Re-Casting Shakespeare: Translations, Adaptations, and Performances Across the Arab World

King's College London August 5, 2016 1:30 pm - 3:00 pm

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Katherine Hennessey (University of Warwick/Queen Mary University of London, United Kingdom), Margaret Litvin (Boston University, United States), Graham Holderness (University of Hertfordshire, United Kingdom), David C. Moberly (University of Minnesota, United States), Noha Mohamad Mohamad Ibraheem (Cairo University, Egypt), Paulo Lemos Horta (New York University Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates)

This panel brings together leading scholars on the subject of Shakespeare in the Arab World to interrogate the significance, the challenges, and the creative innovations of recent translations, adaptations, and performances of Shakespearean works, from North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula. Each of the panel’s two sections will have its own particular focus: one on the text, and one on performance. Taken together, the presentations on this double panel will provide an enlightening cross-section of recent trends in Shakespearean performance and interpretation across the Middle East and North Africa, and a lively perspective on the myriad ways in which Shakespeare is currently being re-cast, re-set, and re-created in the Arab World.

Desdemona in a Bedouin Tent: A Digital Hybrid Performance from Oman (Katherine Hennessey)

A Dark Night, written and directed by Omani playwright Ahmad al-Izki, brings Desdemona and Iago into dialogue with characters from the pre-Islamic Arab epic of ‘Antara Ibn Shadad, linking the 16th-century Venice of Shakespeare’s Othello to pre-Islamic Arabia. It is a clever textual juxtaposition, not least because Antara, like Othello, is of African heritage and therefore held in disdain by his Arab peers, including his prospective father-in-law.

This presentation explores how Shakespeare’s characters are transformed by the new context of al-Izki’s play, and the complicated chains of interpretation and interpolation that link a “re-creation” such as this one to Shakespeare’s text. Since A Dark Night was performed live and simultaneously filmed for dissemination via the Gulfstage website hosted by Digital Theatre, the presentation examines the hybrid nature of al-Izki’s production not merely in terms of content but also in terms of highly contemporary questions of web-based distribution and intended audience.

Sulayman Al Bassam and Questions of Shakespearean Adaptation (Graham Holderness)

Sulayman Al Bassam is one of the Arab world’s most celebrated playwrights and directors of theatre; his thought-provoking adaptations of Shakespeare have been performed in sixteen different countries, in Arabic and English, to both critical and popular acclaim. Though he is most famous for The Arab Shakespeare Trilogy, which includes The Al-Hamlet Summit (2004), Richard III: An Arab Tragedy (2007), and The Speaker’s Progress [Twelfth Night] (2011), one could argue that citations, re-writings and parodies of Shakespeare echo through his entire corpus of work, from early plays like The 60 Watt Macbeth (1999) to his current theatrical project, The Petrol Station, set to premiere at the Kennedy Center in March 2017. Yet Al Bassam has recently expressed concern about the ‘validity’ of using Shakespeare as a vehicle or a framework for meditation on contemporary issues in the Arab world and beyond.

This presentation will provide a short history of Arab Shakespeare, using the trajectory of Al Bassam’s theatrical practice as an illustration of the variety and the constantly evolving nature of contemporary Arab directors’ and playwrights’ engagement with Shakespeare.

The “Sleeper” and Christopher Sly: Shakespeare and the early-modern circulation of Nights tales (Paulo Lemos Horta)

From the nineteenth century to the present, scholars and writers have perceived strong resonances between the 1001 Nights and early modern European literature, even insisting that “The Sleeper and the Waker” is “the same story” as that which attracted Shakespeare in the frame of The Taming of the Shrew. Both tales involve rulers seeking to persuade ‘dreaming men’ that they are the veritable rulers. Yet to date there is no plausible chain of transmission. And there is reason to be skeptical of the ease with which such analogues have been postulated from the vantage point of Weltliteratur. This paper is the outcome of my discovery of a variant tale of “the dreaming man” that proves closer to Shakespeare’s frame of Christopher Sly, and more likely to have mediated the influence of the Nights on Shrew.

Kamāl’s Dahsha: An Upper Egyptian Lear (Noha Mohamad Ibraheem)

Mesmerised by the cruelty of his two eldest daughters after he willingly relinquishes his money and power to them in return of their false love protests, Al-Bāsil Ḥamad Al-Bāsha, a senile Upper Egyptian tycoon, loses his sanity. This is how ‘Abdul-Raḥīm Kamāl, a young Egyptian scriptwriter, depicts Shakespeare’s Lear in his Upper Egyptian T.V. series, Dahsha (“Mesmerism”) (2014), the series which this presentation tackles.

