Yemeni MERCHANT OF VENICE, adapted by Wajdi al-Ahdal, Samir ‘Abd al-Fattah, and ‘Abdallah ‘Abbas, directed by Amin Hazaber at YALI, Sana’a. Photo: Wagdi al-Maqtari. Photo 1: Fitna reveals her identity to ‘Aidarus.
Volume 1

Now I will believe that there are unicorns: The Improbable History of Shakespeare in Yemen

Now I will believe that there are unicorns:
The Improbable History of Shakespeare in Yemen
by Katherine Hennessey
 Arab StagesVolume 1, Number 1 (Fall 2014)
 ©2014 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

The central display of Prospero’s supernatural powers in Shakespeare’s The Tempest[1] occurs in Act III, Scene 3: as Alonso, Antonio and the other shipwreck survivors wander exhausted and hungry through Prospero’s island, the magician orders his “spirits, in several strange Shapes” to set a rich banquet before them.[2] To an accompaniment of unearthly music, the spirits dance around the table, gesturing invitations to the famished men that they should partake of the feast.

The response of each of the four main characters to this vision is of a piece with their respective personalities. Alonso, the King of Naples, invokes divine protection (“Give us kind keepers, heavens!,” 20), while his benevolent counselor Gonzalo praises the spirits’ hospitable nature:

For certes these are the people of the island
Who though they are of monstrous shape, yet note
Their manners are more gentle-kind than of
Our human generation you shall find
Many, nay almost any. (30–34).

Gonzalo’s sagacity in evaluating the spirits by their actions rather than their outlandish appearance stands in stark contrast to the unmeasured reaction of Sebastian and Antonio. Observing the magical banquet, these two rogues—who in Act II Scene 1 have hatched a plot to kill Alonso and Gonzalo in their sleep so that Sebastian may seize the throne of Naples, as Antonio previously usurped the Duchy of Milan from Prospero—profess a newfound willingness to give credence to the existence of mythical animals and to the most preposterous of travellers’ yarns:

Sebastian: A living drollery. Now I will believe
That there are unicorns, that in Arabia
There is one tree, the phoenix’ throne, one phoenix
At this hour reigning there.

Antonio: I’ll believe both;
And what does else want credit come to me,
And I’ll be sworn ’tis true. Travellers ne’er did lie,
Though fools at home condemn ’em. (21–27).[3]

Sebastian’s quartet of lines is particularly rich in fantastic imagery: first, the “living drollery.” A drollery was annotated by eighteenth-century commentators on Shakespeare as indicating a puppet-show, but more recent scholarship suggests that the word may also have been used in Shakespeare’s day as a reference to an illustration or painting in which humans, animals, or plants are represented in grotesque or fantastic fashion, or an image which blurs the boundaries between the three groups by depicting, for instance, human beings turning into animals or plants.[4] This gloss would be particularly apt as a description for Prospero’s shapes, who blur the boundaries between the physical world and that of the spirit, possessing humanlike form but not human substance.

Second, Sebastian alludes to the unicorn, that fabulous, exquisite beast with its accretion of centuries of medieval bestiary lore.[5] The unicorn is wild and magical, its horn a potent weapon. It can be tamed only by a virgin—or, as Shakespeare suggests in “The Rape of Lucrece,” by the inexorable passage of time (“Time’s glory is . . . to tame the unicorn and the lion wild,” 939, 956).[6]

Finally, Sebastian references Arabia, the phoenix, and its mysterious throne tree. This same triad occurs in the opening lines of Shakespeare’s poem “The Phoenix and the Turtle”:

Let the bird of loudest lay,
On the sole Arabian tree,
Herald sad and trumpet be,
To whose sound chaste wings obey. (1–4).[7]

The phoenix, according to legend, dies in flame and rises from its ashes or, in alternative versions, kills and immolates itself so that a new phoenix may be born from its ashes. It is thus a symbol of rebirth, of resurrection from the dead.[8] It is also a symbol of royalty (“the king is dead, long live the king”) and it was particularly associated with Queen Elizabeth I, who possessed a phoenix-shaped jewel, prominently displayed in a famous portrait.[9]

The tree upon which the phoenix sits is likely the date palm tree. In fact, the word we use to indicate the legendary bird comes from the ancient Greek phoinix, which has multiple meanings, including both the bird and the palm tree. The taxonomical classification of the tree is genus phoenix, and it is sometimes colloquially referred to as the “phoenix palm.” Perhaps most striking about both of Shakespeare’s references to the phoenix and its throne, however, is the description of the latter as the “sole Arabian tree”—the idea, that is, that only one type of tree grows in that vast, mysterious region known as “Arabia.”

