecision to becoming a Bin Laden-type religious fanatic, while Ophelia ends up as a suicide bomber. CNN-type footage of burning oil wells adds to the claustrophobia.[25]

Hamlet becomes a religious extremist … Laertes joins the army … Ophelia is a suicide bomber …[26]

Although the primary historical context of the adaptation is that of the invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf War, it was clearly also influenced by the atrocity of 9/11, and this helped Western viewers to find paradigms for understanding it: ‘the play rides on the aftermath of September 11 2001, and the impact it had on Arab and Western perceptions of one another’.[27]

It is abundantly clear that Al-Bassam was trying to do something more than this. These quotations suggest that Western spectators of The Al-Hamlet Summit are impressed primarily with the way in which the play brings Shakespeare up to date, providing dramatic analogues for contemporary archetypes or stereotypes (the Arab dictator, the Islamic fundamentalist, the suicide bomber) that are visible daily on every TV screen. But Al-Bassam wanted to move the spectator away from these temptingly easy analogies. The most substantial difference between The Arab League Hamlet and The Al-Hamlet Summit is that in the latter Al-Bassam deviated from the Shakespearean text and produced a wholly new script combining a much wider range of linguistic and theatrical registers. These naturally include echoes of Shakespearean verse and the modern colloquial language of a contemporary-oriented political theatre, but also new layers of poetic language derived from classical Arabic, including the Holy Quran, from contemporary Arabic poetry, and from a ‘cross-cultural’ poetic sensibility capable of interweaving all these strands and producing from them a new theatrical discourse.

These features are more noticeable in Al-Bassam’s most recent Shakespearean adaptation, his version of Richard III, which was premiered at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford as part of the RSC’s ‘Complete Works’ project. The repertory consisted of ‘mainstream’ productions and parallel or alternative versions (‘responses’). An Arab Tragedy was billed as a ‘response’ to Michael Boyd’s production of Richard III. The play was performed in Arabic (the first play in Arabic to be produced by the RSC), with the English text projected onto screens as surtitles, and with some scenes spoken in English. This piece clearly has a longer development history that remains in process: it was played in Athens in May 2007 as part of the Athens Festival, and is scheduled to play at the Bouffes du Nord in Paris, and thereafter in Amsterdam.

Although the play is set in an unnamed ‘Gulf state’, Al-Bassam clearly did not want the play’s frame of reference restricted, as some reviewers suggested it was, to the Gulf monarchies.  Hence he broadens the scope of the piece to include the whole Middle East:

More generally, the modern Middle East, like so many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, offers a painful plethora of examples of how not to rule. Modern imperialism, tyranny, barbarism, oppression, plots, assassinations and civil wars are sadly becoming the rule not the exception in our region. The players in this grim game of politics, natural resources and strategic power are many, and like all the characters in Richard III, none are innocent; all have bloodied their hands.

At this point we are still inside the paradigm of agit-prop theatre occupied by the earlier adaptations. Here the landscape of the play is identical to the landscape of the modern Middle East, Shakespeare is our contemporary, and history is politics.

It is true that the play does to a certain degree depend on relatively simple parallels between Shakespearean situations and characters, and those to be found in Al-Bassam’s contemporary Middle East. This dimension was certainly the primary focus of the play’s British reception, intoxicated with orientalism:

It is as though the Swan Theatre has been put on a magic carpet and flown to Saudi Arabia. For the gripping two-hour direction of Sulayman Al-Bassam’s ‘Arabian’ account of Richard III, we see not dukes, earls and queens, but turbaned sheiks and women in burkas. We hear not alarums but strange beguiling ululations. Shakespeare’s language comes to as though through secret service intercept: in Arabic with surtitles.[28]

The same reviewer saw the piece as a play of ‘urgent topicality’, ‘reconceiving Shakespeare’s tragedy for the jihadi age’. Shakespeare’s play is  ripe for such analogies, replete as it is with arrests and executions, secret assassinations, political in-fighting and photo opportunities, hostage-taking, character assassination and show trials, religious hypocrisy, forced confessions, usurpation, invasion and civil war. All these aspects of the plot are here ‘Arabized’ and transferred to the play’s ‘unnamed oil-rich kingdom or emirate’.[29]

The staging accentuates these parallels further. Just as in Hamlet in Kuwait, projection screens were used to contextualise the action to the Gulf War, so in Arab Tragedy back-projected images flesh out the contingent context of despotism, military action, clandestine surveillance. ‘Grainy video footage of forced confessions and executions jostle for attention with swaying figures.’[30]  These ‘multimedia interventions’[31] were read primarily as documentary illustrations enforcing the contemporary parallels. Al-Bassam’s Buckingham is a double agent, secretly liaising with the Americans as he ostensibly supports Richard’s bid for the throne. The screens record his coded email communications. ‘Even as Buckingham does Richard’s bidding, he sends e-mail updates on the sly to the American ambassador, reporting on the latest political machinations’.[32] Richmond is portrayed as a ‘platitude-spouting Christian US general who at the play’s conclusion announces the installation of an interim government’.[33] Stability is already however threatened by insurgency:

Richmond is an American general who, chillingly, speaks the final words of the play in English, with the swaggering accent of the occupying army. The speech, ending with the words ‘God say Amen’, is meant to reassure. But even as he delivers it, a group of insurgents can be seen in the background, ready for a fight in the name of their own religion, ‘Allah-u akbar!’ they cry. ‘God is great!’[34]

At this final point of the drama, just before the theatre collapses its illusions and decants us back out into our own world, we are here transported from 1400 to 2003, from Bosworth Field to Afghanistan or Iraq in the embattled Middle East of the 21st century.

