True there were no mobile phones, a few of which trilled during the performance, in Shakespeare’s time. But close your eyes and you could just about imagine that the children sucking ice lollies running up and down the steps of the Aida refugee camp’s open-air auditorium, were behaving much as the Globe’s younger groundlings would have done four centuries ago.
For Jonathan Holmes, The Tempest has a particular relevance to the Middle East. He is careful not to suggest any exact parallels. But without repeating a fashionable “post-colonial” reading of Caliban as the rebellious, and Ariel as the more collaborative victim of exploiters from outside, he believes the play, set somewhere between Western Europe and the Levant, “becomes a contest for territory between people of different cultures, and between people of the same culture. Shakespeare uses this to explore different systems and ideas of political resistance.”
Aida camp is literally right under Israel’s separation wall. I haven’t visited, but my good friends Amahl and Nidal made a very cool documentary about it. You can hear them on NPR, too — click here and scroll down to July 7.
In a Counterpunch piece with the bizarrely alluring subtitle “Anders Breivik, Amy Winehouse, Hamlet and Tahrir Square,” commentator Caroline Rooney (who holds some sort of academic position in Kent, with the enviable title of “RCUK Global Uncertainties Fellow”) finds some striking similarities between the character of Hamlet and that of the contemporary militant Islamist jihadist. Her point in making this perhaps “odd” or “to some, discordant” claim is to humanize the jihadist, to show that far from being some kind of brainwashed automaton with a very shallow subjectivity quite unlike our own, can quite possibly be a deep character, on par with the quintessential deep character of western civilization. Excellent observation! (And I make a very similar point in my book…)
One of the intriguing things about Shakespeare’s plays is how they have the capacity to assume, time and again, a contemporary relevance. In terms of the concerns of our times, it is surprisingly not hard to see Shakespeare’s Hamlet as exhibiting the psyche of a Jihadist extremist. In brief, Hamlet is dismayed by the socio-political corruption he finds all around him and in relation to this he develops a savior complex: he believes that it is his almost divinely appointed task to set the world to rights. He believes that the wrong he has to address is betrayal of a divinized father ideal: that to which all loyalty must be fanatically owed. Hamlet is puritanical; he is disgusted by sex and berates his mother for acting on her sexual desires while he orders Ophelia to veil herself, more or less, in his ‘get thee to a nunnery’ speech. Hamlet also has a paranoid attitude, one of intense distrust of ‘infidel’ types such as Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and, of course, especially Claudius.The reason that I put forward this odd—and, possibly to some, discordant— proposition of a Jihadist Hamlet is to challenge some of the reductive post 9/11 framings of Islamic extremism by politicians and the media. One of the particularly reductive features of these framings has been the widespread simplistic inference that extremism is culturally other, and specifically Islamic.
You can see where this is going, and it’s praiseworthy. Not only as a reconsideration of violent Islamism (highly salutary) but, I would argue, as a reconsideration of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s only a few years ago (starting, say, about 10 years ago? Around September of 2001 perhaps?) that Anglo-American critics, led by figures such as Linda Charnes and Margreta de Grazia, have begun to write about the political dimensions in Hamlet, which had been long obvious to critics and audiences in Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Arab world. And now, since our times have gotten far enough “out of joint,” also to us.
Rooney takes this mirroring as her explicit subject:
While the figure of Hamlet has been taken by some literary critics to be emblematic of the emergence of the modern Western subject, what does it then mean to notice that such a subject would seem to exhibit Jihadist tendencies? It means not only that the repeated othering of extremism is untenable but also that extremism accompanies the modern subject as the effect of its emergence. In other words, if the modern subject is a Dr Jekyll then Mr Hyde is his extremist double: not another as such but a phantom other of refused identifications. While the West currently produces a phantom of Islamic extremism, this paranoid structure comes to be inhabited by the Jihadist who attempts to invert it, that is, in producing the West as its demonic other.
From here it gets rather weird, though: it turns out the Crusader is just the Jihadist in a funhouse mirror.
In terms of this logic of opposing mirrors, the Jihadist fighting the Crusader is just like the Crusader fighting the Jihadist. Or, Hamlet the Jihadist could also be Hamlet the Crusader. With this turn, it becomes possible to account for the political psyche of Anders Breivik , not Anders the Dane but rather Anders the Norwegian. Like his literary counterpart, Anders the Norwegian considers the rulers of the state to be corrupt and considers his role to be one of setting the world to rights. From his website, Anders appears to have been mesmerized by the specters of idealized military manhood: here, we might recall that the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears precisely as a suit of armor.
I’m not saying she’s wrong, just a bit too breathy perhaps.
Anders and Amy [Winehouse] may be said to embody the sadism and masochism of our cultures or, politically, the ever-present potential for fascism.
Still, nice to see Hamlet taking his rightful place in that conversation.
From a Sydney Morning Herald interview with Kevin Spacey, on playing Richard III:
But in the meantime, it is Shakespeare’s king who absorbs his attention, in a production that carries fresh relevance in the light of the revolutionary Arab protests.
”It’s interesting looking at these dictators around the world,” Spacey says, ”[and seeing] how their idea of what a king looks like is very much based on English monarchy.”
What the hell does this mean? From an Edinburgh Fringe Festival preview in the New Statesman:
The International Festival is exploring links between east and west, hence a Chinese Hamlet, a Korean Lear and a new stab in Arabic at One Thousand and One Nights. Yet it need not be that worthy. Under Stephen Earnhart, a Japanese company has adapted Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (20-24 August). Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you what I know: that he is, at least, an excellent novelist.
Would be interested in any reports on Tim Supple’s 1001 Nights (with text adaptation help from Hanan al-Shaykh!), if anyone gets to see it.
Update – It’s Sulayman Al-Bassam directing the Arabic-language Tempest at the Globe Theatre next year.
A certain lack of imagination on their part, I daresay — but at least they can be confident it will be well done.
Latest update (May 8, 2011): I talked to Sulayman and he is no longer involved in this project. Decided there was not so much that he could interestingly do with The Tempest right now. Stay tuned for more on the whole Olympiad-related extravaganza, and let me know if you have more details.
After the RSC’s Complete Works season, how could this not be next? Shakespeare’s 38 plays to be performed in 38 different languages. The Guardian writes:
Anyone who struggles with Shakespeare in English will next year be able to see if it is any easier in Lithuanian. Or Portuguese, Italian or Spanish, perhaps. And if all that fails – Troilus and Cressida in Maori?
In fact, there will be 38 different ways to experience it, as Shakespeare’s Globe presents all of the Bard’s plays, each in a different language, as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.
Apparently Arabic has been selected for The Tempest (stay tuned for director and cast info) — but I bet that won’t be nearly as interesting as the Urdu Taming of the Shrew!
TV report here (in Arabic) on recent Shakespeare Festival held in Damascus, including Birmingham Theatre’s performance of Twelfth Night.