This week we sit down with Margaret Litvin, Assistant Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature and Convener of Arabic at Boston University. Her book, Hamlet’s Arab Journey: Shakespeare’s Prince and Nasser’s Ghost (Princeton, 2011), examines the many reworkings of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in postcolonial Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. At BU she advises the Arabic minor and teaches courses on Arabic language and literature (both in Arabic and in English translation), as well as seminars on “Global Shakespeares” and on the worldwide appropriation of the 1001 Nights.
Tell me a bit about your course, “Global Shakespeares: Text, Culture, Appropriation.”
The course is a freshman seminar in Boston University’s honors college, called Kilachand Honors College. The students are all first-years and the class is capped at 12. (This semester I had 8.) For most of them it is an elective unrelated to their eventual major – many are science majors. They choose this seminar over others because 1) they like the global sound of it or 2) they have read a few Shakespeare plays in high school or done some theatre and loved it or 3) they feel some cultural anxiety that they “should” read more Shakespeare than they have. That anxiety is something we try to allay in the course (we read four Shakespeare plays together) but also to historicize – why do they feel they guilty about not knowing Shakespeare better? Articles by folks like Gary Taylor and Graham Holderness help them understand how Shakespeare’s work acquired the cultural status it now has. They understand that each appropriation (adaptation, offshoot, parody, film version) both borrows from Shakespeare’s cultural capital and, by doing so, reinforces it. Then for every play we read several works that “write back” or deploy the Shakespearean framework for their own ends. We began this semester with Aime Cesaire’s A Tempest and moved on to various Russian and Arabic Hamlet adaptations, movie Macbeths (including Vishal Bhardwaj’s wonderful Maqbool), and finally feminist rewritings of Othello.
What is your philosophy of teaching when it comes to Global Shakespeare?
What English teachers have historically been good at is bringing in an adaptation and teaching students to “compare” it to Shakespeare’s “original.” Humans are two-eyed beings, good at one-to-one comparisons. As scholars and teachers, we find it easy and fruitful to look at Text B and ask how it revises Text A – or, if we’re especially enterprising, how it reflects Context X. These interpretive and pedagogical habits are deeply engrained, because they work; they “teach well” and have yielded many productive readings. But after all these years of talking about provincializing Europe, the binary approach still leaves us captive to a Prospero-and-Caliban model of reception and appropriation: modern writers responding, as though directly and in isolation, to the provocation of Shakespeare. I don’t have a background in an English department. My background is in Arabic – and for the Arab world as well as many other non-Anglophone regions, this binary approach does not serve. My book Hamlet’s Arab Journeyfocused on Egyptian theatre and identified the “global kaleidoscope” of influences – French, Italian, Russian, Eastern European, American, and other – through which the Arab reception of Shakespeare was filtered. Unlike Caliban, modern Egyptian writers did not grow up on a cultural island, subject to a single dominant (British) cultural influence. Like Hamlet rather than Caliban, they grew up in a world of competing authorities and would-be father figures; their cultural inheritance was multiple from the start.
Here’s the PowerPoint slide I use to explain this:
So in my course I try to nudge students to look for a thicker description. For each text we read, a pair of students (and these are freshmen!) research and present a “CSI” presentation on the “contexts, subtexts, and intertexts” of the work we have read: its relevant political, literary, and cultural contexts; non-Shakespearean intertexts; and the subtexts it manages to send to different audiences, as evidenced by reviews and scholarly articles. For Djanet Sears’ Harlem Duet, we talked about the various intertexts woven “into the web of it”: everything from Paul Robeson to the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings (which my students don’t remember) and O.J. Simpson. And why did this Canadian playwright choose to set her play in the United States in the first place? This kind of thing is a lot of work but I think it makes the appropriations pop out into relief more, appear more three-dimensional. I also have them write and perform their own adaptations and explain the choices they made, so they can see how the appropriation process works. The challenge is that no one – and certainly not a college freshman – can be an expert on every historical and cultural period, or every genre that a Shakespeare appropriation is working in. This semester I knew to give them an article about noh theatre when we watched Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, but they probably could have used more background on Stalin and the Soviet “thaw” when studying Grigorii Kozintsev’s film Gamlet (1964). Live and learn!