I would nonetheless argue, and will seek to illustrate from some moments from the play, that the true achievement of Arab Tragedy lies less in its astute political parallels and historical comparisons, and more in the cross-cultural encounters it sets up between Western and Arab societies. The project was initially titled Baghdad Richard (tickets were sold for the play under that title) with the Gloucester-Saddam parallel clearly foregrounded. Al-Bassam changed the title in response to changing events, particularly the trial and execution of Saddam, but also out of a realisation that in this theatrical medium, oversimplification is a constant danger.

With the rapid change of events in the region and also as I delved more deeply into it to make that comparison really work, I reached the conclusion it would be selling both histories a bit short in trying to make a foolproof comparison between Richard III and the rise and fall of Saddam Hussein.[35]

The new title An Arab Tragedy suggests a broader territory, not just Iraq, and broaches wider issues of concern to the Gulf States and the Arab world in general. Al-Bassam came to see the play as initially about ‘constitutional crisis’ which is a ‘very current’ issue for the Gulf region. The production programme quotes a passage from 14th century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun on the dangers of dynastic succession in monarchy. The succession of a child protected by powerful ‘wazirs’ renders the state vulnerable, and this weakness is seen as a virtually incurable ‘disease of dynasty’.[36] In a programme note Al-Bassam underlines this parallel:

In this piece, I am using a foreign (English) history to explore contemporary political anxieties in the Gulf and Arab region. The monarchical system of rule that governs all the countries in the Arabian Peninsula (in which the reins of power are passed down through generations descended from an original founder) has proved itself to be a stable and durable form of governance. But, as recent events have shown, crises of succession present a constant threat of implosion to these monarchies. Richard III offers the model of a crisis of succession that turns into a nightmare.[37]

This theatrical ‘nightmare’ goes well beyond the interpolation of agit-prop relevance, and has the capacity to take the spectator deeper not only into Arab culture, but into territories of myth and communal emotion where trans-cultural rapprochements can more effectively take place.

Shakespeare’s Act 1 scene IV is the long scene of Clarence’s murder. Clarence tells Brakenbury of the dream which anticipates his assassination. In the dream Clarence finds himself in the underworld, and is rebuked by the ghosts of his victims for his crimes of perjury and murder. The murderers then enter and engage in some clowning before falling to their task. Clarence cannot believe that Edward would wish him killed, protests his innocence and appeals to shared Christian values:

I charge you, as you hope to have redemption

By Christ’s dear blood shed for our grievous sins,

That you depart, and lay no hands on me.

There follows an energetic debate on the authority of kingship vis-a-vis God’s law; whether or not the guilty have any rights to mercy; the proper punishments for perjury and murder. Eventually the murderers confide in Clarence the truth that they act for Gloster. He pleads for his life, and they kill him by beating him and drowning him in the wine-butt.

Al-Bassam concentrates this whole sequence down to this:

– I swear there is no God but Allah.
God forgive my sins.

…In God’s name what art thou?

– A man as you are.

– If you be hired for money go back again and I will send you to my brother Gloucester…

…He shall reward you better for my life than the King does for news of my death.

– You are deceived, he hates you.
– Do not slander him.
He is kind and merciful.

– Merciful as rain on mud huts. He sent me to slaughter you. Pray now for you must die.

– Dare you counsel me to pray to God yet would war with God by murdering me?..

He who kills without due reason, it is as though he kills the whole of humanity (Q.);
– Pray!

And do not shed blood that is sacred by Allah’s law (Q.);
– Pray!

– Al Rawandi in the sources says: beware of shedding innocent blood-
– Pray!

– Pray! (ATS, p. 7)

Here Clarence is presented as a devout Muslim who quotes the Holy Quran and illustrations from Islamic scholarship against unlawful killing and the violation of innocence. Not surprisingly there is no wine-butt: instead Clarence is drowned in the sacred water he has used to perform his ritual ablutions. Simultaneously the musical accompaniment deploys an old Gulf sea-song, thus invoking poetic associations of dreaming and drowning.

Al-Bassam has moved the narrative of Clarence’s dream from this scene to an earlier scene with Richard. In the murder scene there is no detailed account of Clarence’s past, or the role he has played in previous political machinations: he seems an ordinary pious man who is conscious of his sins, and prays for forgiveness.  His appeal to his murderers is articulated in terms of the Islamic values they share, just as, in Shakespeare, Clarence appeals for mercy through the blood of Christ.[38] The Quaranic quotations used by Clarence speak out against the murder of innocence, and the reference to ‘the shedding of innocent blood’ invokes the tradition of Ibrahim and Mohammad, the young sons of Muslim and the descendents of the Prophet, who were assassinated in a story that forms a direct and detailed parallel to the story of the Princes in the Tower.[39] Thus Clarence as victim is shifted closer in this version to the massacre of the innocents later practised on young Edward and Richard.[40]

In Shakespeare’s scene, Clarence’s Christian language is undermined by the murderers’ indictment of his crimes. Here however the issue is not Clarence’s guilt – for who is guiltless? – but the moral atrocity of assassination itself. The murderers instruct him to pray, although his prayers clamour out against their actions. They decline to enter any kind of religious debate with him, thus letting the stark moral beauty and clarity of the Quranic injunctions stand in clear contrast to the act of butchery perpetrated by those who purport to share their victim’s faith. This is more than a substitution of an Islamic for a Christian frame of reference. This is an attempt to draw the spectator inside an engaged but critical perspective on Islam and the violence that shadows it.

Later in the equivalent of Shakespeare’s 4.3, in which Tyrrel describes his murder of the princes, we are presented again with the immense moral power of religious taboo, and the strength required to betray it:

– I swear I turned back twice.
But he put out his hand. The Book was on the pillow…

…“No!” I said. It’s the Quran. It’s haram. Can’t do it. Haram…

…Then one of them opened his eyes: a boy. Same age as my own boy.

… God, what did you make me of ? I killed my friend, then these children…

…Filthy dirty scab, rotten useless chump…

…It was not me: it was
the Devil. Not me: the Devil put out his hand.

