Cairo: The works of William Shakespeare have long fascinated readers for their insight into human behavioral patterns and historical perspectives, but one scholar now says that even Islam had a historical presence in the English bard’s writing.
Dr Jerry Brotton, Senior Lecturer in Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary, University of London says Shakespeare s works can be used as a medium to examine the relationship between the East and the West, specifically the West and Islam.
Brotton was addressing a number of his peers and literature professors from four different countries who gathered last week at British Council branches in Cairo, Karachi, Tunis and London to share their views and engage in a video conference debate about global perspectives on Shakespeare.
This video conference was part of beyond the screen program, a series of literature seminars conducted and supervised by Prof Dr Robert Eaglestone, a senior lecturer in the Department of English at Royal Holloway, University of London.
The Daily Star Egypt was exclusively given the chance to join the Cairo panel.
Within academic circles scholars are beginning to recognize the historical presence of Islam within Shakespeare s plays, Brotton said.
Now that the East has come into greater visibility within Shakespeare studies, we need to adopt a more global understanding of Shakespeare within his time.
Brotton suggested that Shakespeare was self-consciously situated within an early modern global world that permeated and shaped the dramatic action of some of his plays.
Recent rhetoric regarding the so-called clash of civilizations and the war on terror has led to a renewed interest in the social, economic and historical roots of globalization and its connections with religion, race and nationalism.
On the other hand, our understanding of Shakespeare appears to have retreated into an ever-more narrow parochialism.
In recent years, Renaissance scholars have argued convincingly that Western Europe’s engagement with the East was far more extensive and in some cases amicable than has usually been believed.
In his presentation, Brotton argued that Elizabethan England’s relations with Islamic states had a complex and ambivalent effect upon Shakespeare’s plays.
According to Brotton, any discussion of global perspectives on Shakespeare and in particular his portrayal of Islam and Moors (the old Greek word for black) inevitably returns to Othello.
It has been now comprehensively established that the play is in some way influenced by the high point of Anglo-Moroccan relations in the late 16th century.
English foreign policy in this period shows a marked inclination to foster good relations with both the Barbary states of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, as well as the Ottomans, for both trade and power-political reasons, Brotton added.
But Dr Mostafa Riad, professor of English literature at Ain Shams University argued that any discourse of the cultural exchange in the Elizabethan period would be incomplete without a fuller understanding of the political clashes between opposite ends of the world.
If Othello is a Moor, then he needn t be black. So why present him as a black character?
The Egyptian scholar suggested that it was more of politics and the political clash between the East and the West at that time, regardless of the cooperation and the cultural exchange.
According to Dr Ahmed Salah, associate professor of English stylistics at Zagazig University, Shakespeare’s works hid a bias beneath the genius of his craftsmanship.
That s why when many people read his works, they get attracted by the fancy writing, but they don t usually get the hidden message, he told the panel.
Shakespeare attacked whatever that was not white or European, he told The Daily Star Egypt.
However, Salah believes that England is now trying to find some way to restore its status in Arab culture.
Brotton tried to convince us that Shakespeare was tolerant, especially that the British know we love Shakespearean works and can never imagine English literature without his fingerprints, Salah explained.
The presentation of the other was further expanded on during the discussion. An example of the other is Shylock, the Jewish miserly character in The Merchant of Venice.
In addition to the themes of cultural exchange interwoven in Shakespeare’s works, the panelists examined the idea of imperialism, with specific analysis of Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra.
Amal Mazhar, professor of English drama at Cairo University, says these plays promoted imperialism in the East.