Moroccan Shakespeare: From Moors to Moroccans

Khalid Amine, Professor of Comparative Literature and Performance Studies, Abdelmalek Essaadi University, Tetuan, Morocco

Shakespeare was represented to the nineteenth century Arabs with a strong aura of authority. The early reception of Shakespeare, thus, had been conditioned by the general shock of encounter with the Western Other since the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt -- where the first Shakespearean plays were performed to an Arab audience for the first time. The making of the Shakespeare myth in the Arab World as 'the canon of canons' was induced through the implantation of a whole apparatus of translation and theatrical reproduction of Shakespeare's plays. The supremacy of the whole Western theatrical institution was obliquely underwritten in the first canonical representations of Shakespeare and Molière among other backbones of the Western theater repertoire.

If Shakespeare was represented as the writer of all times and all the people regardless their cultural, linguistic, and geographical differences, parallel to this universalizing dogma the Western theatrical apparatus lurked in the Arab World and legitimized by the liberal humanist discourse of logocentrism as a universal artistic expression. The colonial enterprise used such manicheism language of high art vs. low mass culture, literature vs. oral culture, theater vs. pre-theater in order to eclipse the deeply rooted oriental theatrical difference and substitutes it with the great narrative of the European master. However, the postcolonial turn (like the postmodern turn in the West itself) has jeopardized all previous Eurocentric assumptions of supremacy, authority, canonicity and theatrical presence, only to create aporias and voice out marginalised performance narratives in the name of postcolonial confirmation of difference. "What would happen to logocentrism, to the great philosophical systems, to the order of the world in general if the rock upon which they founded this church should crumble?" (67). Cixous' and Clement's fundamental question is, indeed, put in other terms: What would happen to logocentrism in theater, to the great theatrical tradition of Europe, to the old Western theater in general if the rock upon which they founded this church should crumble?

Moroccan Shakespeare

Moroccan dramatists' representations of Shakespeare have enabled them, not only to reformulate literary and theatrical history, but also, to establish a cultural rehabilitation and re-location of Shakespeare through an intricate contextualizing practice mostly manifested in the techniques of collage, borrowings, quotations, allusions, character delineation, dramatic structure and so on. Such practice radically alters the meaning(s) traditionally ascribed to the Shakespearean texts by English readers whose concern with the 'textual integrity' of the plays has ostensibly informed their interpretations. Admittedly, by reproducing Shakespeare, Moroccan dramatists highlight the possibility that different versions of the Shakespearean stories -- particularly those wherein there is some kind of representation of the Moor -- might be told, both by them and alongside their theatrical practices and narratives. Granting the central importance of the space that Shakespeare occupied in the 'great' narrative of the British empire in so far as his oeuvre was deployed as a cultural icon in the empire building process, his ostensibly ambivalent representation of the Moroccan subject (as an orientalized figment of the Moor) in three of his plays provides a key to the understanding of British interest in Morocco along with the Moroccan presence in the English consciousness, though yet, as a fantastic Other, an adventurous space, and ultimately, an alien body that needs be conquered.

Moroccan dramatists' negotiations of Shakespeare, then, range from the early oblivious celebrations of Moroccan presence in the English Consciousness to post-colonial strategies of writing-back-in and subaltern historical revisions. The disjunction between what is constructed by the Shakespearean text and what might be constructed outside of it provides the axis whereon the practice of re-writing Shakespeare rests. In fact, this practice is in itself a complex process. Its complexity lies on the fact that it does not negotiate the presence of Shakespeare, for example, as a whole dramatic text through adaptation, but rather through collage of sliced-up lines, rearranged sequences, blended characters, trans-textual fragments... Such practice makes it possible to use Shakespeare as one of the functional agents of meta-theatrical inundation and overflowing of theatrical semiosis. The result is a proliferation of the practice of 'refashioning' the Shakespeare myth, for "cultural representation", as David Richards observes, "constantly ' refashions' its own materials and signification to the point that proliferating modifications often overwhelm the original or subvert its dominant discourse" (Richards 291). The practice of refashioning as a representational act that has representation both as its medium and subject matter proliferate over what is represented -- the Shakespearean text as an empirical presence. Consequently, representation becomes representing, in so far as it foregrounds a new space that is irreducibly different from the previous space -- the space represented. Moroccan Shakespearean negotiations, then, are part of the struggle to make space and refashioning the self through the 'detour' of the Other. In this vein, Shakespeare becomes a paradigmatic icon of the 'Western Other' or the Other's dramatic medium. And his representation on the Moroccan stage amounts to a dialogue with the West and the Western dramatic tradition (along with its claim to presence), as well as a portrait of the self. These negotiations are also parts of a belated resistance to western 'masks of difference'.

