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Articles, Essays, Volume 6

Royal Buffoonery: King Lear at the National (2002)

Royal Buffoonery: King Lear at the National (2002)
By Nehad Selaiha
Arab Stages, Volume 6, Nehad Selaiha Memorial Issue (Spring, 2017)
©2017 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publication

Any production of a revered classic, particularly in a cultural context other than that of the original text, is bound to foreground the question of audience expectations. More often than not, such expectations are not born out of any direct exposure to the text without preconceptions, but tend to originate in academic institutions and the writings of prestigious critics and authoritative literary figures and are passed on from one generation to another, without scrutiny or revision, in the name of refined taste and high culture. Nowhere is this more clearly exemplified than in the case of Shakespeare in Egypt. He was first introduced to Egyptian audiences in the early 20th century by veteran classical actor, George Abyad, in a forbidding halo of respect as an awesome classical model, a tragic poet of unparalleled genius, a great moralist and grand rhetorician. The archaic, stilted, overblown and heavily ornate Arabic into which the plays – not only Othello, Hamlet, or King Lear, but also The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew – were declaimed, ranted and spluttered from the stage further intimidated the audience, deepening the sense of awe and making those early productions real feats of cultural browbeating.  The implicit message was that if you did not like what you saw, then, clearly, something was wrong with you.

This misleadingly narrow and elitist view of Shakespeare was bequeathed to subsequent generations and progressively fortified by translations of traditional Western criticism, such as Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy (mandatory reading in all English literature department in Egyptian universities at one time). The fact that Shakespeare was an actor who never made it to university, consistently flouted the classical rules, and was a member of a commercial theatre company who sought above all to delight its customers, whatever the means, was discreetly ignored and so were all the bawdy, naughty, skeptical or sacrilegious bits in the plays which were either tacitly removed or phrased in such pompous language that made them sound more like ethical edicts or profound philosophical musings.

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