…Damn you and damn who asked for your love. Damn lovers that seek only pain!..

…My crime in this life was placing you in my heart. To love one like you is to slash open my veins. (ATS, p. 21)

Here it is Catesby, no stranger to violence, who undertakes the murder on Richard’s behalf. In Shakespeare on the pillow there lies a ‘book of prayers’, here replaced by the Holy Quran. The sight of the text forces Catesby to realise that he is about to commit an unspeakable crime, ‘Haram’. The Arabic word ‘haram’ can mean ‘forbidden’ or ‘sacred’. It is used for example of sanctuaries and holy places such as the Musjid-al-Haram at Mecca, an inviolable sacred space. Catesby rehearses in Islamic language and terminology the power of the sacred law that forbids the desecration of innocence; the immense struggle of the man who seeks to betray the law; and the desperate invocation of a diabolical power to explain how such acts can be committed. The speech ends by quoting a traditional Arab lament which sings of the hopelessness of love, the bitter disenchantment of a betrayed loyalty.

My final illustration is from the conclusion to Arab Tragedy, which aims for effects quite different from those of the source text. Just as the play opened by countermanding conventional expectations of Richard’s famous soliloquy, so here there is no trace of the scene in Richard’s camp on the night before Bosworth: no ghosts of the slain returning to haunt him, no lights burning blue, no self-pitying exhortations (to the manifest disappointment of some spectators). The equivalent of Richard’s last Shakespearean soliloquy is this one-ended telephone conversation Richard conducts with the American Embassy:

[Prayer] Please Allah forgive my deepest blackest sins, my crimes. My soul this night is heavy, my life in your hands…

[Telephone] Will the Ambassador not speak to me? I have a conscience I want to talk to him about,…

…it’s something he should understand being an enlightened man of learning!..

…Where can I take this stray dog of mine? Where can I kennel it? If my dog bites you Ambassador…

…it will infect you and your masters, show you in the filth I know you!..

…I have studied how to plant bombs in the bowels of your democracies- your hands are not clean, sir, I will unveil your complicity!..

…Neither are my hands clean but I don’t boast otherwise you two-faced hypocrite democrat dog!..

…Now be careful what you say Ambassador you’re in my country. Oh really? Well, I have firing squads in the Hague too!. (ATS, p. 24)

Again the language of Islamic prayer provides the discourse for Richard’s expression, whether genuine or merely conventional, of guilt.[41] If he genuinely does want to discuss his guilt with the Ambassador, the intention very soon evaporates as Richard collapses from one raging diatribe into another. The self-searching renaissance hero-villain is replaced here by the modern megalomaniac despot, psychotically convinced of his power, unscrupulous in the pursuit of his will, ruthless in meeting opposition. There can be no sympathy for such a figure, and Al-Bassam has stated that he deliberately omitted Richard’s final soliloquy because in this context he ‘questioned the value of pity’.[42] The subsequent entry of Margaret, leading a procession of the dead, creates what Al-Bassam calls a ‘religious-political-historical montage’, underscored by Catesby’s recited prayers, which draw on litanies from both the Shia and Sunni traditions.[43]

Having defeated expectation so many times, Al-Bassam finally obliges by providing Richard with the ‘horse’ for which he would exchange his kingdom. On stage this is a strange contraption, part gym equipment and part physiotherapy apparatus, that is brought in disguised and then revealed when required. Richard mounts it and tries to flog the machine into action, brandishing the scimitar:

– What’s this horse called?
– “Al-Umma”.

– “Al Umma”! let me ride you! O my battle of Badr! … Victory sits on our helms. (ATS, p. 25)

‘Al-Umma’ is ‘the nation of believers’, the people considered as a belief community. The word is encountered widely in Arab culture, in political language (the Kuwaiti parliament is called ‘Majlis-al-Umma’), in the press, where it is the title of several newspapers, or as the name of an Islamic fundamentalist group.  Richard is offering himself as the leader of an Arab Islamic nationalism. The battle he names, Badr (625) is a great victory from the history of militant Islam. When Richard III’s iconic lines finally arrive, they can be read as the echo of an ancient and suicidal heroism that can still be invoked in the present:

…A horse! A horse!
My kingdom for a horse! (ATS, p. 25)

But the heroism is undermined by the absurdity of the stage image, Richard flailing clumsily around on a mechanical horse that is going nowhere except  in circles.

In the adaptation text (ATT), Richard used the name of another battle, Qadisya (636) in which the Muslims defeated the Persians.  Al-Bassam dropped this reference, since to Arab spectators it would tie Richard too closely to Saddam Hussein (Saddam invoked this historical exemplar in the course of his war against Iran of 1980-8, known as the Qādisiyyat Saddām). ‘Badr’, the battle of 625 in which a small Muslim force defeated the much larger army of the Meccans, also invokes Saddam, but with deeper cross-cultural reverberations and sharper ironies. The eighth sura of the Holy Quran represents the Battle of Badr as clear proof of God’s favour to believers. The chapter is called Al-Anfal, ‘The Spoils’.[44] Saddam used the title Al-Anfal as the code name for his notorious campaign against peshmerga rebels and Kurds between 1986 and 1989, the campaign in which chemical weapons were used against civilians. Saddam’s cousin ‘Chemical Ali’ was sentenced to death on charges including these atrocities.

Hence the play’s emphasis shifts from any notion of Richard as victim, to the list of martyrs with which the play closes. This list, which fades out as if it could go on indefinitely, is the equivalent of a Shakespearean list of battlefield slain, but brings together Arab martyrs past and present, from the dawn of Islam to today; brings together soldiers, writers, thinkers, freedom fighters of all descriptions, and victims of may different regimes. Their names echo into silence as the territory of the stage splits into civil war between occupying power and insurgent militia.