Transposing Lear from its conventional medium, the stage, into a new medium on the screen and translocating it from England to Upper Egypt, Kamāl sheds light on a myriad of humanistic, social, cultural and political issues. This presentation seeks to investigate those issues as well as to highlight the reasons behind readapting Lear at that particular juncture of time in Egypt—that is, after the 25th of January Revolution—and the ways this new adaptation speaks to its Egyptian audience. It also attempts to show how Kamāl’s script varies from the Bard’s play, namely what Kamāl adds, omits or changes, to create a different and culturally-oriented interpretation of Shakespeare’s Lear.

The Taming of the Tigress: Fatima Rushdi and the First Arabic Shrew (David C. Moberley)

Few Shakespearean critics have commented on Arabic adaptations of Taming of the Shrew, though it remains among the most popular of Shakespeare’s comedies in the Arab World. Its initial 1930 translation and performance was a significant landmark in the history of Arab Shakespeares, as the translator rendered the play in colloquial Egyptian Arabic dialect, rather than in the formal, classical Arabic of the educated elite. As such, the play offered the uneducated Egyptian public—and women in particular—unprecedented access to the work of Shakespeare.

Among the women most affected was Fatima Rushdi, owner and lead actress of the theatrical company that performed this first Arabic Shrew. Herself a woman of an uneducated, lower-class background, Rushdi’s skill and influence served to make the play both a popular and a critical success despite its unorthodox, colloquial translation. Her role as the first Arab Katherine was part and parcel of her providing the Egyptian public, as one critic put it, “with human, Egyptian models for the first time” on stage and screen. Thus, in this and other roles as Egypt’s first renowned Shakespearean actress, Rushdi not only effectively re-cast Shakespeare in an Egyptian mold, but also cast Egyptians in a Shakespearean mold, with effects that still echo today.


Katherine Hennessey (Chair) is a Research Fellow with Global Shakespeare at the University of Warwick and Queen Mary University of London. Her current research focuses on contemporary Irish and Middle Eastern adaptations of Shakespeare. In March 2016 she co-convened the Ireland and Shakespeare symposium at Princeton University; she is also the author of Shakespeare on the Arabian Peninsula (Palgrave 2016). For more, see


Graham Holderness, Professor of English, University of Hertfordshire, has published over 40 books, mostly on Shakespeare, and hundreds of chapters and articles of criticism, theory and theology. One of the founders of British cultural materialism, Holderness is acknowledged as a formative contributor to a number of branches of Shakespeare criticism and theory. He has published pioneering studies in Arabic adaptations of Shakespeare, culminating in The Arab Shakespeare Trilogy by Sulayman Al Bassam (Methuen Drama, 2014). He is also an award-winning poet, novelist, and dramatist.


Paulo Lemos Horta, Assistant Professor, New York University Abu Dhabi, having joined from SFU, where he designed the world literature program. He is co-editor of Everyman’s Library Arabian Nights and of forthcoming volumes on cosmopolitanism, world literature, and the 1001 Nights. He has published articles on the Nights translators and postcolonial literature.


Noha Mohamad Mohamad Ibraheem is an assistant lecturer at the English Department, the Faculty of Arts, Cairo University, Egypt. For a thesis entitled “‘Belated’ Shakespearean Mosaics: Shakespeare Malikan, Mutabilitie and Shakespeare in Love“, she attained her M.A. degree in drama and comparative literature in 2013. The thesis was published as a book by Lambert Academic Publishing in 2014. She also contributed to The Cambridge World Encyclopedia of Stage Actors and Actresses, published in 2015. She is currently based in Germany.


Margaret Litvin (respondent) is Associate Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature and director of Middle East & North Africa Studies at Boston University (USA). A specialist in modern Arab/ic literature and theatre, she is the author of Hamlet’s Arab Journey: Shakespeare’s Prince and Nasser’s Ghost (Princeton, 2011) and articles and reviews in Shakespeare Yearbook, Shakespeare Studies, Shakespeare, Shakespeare Bulletin, PAJ, Critical Survey, Journal of Arabic Literature, and PMLA.


David C. Moberly, PhD Candidate in English at the University of Minnesota, completing a dissertation entitled “The Taming of the Tigress: Gender, Shakespeare, and the Arab World.” His work on Taming of the Shrew in Arabic is featured in MIT’s Global Shakespeares Video & Performance Archive and in his contribution to this year’s special issue of Critical Survey. His interests also include digital Shakespeares, and part of his work on the latter topic is forthcoming as a chapter in Arden’s Broadcast Your Shakespeare.