Palm trees are an integral part of our stereotypical images of the desert, of course. We may not know that the “phoenix palm” is in fact not one sole tree but fourteen different species of tree. We may not know that the Arabian island of Socotra, often referred to as the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean, is home to bizarre and exotic botanical specimens like the cucumber tree and the dragon’s blood tree. Nor can we logically posit that Shakespeare would have known these things. But surely the exuberant imagination of the Bard would not have envisioned the exotic expanses of “Arabia” to be so blandly uniform as to possess only one tree, or only one type of tree.

Nor is it likely that Shakespeare even imagined Arabia to be one sole geographical entity. Ancient Greek and Latin geographers, Ptolemy among them, divided the Arabian Peninsula into three parts:[10] Arabia deserta—the “abandoned” sands of most of the Arabian peninsula, Arabia petraea—modern day Jordan and parts of the southern Levant, ruled in ancient times by the Nabateans from their capital at Petra, and Arabia felix—the southwestern tip of the Arabian peninsula. Happy Arabia, so called as a result of its abundant seasonal rainfall and its fertile wadis, where in ancient times the kingdoms of Saba (or Sheba), Ma’in, and Himyar had flourished, their wealth, like the Nabateans’, rooted in their control of the ancient incense and spice trades.[11]

That Shakespeare had some knowledge of desert fauna, we know from Hamlet, who asks Polonius in Act III, Scene 2, “Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?”[12] That the Bard associated Arabia with perfume, we know from Lady Macbeth’s vain attempts to sweeten her little but lethal hand,[13] and that he not only knows of the existence but also something of the nature of Arabian trees besides the date palm is evident from Othello Act V Scene 2. Here, having killed Desdemona, the Moor describes himself as

               . . . one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unusèd to the melting mood,
Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinable gum (357–360)

The trees in question are not palms but incense trees—myrrh or perhaps acacia, several species of which produce “gum Arabic.”[14]

There is thus ample evidence for the assertion that Shakespeare imagined “Arabia” as a more complex, more mysterious, and more interesting place than is suggested by Sebastian’s image of a sandy wasteland, a single tree, and a fabulous fiery bird.[15] The assertion that such a vast and diverse space could have only “one sole tree” is, in its way, as absurd as the belief “that a phoenix is now at this hour reigning there,” perched atop the palm leaves contemplating spontaneous combustion: It is one means by which Shakespeare indicates the dangerously myopic perspectives of characters like Sebastian and Antonio, both of whom are prepared to betray the bonds of kinship in their own short-sighted pursuit of wealth and power.

Yet, as we read The Tempest amidst the tumults of the early twenty-first century, we might well ask ourselves how complex—or, alternatively, how myopic—are the images that we ourselves have of modern-day “Arabia.”

Imagining Arabia Felix
Rather than phoenixes and perfumes, or trees weeping incense tears, the images that “Arabia” conjures up today tend less towards the fabulous and the incredible, and more towards the alien and the disturbing: shouting protesters, tribesmen with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders, Islamic extremists threatening to execute hostages, oppressed women sweltering in full-length black, forbidden to reveal their faces in public. Such images spring especially to mind if we talk not about the glitzy Gulf nations awash in skyscrapers and petrodollars, not Qatar, not Dubai, not Abu Dhabi, but their poverty-stricken cousin on the southwestern edge of the Arabian Peninsula—that poor benighted country known formerly as Arabia Felix, but now as the singularly unhappy Republic of Yemen.

The portrait of Yemen painted by the international media and most western scholarship is appallingly, almost ineluctably bleak: a failed state, a haven for al-Qaeda, a divided nation constantly teetering on the edge of chaos and civil war. I cannot claim that there is no truth to this picture. But it corresponds to the complex nature of Yemen’s reality in the way that Prospero’s illusory banquet table corresponds to material reality: that is, it suggests something that does indeed exist in our world, but it lacks the necessary substance to make it useful or beneficial. And like Sebastian, some of us are not merely convinced by the construct, by the compilation, but are then prepared to believe even farther-fetched distortions.

Studying theatre in Yemen, and studying the history of Shakespearean performances in Yemen in particular, is one useful corrective to this misleading compilation of images. This article is not intended as a compendium of Yemeni Shakespeare performances[16] but rather as a survey of the highlights of Yemen’s relatively unknown theatrical traditions as they relate to Shakespeare. It poses two interrelated questions: what can Shakespeare teach us about Yemen? And what might Yemen teach us about Shakespeare?