These examples should help to further the argument that although Al-Bassam’s adaptations of Shakespeare clearly are a form of political theatre, and offer themselves to be read as such, they are not restricted to this cultural register. The works aim to produce ‘a richly suggestive theatrical experience, not a piece of agit-prop’.[45] Political parallels and historical comparisons are certainly drawn, but not in any simplistic or reductive way. Rather he attempts to ‘put contemporary figures in the political landscape, within the fabric of another world, a Shakespearean world, and thereby open up a space for dissent, or a space for another kind of annotation’.[46] The Shakespearean dimension is there to provide a dramatic space in which contemporary events can be re-projected with something like Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, so that the present condition is estranged rather than simply recognised. ‘Current political events – and our perceptions of them – hang like a misty landscape, half-perceived, in the backdrop of the play’.[47] Al-Bassam wants his Western spectators to think again about contemporary political stereotypes rather than merely to identify (and implicitly endorse) them.

In making theatre in the Arab world and presenting it to the West (as is the case in this production) I am very conscious of not using theatre to make binary moral statements (we are right: you are wrong) as this process merely confirms prejudices and makes matters worse. I have tried to level the earth to make a space for this text and aspects of the contemporary Arab world to meet and make sense of each other.

The dramatist was also obviously steering a difficult course among a wide range of extreme and moderate opinions on the current condition of the Middle East. His focus is on the possibilities for cross-cultural linguistic and theatrical encounters, and for enhanced understanding between divided communities.

I think that there are sadly few Arab voices that are able to speak to Western audiences outside of a political or religious context and in that sense one has to find a way to steer between ideological cliché and antagonism but also to use those elements – because that’s what most people are familiar with – to open up new space for dialogue and meeting.[48]

The last word belongs to the actor who played Richard in the production, Syrian Fayez Kazak, who told an interviewer:

Whenever I sing you my song, and you sing me your song, then we become relatives on this earth. Otherwise we will be enemies.[49]

The last word belongs to the actor who played Richard in the production, Syrian Fayez Kazak, who told an interviewer:

Whenever I sing you my song, and you sing me your song, then we become relatives on this earth. Otherwise we will be enemies.[50]

[1]  ‘Richard III is comfortably the most entertaining of the three great Olivier Shakespeare films, and may have done more to popularise Shakespeare than any other single work. When shown on US television that same year, the resulting audience (estimated at between 25 and 40 million) would have outnumbered the sum total of the play’s theatrical audiences over the 358 years since its first performance’. Michael Brooke, Richard III (1955), Screen Online (London: BFI) [Available at][Accessed 12 July 2007]. Sellers also did a Richard III version of the Beatles’ song Hard Day’s Night in a direct imitation of Olivier’s film.

[2] Roger Lewis provides a fascinating parallelism between Sellers and Olivier in his The Real Life of Laurence Olivier (London: Century, 1996, repr. London: Arrow Books, 2007), pp. 1-19.


[3] Two texts are used as a basis for this paper, both kindly supplied by Sulayman Al-Bassam. The first, styled here ‘Arab Tragedy Text’ (ATT) is an adaptation into English, partly free and partly imitative, of the Shakespearean text. The second, ‘Arab Tragedy Surtitles’ (ATS) is a text representing the English surtitles as they appeared on video screens in the performances at Stratford-upon-Avon in May 2007. According to a programme note, ‘The surtitles you are reading at times paraphrase the original English and at others try to capture the texture of what is being said in Arabic’ (RSC programme, The Culture Project [Kuwait]) and Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre, William Shakespeare Adapted by Sulayman Al-Bassam, Richard  III: An Arab Tragedy [2007]). The two texts are very different, and reflect the complex process of adaptation. ATT is divided into scenes corresponding to the Shakespeare text, while ATS takes the form of blocks of text designed to fit into PowerPoint slides. Quotations are referenced to page numbers on printouts from ATT and ATS.

[4] Sam Marlowe saw these clothes as ‘the gore-stained garments of her slaughtered husband and son’. The Times, 15 February 2007.

[5] Dominic Cavendish complained, ‘one may baulk at the way that “Now is the winter of our discontent” has been twisted into “The sorrows of winter and the cold bite of metal …”’. In this reviewer’s opinion Al-Bassam has ‘duffed up the original text to the point of unrecognisability’. ‘Putting the sheikh into Shakespeare’, The Telegraph, 15 February 2007.  

[6] ‘His play blends past with present, East with West.’ Hussain Al-Qatari, ‘Kuwaiti Playwright advocates Cultural Reform’, Kuwait Times, 8 May 2007.

[7] Dominic Cavendish describes it as a ‘collision between past and present’. ‘Putting the sheikh into Shakespeare’, The Telegraph, 15 February 2007.

[8] Ibid.

[9] I use the word ‘original’ very advisedly, here meaning the speech as it appears in the published texts of 1597 and 1623.

[10] Personal communication from Al-Bassam to the author (5 May 2007).

[11] The linear and cycical motions of history nonetheless interact. Al-Bassam thinks of Richard as a ‘product of endless cycles of violence, revenge and civil war’. Quoted in ‘Shakespeare’s Tragedy in Arabic’, Trade Arabia News Service, 24 January 2007.

[12] Observations made by Sulayman Al-Bassam in a staged discussion with Michael Boyd, Playing with History, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (February 2007).

[13] See Sulayman Al-Bassam, The Al-Hamlet Summit (Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2006), p. 25. Mehdi Al-Sayigh was credited as ‘Translator’ for Richard III: an Arab Tragedy.

