Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1294, (5 - 11 May 2016)
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1294, (5 - 11 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Shakespeare at 400

Celebrations are taking place worldwide to mark the death of the English dramatist William Shakespeare 400 years ago, writes David Tresilian

Shakespear at 400
Shakespear at 400
Al-Ahram Weekly

“All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players,” wrote the English dramatist William Shakespeare in his play As You Like It, first acted in London in 1599. “They have their exits and their entrances / And one man in his time plays many parts / His acts being seven ages” from infancy to old age.

However, if this is true of the generality of men, some, as Shakespeare also wrote, this time in Twelfth Night, first acted in 1601, “are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.” Was he thinking of himself? “Thy fates open their hands. Let thy blood and spirit embrace them. And, to inure thyself to what thou art like to be, cast thy humble slough and appear fresh.” 

As these quotations suggest – and there are hundreds of others that are just as familiar to audiences worldwide – Shakespeare, an otherwise obscure late 16th and early 17th century English writer about whom maddeningly little is known, continues to live on in his work four hundred years after his death in April 1616. For the English poet and dramatist Ben Jonson, one of his colleagues and main competitors, writing in 1623, “he was not of an age, but for all time.” 

Shakespeare’s greatness is being celebrated worldwide, and the 400th anniversary of the dramatist’s death is drawing renewed attention not only to Shakespeare’s continuing influence in the land of his birth, but also internationally. No one seems to have bothered to translate Shakespeare’s works into other languages during his lifetime, let alone perform them abroad, and it was only seven years after his death that an anything like reliable edition of his plays appeared in the so-called “first folio” of 1623, thus named because of the large size of its leaves.

However, in the 400 years since his death, translators, actors, directors, and filmmakers worldwide have all tried their hand at Shakespeare’s plays, producing new versions of them that continue to surprise, mysteriously showing how this playwright’s works, almost alone of the hundreds produced by dozens of playwrights on the London stage during his perhaps two-decade professional career, have escaped the time and place of their production and achieved a nigh-on universal appeal.

Shakespeare, as far as anyone knows, spoke no foreign languages, though he probably had some smatterings of French and Italian, and, as Jonson famously wrote, he had retained from his school education “small Latin and less Greek” in an age when serious writers were supposed to know both. He never travelled abroad. He read widely, both in English and in English translation, as can be seen from the frequent adaptations of other people’s works in his plays. 

Whole chunks of Sir Thomas North’s translation of the Roman historian Plutarch’s account of Antony and Cleopatra end up in Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Bits and pieces of mediaeval Danish history turn up in Hamlet. King Lear is based on a popular story, frequently retold. He seems to have borrowed from the mediaeval Italian writer Boccaccio for Cymbeline. The Tempest, probably his last completed play, uses travelers’ accounts of the Caribbean as well as Virgil’s poem The Aeneid. 

He sometimes turned to English history for the source material of his plays, producing a series sometimes thought to be meant in praise of the then ruling Anglo-Welsh Tudor Dynasty, from Henry IV to Henry VIII. But just as often he looked outwards, particularly to the Mediterranean, setting two plays in Venice, for example, and including characters like the Jewish moneylender Shylock (in The Merchant of Venice) and the Moorish general Othello (in Othello) that were presumably rarely met with even in the cosmopolitan environment of early 17th-century London.

He had a fondness for the classics, turning to them for what may be his earliest play, Titus Andronicus, to one of his last, Timon of Athens, and writing a whole series of Roman plays in between, from Julius Caesar to Coriolanus. He used the eastern setting of Alexandria in Antony and Cleopatra, and Pericles, thought to have been co-written, is set in part in Lebanon. Twelfth Night is set in Illyria, the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea, perhaps corresponding to modern Albania. 

He often played fast and loose with geography, famously giving Bohemia a sea coast in The Winter’s Tale and setting The Tempest on a deserted island that sometime seems to be off the coast of Tunisia and sometimes in the Caribbean. While many of his plays are set in or around the Mediterranean, Cymbeline is set in Wales and Macbeth in Scotland. Much of Henry V takes place in France. Hamlet is set in Denmark, with occasional nods to Wittenberg in Germany, perhaps because of its association with the Protestant reformer Martin Luther. Measure for Measure is set in Vienna.

Geography is not the only thing that Shakespeare showed scant respect for, adapting it to his needs. He also, perhaps most famously, goes against the rules of dramaturgical and linguistic decorum. His actors, Polonius tells Hamlet in the second act of the play of the same name, are “the best in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited.” Shakespeare specialises in such creative incongruities, his tragedies full of jokes and his comedies often very sad. 