Yemen has a history of theatre that reaches back over a century. (This is in contrast to the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, where theatre movements have coalesced much more recently, since the mid-1970s onwards.[17]) Theatre in Yemen is performed, to borrow Paul Prescott’s description of American summer Shakespeare festivals,[18] “as a gift”—that is, there are no tickets, and entry is free to the general public. This means that productions attract a cross section of the population, men and women, young and old, a social continuum that runs from the comparatively privileged intelligentsia to the functionally illiterate underclasses, who as a result of the deplorable failures of the state educational system still constitute around a third of the nation’s population.[19] But theatre is a fundamentally democratic form of literature, in the sense that it can reach even illiterate audience members—a demographic of negligible importance in the West, but a quantitatively and strategically significant one in Yemen.

Theatre occurs most often in Yemen’s two major urban centers, Sana’a in the north and Aden in the south, but there are records of theatrical performances even in remote villages. Every major urban center throughout the country has its own official theatre troupe supported by the Ministry of Culture, and most Yemeni cities have independent, amateur, or semi-professional theatre groups as well. In addition to Yemeni playwrights writing their own material, set in and inspired by Yemen (Sayf has catalogued more than 500 Yemeni plays), they have also adapted plays by canonical Arab authors like Sa’dallah Wannous, Tawfiq al-Hakim, Yusuf Idris, and Alfred Farag, and by international authors like Brecht, Pirandello, Molière, Racine, Tennessee Williams and, of course, Shakespeare.[20]

This history is effectively unknown outside the borders of Yemen. The textual resources that treat the history of theatre in Yemen are all in Arabic, which is a massive hurdle for many foreign researchers to overcome. Non-Yemeni Arabs, even Middle Eastern scholars who study theatre in the region, are not immune to stereotyping Yemenis as poor, backwards, and uneducated—or worse, as gun-toting, qat-chewing tribesmen, who would never participate in an activity as “civilized” as the creation of theatre. To urge the dismantling of this ingrained prejudice—let alone to propose that Yemeni theatre is thoughtful and outspoken in its critique of Yemeni society, and surprisingly liberal in the latitude it allows actors and actresses in interacting with each other—sometimes feels akin to asking scholars to believe in unicorns.

How Arabia Felix Imagines Shakespeare
Yet however improbable it may seem, Yemeni theater does possess a rich history—and moreover, one which begins with Shakespeare. The first documented performance by Yemeni actors is Julius Caesar, performed in Arabic in a public square in Aden in 1910 (‘Aulaqi, 35). Few descriptive details of this performance have come down to us, but it appears that the actors who participated were graduates of the local British educational system[21] and had most likely become familiar with Shakespeare as part of their school curriculum.

Whether this was the first ever performance of Shakespeare in Yemen is open to some debate. An account from the captain’s log kept by William Keeling, who commanded the Red Dragon, an East India company ship bound for Java, claimed that Hamlet was performed in 1608 on the island of Socotra by the Dragon’s crew. Keeling, so the story went, asked his sailors to perform as a way of keeping them occupied and out of trouble when in port, and as a means of impressing foreign dignitaries. If this account is accurate, then the Red Dragon Hamlet was the first recorded performance of Shakespeare on what is now considered Yemeni territory. Bernice Kliman[22] has recently called this account into question, however, suggesting that Keeling’s relevant journal entries may have been forged by John Payne Collier, though scholars like Graham Holderness have argued in turn that Kliman’s argument is itself based more on personal conviction than conclusive evidence of forgery[23]. If in fact the Red Dragon is but a charming myth, then the first documented performance of Shakespeare in Yemen is also the first-ever recorded performance by Yemeni actors—that is, Julius Caesar in 1910.

The second documented performance of Shakespeare in Yemen is Romeo and Juliet, also performed in Aden, around 1914, and the third is Shuhada al-Gharam (Martyrs for Love), a musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet by Egyptian playwright Najib Haddad that had been wildly popular in Egypt and was performed to great acclaim by a Yemeni troupe around 1926 (‘Aulaqi 35). These plays were performed with all-male acting troupes, as in Elizabethan England,[24] and some Yemeni actors became famous for the grace and beauty with which they played female roles (‘Aulaqi 46, 80).

As the 20th century progressed, Yemeni troupes repeatedly staged five of Shakespeare’s most acclaimed plays: Hamlet, Othello, and The Merchant of Venice, in addition to Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet. These occurred as one subset of theatrical activity: there were also Islamic history plays and scripts that draw on Yemeni folklore and the Arabian Nights, and a more realistic/naturalistic tradition whose characters and plots are drawn from the Yemeni populace and its quotidian struggles. The overwhelming majority of these plays were staged in the south rather than the north, a reflection of the colonial legacy in Aden and its environs, but also a result of the xenophobic nature of the Imamate that controlled Yemen’s northern territory until it was toppled in 1948 by the Republican revolution.