[14] Al-Bassam says ‘As a Kuwaiti, there is a lot I owe to the coalition’, quoted by Peter Culshaw, ‘Shakespeare and suicide bombers’, Daily Telegraph, 1 March 2004. But elsewhere he speaks critically of ‘America’s War on Terror’. See Sulayman Al-Bassam, ‘Director’s Note – Hamlet In The Age of Infinite Justice’, The Arab League Hamlet [available at] [accessed 15 May 2007). In Arab Tragedy ‘War on Terror’ is a slogan adopted by Richard and Buckingham as a pretext for repression.

[15] ‘Hamlet in Kuwait’ [available at] [accessed 15 May 2007].

[16] Sulayman Al-Bassam, ‘Am I mad? Creating The Al-Hamlet Summit’, Theatre Forum, 22 (Winter/Spring 2003), pp. 85-6.

[17] Ibid., p. 86.

[18] Ibid., p. 86.

[19] Ibid., p. 86.

[20] Ibid., p. 87.

[21] Peter Culshaw, ‘Shakespeare and suicide bombers’, Daily Telegraph, 1 March 2004.

[22] Sulayman Al-Bassam, ‘Am I mad? Creating The Al-Hamlet Summit’, Theatre Forum, 22 (Winter/Spring 2003), p. 87.

[23] Peter Culshaw, ‘Shakespeare and suicide bombers’, Daily Telegraph, 1 March 2004.

[24] Sulayman Al-Bassam, ‘Am I mad? Creating The Al-Hamlet Summit’, Theatre Forum, 22 (Winter/Spring 2003), p. 87.

[25] Lynn Gardner, ‘The Al-Hamlet Summit’, The Guardian, 13 March 2004.

[26]  Maddy Costa, ‘The Al-Hamlet Summit’, The Guardian, 13 August 2002.

[27] ‘Hamlet Bin Hamlet: Sulayman Al-Bassam Fuses Shakespeare with the Middle East’, Emerging Kuwait 2006 (Oxford: Oxford Business Group, 2006), p. 205.

[28] Dominic Cavendish, ‘Putting the sheikh into Shakespeare’, The Telegraph, 15 February 2007.

[29] ‘Note on the Production’, RSC programme, The Culture Project (Kuwait) and Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre, William Shakespeare Adapted by Sulayman Al-Bassam, Richard  III: An Arab Tragedy (2007).

[30] Sam Marlowe, The Times, 15 February 2007.

[31] Kieron Quirke, ‘Shakespeare’s Arabia’, Evening Standard, 14 February 2007.

[32] Sarah Lyall, ‘Political Shakespeare: an Arab Richard III’, International Herald Tribune, 21 February 2007.

[33] Sam Marlowe, The Times, 15 February 2007.

[34] Sarah Lyall, ‘Political Shakespeare: an Arab Richard III’, International Herald Tribune, 21 February 2007.

[35] ‘A Tale of Two Richards: Terry Grimley meets Sulayman Al-Bassam and talks to Michael Boyd about Two Contrasting Takes on Richard III’, Birmingham Post (2 February 2007). Elsewhere he described the initial plan to parallel Richard and Saddam as a ‘non-sequitur’. (Quoted in Sarah Lyall, ‘Political Shakespeare’, International Herald Tribune, 21 February 2007), and also talked of the risk of ‘trivialising the horrors’ of the Saddam regime. (Quoted in ‘Politics gets a Shakespearean Twist at London Theatre’, The Peninsula [Qatar], 2 December 2007).

[36]  Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), Arab Muslim scholar. His major historical work is titled Book of Evidence, Record of Beginnings and Events from the Days of the Arabs, Persians and Berbers and their Powerful Contemporaries. See Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, edited by N. J. Dawood , translated by Bruce Lawrence (Bollingen Series, 1969). As Al-Bassam has observed to me, Khaldun was contemporary, not with Shakespeare, but with Richard III.

[37] RSC programme, The Culture Project (Kuwait) and Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre, William Shakespeare Adapted by Sulayman Al-Bassam, Richard  III: An Arab Tragedy (2007).  

[38] ‘All the Christian elements have been uprooted and replaced with Islamic references … it is a political play, but it happens in a very religious context … a secular, western audience would normally see that in a very historical way, but this way it becomes contemporary’. Al-Bassam quoted by Peter Aspden, Financial Times. 6 February 2007.

[39] The mausoleum of the Sons of Muslim can be seen at in Moosayab near Karbala in Iraq.

[40] There are many resemblances between the two stories, which clearly have deep folk-tale roots. The Sons of Muslim are held in a dungeon; the sight of them praying together moves the jailer so much he releases them; they are killed successively but remain united in death.

[41] ‘In the use of recitations and quotations from the Holy Quran we have sought to portray different aspects of the political, military and social functions to which religion is put in the contemporary societies of the Gulf. It is a bitter truism that Islam is, at times, misused by authority; the words and meanings of the Holy Quran are perverted to serve agendas of power. In dramatising this reality we offer a pious critique of our world that, one trusts, will not be misunderstood’. ‘Note on Use of Quranic Extracts’, RSC programme, The Culture Project (Kuwait) and Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre, William Shakespeare Adapted by Sulayman Al-Bassam, Richard  III: An Arab Tragedy (2007).

[42] Observations made by Sulayman Al-Bassam in a staged discussion with Michael Boyd, Playing with History, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (February 2007).

[43] Personal communication from Sulayman Al-Bassam, 25 July 2007.

[44] The Koran, trans. Arthur J. Arberry, Oxford: Oxford University Press (1983), pp. 169-78.

[45] Patrick Carnegy, ‘Dynastic Dissonance’, The Spectator, 24 February 2007.

[46] ‘Sulayman Al-Bassam interview by Gabriel Gbadamosi’, Night Waves, Radio 3, broadcast 9 May 2006.

[47] Sulayman Al-Bassam, ‘Author’s Note’, The Al-Hamlet Summit (Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2006), p. 25.

[48] Quoted by Sebastian Usher, ‘Shakespeare in Arabic Hits Stratford’, BBC News Front Page (19 February 2007), available at [] [accessed 15 May 2007].

