Four Arab Hamlet Plays

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Among the various Arabic transadaptations and adaptations of Western literary classics, Shakespeare’s Hamlet has always been the most frequently adapted corpus. The Arab Hamlet canon is governed by a text and context relationship based on intertextual appropriations. Litvin (2007) calls such intertextuality of appropriations that are influenced by domestic social and political circumstances the “global kaleidoscope of sources and models” (79) since there has been a huge repertoire of intertextual Arab rewritings of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The plays still have a continuous appeal to modern audiences throughout the Arab World in light of the current political turmoil sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa. The Arab Hamlet tradition has been extremely influenced by political upheavals transgressing the Arab world since the late forties, particularly in the creation of the state Israel, the subsequent Palestinian exodus in 1948, and the 1967 setback. Despite the fact that the plays reflect the post-1967 war trauma and communicate a critical awareness to the post-colonial state of affairs, their political rhetoric (with the notable exception of Omran’s play) is directed principally towards the domestic realities, mainly the autocratic regimes in some Arab countries. Most of the Arab Hamlet adaptations seem to have turned their criticism toward national politics rather than Israel or former colonial powers in the region.

The Moroccan playwright Nabyl Lahlou’s Ophelia is Not Dead, written originally in French as Ophélie n’est pas morte and translated into English by Khalid Amine, is a postcolonial rewriting of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The play portrays the suppression of civil liberties, surveillance, censorship on theatres and artistic freedom, autocracy, and imprisonment and draconian torture of dissidents in the newly independent postcolonial Arab countries. However, the colonizer is not a colonial power dominating the country, but is merely a despotic regime ruling with an iron fist to suppress freedom of speech and crushes all forms of opposition. The play teems with obscenity, references to scatology and the lower bodily stratum, curses and abusive language just to highlight the absurdity of Arab revolutionaries’ futile resistance to a corrupt and unconquerable autocratic regime. The excruciating and extremely intolerable vulgarity of the character’s language reflects their carelessness, helplessness, resentment of the political status quo, the absurdity and the nihilism of their micro-theatrical performances. Lahlou combines two tragic characters from two Shakespearean tragedies, Hamlet and Macbeth, to create an absurdist Arab political satire with a Beckettian tone. The two theatre actors’ voluntary physical paralysis reflects their barren spirituality, absurdist predicament and the loss of any hope for both political reform and artistic freedom. The two seemingly crippled characters amuse themselves, in the manner of the two tramps in Samuel Becket’s absurdist play Waiting for Godot, with various sequentially improvised micro-dramas accompanied by lashing, cursing, beating, and other forms of physical violence. Though their improvised sketches seem trivial and absurd, they are charged with political critique of misgovernment, and the regime’s suppression of artistic freedom. The self-imposed voluntary paralysis of the two characters is indicated by both characters being seated in wheelchairs or walking with crutches and the confined setting – prison cell. Such a claustrophobic and confining location reveals the two actors’ frustration, confinement, imprisonment, whether real or metaphorical, and their inability to take action to change the oppressive political status quo in the country. Though the action of the play seems to take place in an out-of-joint world, it is entirely associated with the factual world surrounding it. Like all Arab Hamlet incarnations, the play embodies transgression of the Shakespearean legend in both theme and style. The two paralyzed actors have devoted their entire lives to theatre, but their devotion has been futile due to the regime’s strict censorship on political theatres. The two political prisoners are theatre actors convicted with politicizing audiences. After a long period of imprisonment and being exposed to all types of unbearable torture the outraged Hamlet complains, “Each actor- militant had his own cell.” (40)

Despite being imprisoned for politicizing audiences in theatres, and despite being crippled in wheelchairs, the two downcast actors keep improvising scenes in prison – an action denoting the persisting suffering of the Arab masses toiling under dictatorships. However, their acting is not watched by an audience thus reflecting at once the worthlessness of political theatre to incite revolution among the ignorant, intimidated populace. Even Hamlet does not know what caused his paralysis and how he got into prison. The only thing that the traumatized actor remembers is that while acting the Mousetrap “The Murder of Gonzago” on stage he saw censors and cops entering the theatre. The lights in the theatre were suddenly turned off and he was led to an interrogation cell where he was humiliated and tortured. Hamlet’s unbreakable deadlock ruined his memory and human identity. This scene stresses the futility of the mousetrap political theatre in the face of autocratic regimes. In this context, Edward Ziter (2015) argues that interrogation and torture of political prisoners, frightening citizens with the atrocities of the police security apparatus and intelligence constitute an assault on national consciousness. (197) Having detached himself from the Shakespearean Hamlet, he visualizes the imprisonment and torture following the play. Both reality and improvisation are intermingled to the extent that it becomes difficult to draw a distinction between the two making the whole text problematic. Macbeth attributes Hamlet’s artistic paralysis to many related factors. Like almost every commoner in the country, he has been traumatized since early childhood by the state oppression, policing, surveillance and subjugation. He has been traumatized, as Macbeth puts it, by the “artistic, economic, sexual and political void.” (41) As a postcolonial artist Hamlet, as Macbeth remarks, “You took yourself for a messiah, a redeemer, but your dreams have failed, because dictatorship is much stronger than your ideals.” (41)

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