That is what made the Libyan revolt such a riveting spectacle: unlike the other embattled Arab Spring dictators, Qaddafi showed no doubt, no instinct for compromise and self-preservation. He never really tried to stave off the end with half-hearted “reforms.” He seemed to know he was plunging himself and Libya down a tragic path, and, like Macbeth, to embrace it. Perhaps he understood that he had gone “so far in blood” that there was no turning back. In retrospect, his whole 42-year reign seemed to follow an inexorable arc toward ruin. From the handsome young revolutionary who inspired such hope in his people he transformed into the drugged, puffy-faced madman howling for slaughter in the streets of his own cities. Many Libyans told me they believed Qaddafi used black magic to keep himself in power for so long. I was almost tempted to believe it. I found Chadian witchcraft amulets in some of the weapons depots abandoned by his loyalists. Before his death, he behaved like someone who had sold his soul to the devil, and, like Faust, was waiting to be dragged down to Hell.
Forgot to blog about this HuffPost column when Google alerted me to it a couple of weeks ago. Who is this (self-anointed?) “expert” Shai Baitel, and why do his dyspeptic ruminations on Kevin Spacey as Richard III (under the pompous title “Power and Downfall — Between Shakespeare and Arab Tyrants”) merit placement as political analysis? Ah, but this is the magic of invoking Shakespeare to discuss contemporary politics. Any hint of today’s political violence adds the spice of perceived relevance to a simple run-through of an old history play.
But can Shakespeare’s Richard III, in Mendes’s thoughtful interpretation and irresistibly brought to life by Spacey, compare to the ilk of the rulers of Iran, to Bashar al-Assad, to Hassan Nasrallah, to Muammar Gaddafi?
And referring to Shakespeare’s plays automatically gives depth to otherwise incoherent ponderings on the Middle East.
But unlike Richard III our Middle Eastern despots have a larger arsenal at their hands: they are a 21st century variety of ruthless sovereigns, with propaganda, mass media, surveillance and intelligence agencies, sophisticated weapons and technology, as tools to keep their people in check and secure their rule. Richard III was left with shamelessly sowing terror. He did not hesitate to kill, including members of his own family, to reach his goal. Whoever had the temerity to disagree with Richard III’s opinion or argued with him went to prison — at best — or had to die. And he had the absolute power of the armed forces, which he used against his enemies. In that respect there are parallels indeed between Richard III and the modern-day Arab tyrannical leaders.
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.
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!
It is predictable that, even as Qadhafi is typed as Richard III or any of a number of other Shakespearean villains, Barack Obama gets described as Hamlet.
|From Hip Hop Republican, 3/22/11|
A few highlights:
- Newsweek in a piece called The Big Dither: “The president has been more Hamlet than Macbeth since the beginning of the revolutionary crisis that has swept the desert lands of North Africa and the Middle East. To act or not to act? That has been the question. The results of his indecision have been unhappy.”
- Victor Davis Hanson generalizes the lack-of-leadership thing to Obama’s presidency as a whole: “Hamlet couldn’t quite ever act in time — given all the ambiguities that such a sensitive prince first had to sort out. In the meantime, a lot of bodies piled up through his indecision and hesitancy.”
- This caricature from Crystal Wright’s piece at Hip Hop Republican.
- And of course the Right Side News has to weigh in: “We have a ‘Hamlet on the Potomac’ in our Oval Office. If you listen closely you can hear Obama twisting himself into knots asking the wrenching question: ‘To lead… or NOT to lead?’ (Our apologies to Bill Shakespeare!)”
- Former CFR chairman Leslie Gelb begs to differ (and engages in some Shakespeare interpretation in the process).
- And Saul Landau in Counterpunch goes even further, denouncing the whole Hamlet role as a trap into which Obama has fallen.
It’s interesting to see the Anglo-American view of Hamlet as hesitator, quite at odds with the typical Arab view of Hamlet as revolutionary martyr/hero, getting a tiny bit of play in the Arabic press through translations of articles by American pundits. Here’s the one by Victor Davis Hanson (in Arabic, in the Gulf-based al-Bayan) and here’s the Leslie Gelb piece on hypocrisy.
As foreign news coverage becomes unavoidable, Shakespeare becomes our contemporary once again. Here are a couple of examples; I’m sure there will be others as events develop.
I arrived at the theatre for a performance of Richard III last week with an image from that evening’s television news in my head. A line of men lay on a road in Libya. Their hands were pinned to their sides and their noses were flat against the tarmac. But the camera panned low. You could see the sheer terror in their eyes as a beefy Gaddafi loyalist droned a litany of places where his men had killed protesters and where they yet would kill more. The men on the road are probably dead now.Richard III is a play about a man of violence who maintains himself in office through a regime of unremitting brutality. It was written around 1590 but it is a mark of Shakespeare’s evergreen genius that the dynamics it describes are still being played out in Libya, and elsewhere, today.
From something called Economicpopulist, back on Feb 15:
Like Richard III before the Battle of Bosworth Field, Gaddafi watches supporters vanish from top to the bottom of his army. His response has been no less brutal than Richard’s, with assaults on his own people by hired thugs that he bought in neighboring countries. It will not end well for him, but it will end soon.