As in other imperial outposts, performances of Shakespeare in the south should not automatically be interpreted as an homage to Britain, or as an attempt by the local population to slavishly imitate its colonial masters. In fact, it seems that British officials in Aden were anxious about the incendiary possibilities the theater offered, and thus theaters and plays were closely scrutinized by the official censor. Julius Caesar bears further scrutiny in that regard, as it is a play that centers upon a revolt against and the assassination of an arguably tyrannical ruler. We know next to nothing of how the 1910 performance was designed and received, but it is at least possible that the actors intended it as a veiled critique of the British claim to Aden.

A later performance of Julius Caesar (1948), originally proposed in the mid 1940s, was initially rejected by the wartime censor, then subjected to such heavy editing that the actors postponed the production until WWII ended and they could perform the text as they saw fit (‘Aulaqi 77). Ironically, if the play was intended as a critique of British imperialism, published reviews of the play single out the actor who played Mark Antony as giving the most moving and powerful performance, suggesting that the audience’s sympathies actually skewed towards the dead Caesar and his surviving allies.[25]

Another mid-century adaptation is worthy of note: Othello, performed in 1948 by a troupe called the “Acting Committee” under the direction of Muhammad al-Duqmi, using the 1912 translation ‘Utayl by Khalil Mutran, a celebrated Syro-Lebanese poet and translator. Sa’id ‘Aulaqi, Yemen’s great theater historian, recounts that Yemeni audiences were spellbound by the play, but ultimately disgusted by “the overwhelming harshness of its tragedy . . . The audience could not fathom Shakespeare’s rationale for putting an end to the lives of [Othello and Desdemona], while Iago, the malice-ridden criminal, was left alive” (72).

Confronted with spectators’ outrage, al-Duqmi re-wrote the final scene. Much as Nahum Tate provided seventeenth-century audiences a King Lear with a happy ending, in al-Duqmi’s Othello Iago’s machinations are brought to light, Othello and Desdemona are reconciled and reunited, and Iago is sentenced to death. This, according to ‘Aulaqi, corresponded much more closely to Yemeni audiences’ sense of justice, and al-Duqmi’s Yemeni Othello, retitled Jiza’ al-Khayanah (The Punishment of Treachery) proved enormously popular.

While al-Duqmi’s selection of this Shakespearean text indicates his admiration for the towering canonical playwright of the Western world, his re-writing of the climatic scene demonstrates an understanding that the text is not chiseled in stone, but can be approached with a certain degree of creative license and adapted to harmonize with the perspectives of a foreign audience. al-Duqmi could have pointed to precedents much nearer to him than Tate in time and space for this sort of creative license: translator Tanyus ‘Abduh, for instance, whose 1901 translation of Hamlet concludes with Hamlet triumphantly reclaiming his father’s throne[26], or Najib Haddad’s Egyptian musical rendition of Romeo and Juliet.

Yet Othello holds a unique place in the history of Shakespearean performance throughout the Arab world. As Ferial Ghazoul notes, “No work of Shakespeare touches chords of Arab sensibility and identity so much as the tragedy of Othello. For one thing, the hero is a Moor and therefore an ‘Arab.’[27] As Shakespeare’s most famous Moor,[28] Othello has occasionally been claimed by Middle Eastern writers, particularly those from North Africa, as exemplifying the plight of their region vis-à-vis the colonizing West, with Iago as the embodiment of a deceitful and manipulative colonial or imperial authority, preying on the Moor’s trusting nature, or as a critique of Western racism and discrimination against the Arab “Other.”

That this identification hinges on a problematic elision of “Moorish” and “Arab” identity is less commonly discussed. Furthermore, while academics often point out parallels between Shakespeare’s texts/source material and Middle Eastern literary works like The Arabian Nights, few seem to have noticed the similarities between Othello and the great pre-Islamic epic Antara ibn Shaddad, whose warrior hero is held in disdain by his Arab counterparts, including his prospective father-in-law, because his mother was African. Since he is not a pure-blooded Arab, Antar must prove his worthiness to marry his beloved Abla through a long series of military exploits.

To perform Othello in the Arab world, with Arab actors playing the roles of the white Venetians, must surely remind some audience members of discriminatory practices within their own cultures. Such a reminder would be salutary in a country like Yemen, which still maintains an underclass, the akhdam, identified by their African origins. Yemeni theater practitioners are, unfortunately, occasionally willing to exploit audience members’ bigotry in the service of cheap laughter, through jokes that reinforce racial stereotypes, for instance, or by having actors in blackface parody the accents of African migrants.[29] Yet on the whole Yemeni theater tends towards a much more inclusive and tolerant ethos, as exemplified by a recent adaptation of Shakespeare: a Yemeni version of The Merchant of Venice, performed in November 2012 and March 2013 in Sana’a.