What do you consider to be essential productions, texts, adaptations, films, or critical readings pertaining to Global Shakespeare?
Nothing is essential, but lots of things are interesting. For teaching, I love to use a wide variety of texts that speak to each other in unexpected ways, e.g., for a unit on King Lear and filial piety we looked at East Asian as well as Yiddish adaptations. (One of my teachers used to joke that King Lear is the quintessential Jewish play: “Oy, my children! They don’t love me enough!”) I also try to show patterns of influence and appropriation that don’t go through England: for instance, Kozintsev learning from Kurosawa as much as he learned from (and reacted against) Laurence Olivier. For my own thinking, I probably learned the most from Ania Loomba’s 1998 essay “‘Local- Manufacture Made-in-India Othello Fellows’: Issues of Race,. Hybridity, and Location” – the fearless way Loomba just swept aside the orthodoxies of postcolonial studies – and Irena Makaryk’s wonderfully sensitive work on Ukranian Shakespeare.
What are the challenges to teaching Shakespeare in this globally minded way? Are there limitations to teaching Shakespeare though the lens of globalization?
The biggest limit is the length of the semester – “all the world in the time” as David Damrosch put it. Some of the students still wanted to spend more time close-reading the Shakespeare plays. Which is admirable in a way – and we did spend as much as we could. Others wanted to spend less time on obscure (to them) twentieth-century works and more time on more “relatable” American adaptations, including more recent films like Almereyda’s very intricate Hamlet 2000 or even O (a high school basketball team Othello) and Ten Things I Hate About You. I tried to convince them they didn’t need a college seminar for those – they should have a film series on their own time.
You have your own class blog BU Global Shakespeares Seminar (which looks fantastic!). Can you tell me how it is moderated? Who posts? How often? Types of material? What is the pedagogical advantage to this type of student-submitted blog?
Many of my courses require a number of blog posts. The idea is that, unlike response papers submitted to a professor, a blog lets students get familiar with each others’ ideas before the discussion begins, which saves class time. It also gives the weaker students a much-needed opportunity to see how the stronger students write. In some courses I teach, blog posts are graded and replace all the short papers in the course. In this course it was much less formal and not graded. As you can see, it served more as a place to post various funny Shakespeare-related things they came across, and, in the 2010 version of the seminar, to share some of their research for class. Because what happens when you take a course like this is you start seeing Shakespeare references everywhere. Some of the examples they post, like Shakespeare-themed comics and other things I might not find on my own, end up in my teaching the next time around.
How do you incorporate the MIT Global Shakespeares website into your teaching? Are there other ways in which you bring pedagogical technologies into your course?
The videos and contextual metadata on the MIT Global Shakespeares site give me the possibility and the confidence to teach productions outside my area of specialization, such as Wu Hsing-Kuo’s Lear is Here. I also rely on guest speakers a lot, calling in friends or colleagues to come introduce an area of their expertise, and I reciprocate whenever I can. Several of my colleagues at other universities are offering Global Shakespeares courses of their own, or, e.g., whole courses on Hamlet appropriation. Does guest lecturing count as an instructional technology? Well, it does when you do it over Skype because plane tickets are so expensive. Another basic technology is email: I try to convince students that living authors are human and occasionally contactable. My 2010 class did a very informative interview over email with Kuwait-based director Sulayman Al-Bassam.
Tell me about your own research and publications, and how your work is reflected in your teaching?