[49] Fayez Kazak, quoted in ‘A Tale of Two Richards: Terry Grimley meets Sulayman Al-Bassam and talks to Michael Boyd about Two Contrasting Takes on Richard III’, Birmingham Post, 2 February 2007.

[50]Fayez Kazak, quoted in ‘A Tale of Two Richards: Terry Grimley meets Sulayman Al-Bassam and talks to Michael Boyd about Two Contrasting Takes on Richard III’, Birmingham Post, 2 February 2007.

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Arab Shakespeare

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

Presented at British Shakespeare Association Conference ‘Local/Global Shakespeares’
King’s College, London, 2009

There’s still something of novelty about that concatenation “Arab Shakespeare”. Compared to many topics under discussion in this conference programme, “Arab Shakespeare” is a relatively new and unfamiliar concept.

We have to ask why this should be so,  since it has been long established that Shakespeare was not a man from Stratford, or a peer of the realm, or the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or a dark-skinned Jewish Italian woman. He was in fact an Arab Muslim living in Britain, and named Sheik Al-Zubir. Look at the Chandos portrait: the full lips, the dark complexion, the Islamic beard. See the evidence in his plays of how much he disliked Jews, Turks and the British.

This idea began as a joke with a nineteenth-century Lebanese comic writer called Al-Shid-yaq; it was later taken up in earnest by an Iraqi scholar, and then painstakingly refuted by Ibrahim Hamada in an extended essay, ‘The Arabness of Shakespeare.’  Colonel Qadhafi invoked it (again probably jokingly) in 1989.  But it has continued to catch the imaginations of intercultural Arab writers in the United States and Britain. The joke’s persistence, mainly in the West, suggests that it taps into some real intercultural anxiety. The fact that it seems so outrageously unthinkable, while equally unconvincing attributions of authorship keep scholars perennially busy on the Shakespeare Authorship question, indicates that there’s some deep-rooted problem with the very notion of ‘Arab Shakespeare’.

I should say at the outset, acknowledging of course that all such terms are contested and ideologically loaded, that what we mean by ‘Arab’ has to do with language, ethnicity and cultural geography.  So we’re talking here about a relation between Shakespeare and the Arabic language, classical and demotic, and with the culture of Arab territories in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. (Clearly, the topic of Shakespeare and Islam is also central to this project, though it’s a larger, overlapping category).

Studies of international Shakespeare appropriation have mushroomed over the past 15 to 20 years, and are of course at the heart of our conference this year on “Local and Global Shakespeares”.  In the 1990s several lines of academic inquiry began to converge.  Marxist scholars had for some time focused on the fetishization of Shakespeare as a British cultural icon, which was used to confer cultural legitimacy on the project of capitalist empire building.  Scholars of postcolonial drama and literature were exploring how the periphery responded.  Scholars in performance studies were noting how sharply local context could influence a play’s staging and interpretation, and saw a need to account for ‘intercultural’ performances of Shakespeare in various languages and locales.  Translation theorists found in Shakespeare’s plays a convenient (because widely known and prestigious) test case. All this scholarship developed quickly, and Shakespeareans in many countries have contributed: it’s been very much an international project.  By now, there is a rich bibliography on Shakespeare appropriation in India, China, Japan, South Africa, Israel, and many countries in Latin America and Eastern and Western Europe.

Until recently, scholars of Arabic literature and drama were mainly passive participants in this growing Shakespeare conversation.  The Arab world went unnoticed in the numerous edited volumes on international Shakespeare reception and appropriation.  Arab scholars were rarely represented at the major congresses on the subject.  The World Shakespeare Bibliography Online, which catalogues materials in 118 languages, has had only one active Arabic-speaking contributor in the past decade. In English, a handful of articles and dissertations has represented the field.  When scholars in Europe and the United States have occasionally mentioned ‘Arab Shakespeare’ to their colleagues, they have presented it as I did at the beginning of this talk as a novelty, drawing a cheap laugh with the old ‘Shaykh Al-Zubayr’ joke. For which I’m now publicly reprimanding myself.

However, this situation is changing quickly.  In 2006, the World Shakespeare Congress in Brisbane formally embraced Arab Shakespeare. The WSC opened with a panel on Arab Shakespeare, and staged a rehearsed reading of Jawad Al-Asadi’s play Forget Hamlet, translated into English by Margaret Litvin. In 2007 the Royal Shakespeare Company staged its first production in Arabic, Sulayman Al-Bassam’s wonderful Richard III: an Arab Tragedy.  Shakespeareans and Arabists alike are taking a variety of approaches to the question of what Arab readers, translators, rewriters, producers, directors, critics, and audiences do with Shakespeare. Work has been done on global Arabic Shakespeare, facilitated particularly by Sulayman-Al Bassam’s adaptations, which move around the world, in and out of Arabic and English, and sometimes the local language of the territory in which they’re performed. Work has been done on local Middle Eastern Shakespeares, by for instance Mark Bayer, who has used Shakespeare to trace some of the tensions of politics and cultural geography between Israel and Palestine . Rafik Darragi has done work on early Arab Shakespeare adaptations. Work has been done within translation studies on the complex mediations involved in moving Shakespeare into Arabic and back out again (see the work of Sameh Hannah).  In 2007 Margaret Litvin edited the first collection of essays devoted to Arab Shakespeare in the journal Critical Survey, of which I am General Editor (19:3 [December 2007], Arab Shakespeare). Research students are starting to do PhDs on the topic, and so on.