Upon watching this performance,[30] those familiar with Shakespeare’s text will immediately note a few salient differences. First, the setting: the action takes place not in Venice but in the eastern Yemeni region of the Hadhramawt; the characters all wear traditional Hadhrami dress, and their names have been rendered, if not commonplace, at least familiar to Yemeni audiences: Portia becomes “Fitna,” Shylock is “‘Aidha,” and so forth. The second main difference is in the fusion of the characters of Antonio and Bassanio into a single character, ‘Aidarus, who takes out a loan from ‘Aidha in order to pay Fitna’s dowry. The third change is to the language—there are few attempts in the script to attain poetic eloquence, and the dialogue is instead conducted in a colloquial, Hadhrami-accented Yemeni Arabic.

But by far the most significant change is that the Merchant is not Jewish. Sensitive to the fact that Yemen still possesses a small and beleaguered Jewish minority, the troupe edited out the anti-Semitic references and made Shylock a cloth trader from the Hadhramawt, Muslim like the rest of the characters.

What becomes of Merchant when drained of sectarian conflict? In Yemen, it became a play about gendered power dynamics—about the fact that, though Fitna is “cleverer than a thousand men,” she must still cover her face and disguise herself as a man to enter a courtroom, to save her husband, and to see justice done. This is, of course, a crucial element in Shakespeare’s text, where the disguised Portia outwits all the assembled males in the courtroom, but its importance is overshadowed by the ethno-religious conflict that drives the plot. The Yemeni version re-centered the action on the character of Fitna and on her position within society, turning the play into a commentary on the secondary, secluded status that is still the lot of many Yemeni women.

Yemeni Merchant of Venice, adapted by Wajdi al-Ahdal, Samir 'Abd al-Fattah, and 'Abdallah 'Abbas, directed by Amin Hazaber at YALI, Sana'a. Photo: Wagdi al-Maqtari. Photo 2: Fitna/Portia disguised as a masked swordsman.

Yemeni Merchant of Venice, adapted by Wajdi al-Ahdal, Samir ‘Abd al-Fattah, and ‘Abdallah ‘Abbas, directed by Amin Hazaber at YALI, Sana’a. Photo: Wagdi al-Maqtari. Photo 2: Fitna/Portia disguised as a masked swordsman.

As though to demonstrate that gender difference is primarily a construct (a concept which is not common currency in Yemeni social discourse) the production showed Fitna taking on a warrior’s role when costumed as a man. Underscoring her formidable physical presence as well as her mental agility, the script calls for her to threaten to do bodily harm to the Merchant if he should harm ‘Aidarus, and to unsheathe her sword and point it at him.[31] Her legal reasoning—that the Merchant is entitled to his pound of flesh but not to ‘Aidarus’s blood—confounds the all-male assembly in the courtroom, including the qadhi (the judge), who like Shakespeare’s Venetian Duke is relieved that the cruel sentence does not need to be carried out. The play thus portrays Fitna as the physical protector of her spouse, as a person of highly acute powers of reasoning and logic, and as the bearer of a weapon—all roles normally gendered as male within Yemeni society. By portraying a female actress in all of these roles, the play calls into question the patriarchal assumptions that still underpin a significant subset of male-female interactions in Yemen.

The staging of the production places Fitna in the midst of the men at court, her head covered and her face veiled from the nose down—dressed “as a man,” yet effectively revealing as little of her face as a Yemeni woman wearing a hijab and niqab (headscarf and face veil). At the play’s climactic moment, when Fitna reveals her true identity to ‘Aidarus, actress Amani al-Dhamari chose to take off the veil across her face, which the script called for, and also the one covering her hair, which the script did not. That a young Yemeni woman would uncover her hair in public, in the full view of hundreds of spectators, both male and female, in a country where the majority of women appear in public in both hijab and niqab, is an act that defies social convention. In the context of the performance, where she has just saved her husband from mutilation, it is an act that suggests that Yemeni women deserve the right to be treated as equal partners by their spouses and their male colleagues, and to participate in their society in equally visible and public roles.

In fact, this production of Merchant owes its genesis to two Yemeni women: Fatima al-Baydhani, founder of an organization dedicated to the documentation and preservation of Yemen’s oral literary tradition, and a female storyteller named Zaynab who recounted the story of Fitna to al-Baydhani and her colleagues, when they came to the town of Seyoun in the Hadhramawt seeking out tales that had been passed down verbally from generation to generation. al-Baydhani recognized that Zaynab’s recitation had its roots in Shakespeare’s play, though the storyteller did not specify an exact chain of transmission.

