Was the Bard an Orientalist?

6 May

BEIRUT: There is no shortage of outsider characters in the work of William Shakespeare. Literary history being what it is, the best-known of these is probably Shylock, the villainous Jewish moneylender in the bard’s “The Merchant of Venice.”

Queasy at the thought that English literature’s greatest playwright may have been as prejudiced towards his country’s Jews as most Englishmen of his day, 20th-century literary critics suggested that Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock is more nuanced than that of his other villains. To this end, they fondly refer to the usurer’s sympathetic remarks, like “If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?”

Another villainous outsider to preoccupy some Shakespeare scholars in the age of post-colonial studies was Caliban, from his romance “The Tempest.” The offspring of a woman’s coupling of a devil, Caliban was seen by some contemporary writers to embody the incomprehensible indigenous creatures (whether in the Americas or Africa) that the English had encountered in their early voyages of exploration and conquest.

Whence, then, “The Orient”? Picking up a copy of “Hamlet,” you’d be hard pressed to find a reference to the imagined place that was propelled into popular consciousness by the politically inflected cultural criticism of Edward Said.

In fact, according to the scholars in town for the international conference “Shakespeare’s Imagined Orient,” ongoing at the American University of Beirut, The Orient is unlikely to surface anywhere in Shakespeare’s canon. The sparse references that do exist are limited to “the pearl of the Orient,” hardly a precise image.

Although more literary criticism has been written on the work of Shakespeare than that of any other dramatist, The Orient does not much crop up in Shakespeare studies.

This is one of the reasons for holding this conference. Chaired by AUB professor Francois-Xavier Gleyzon, the scholarly gathering has aimed to widen the conventional framework of Shakespeare studies.

“It is the first of its kind,” said Gleyzon. “We have brought together the best academics in this area.”

The timing was propitious. As one keynote speaker, Dr Margaret Litvin from Boston University, pointed out “the most exciting thing about working with Arabic contemporary life is how quickly it changes.” The political turmoil presently rocking the Arab world has stimulated a renewed interest in political theater and its ability to spark change.

“Rotten States and Unmoored Moors: Arab Engagements with Hamlet and Othello,” Litvin’s discussion Shakespeare reception in this part of the world, was particularly topical. She argued that, contrary to popular opinion, “Hamlet” provides “allegories for the postcolonial Arabic predicament” that are more resonant than those of “Othello.”

Hamlet’s great question, “To be or not to be,” Litvin argued, has taken on particular political relevance in this region, where Arabic-language adaptations of the play often interpret the remark to be related to questions of Arab identity.

She notes a Hamlet-inspired graffito “To be or not to be, now is the time,” was found scrawled on a wall near the site of Rafik Hariri’s 2005 assassination.

“‘Hamlet,’” Litvin said, “has been repurposed for the barricades.” This might have puzzled Shakespeare, given the weighty emphasis he placed upon the self-doubt of the tragic hero.

Litvin identifies three stages of Arab-language Hamlet adaptations since 1950. The first, from around 1952-1967, is characterized by stagings that represent Hamlet as some sort of reconstructed Arab hero, a man with whom spectators could identify and by whom they could be inspired.

After the disaster of the 1967 War – as much a defeat to the ideas of Arab nationalism advanced by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser as it was the individual states involved in the war – Litvin identifies a shift in the tone of “Hamlet” adaptations. They begin to express a nationalist longing, she argues, focusing especially on the figure of the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

Finally, from 1975 to 2001, “Hamlet” came to be used primarily as a platform for dramatic irony. During this time, Litvin says, the play is frequently re-made into something absurd, the tragedy of its climax presented as bathos.

Crucially, for Litvin, “Shakespeare is the ally, not the target, of this bitter wit.”

The objective of this conference, organisers say, was “to prove how the critical and artistic reception of Shakespeare in the Orient is paramount to apprehending and reinventing Shakespeare as a cultural and social bridge uniting the ‘East’ and the ‘West’ in the landscape of global culture.”

They “hope to offer a critical insight into Shakespeare and Early Modern political theology that would help refashion, remap broader issues that engage the status of cultural and religious identity, nation, and individuality in the landscape of global culture.”

Given that the topics of Wednesday’s seminars ranged from Shakespeare’s sole mention of Mohammed – that was in “Henry VI part I” – to the role of body and the concept of desire in the comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the conference will likely provoke debate.

Madhavi Menon’s discussion of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” concluded that imagination and desire in this comedy become interchangeable precisely through the play’s imagining of The Orient – the “Indian boy” acquired by the Fairy Queen being oft-mentioned but always voiceless.

The references may be more implicit than explicit but, it seems, The Orient is not completely absent from Shakespeare.

“Shakespeare’s Imagined Orient”” continues in AUB’s auditorium B1 until Friday May 6.



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