His plays are also full of impossible coincidences, obvious contrivances, and the kind of plot twists that would give a lesser playwright a bad name. A daughter is reunited with a father after years of absence (in Pericles). A headless corpse is mistaken for the dead body of a husband (in Cymbeline). A statue comes to life and is revealed to be a long-lost wife (in The Winter’s Tale). The language moves from the grossest street talk, often obscene, to the most elevated poetry, often in the space of a few lines. 

Plain Anglo-Saxon vocabulary rubs shoulders with the most recondite Latinate coinages. Prince Hamlet speaks in both prose and verse. Shakespeare is capable of torturous inversions, pushing the main verb to the end of a long verse paragraph and leaving some listeners floundering. At other times, he writes sentences consisting of just a couple of words.

He uses complex metaphors, for example when Macbeth speaks of “sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care.” Or everyday English, as when his wife Lady Macbeth answers with the simple question, “what do you mean?” 


SHAKESPEARE’S ARABS: The vast majority of Shakespeare’s characters are of European origin, even if he does include some ancient Greek and Roman figures, chiefly in the Roman plays, and a few ancient Egyptians in Antony and Cleopatra. 

In this respect, he is less culturally and geographically daring than his fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe, who wrote a two-part play, now rarely performed, on the Central Asian conqueror Timur (Tamberlaine the Great), the founder of the Timurid Empire. However, Shakespeare does introduce various Arab characters into his plays, calling them “Moors”, and one of these, Othello, lends his name to the title of the play.

There is a Moorish character in the early work Titus Andronicus, a play that is sometimes seen by scholars as an attempt to reproduce in English something of the atmosphere of the tragedies of the ancient Roman dramatist Seneca and in which various gruesome events take place. The Moorish character, strangely named Aaron, is the lover of Tamora, queen of the Goths.

There is another Moor, this time the prince of Morocco, in The Merchant of Venice, who arrives as one of three suitors. According to the terms of the will of the father of the main female character, Portia, her husband-to-be must successfully choose between three caskets, one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. The prince of Morocco, the first suitor, mistakenly chooses the gold casket, having understood its message, “who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire,” as referring to Portia. In fact, as he discovers, “all that glisters is not gold.”

Both Aaron and the prince of Morocco are bit-parts, introduced presumably to provide intriguing geographical suggestiveness for Shakespeare’s original audiences. There is some evidence of racial prejudice in the latter play, with the prince telling Portia “Mislike me not for my complexion, / The shadowed livery of the burnished sun, / To whom I am a neighbour and near bred.” It seems likely that she dislikes him more for his boastfulness, however, and the prince is often played as a comic character and foil for the eventual winner of Portia’s hand, the Venetian merchant Bassanio.

Othello, on the other hand, is very far from being a minor character and is the protagonist of the tragedy to which he gives his name. Like Shakespeare’s other plays of this type – pre-eminently Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth – the focus is on a single character whose misfortune, perhaps the result of fate, perhaps the result of a character flaw, makes up the matter of the play. Hamlet is a revenger who cannot take revenge. King Lear is an old man who cannot, or at least not until it is too late, believe the ingratitude of others, not least his own daughters, and Macbeth is a man driven to murder by ambition. 

Othello’s biography is unclear, but presumably he is of Moroccan or North African origin. Like Aaron and the prince of Morocco in the earlier plays, he is referred to throughout the play as a “moor” and a man who, middle-aged or older, has achieved a position of importance as a military commander in a society, Venice, in which he was not born and to which, for some of the characters in the play, he will never really belong because of his racial origins. His religion remains uncertain throughout. 

In Act One of Othello, he says that he has been able to marry Desdemona, the daughter of a leading Venetian senator and a woman half his age, because of his qualities and her desire. She has gone against the wishes of her father and the precepts of her society, he says, in marrying him. He is given verse to explain himself that shows Shakespeare, or at least Othello, capable of flights of remarkable eloquence, despite the latter’s earlier claim to be a simple soldier, rude of speech “and little bless’d with the soft phrase of peace”:


“Her father loved me; oft invited me;

Still question’d me the story of my life,

From year to year, the battles, sieges, fortunes,

That I have passed.