It is at least possible that Zaynab saw a performance of The Merchant of Venice in Arabic translation (or heard about a performance in great detail) and subsequently integrated the plot into her storytelling repertoire, since a troupe from Shihr in the Hadhramawt is known to have performed Merchant (as well as Hamlet and Julius Caesar) in the 1960s, under the direction of Muhammad Awudh Ba Saleh (‘Aulaqi 192). Zaynab’s story clearly bears a reasonably direct relationship to Shakespeare’s text. Her recounting of the tale preserves the central conflict: the Merchant is Jewish, though the other characters are “Arab” (read: Muslim) rather than Christian. Zaynab’s version is surprisingly faithful to minute details of Shakespeare’s play, even including a final scene in which ‘Aidarus offers to repay his savior with any gift the latter cares to name, and Fitna, still disguised as a masked warrior, asks to be allowed to spend one night with ‘Aidarus’s wife—a clear analogue to the final scene in Shakespeare’s text, where Portia threatens to sleep with the “doctor of laws” who has taken her ring from Bassanio (the doctor, of course, having been Portia herself in disguise). That such a similar test of fidelity should surface in Zaynab’s retelling of the tale strongly suggests some degree of acquaintance with the plot of Shakespeare’s play.

That a middle-aged female storyteller in the Hadhramawt would recount the action of The Merchant of Venice, re-oriented in her own region and among recognizably Hadhrami characters, may seem outlandish, or at the very least, unlikely. Yet the history of theater in Yemen, and particularly of Shakespearean theater in Yemen, is rife with these types of unexpected coincidence. The stage itself is something of a paradox: a “safe space” in which the norms and expectations that govern the rest of Yemeni society are at least temporarily suspended. It functions as a laboratory in which Yemeni theater practitioners can model alternative visions for their society, or dismantle accepted conventions and expectations. And Shakespeare has played a part in all of this.

Shakespeare in Yemen may well seem, upon first blush, as unlikely as Sebastian’s unicorns. It is an improbable history. Yet it is also a history that helps us to correct a biased composite image of a little known and much misunderstood part of our globe, and a history that demonstrates the resonance that Shakespeare, creatively performed and adapted, continues to have even in the places we least expect to find him.

Katherine Hennessey is a research fellow in the Global Shakespeare program, a joint appointment at the University of Warwick and Queen Mary University of London. Her current projects include a book entitled Staging a Protest: 20th and 21st Century Theater in Yemen; a documentary film on the 2014 Theater Festival in Sana’a; and a study of Shakespeare productions in the Arabian Gulf.
From 2009 to mid-2014, Katherine resided in Sana’a, where she lived in a traditionally constructed mud brick tower house, translated Yemeni literature, conducted research on contemporary Yemeni theatre, and served as professor of Italian language and literature at Sana’a University. Prior to this she worked as an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Bethlehem University on the Palestinian West Bank, and a lecturer in Italian at the Pontifical Institute in Jerusalem.
Katherine has received Fulbright, Mellon, and Beinecke fellowships, and has published numerous articles on the performing arts in Yemen and the Gulf. Her work has appeared in Middle East Report, Arablit, and Portal 9, and she has chapters forthcoming in anthologies on the Gulf and Yemen by Routledge and I.B.Tauris.

[1] Dobson, Michael, and Stanley Wells. “Travel, trade and colonialism” in The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. Oxford, 2001.

The display is “central” not merely because it occurs in the third act of a five-act play, but because it is bookended by the destructive magic that creates the storm with which the play opens, and by the creative magic of the spirits’ performance for Ferdinand and Miranda in Act IV, Scene 1. It is also the revelatory moment at which Ariel accuses Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian of having conspired to drive Prospero into exile.

[2] Shakespeare, William. The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, 2nd ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, general editors. Oxford: Clarendon, 2005. Kindle edition. This quotation and all others from Shakespeare come from The Oxford Shakespeare.

[3] Dobson and Wells situate this passage within a nexus of Shakespearean references to Elizabethan travel literature.

[4] See for example, Shaaber, M.A. “A Living Drollery (Tempest, III, iii, 21)”. Modern Language Notes 60:6 (June 1945), 387-391.

[5] For more on the medieval bestiary tradition, see for example The Mark of the Beast, in particular the chapters by Hassig and Gravestock. The Mark of the Beast: The Medieval Bestiary in Art, Life, and Literature. Ed. Debra Hassig.

[6] There are four references to unicorns in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, and all have an associated resonance of trickery and betrayal, no doubt connected to the bestiary tradition of a virgin being used as bait to attract the unicorn, so that the hunter could kill or capture it as it nuzzled in her lap. Given his plot to assassinate his brother the King, Sebastian’s allusion to unicorns links him to the “foul usurper” Tarquin (“Lucrece” 412). The image of the unicorn is doubly connected to betrayal in Julius Caesar, where Decius offers to lure Caesar to the Capitol, noting ironically that while Caesar “loves to hear/that unicorns may be betrayed with trees” (203-4) and that other animals–bears, elephants–may likewise be baited and trapped, Caesar has no inkling that the conspirators’ net is tightening around him. In a similar vein, Timon of Athens tells Apemanthus, “Wert thou the unicorn, pride and wrath would confound thee”–i.e. that the worst characteristics of his nature would defeat whatever virtues he might possess (IV, 3).