Postcolonial Moroccan theater has, indeed, provided a significant number of simultaneous spaces with the general tendency to de-stabilize logocentric oppositions between high art and low mass culture. Such de-stabilization foregrounds competing forms of discourse as they try to 'cut' a place for themselves, resulting in the need for a given hybrid genre, medium, or institution to promote itself as a privileged mode of representation. The representation of Shakespeare by Moroccan dramatists, as I hope to demonstrate in the last two chapters, is part of a general practice that can be labeled "postcolonial denials". From the position of subalternity, Moroccan dramatists reproduced a Shakespeare that is the product of a post-colonial subject who strives for a cultural identity within the global village. The Shakespeare that is produced by postcolonial Moroccan dramatists is represented according to a local historiographical perspective. Granting the central importance of these postcolonial representational acts, a critique of various re-fashioning of Shakespeare by Moroccan playwrights would illuminate the Shakespearean presence in postcolonial Morocco and particularly, how the Moroccans represent themselves while representing Shakespeare (as an exemplary instance of the Western Other).

Abdelkrim Berrchid's negotiation of Shakespeare is spelled out within the parameters of al-masrah al-ihtifa'liy (Festive Theater) which is manifestly a way of coming to terms with the postcolonial situation in Moroccan theater. This essay focuses on the two plays that are published: Otayl wal-Xayl wal-ba'ru'd and Imuu al-qays fi'ba'ri'z. It is an unfortunate fact that the Trilogy of Jahju'h is not published, for this reason I could not have access to the texts. My search for these scripts will continue though. Thus, Berrchid's representation of Shakespeare is informed by an a priori theoretical and discursive agenda. It is according to the laws of this festive agenda that Shakespeare has been re-written, re-fashioned, and represented to a completely distanced and different audience, that is the Moroccan and Arab audience of the late twentieth century. There is a dominant feature that characterizes Berrchid's negotiation of Shakespeare, that is a subversive dismantling of the Shakespeare myth. In his 'Otayl wal-Xayl wal-ba'ru'd, Berrchid displays his subversive tendency through a genuine rehabilitation of Otayl's humanity that was robbed from him by Iago. The same subversive tendency is manifested in Imruù al-qays fi' Ba'ri'z whereby Berrchid resists Hamlet's dilemma and procrastination in a way that projects the present state of being in the Arab World. Shakespeare also figures in other dramas written by Abdelkrim Berrchid such as an-nŕmru'd fi' Hollywood where the figure of Shylock is refashioned. Also, in the Trilogy of Jahju'h, Berrchid draws on Shakespeare's fools (particularly the Fool of King Lear) in his representation of Juha.

Otayl wal-Xayl wal-ba'ru'd and the transgressive Esthetics of Resistance

Otayl wal-Xayl wal-ba'ru'd (Otayl, Horses and Gunpowder) manifests a disturbing gulf between what is represented and what is representing. The offshoot of such a disturbing gulf is a penetrating meta-dramatic representation through a genuine deployment of theater in itself.