My first book, Hamlet’s Arab Journey: Shakespeare’s Prince and Nasser’s Ghost (Princeton, 2011) offered a new kind of history of twentieth-century Arab drama and political culture, through the lens of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The book argues that since at least 1967, Arab intellectuals have seen themselves in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: their times “out of joint,” their political hopes frustrated by a corrupt older generation. I do some translation history, discovering that Shakespeare’s Hamlet was first adapted into Arabic in 1901 in such a silly way – it was a musical with a happy ending – not because Arab adapters or audience expectations were backward, but because the adapter was cribbing from the French, from a justice-must-be-done-at-the-end French version by Alexandre Dumas père! And I do some theatre history, looking at how Egyptian critics judged a 1960s Egyptian production on whether it was closer to “the British Hamlet” (Olivier) or “the Soviet Hamlet” (Kozintsev). I guess that’s my “global kaleidoscope” in a Cold War frame. But another heart of the argument is an old-fashioned intercultural explanatory effort: I try to explain (to my presumably non-Arab readers) why Hamlet is the most obsessively quoted literary work in Arab politics today, and that means explaining the painful history and “to be or not to be” structure of Arab political aspirations.
It’s hugely gratifying that my book has been well received in Egypt. I was invited to do a whole lecture series at universities in Cairo, and a translation by prominent translator Khalil Kalfat is forthcoming from Egypt’s National Center for Translation. That suggests to me that I’m saying something that needs to be said. Scholars came up to me at all those talks and mostly agreed. The point is that in the Arab context, Hamlet is a story about dispossession and injustice – not necessarily about individual consciousness and Hamlet “overhearing himself think” and so on. We in western countries are just coming around to this view now, basically since the Iraq war re-alerted us to the idea of political frustration. (For instance, Margreta De Grazia’s Hamlet Without Hamlet came out just as my book was going into press.) Arab intellectuals have known it for decades.
Those are the main things I try to convey to my students at BU, too, and not just in the Shakespeare class: that intertexts are multiple and sometimes hidden, and that it’s possible and worthwhile to try to see a canonical text through the eyes of an interpretive community for whom it has a radically different meaning.
The tail end of the Hamlet project brought me into contact with intercultural director Sulayman Al-Bassam and other internationally known Arab writer-directors. Through conversations with them I’ve started thinking and writing about the way Arab theatre has been received by Anglo-American audiences and cultural impresarios (e.g., U.S. festival producers) in the vexed decade between 2001 and 2011. One piece of that thinking was just published in a new collection on Arab theatre [entitled Doomed By Hope] from Pluto Press last month.
In the fall of 2011 I took my family to Cairo for the semester to do research and watch Egypt’s would-be revolution unravel. Not the main issue but one issue that interested me about that was how it was reported and watched in international media outlets. (Which by the way, have been quite smart on Egypt for the most part, I think.) So I guess one underlying theme I want to explore is the way non-Arab audiences receive Arab performances, including political performances such as uprisings.
Can you tell me about your personal blog Shakespeare in the Arab World?
I started it just as I was wrapping up my dissertation in 2006. Do you remember the Danish cartoon controversy, over the insulting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad? I started tracking all the people who responded to that using the witticism “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Meanwhile, I was trying to gather a tiny little community of scholars around the world who work on Arab Shakespeare, and I was also coming across interesting performances and articles and political allusions that I didn’t have time to follow up on and write about seriously. I thought: someone should be doing this. So I try to do it from time to time.
What are you working on right now?
This semester one of my courses is a hugely exciting seminar-workshop-lecture series, the BU Literary Translation Seminar, so right now I’m busy preparing for that.
My current research takes a bit of a turn out of Shakespeare studies, but it started from trying to figure out why Kozintsev’s film was the single most influential Shakespeare text in the Arab Hamlet tradition. My next book will look at Arab-Soviet cultural ties, including Arab writers who traveled to the Soviet Union (though I’m having to reach back and forward to pre- and post-Soviet Russia): what did they think of the place? What did they learn? How has that experience affected modern Arabic literature and theatre? When the Cold War ended, that whole axis of cultural contact was largely forgotten in the rush to bilateralize “Arabs and the West.” But the shadow of the second world still affects the way many people think and write. I’m thinking the book will be called Another East.
Thank you for answering these questions and your thoughtful responses!