[7] For a detailed explication of this poem, see Bednarz, James P. Shakespeare and the Truth of Love: The Mystery of ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle.’ Palgrave Shakespeare Studies, 2012.

[8] C.f. Valerie Jones’ chapter in The Mark of the Beast. The Phoenix and the Resurrection” 99-118. The Mark of the Beast: The Medieval Bestiary in Art, Life, and Literature. Ed. Debra Hassig.

[9] The “Phoenix portrait,” attributed to Nicholas Hilliard, for more on which see Hearn, Karen, ed. Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630. New York: Rizzoli, 1995.

This painting currently hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

[10] C.f. G.W. Bowersock for more on this tripartite division of the Arabian Peninsula. Bowersock, G.W. “The three Arabias in Ptolemy’s geography” in Studies on the Eastern Roman Empire, Goldbach, 1994.

[11] C.f. de Maigret, Alessandro. Arabia Felix : an exploration of the archaeological history of Yemen. 3rd Ed. Translated by Rebecca Thompson, intro. Tony Wilkinson. London: Stacey International, 2009.and Hoyland, Robert G. Arabia and the Arabs: From the Bronze Age to the Coming of Islam. Routledge, 2001 for more on the history and culture of the ancient kingdoms of South Arabia.

[12] The camel as a symbol of jealousy is explored further in Trienens, Roger J. “The Symbolic Cloud in Shakespeare.” Shakespeare Quarterly 5:2, Spring 1954.

[13] “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand” (Macbeth V, 1, 50).

[14] “Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees”: Othello’s Tears and the Weeping Trees of Acacia and Myrrh. A Corrective Gloss to Most Modern Editions of Shakespeare.” The trees in question are usually glossed as myrrh, but an anonymous blogger and PhD candidate has made a compelling argument that they should in fact be understood as acacia.

[15] For more on Shakespeare’s references to the Orient, from Arabia to Egypt to India, see Jafri, Syed Naqi Husain. “Image of the Orient in Shakespeare” in Essays on Literature, History, and Society. Primus Books, 2010, 163-178.

[16] For a detailed chronology of performances of Shakespeare in Yemen, see Hennessey, Katherine. “Shylock in the Hadramawt? Adaptations of Shakespeare on the Yemeni Stage.” Arablit 3:5 (2013), 5-24.

[17] al-Attar, Habib Ghuloom. The Development of Theatrical Activity in the Gulf Region. UAE: Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Community Development, 2009. Al-Attar traces the history of Gulf theater from amateur dramatic activity beginning as far back as the 1930s, but notes that it is only with the surge in oil prices after the 1973 oil crisis that one can speak of serious development of the art of drama in the Gulf (al-Attar Chapters 1-3).

[18] Prescott, lecture on “Shakespeare on the Road,” given at University of Warwick, 11 Nov 2014.

[19] UNICEF figures for 2008-2012 estimate 65.3% literacy among the Yemeni population; Index Mundi’s statistics show that women are more than twice as likely as men to lack basic reading and writing skills. C.f.  and .

[20] For detailed analysis of the history of Yemeni theater, see ‘Aulaqî; Sayf, Yahya Abdullah, ‘Alâm al-adab wa-l-fann al-masrahî fi-l-Yaman (Great Names in Dramatic Literature and The Theater Arts in Yemen). Sana’a: al-Hay’a al-‘Amma li-l-Kuttâb, 2006; Al-Asmar, Husayn. al-Masrah fi-l-Yaman: Tajribah wa tumûh (Theater in Yemen: Experience and Ambition). al-Manâr al-‘Arabî, Giza, 1991; and Sa’id, Abd al-Majid Muhammad. Nashu’ wa tatawur al-masrah fi-l-Yaman, min 1910 ila 2000 (The Establishment and Development of Yemeni Theater, 1910-2000). Sana’a: Ministry of Culture, 2010. Typically, writers outside of Yemen (c.f. for instance Starkey, P., Modern Arabic Literature. Washington DC: Georgetown UP, 2006. Ch. 9 and 10, or Allen, Roger. “Drama,” in An Introduction to Arabic Literature. Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 193-215) make no mention of the history of drama in Yemen in scholarly accounts of Arabic drama.

