Vanishing Intertexts in the Arab Hamlet Tradition

Article excerpt

A scorpion, its poisonous tail torn out, runs desperate circles around a piece of burning coal. A small boy sits in front of a screen, watching a film of a play translated from one language he does not understand into another. Twenty-five years later, these two events--an upper-Egyptian game, a Russian film of an English play--coalesce into a one-act play called Dance of the Scorpions, an Arabic-language offshoot of Shakespeare's Hamlet. This, at any rate, is the simple etiology offered by the offshoot play's creator, Egyptian playwright/ director Mahmoud Aboudoma. (1) Let me summarise Aboudoma's offshoot play and two versions of his first Shakespeare encounter before pointing to the larger questions these stories help to frame. This article will then make a start at addressing those questions. (2)

Aboudoma's play, Dance of the Scorpions, is part of an Arab Hamlet tradition that has produced countless citations, allusions, adaptations and other intertextual appropriations in the past half-century. Written in the 1980s, it was performed in Egypt in 1989 and 1991. (3) Its five characters carry Shakespearean names: Hamlet, Horatio, Claudius, Polonius and the Ghost. However, many Shakespearean ingredients are altered or absent. There are only five scenes, no Gertrude or Ophelia, no Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, no Players, no metaphysics and no poetry. (4) Aboudoma's unimpressive protagonist is not eloquent and lacks any deep ('Hamletian') sense of consciousness.

Instead, the play offers a sharp meditation on misgovernment: Horatio becomes a folksy narrator and double agent; a council of nobles is staged as a puppet show with life-sized dolls; and an ambiguous ending shows a group of domestic revolutionaries mounting a successful coup (Polonius escapes). (5) Arguably the central character is Claudius, the 'scorpion' of the title: an unapologetic tyrant who conspires with foreign enemy Fortinbras, rigging a fake war to sideline his political opponents and defraud his people. Were it not for the familiar character names, a Western reader or spectator might not have recognised this play as a version of Hamlet at all.

An Arab playgoer might have found Aboudoma's play surprising as well, but for a wholly different reason. The play departs from an Arab theatrical convention, typical of 1960s criticism and early 1970s stage productions, of portraying Hamlet as a political hero, a seeker of justice brutally martyred by an oppressive regime. I have termed this type of protagonist 'the Arab hero Hamlet'. (6) Aware that the 'time is out of joint', he makes every effort 'to set it right'. (7) As one scholar has observed:

   With the exception of early productions of Hamlet (e.g., [an 1893
   adaptation]), Hamlet has always been viewed as a romantic hero who
   sets out to fight corruption, and dies for the cause of justice.
   (8)

In sharp contrast to this archetype, Aboudoma's Hamlet is naive and spineless, always a few steps behind. Other characters mock him. Even the Ghost does not recognise him at first: 'Are you Hamlet?' he verifies (114). This departure from the norm is flagged for the audience in the play's opening moments: Aboudoma's Horatio, welcoming the audience like a hakawati (traditional Arab storyteller), announces that he has been telling Hamlet's story 'for five centuries, until I got bored with telling it the same way every night. So I will try to tell it to you tonight in a different form' (113). Thus one of the main Brechtian tricks driving Aboudoma's play--its dramatic irony--depends on his audience's background familiarity with (a stock Arab interpretation of) Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Already we can see that Aboudoma's rewriting, rather than simply engaging with Shakespeare's Hamlet, engages with a whole tradition of Hamlet appropriations. Nor is that Hamlet tradition limited to earlier Arabic adaptations and interpretations. Rather, it draws on what I would like to call a 'global kaleidoscope' of sources and models. …