These literary allusions establish self-conscious vehicles of the drama's awareness of the heterogeneity of mimesis itself as it sets the mirror towards its own medium. Otayl wal-Xayl wal-ba'ru'd brings together Shakespeare's Othello and Iago, on the one hand, and Shahrayar and Haroun Arrachid, on the other hand. All these characters are loaded with some kind of mythical grandeur and historical presence, at least in the imagination of people. However, Berrchid's festive methodology demythologized these characters' mythos. At the end of the play, they emerge as new human beings (festive characters) who are free and emancipated from previous confines. The play, then, seeks to deconstruct the mythical proportions attributed to Shakespeare's Moor as well as the victimizer of the Arabian Nights. This very fact shows that Berrchid resists not only the Shakespeare myth, but also that of Shahrayar though it is a local product. In this context, Berrchid seems to offer a double demystification: The first demystification concerns Shakespearean representation of the Moor, and the second one regards local historical/imaginary figures. This double demystification is also an attempt at re-locating the demystified dramatis persona in a new and different con/text; this new con/text is manifestly the postcolonial hybrid space that is so often refereed to by Berrchid as the Festive space. All characters are transplanted into a Moroccan context. By the end of the play, their 'Moroccaness' becomes so apparent as a dominant feature. Shakespeare, then, is brought to the fore only to be backgrounded rather than mythologized.

Imruù al-qays fi ba'ri'z is Berrchid's second play that is strongly related to the Shakespearean canon. Unlike Otayl wal-Xayl wal-ba'ru'd which is an immediate response to Othello and a way of coming to terms with Shakespeare's representation of the Moorish Other. Imruù al-qays fi' Ba'ri'z is a projection of the present state of being in the Arab world with a particular reference to Hamlet's situation. Berrchid describes the link between Hamlet and Imruù al-qays in the following terms:

I was always fascinated by Imruù al-qays not only as a poet but also as a dramatic personae who has strong affinities with the character of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark. Both of them are princes; they both lost their fathers and kingdoms. Each of them strived to avenge his father and restore his proper kingdom. Hamlet's knowledge of his father's death-that he performs on stage-constitutes a moment of transition between two periods and two characters; and so is the case of Imruù al- Qays. Since there is that borderline between today and tomorrow, wine and the matter... (Imruù al-qays, 16).

Obviously, what attracts Berrchid to Shakespeare's Hamlet is the tragic predicament of bewilderment, hesitation and procrastination besides the loss of the father and the kingdom. The play draws attention to the similarities between the well known Arab poet and prince, Imruù al-qays and the mythical Shakespearean character, Hamlet.

Imruù al-qays in the present festivity is transposed to a different time and space in order to witness the predicament of the postcolonial Arab subject:

Do not search for Imruù al-qays beyond the relation between East and West, past and present, the possible and the impossible. The new Imruù al-quays cannot be but the spirit of this new age, that is the age of homesickness, murders, and military coup d'état, and the migration of intellectuals and laborers in search for bread and dignity. (Imruù al-qays 15-16)

Hamlet's tragedy of delay and procrastination is reappropriated by Berrchid so as to become a collective tragedy rather than an individual tragedy. Imruù al-qays fi' Ba'ri'z, then is a tragedy of a whole nation that is lost between self and other. It is informed by the new relationship between East and West within the space of the postcolonial turn. The play, then, is the tragedy of the whole nation (um-ma) that is lost between the Arabo-Islamic orthodoxy and dogmas and the newly appropriated Western 'liberating' styles.

Lahlou's Ophelia is not Dead is another Moroccan drama that is an offshoot from the Shakespearean canon. From the title page, there is a clear reference to one of the very famous and lovable characters of Shakespeare, that is Ophelia. The play was written in 1968, a significant date that marked artistic and intellectual life in Paris where Nabil Lahlou lived for a long period of time as a student, writer and cinema director. The play was written originally in French. It has been performed since 1969 by Nabil Lahlou's theatrical company, university theater companies, and during the 1998-99 theatrical year. The play is (re)performed by Nabil Lahlou's troupe that is supported financially by the Ministry of Culture. The history of the play's production, then, indicates its continuous appeal to different Moroccan audiences during three decades: The play can be considered as a rereading of Shakespeare from the position of postcoloniality. It is also a strong statement about the lack of artistic freedom in the newly dependent states of the postcolonial Arab world with a particular focus on Morocco.