I ran it through, even from my boyish days,

To the very moment that he bade me tell it;

Wherein I spake of most disastrous chances,

Of moving accidents by flood and field

Of hair-breadth scapes i’ the imminent deadly breach,

Of being taken by the insolent foe

And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence

And portance in my travels’ history:

Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,

Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven

It was my hint to speak – such was the process;

And of the Cannibals that each other eat,

The anthropophagi and men whose heads

Do grow beneath their shoulders. This to hear

Would Desdemona seriously incline:

But still the house-affairs would draw her thence:

Which ever as she could with haste dispatch,

She’d come again, and with a greedy ear

Devour up my discourse: which I observing,

Took once a pliant hour, and found good means

To draw from her a prayer of earnest heart

That I would all my pilgrimage dilate,

Whereof by parcels she had something heard,

But not intentively: I did consent,

And often did beguile her of her tears,

When I did speak of some distressful stroke

That my youth suffer’d. My story being done,

She gave me for my pains a world of sighs:

She swore, in faith, ‘twas strange, ‘twas passing strange,

‘Twas pitiful, ‘twas wondrous pitiful:

She wish’d she had not heard it, yet she wish’d

That heaven had made her such a man: she thank’d me,

And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,

I should but teach him how to tell my story.

And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake:

She loved me for the dangers I had pass’d,

And I loved her that she did pity them.” 


While Othello in recent productions of the play has been overshadowed by his lieutenant Iago who ultimately brings about his ruin – at least since the extraordinary performance given by the English actor Ian McKellen in the role in the 1989 Royal Shakespeare Company production directed by UK director Trevor Nunn – he remains the most important Arab role in all of Shakespeare’s plays. 

However, he has seldom, if ever, been played by an Arab actor outside the Arab world. The tradition that culminated with Laurence Olivier’s mesmerising performance as Othello in a 1964 London production, later filmed, of a white European actor playing Othello while wearing dark-skinned make-up is unlikely to yield further performances of note. Nunn cast the Jamaican opera-singer Willard White as Othello for his 1989 production, but Iago stole the show. 


ARABIC SHAKESPEARE: Writing in the Weekly last month on a new Cairo production of Tartuffe by the 17th-century French dramatist Molière, the critic Nehad Selaiha wrote that the earliest Arabic translations of this play, made in the late 19th century, were versions, rather than translations, of it. 

“The Egyptian poet, playwright and prolific translator Mohamed Osman Galal (1828-1898) reset the action in Egypt, used a versified, rhyming mixture of classical and Egyptian colloquial Arabic for the dialogue, added a new scene to the first act and another to the last, and rechristened his version Sheikh Matlouf – an Arabic name that happily rhymes with Tartuffe and literally means ‘corrupt’,” she wrote.

A similar process of creative adaptation rather than strict translation took place in early Arabic translations of Shakespeare. The plays were reset and adapted and bits added and other bits taken away according to the tastes of local audiences. However, there was still a need for relatively accurate reading texts of the plays, whatever the tastes of theatre audiences, even if these still paraphrased rather than strictly translated the plays and omitted lines or even whole scenes from them. 

Perhaps the first major translations of Shakespeare into Arabic in this vein, many of them still read today, were by the Lebanese writer and journalist Khalil Mutran (1872-1949), who lived in Egypt from the 1890s onwards where he worked for Al-Ahram and edited his own magazines Al-Majalla al-Misriyya and Al-Jawaib al-Misriyya, in which he published literary and other materials. His translation of Othello (Utayl) was particularly well-received, though Mutran apparently did not know English and instead used an early 19th-century French translation that was already some way from what Shakespeare had originally written.

Looking at this translation today, it is clear that Mutran’s aim is not so much to represent Shakespeare’s language accurately in Arabic, with all its sometimes vertiginous twists and turns, but instead to find a way of rendering the content of the text in a kind of prose paraphrase. His version was not produced as an acting text – though some people used it for this purpose – and as a result there was still room for both more reliable translations that took Shakespeare’s text as their source and aimed for a more accurate representation of his language, while at the same time offering the possibility of being used as acting versions.

Such aims, in the case of Othello and the major tragedies, were met by the Palestinian writer Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, whose translations began to appear in the 1960s with his version of Hamlet. Jabra was himself a distinguished student of early modern English literature and thus had the specialised knowledge (for example of classical mythology) that such literature typically demands. He also aimed to render Shakespeare’s language in all its variety in appropriate Arabic translation, something which Mutran had not attempted.

However, this is not just a question of vocabulary. There is also Shakespeare’s syntax, which the translator might want to render. Taking an example at random from Othello, for example, at lines 37-39 of Act One, Scene III, Shakespeare’s text reads, “now they do re-stem / Their backward course, bearing with frank appearance / Their purposes toward Cyprus” (he is talking about an Ottoman fleet). “Re-stem” used as a verb is apparently a Shakespearian coinage, and in any case is hardly standard English. A translation of these lines into modern English might come out as something like “now they are apparently going back to Cyprus.” Mutran might have written something like that in his Arabic version, but this is unlikely to have satisfied Jabra.