So one way of looking at this is to say that Arab Shakespeare was just another domain of international, intercultural, Shakespeare reproduction that was waiting to be studied. And all that was needed was for some scholars in the west with an interest in the language and the culture, to meet up with some people in the east and to politely get a conversation going. And in a way that is true and it’s begun to happen. But if you look at the inertia that slumbered over this field for so long, and at the sudden urgency with which it’s now all happening, there is obviously a major ‘9/11’ catalytic factor at work here. The movement in Shakespeare studies is a mere symptom, we might say, of a paradigm shift in Western intellectual culture, which has energised itself in momentous ways to seek understanding of, and accommodation with, the sources of terrorist violence. And though it is perhaps regrettable that the international debate has to be conducted partly over that ground, it’s mere foolishness to ignore it, and indeed ignorance to see it as all that unusual, as if it’s the first time culture and violence have ever been formally introduced.

Let me now summarise some of the difficulties that have clearly constituted obstacles for the development of Arab Shakespeare studies, and that still make it a problematic field. These problems are mentioned not in the way of excuse or even explanation but rather to indicate what critical and theoretical tools we need to advance this vital field of knowledge.

The textual and performance history of Arabic Shakespeare is almost as old as the history of Arabic drama itself: but that’s not a very long history. Classical Arabic did not have drama as a genre. There is no equivalent Arabic word for ‘drama’; the Graeco-Latin term is phoneticized.   Dramatic form as it is known to Western audiences first appeared in the Middle East in the mid-nineteenth century. The importation of dramatic works from the West was urgently required to help formulate an Arabic dramatic tradition. Shakespeare’s works, among others, were assimilated into the language and he, like other European playwrights, played a significant role in establishing an Arabic dramatic field of study.

Shakespeare entered the Arab world in the late 19th century as theatre; that is, the plays were translated and adapted specifically to form the repertoire of dramatic companies in Egypt and other Arab countries. Hamlet was first performed in Egypt around 1893, and was immediately popular with local audiences, who had a strong taste for ghosts, revenge and madness. Productions were based on translations derived from 18th century French versions of Shakespeare. Hence the play was radically adapted, with whole scenes deleted and songs introduced; with Hamlet making love to Ophelia in the language of Arab love poetry, and with all obscenity discreetly purged. Above all the play was converted from Shakespeare’s tragedy into a historical romance, in which Hamlet defeats his uncle, ascends the throne, and reigns with the Ghost’s blessing. In Egypt in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Hamlet flourished as a stage show, independently of textual scholarship, and appeared in radically revised, rewritten, and reconstructed adaptations.

Shakespeare’s absorption into Middle Eastern culture was not therefore by any means a simple process of imperialist transmission and passive colonial reception. ‘Shakespeare’ wrote Nadia Al-Bahar ‘was transplanted into Arab soil’.  ‘Transplanted’ indicates not a simple exchange but a cross-cultural migration across borders, in which the artefact becomes rooted in different soil, and there adapts itself to the local climate and conditions. Hamlet has been ‘assimilated’, said Mahmoud Al-Shetawi, thoroughly woven into the ‘fabric of Arab creative processes’ . This performance tradition did not produce anything like a consistent ‘Arab’ interpretation of Hamlet. ‘The play’, writes Al-Shetawi, ‘has always been known to the Arab audience and frequently staged in the Arab world’; but it has also ‘always been adapted to suit the conditions of local Arab theatres and native culture’.  The “global” became “local” so immediately and wholeheartedly that it turned into something quite difficult for us tor recognize as really ‘Shakespeare’.

So insofar as Arab Shakespeare is a difficult field of study, the problems lie between the global, or at least the international, and the local. Behind contemporary theatrical practice in this region lies a complex set of histories that is still being researched and documented: histories of imperial conquest and national revival, of intercultural engagements, of complex international relations. Egyptian Shakespeare through a combination of Napoleonic conquests and Soviet influence, is in many ways closer to French and Russian cultures, than it is to anything English or British. Arabic is a global language, but its globalized form is bound up with classical traditions and religious institutions in ways that clearly cause problems for contemporary Arab dramatists as well as curious westerners. As a spoken language, Arabic has many local variants between different Arab countries. Local cultures are very diverse, so a Shakespeare reproduced in Tunisia or Morocco or Libya is unlikely to be the same as a Shakespeare reproduced in Iraq or Jordan or Kuwait.

So to pursue this work of Arab Shakespeare we need a lot of good, independent minded, cultural history of this region, its countries and its peoples. We need theoretical tools capable of handling cultural transactions of unusual complexity: we’ve used Marx, and Bourdieu, and some very good social science work on globalisation (e.g. in ‘Arabesque’). But we also need the language – let’s overstate the obvious again and affirm how much we Shakespeareans need Arabists ; and we need a local presence in the field to really get inside Arab Shakespeare. In order to write the paper “Rudely Interrupted”, which analyses the terrorist bombing of a theatre performing 12th Night in Qatar, I needed Bryan Loughrey on the spot, to talk to the people who’d mercifully survived the blast, as well as the global perspective we derived from the world media, and the in-depth understanding of Shakespeare which is our normal professional equipment (‘“Rudely interrupted”: Shakespeare and Terrorism’ [with Bryan Loughrey] Critical Survey 19:3 (December 2007), pp. 126-142.

Let me in the time that remains give just two examples from my own recent work that seem to me to symptomatise the key problem of “Arab Shakespeare”. These examples concern the presence or absence of Arab characters in two adaptations of Shakespeare plays, a novel and a film. Both are highly regarded, critically acclaimed, award-winning works in the West.

My first example is a novel, Caryl Phillips’s The Nature of Blood. The book is constructed from separate narrative strands which flow in parallel. The novel begins and ends with Stephan Stern, a Jewish activist who at the beginning is seen working with displaced Jewish refugees held by the British on Cyprus in the late 1940s, and at the end is living in the newly-established state of Israel. Stephan is uncle to Eva, whose story, which carries strong echoes of the story of Ann Frank, takes us through the atrocities of the Nazi death camps in the later years of the Second World War.  Interwoven with these modern narratives is the true story of the Jews who were tried and executed for child-murder in Venice in the 1480s; and at the centre of the novel is the story of Shakespeare’s Othello which runs from his arrival in Venice to his successful mission against the Turks in Cyprus.  