[21] Aden was occupied by the British in 1839. It was strategically important to the empire as a trading entrepot and later, after the opening of the Suez Canal, as a re-fueling station for ships bound for the subcontinent and Southeast Asia, and was accorded the status of a Crown Colony between 1937 and 1963. Aden and its surrounding territories gained independence from the British in the 1967 Revolution, which established the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.

[22] Kliman, Bernice W. “At Sea About Hamlet at Sea: A Detective Story.” Shakespeare Quarterly 2011.

[23] Holderness, Graham. Tales from Shakespeare: Creative Collisions. Cambridge University Press, 2014. Ch. 1.

[24] In 1956 Nabiha ‘Azim became the first Yemeni actress to take to the public stage.

[25] ‘Aulaqî, Sa‘îd. Saba‘ûn ‘Aman min al-Masrah fî-l-Yaman (Seventy Years of Theater in Yemen), Aden, Ministry of Culture and Information, 1983. ‘Aulaqi quotes Abdullah Ba Sahi, who published a review of The People and Caesar in the newspaper Fatat al-Jazira on 2 Jan 1949, and who refers to actor Mahmud Ba Khariba in the role of Antony as the productions “brightest star,” whose declamations and gestures “filled the audience with overwhelming emotions” (quoted in ‘Aulaqi, 77).

[26] Hanna, Sameh F. “Decommercializing Shakespeare: Mutran’s Translation of Othello.Critical Survey 19:3 (2007), 27-54.

[27] Ghazoul, Ferial. “The Arabization of Othello.” Comparative Literature 50:1 (1998), 1-31.

[28] The villainous Aaron in Titus Andronicus has not, to my knowledge, been proudly embraced as either African or Arab.

[29] The latter occurred in a production of ‘Amr Jamal’s Mak Nazl in Sana’a in 2009, though I understand it was (wisely) removed from other performances of the show; examples of the former were on display in Luna Yafa’i’s Barakash wa al-Kash, performed in Sana’a in May 2014.

[30] A scene from the play is available on the MIT Global Shakespeares website, at

[31] This action does, of course, have an analogue in Shakespeare’s text. Though Portia does not pull out a sword during the courtroom scene, she does threaten the Merchant’s with state-sponsored execution should he shed any of Antonio’s blood:

Therefore prepare thee to cut off the flesh.
Shed thou no blood, nor cut thou less nor more
But just a pound of flesh: if thou cut’st more
Or less than a just pound, be it but so much
As makes it light or heavy in the substance,
Or the division of the twentieth part
Of one poor scruple, nay, if the scale do turn
But in the estimation of a hair,
Thou diest and all thy goods are confiscate


Arab Stages
Volume 1, Number 1 (Fall 2014)
©2014 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

Founders: Marvin Carlson and Frank Hentschker

Editor-in-Chief: Marvin Carlson

Editorial and Advisory Board: Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Dina Amin, Khalid Amine, Hazem Azmy, Dalia Basiouny, Katherine Donovan, Masud Hamdan, Sameh Hanna, Rolf C. Hemke, Katherine Hennessey, Areeg Ibrahim, Jamil Khoury, Dominika Laster, Margaret Litvin, Rebekah Maggor, Safi Mahfouz, Robert Myers, Michael Malek Naijar, George Potter, Juan Recondo, Nada Saab, Asaad Al-Saleh, Torange Yeghiazarian, Edward Ziter.

Managing Editor: Joy Arab

Table of Content

  • Brecht’s Theatre and Social Change in Egypt (1954-71) by Magdi Youssef
  • Re-orienting Orientalism: from Shafik Gabr’s “What Orientalist Painters Can Teach Us about the Art of East –West Dialogue” to Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced by Fawzia Afzal-Khan
  • ‘Now I will believe that there are unicorns’: The Improbable History of Shakespeare in Yemen by Katherine Hennessey
  • Radhouane El Meddeb’s Experiments With Gender: In Search of New Bodies by Omar Fertat
  • Coptic Christian Theatre in Egypt: Negotiations Between The Minority and The Majority by Mohammed Musad
  • A New Perspective on Mikhail Ruman’s Smoke in A President of His own Republic? by Anwaar Abdelkhalik Abdalla
  • Kheireddine Lardjam, Traveller Between Two Shores by Marina Da Silva
  • Where Theatre has failed Syrians by Rolf C. Hemke
  • The Arab Aristophanes by Marvin Carlson


  • Solitaire by Dalia Baisouny
  • The Imam and the Homosexual by Jamil Khoury


  • Struggling Against Insurmountable Odds: Theatre in the Arab World/Theater im Arabischen Sprachraum A Book Review by Michael Malek Najjar


  • Malumat: Resources for Research, Writing/Publishing, Teaching, & Performing Arts compiled by Kate C. Wilson

Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
Frank Hentschker, Executive Director
Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications
Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

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