Hamlet and Macbeth as Voluntary Paralyzed Actors

Nabil Lahlou brings together two Shakespearean plays Hamlet and Macbeth. Through a genuine combination of the two tragic characters who become voluntary paralyzed actors. The two actors/characters are thrown into being in a factical situation that is much closer to the absurd predicament of Samuel Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. Lahlou's stage directions at the beginning of the play set forth this existential facticity.

Hamlet and Macbeth, then, are transformed into actors, who are voluntarily paralyzed. They are acting micro-dramas mostly related to Shakespeare's Mousetrap-play within a play. And this very fact reveals their intense self-reflexive awareness of previous theatrical behavior. The acting is confined by the use of crutches or wheelchairs, a fact that illustrates the actor's paralysis, frustration and contingency. Moreover, the action of the whole play is located in a finite and closed environment: A room, hospital, a prison cell, or a theatre stage. As the play progresses, the reader becomes aware of the link between these various locations. Confinement, imprisonment and impasse become defining features of the location desired by Nabil Lahlou to enact his drama. Thus, the play's stage directions invoke the factical world that surrounds the two actors/characters. It is a world out of joints that provokes an absurd reaction similar to the Beckett's crippled tramps.

The crisis of belonging: What nation? What flag?

Macbeth: If I had legs, I would...I would become the captain of the national team. My players would wear blue, red and white stripes, and we would...

Hamlet: But that's the French flag! (OIND, Act 1, 8)

The two actors/characters soon engage in a discussion of the notion of nation. Macbeth, then, voiced out with bitterness their crisis of belonging that is typical to the postcolonial Arab subject who is lost between two worlds, nations, languages, and two cultures. The appropriation of the French colors and flag by his National Football Team is a clear indication of self-annihilation and negation of difference. It is a clear statement about the crisis of belonging and identity, as it is an ironic projection of the crisis of belonging and identity, as it is an ironic projection of the state of reification that characterizes the discourse of identity in the postcolonial Arab world.

Macbeth: The French flag?...French flag? You don't see anything but the French flag? Eh? Have you got any idea what the color of your own flag is? Is it possible that we've gone so downhill since the fall of Granada, since the arrival of the colonists? French flag? There, where our ancestors used to live as conquerors, as civilized people, as masters, and look at us returning as street sweepers, cleaners, thieves, traffickers and prostitutes, and we are beaten up. French flag! And while the slaughters go on what do you do? You paint! You paint! And you paint? Saints? Signs and colors? Color! Do you know what color means? And that

you haven't found your color still... [OIND, Act 1, 8]

Macbeth's words about the French flag amount to a statement about the conflictual economy of the French protectorate in Morocco and the colonial enterprise in the Arab world in general. The Moroccan flag is eclipsed by the colonial machine. Macbeth admits the regression of the Arabs since the fall of Granada (1492) and the arrival of the colonizer, a regression that has been caused by the unceasing aggression against the Arab body from without and within. The humiliating return of the defeated postcolonial Arab into Europe is ironically projected through second hand activities such as 'street sweepers', 'cleaners', 'thieves' and 'prostitutes'. Here, the relation between North and South is dramatically exposed as a relation of power and authority. The southern part of Europe, wherein Morocco is located among other Arab and African countries, becomes an empty space that reflects the presence structure of the European sense of authority and unity. The Arabs' return to the Northern center is significantly characterized by humiliating activities such as sweeping the floors of European homes and the streets. This very return to Europe relocates the postcolonial Arab subject in the space designated for the immigrant Other, that is the periphery/margin. He is seen as a second hand citizen rather than a diasporic migrant subject who is able to confirm his cultural difference.

The postcolonial Arab immigrant is depicted in the play as an interpolated subject who has been indoctrinated by his European master to the point of following him to his European home. Seen from Khatibi's perspective, there is no confirmation of difference, for this postcolonial immigrant subject repudiates identity at the very moment of formulating it. Lahlou's depiction of the phenomenon of the postcolonial denial also confirms Homi Bhabha's formulation that the postcolonial "expresses identity by repudiating identity, represents by renouncing representation, makes art by disclaiming art" (Richards 241). The appropriation of the French Flag is clearly made at the expense of the National Flag.

