Qadhafi: Shakespeare Was an Arab Named Shaykh Zubayr

I’ve been looking for a source for the widely known fact that Muammar Qadhafi claimed Shakespeare was not a native-born Englishman but, in fact, an Arab named Shaykh Zubayr.
Cork Milner’s site on the authorship controversy gives us this:

The most bizarre of all the pretenders is Muammar al-Qaddafi’s choice, Sheik Zubayr bin William. Quaddafi came up with his champion in 1989 when Radio Tehran announced that Libya’s “Great One” had declared that an Arab sheik named Zubayr bin William, who had been born in the sixteenth century, was Shakespeare.

I should point out that Qadhafi did not originate the bizarre claim that Shakespeare was a crypto-Arab.  Usually cited in jest, the Shaykh Zubayr “theory” holds that Shakespeare was actually an Arab Muslim living in Britain.  Various authors cite “evidence” including Shakespeare’s full lips and “Islamic” beard in the supposedly “un-English” Chandos portrait(above); his many treatments of mistaken or doubtful identity; and his allegedly unflattering views of Jews, Turks, and the British (supposedly clear in The Merchant of Venice, Othello, and the history plays).  Who but an Arab could harbor unfavorable views of precisely these three groups?

M.M. Badawi (“Shakespeare and the Arabs,” 1964) and Ferial Ghazoul (“The Arabization of Othello,” 1998) trace the Shaykh Zubayr authorship theory to a mid-nineteenth-century Lebanese satirical writer, Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq; it was later taken up in earnest by Iraqi scholar Ṣafā’ Khulūṣī and then painstakingly refuted by Ibrāhīm Ḥamāda in a book-length essay, عروبة شكسبير (“The Arabness of Shakespeare,” 1989). Qadhafi drew Western headlines by mentioning it (perhaps jokingly? who can tell with such a lunatic?) in 1989.  

But the conceit of an Arab Shakespeare has also appealed to all kinds of intercultural writers addressing Western readers.  My favorite is Wole Soyinka in his essay “Shakespeare and the Living Dramatist” (replublished in Art, Dialogue, and Outrage). In a similar vein, Jordanian-Irish-American novelist Diana Abu Jaber in her novel Crescent has an Iraqi-American character invoke the theory, tongue-in-cheek, speaking to an American graduate student: “Did you know that Shakespeare’s favorite food was stuffed eggplant?  And there’s some who say that Shakespeare’s name was actually Sheikh Zubayr . . . There’s a nice thesis for you.’”  (132).  Sulayman al-Bassam resorts to a similar opening gambit in a 2005 Guardian column. So the authorship theory can be a playful bid for intercultural understanding, not only (as with Qadhafi) an insane claim of Arab cultural priority.
By the way, the would-be Arabic name preserves the phallic imagery of spear-shaking.  Zubr = penis.  So the diminutive zubayr, on one reading, is “little penis.”  Shake it, Will, habibi!
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4 thoughts on “Qadhafi: Shakespeare Was an Arab Named Shaykh Zubayr

  1. I love the authorship debate on account of the craziest ideas always getting the most precedence. I've never heard this one before, but it's pretty fantastic.On a related note, Roland Emmerich of 'Day After Tomorrow' 'fame' has made a movie addressing the authorship debate that sounds completely mad.

  2. Hi, just a small note on the interpretation of Zubayr– which you have completely missed. Zubayr does indeed seem to follow a diminutive sclae _Fu'ail/ as in Kutaib, Kulaib, Qulaib–so is Zubair in Arabic, but it has nothing to do with the little penis you thought it meant. Zubair comes from classical Arabic Zubr (you seemed to have relied on Arabic dialect, Egyptian perhaps?)– which in Arabic means, slabbing the orifice of a water well with stones– hence to give steady, well-defined orifice to an otherwise unrefined well. When zubayr is used as a proper noun, it means the well-balanced and stable man. I was hoping to see some language/etymology-based research for interpreting a name like this instead of making an effortless speculation.

  3. Hi, just a small note on the interpretation of Zubayr– which you have completely missed. Zubayr does seem to follow a diminutive scale, i.e., Fu'ail/ as in Kulaib/ Tufail/ Zuhair/ so as in Zubair in Arabic, but it has nothing to do with the little penis you thought it meant. Zubair comes from classical Arabic Zubr (you seemed to have relied on Arabic dialect, Egyptian perhaps?)– which in Arabic means, slabbing the orifice of a water well with stones– hence to give steady, well-defined opening to an otherwise unrefined water-well. When Zubayr is used as a proper noun, it means the well-balanced and stable man. I was a little surprised since there is no Language-based/ Etymology-based academic research for interpreting a name like this, especially if you are untrained in Arabic. What I see instead is making an effortless speculation. I like your blog. I will be a returning reader.

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