A few pages on Shakespeare writes, almost incomprehensibly, at lines 107-109, “Without more wider and overt test / Than these thin habits and poor livelihoods / Of modern seeming do prefer against him,” a formulation that twice includes a favourite rhetorical figure of his, hendiadys, or saying the same thing twice (“more wider and overt test” and “thin habits and poor livelihoods,” something like “fuller evidence” and “tenuous arguments”). Anyone wanting to translate Shakespeare accurately would need a broad knowledge of the classical rhetoric from which such figures are drawn, while at the same time being able to pin down the words’ meaning.

The meanings of words change over time, and Shakespeare’s texts are full of words used in senses that are no longer current, along with archaisms and word coinages. Anglo-Saxon vocabulary brushes up against Latinate constructions, prose presses up against verse, and street talk rubs shoulders with the most artificial diction. Without going into detail on the problems this can present to comprehension, it is clear from even a relatively straightforward example in the same scene of Othello how far the reader must be prepared to go in tracking down the meaning of Shakespeare’s vocabulary.

“Most gracious duke,” Desdemona tells the Doge of Venice at lines 241 to 244, “to my unfolding [ = telling, a metaphor] lend your prosperous [ = favourable?] ear, / And let me find a charter [ = promise, or possibly indication] in your voice / T’assist my simpleness [ = straightforwardness or directness].” Jabra translates this more or less word for word in his version of the play, ears and all, making the necessary semantic substitutions and attempting to reproduce the line lengths, if not the stress patterns, of the original verse. Mutran simply offers a prose paraphrase.


HAD SHAKESPEARE BEEN AN ARAB: Perhaps in response to an awareness that the existing Arabic translations of Shakespeare, where they existed (and not all the plays have been translated), were not ideal even if the foundations had been laid, the Egyptian academic Mohamed Enani translated many of them again in the 1980s and 1990s. 

The Arab League, responding to a proposal from the Egyptian writer Taha Hussein, had earlier welcomed Jabra’s translations, the first to attempt accuracy, rather than paraphrase or “Arabisation,” in the translation of the plays, in the 1950s. Now was the time to build on Mutran’s work and Jabra’s versions in the possibly more propitious circumstances of the 20th century’s later decades.

Enani wrote introductions to his translations setting out his thinking, and he also presented some of his ideas in an article he wrote in the Weekly in April 2006. Unfortunately, this article does not discuss Jabra’s translations, even if it does pinpoint some of the shortcomings of those by Mutran. Enani’s aim in retranslating Hamlet and in presenting new translations of works not before translated, or only available in Mutran’s paraphrase, such as The Merchant of Venice, was, he says, to find a suitable overall medium. “Too classical and grand would lead to declamation and inanity,” with Shakespeare’s still supple writing made to sound vaguely mediaeval. “Too common or ‘low’ [would] falsify” the originals. 

“The right way seemed to me to make use of Egyptian Arabic… to vary the tone of the Modern Standard Arabic” used as the overall medium of the translations. Was there a danger that Shakespeare’s gravedigger (in Hamlet), who speaks what one might surmise is a kind of Elizabethan street talk very far from the prince’s more educated speech, could sound like a contemporary Egyptian not making much effort to mind his p’s and q’s? If so, Enani says this is a risk worth taking in rendering the character of Shakespeare’s text for a modern Arabic-speaking audience.

“Every generation has the right to read, to interpret, the classics in terms of contemporary culture, and that culture, our Arab version of that contemporary culture, is to be found in Modern Standard Arabic… My contention was that if Shakespeare had been an Arab writing in the early 21st century about the same characters and the same dramatic situations, in Arabic for an Arab audience, he might have done what I have done.”

The truth is that every translation is an attempt at the impossible, and every competent translation, meaning every translation made by a translator aware of the challenges involved, can itself be a fascinating re-creation. Enani says in his article that some people reading his translation of Hamlet were shocked, since for them this was not how the play, or Shakespeare, was meant to sound in Arabic. 

“While for the actors the image was of an eloquent, even a rhetorical, prince, solemnly condemning the ways of the world, students had learned certain passages by heart and looked only for what appeared to them to be an ‘accurate’ rendering.” He adds that they were even more scandalised by his version of The Merry Wives of Windsor, done in entirely Egyptian Arabic.

Most recently, the Iraqi translator Salah Nyazi has re-translated Macbeth and Hamlet, claiming that the existing versions, particularly those by Jabra, do not do justice to Shakespeare’s text. The Egyptian psychoanalyst Moustapha Safouan has also produced a version of King Lear in Egyptian colloquial Arabic.

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