The novel documents discrete historical experiences of racism and persecution involving blacks and Jews, and implies that they all share a common origin and cause. The experience of mediaeval and early-modern Jewry in Venice is framed within the 20th century experience of the Holocaust, the dispossession of European Jews and the foundation of the modern state of Israel.  The Jews herded in the 16th century Venetian Ghetto parallel both the 15th century Portabuffolo Jews, imprisoned in the Doge’s palace awaiting their trial and execution, and the 20th century victims of the Nazi extermination camps.

The Nature of Blood twins the African and the Jew. The Jew is located in the Ghetto and the Nazi death camp, both seen as parallel models of incarceration; and the black man, as in the dominant ‘Othello’ tradition, is associated with transatlantic slavery and with America. In Shakespeare’s time the term ‘Moor’ could mean generically, an African:  but  used in its most precise topical application ‘referred quite specifically to the Berber-Arab people of the part of North Africa then rather vaguely denominated as “Morocco”, “ Mauritania”, or “ Barbary”’ It could also be used as a religious identifier to signify a Muslim. Iago associates Othello with Mauritania in north-west Africa.

But in the course of the play’s stage and screen history, Othello became indelibly associated with the non-Muslim African, through defining performances by black African-American actors.   Laurence Olivier even gave Othello a West Indian accent, suggesting he went a very long way round to reach Venice. While in the West, Othello’s identity became mapped along the slave-trading routes between Europe and the Americas, in the Middle East, Othello is, and always has been, an ‘Arab’. The very first translation and production of a Shakespeare play in Arabic was of Othello in Egypt in 1884. The Arab Othello (At-Allah, or ‘Utayl, as he is called in different translations) has never taken that journey to the West

Nowhere in The Nature of Blood is Othello given any orientation towards the East. Nowhere is he associated with Arab ethnicity, or with Islamic religion. Yet the novel’s framing context, with which it opens and closes, is the violent founding and more violent defence of modern Israel.  Phillips depicts a world in which the Venetian prison, the British refugee camp for European Jews, and the Nazi extermination camp together symbolise a longue duree of persecution for the Jews. By insisting on repeated parallelisms between blacks and Jews  he implicitly claims this narrative of suffering as his own. He does not seem to see any trace of refugee camps containing Palestinians. By the same token, his Othello, despite the Shakespearean character’s marked associations with the Arab and Muslim East, is never accorded any potential connection with those dispossessed by the forced expropriation of Jewish settlement. Suffering is quarantined, confined to racial type, the black and the Jew. Othello the Moor, the Arab, is written out of the story altogether. Phillips’s novel presents a Jewish Shakespeare, and a black Shakespeare, but “Arab Shakespeare” is nowhere to be seen.

My second example is the portrayal of the Prince of Morocco in Michael Radford’s film adaptation of The Merchant of Venice. Shylock is of course played here by Al Pacino, who invests the role with enormous tragic dignity and universal humanity, and who commands from the spectator, as one critic puts it, “unambiguous sympathy”.  The prince of Morocco however is very different.  As Morocco says to Portia ‘dislike me not for my complexion’ – Portia and Nerissa can barely keep straight faces, as if the idea of such miscegenation is hilariously inconceivable. Morocco sports Bedouin garb, turban and flowing robes, and carries a scimitar. His manner is exaggerated and pompous, the actor relishing the rhetoric assigned to the role, producing the comic effect of a foreigner overplaying his hand, impervious to the amused astonishment of his hostess. He speaks with a strong Middle Eastern accent, though Shylock never sounds like a Yiddish comedian, and Bassanio has no accent of Italy.

Morocco is accompanied by an entourage of turbaned, black-robed North African men, all armed with daggers and scimitars. These weapons are drawn and brandished as Morocco and his bodyguard march through the gardens of Belmont, disturbing the civilised peace, to the accompaniment of distinctively Middle Eastern, desert music.  The Arab is uncivilised, gauche, loud and overbearing. Much of his speech is directed to his men, as if his natural element is the male camaraderie of the battlefield, rather than the lady’s salon.

Over the silver casket, he smugly acknowledges his own deserving. Shakespeare’s text reads: ‘I do in birth deserve her, and in fortunes/In graces, and in qualities of breeding’. But the film script substitutes for that last word ‘valour’, which prompts the prince and his men to draw and brandish their weapons with a loud war cry.

Portia herself is cleared of the more obvious signs of racism by the cutting of her line ‘Let all of his complexion choose me so’. Much of Shylock’s racist language is also cut: his first verse speech, 1.3.35-47, is reduced to the one line ‘How like a fawning publican he looks’. But the parodic language assigned to the Arab Muslim is left intact as an extraordinary instance of directorial partiality. In Renaissance Venice the Muslim had as much, and as little, protection and liberty as the Jew. In Radford’s contemporary film, the Jew is all tragic dignity and universal humanity, while the Prince of Morocco is the butt of a broadly comedic treatment that caricatures the Muslim Arab.

Othello is described in the play as ‘an extravagant and wheeling stranger/Of here and everywhere’. Othello is presented as a nomadic and itinerant figure, elusive and unreliable, unpredictable and vagabond. One knows not whence he came, or whither he is going; he has been everywhere and nowhere. Later Iago uses the same language of unrestricted itinerancy, calling Othello an ‘erring barbarian’: errant as well as meaningless (from the Greek barbaros, an unintelligible babble, the equivalent of blahblahblah), a wandering Arab crossing and recrossing the desert wastes.  The stranger, the alien, the foreigner, the ‘turban’d Turk’.  These examples suggest that the Arab in Shakespeare is just as hard to fix and identify as Othello is in the play.

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