Re-writing the Mousetrap Play-Within-Play

The oscillation between Hamlet the actor and Hamlet the character is so subtle. Through the help of Macbeth who is playing the doctor, now Hamlet recollects fragments from the moment of his traumatic experience, that is the on-stage performance of the mousetrap play within a play that was performed inside the palace. Apparently time, for Hamlet, stopped at that very moment when he was submerged within the character of the Shakespearean character. He admits that "Hamlet was only a pretext. Besides, the General was identified as the lover, and when Harsh started talking about the 'lip tavern' and the arrival and the false henchmen, there was a black out, and the next morning I found myself paralyzed." (OIND Act II, 24). Obviously, Hamlet's confession amounts to a critical reading of the Mousetrap scene of the original Shakespearean play. It reflects Hamlet's desire to catch 'the conscience of the king' who would manifest his guilt as soon as he sees his crime re-enacted before him. The statement also mirrors the cruel homicide committed by Claudius. Here dramatic art is transformed into what ames L. Calderwood terms "a pragmatic instrument, a weapon in the real world" (67). The heterogeneity in the relationship between what is representing and what is represented is underlined by both Shakespeare's Hamlet and Lahlou's. "The image of the murder done in Vienna (Hamlet, III, ii, 233) and its representation by the two Hamlets in the form of a performance colliding together to produce spectacles of power and authority. However, in Ophelia is Not Dead, the mirroring of representation within the play has the tendency to draw the mirror of mimesis towards the abyss of representation. It is precisely at this moment that Lahlou transgresses from the original Shakespearean play, to space a different version of the story.

Nabil Lahlou's Ophelia is Not Dead provokes a sharp vision of the postcolonial condition. Through its negotiation of Shakespearean textual practice, the play spaces a new writing that reflects the hybrid condition of Moroccan postcoloniality. A number of transgressions of the original Shakespearean textual practice are manifested by Nabil Lahlou:


The hybrid nature of Moroccan theater today is manifested in various refashioning of Shakespeare's drama. As I have demonstrated in the last two chapters, Moroccan dramatists' re-readings of Shakespeare have produced a Shakespeare who is their contemporary, a Moroccan Shakespeare. This latter is not represented as an inviolable presence rather, he is demythologized, revised, and re-located within the emerging space of Moroccan postcolonial condition. Berrchid uses Shakespeare's Othello only to illuminate a different narrative, that of the postcolonial Moroccan subject. As for his Imruù Al-Qays, it subverts Shakespeare's Hamlet at the very moment of repeating it, in a festive way. Meanwhile, Lahlou's and Zerouali's Hamlet is liberated from the state of procrastination and delay of action that confine Shakespeare's Prince of Denmark. And Saddiki's genealogical yet hybrid representation of Shakespeare among other seminal men of theater manifests a reconciling spirit that brings together opposites in order to legitimize his present theatrical practice of L-bsa't. In brief, all these negotiations of Shakespeare within the space of Moroccan theater today are not simply supplements that reproduce the Shakespeare myth through a simple palimpsest, rather, they transform the conditions of the original texts, only to emerge as new and different kinds of narrative forms. Shakespeare, then, becomes a cross-roads and a continuum of intersections, encounters, and negotiations; the outcome is a complex palimpsest that underlines the powers of impurity rather than a logocentric quest for the pure.


Berrchid, Abdelkrim. imruu ?al-qays f'ba'ri'z (Imruu Al-Qais in Paris), Rabat, Editions Stouki, 1982. All references are from my English translation (In Print).

Berrchid, Abdelkrim. [OTayl wal-Xayl wal-ba'ru'd] (Otheil, Horses and Gunpowder) , Casablanca: at-taqafa Al-Jadida, 1975. The play was first performed in 1975-6 by an amateur theatrical company (at-ta'si's al-masrahiya'] of Casablanca and directed by Ibrahim Ouarda.

Calderwood, James L. To be or not to be: Negation and Metadrama in Hamlet. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

Cixous, Hèlène and Catherine Clement, The Newly Born Woman, Manchester: Manchester University Press: 1987.

Postcolonial OV Morocco Literature Casablanca Conference

Last modified: 23 May 2001.