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Introduction to Shakespeare in the Arab World by Margaret Litvin, Boston University

Shakespeare adaptations have been a staple of the modern Arab theatre since the late 19th century.  They respond to a global kaleidoscope of international sources and models: not only British texts but also French plays, Italian operas, German novels and literary criticism, Soviet films, and American productions and adaptations.  Most Shakespeare-based works are in standard Arabic, the formal language used by intellectuals for literary and media writing throughout the Arab world.  But some Shakespeare adaptations are in colloquial Arabic, and a few, such as the Moroccan Nabyl Lahlou’s Ophelie N’est Pas Morte (1969) and the Anglo-Kuwaiti Sulayman Al-Bassam’s The Al Hamlet Summit (2002), were originally written in French or English.  Thus it is more accurate to refer to “Arab” rather than “Arabic” Shakespeares.

The first Arab encounter with Shakespeare was through the Egyptian stage, where Syrian-Lebanese immigrants, many knowing little English, retooled French translations of the plays to please Cairo’s emerging middle class.  The point was not to produce literature for reading but to fill theatres.  Najib al-Haddad (1867-99) adapted Romeo and Juliet around 1892 as a melodrama, The Martyrs of Love (Shuhada al-gharam).  Tanyus ʻAbdu’s (1869-1926) French-based adaptation of Hamlet (1901, published 1902) was based on the French adaptation by Alexandre Dumas père [read English translation], and like its source it ended happily: Hamlet killed Claudius, accepted the Ghost’s blessing, and took the throne.  Both The Martyrs of Love and Hamlet were musicals starring Quran-reciter-turned-popular-singer Shaykh Salama Hijazi (1852-1917), with the soliloquies replaced by singable arias.  The first known Othello adaptation, thought to be by ʻAbdu as well, was titled Khayal al-rijal (The Wiles of Men, performed 1898, published 1910).

In the century since then, a vast variety of directors and adapters in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, and other Arab countries have produced versions of Shakespeare’s plays to speak to their own and audiences and circumstances.  Othello has been adapted as a prooftext about Orientalism or a tragedy about gender violence.  Hamlet has been played as a Che Guevara in doublet-and-hose, his “To be or not to be” interpreted as a cry for justice in what many theatre-makers see as rotten states and out-of-joint times [see lecture on this].   Julius Caesar, while rarely produced, has recurred frequently in political discussions about despotism and democracy. The Merchant of Venice has not escaped polemical appropriation by various sides of the debate about Zionism’s role in the Middle East.  Romeo and Juliet has been staged as a demonstration of the dangers of blood feuds and arranged marriages.  Taking a different approach, a 1994 Romeo and Juliet production in East Jerusalem (co-directed by the Israeli Eran Baniel and the Palestinian Fouad Awad) had the Capulets played by Israeli Jewish actors speaking Hebrew and their rivals the Montagues played by Palestinian actors speaking Arabic.

    Thumbnail Title Play Director Year Company Language Country
    A Theatre Company Found a Theatre and Theatred Hamlet Hamlet al-Ṭarīfi, Khālid 1984 Fawanees Theatre Troupe Arabic Morocco
    About Othello: Or Who’s Afraid of William Shakespeare: A Collage of Various Shakespearean Texts Hamlet, Othello El Attar, Ahmed 2006 Arabic, English Egypt
    Doditello Othello Mahran, Sameh 2001 Arabic Egypt
    Forget Hamlet / Ophelia’s Window Hamlet Daood, Monadhil 2020 Arabic Iraq
    Hamlet Hamlet al-Demerdash, Nur; Sobhi, Mohamed (Muhammad Ṣubḥī) 1977 Academy of Arts; Art Studio Theatre; Galā’a Theatre Arabic Egypt
    Hamlet Wakes Up Late Hamlet ‘Adwān, Mamdūḥ 1978 Arabic Syria
    Hamlet… But Hamlet Arabic
    I Am Hamlet Hamlet Afifi, Hani 2009 Arabic Egypt
    Ismail / Hamlet Hamlet Fattāl, Rūlā 1999 Arabic Syria
    Julius Caesar Julius Caesar Arabic Egypt
    King Lear King Lear Abdel Halim, Ahmed 2002 National Theatre of Egypt Arabic Egypt
    Macbeth and What Follows Macbeth Arabic Egypt
    Merchant of Venice in Yemen (The Lamp Will Keep You Company) Merchant of Venice Hazaber, Amin 2012 Arabic Yemen
    Ophelia Hamlet Tayebi, Masoud 2021 Mise.en.scene Academy of Performing Arts Persian Iran
    Richard II Richard II Morrison, Conall 2012 Ashtar Theatre Arabic United Kingdom
    Richard III: An Arab Tragedy Richard III Al-Bassam, Sulayman 2007 Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre (SABAB) Arabic, English Greece
    Rosaline’s Curse [based on Romeo and Juliet] Romeo and Juliet Tayebi, Masoud 2023 Mise.en.scene Academy of Performing Arts Persian Iran
    Shakespeare in Yemen Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Merchant of Venice, Richard II Hazaber, Amin; Hennessey, Katherine 2018 Arabic, English United States
    Someone Is Sleeping in My Pain: An East-West Macbeth Macbeth Roes, Michael 2001 Arabic, English Yemen
    The Al-Hamlet Summit Hamlet Al-Bassam, Sulayman 2004 Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre (SABAB) Arabic, English Japan
    The Al-Hamlet Summit (English version 2002) Hamlet Al-Bassam, Sulayman 2002 Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre (SABAB); Zaoum Theatre English United Kingdom
    The Dance of the Scorpions Hamlet Abū Dūma, Maḥmūd 1989 Arabic Egypt
    The Dance of the Scorpions Hamlet 2009 Arabic Egypt
    The Hamlet Syndrome Hamlet Tayebi, Masoud 2022 Mise.en.scene Academy of Performing Arts Persian Iran
    The Speaker’s Progress (Twelfth Night) Twelfth Night Al-Bassam, Sulayman 2011 Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre (SABAB) Arabic, English United States
    The Tempest Tempest Arabic Egypt
    The Tempest Tempest Mirrione, James; Sturgess, Kim C. 2015 The Doha Players English Qatar
    Ᾱh Min Ḥawā’ (Beware of Eve) Taming of the Shrew Abdel Wahab, Fatin 1962 Arab Cinema Company Arabic Egypt