Hamlet's Arab Journey: Shakespeare's Prince and Nasser's Ghost

Hamlet's Arab Journey: Shakespeare's Prince and Nasser's Ghost

Hamlet's Arab Journey: Shakespeare's Prince and Nasser's Ghost

Hamlet's Arab Journey: Shakespeare's Prince and Nasser's Ghost


For the past five decades, Arab intellectuals have seen themselves in Shakespeare's Hamlet: their times "out of joint," their political hopes frustrated by a corrupt older generation. Hamlet's Arab Journey traces the uses of Hamlet in Arabic theatre and political rhetoric, and asks how Shakespeare's play developed into a musical with a happy ending in 1901 and grew to become the most obsessively quoted literary work in Arab politics today. Explaining the Arab Hamlet tradition, Margaret Litvin also illuminates the "to be or not to be" politics that have turned Shakespeare's tragedy into the essential Arab political text, cited by Arab liberals, nationalists, and Islamists alike.

On the Arab stage, Hamlet has been an operetta hero, a firebrand revolutionary, and a muzzled dissident. Analyzing productions from Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Kuwait, Litvin follows the distinct phases of Hamlet's naturalization as an Arab. Her fine-grained theatre history uses personal interviews as well as scripts and videos, reviews, and detailed comparisons with French and Russian Hamlets. The result shows Arab theatre in a new light. Litvin identifies the French source of the earliest Arabic Hamlet, shows the outsize influence of Soviet and East European Shakespeare, and explores the deep cultural link between Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser and the ghost of Hamlet's father.

Documenting how global sources and models helped nurture a distinct Arab Hamlet tradition, Hamlet's Arab Journey represents a new approach to the study of international Shakespeare appropriation.


Between acts 4 and 5 of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet is sent on a journey. He encounters pirates, passes from one vessel to another, and rediscovers a skill that he had almost forgotten he possessed. Critics have debated exactly how Hamlet’s journey transforms him, but he returns aged and different. Having been momentarily beside himself, he appears re-centered, self-confident, perhaps more kingly. The ghosts and doubts of the early acts are forgotten. He stands at Ophelia’s graveside and declares: “This is I, / Hamlet the Dane.”

This book follows Hamlet through the post-1952 Arab world. Here, too, is a Hamlet sent abroad, passed from one vessel to another, pirated, driven to rewriting, pressed to display character traits his close associates may not have known him to possess. He, too, returns from his travels deepened, complicated, and yet brought into clearer focus. To trace his journey is to see Hamlet splinter and be reconstituted; serve as a mask, a megaphone, and a measuring stick; and tell a story as revealing of his hosts’ identities as of his own.

The Arab Hamlet will lead us through the tangled corridors of contemporary political debate, behind the loudspeakers of Nasser’s revolutionary Egypt, and into the experimental theatres of post-1967 Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. He will speak in different voices: secular and Islamist, shrill and playful, heroic and ironic. Sometimes he may get tipsy and stutter—or forget his lines altogether—but this, too, is part of his character, and he will remain a good guide. We know Hamlet well (or think we do); his unexpected words and silences can help illuminate some aspects of Arab literary and political culture, and also, like the best instances of cultural exchange, of our own interpretive habits and assumptions.

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