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Katherine Hennessey, Shakespeare on the Arabian Peninsula

London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, 340 p.
Laurent Bonnefoy
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Shakespeare on the Arabian Peninsula / Katherine Hennessey.- London: Palgrave Macmillan (Global Shakespeares series), 2018.- 340 p.

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1For a political scientist, venturing into the seven chapters of Shakespeare on the Arabian Peninsula may at first be seen as quite an endeavor. To be honest, I had never even imagined the existence of a Global Shakespeare series such as that published by Palgrave Macmillan, nor even (ignorant me!) thought that studies on the “Bard” could in any way be a relevant vantage point from which to observe contemporary societies across the world. However, with Katherine Hennessey as guide, the tour is well worth the ride and one takes great pleasure in discovering this new academic landscape which bears much scientific added-value.

2Katherine Hennessey’s publication focuses on the various incarnations of Shakespeare’s poetry and theatre in the seven countries of the Arabian Peninsula from the early 1900s to the modern day. She highlights the multiple reinterpretations of the texts and characters, showing both the modernity of its meanings as well as the intrinsically universal dimensions of the stories written by the “Bard of Avon”. These often have a fascinating political sense in contemporary Arabia and therefore fulfill new functions with reflections on racism, marriage, power and violence at the core of the texts. William Shakespeare’s plays, constantly reinterpreted, have thus become a channel through which intellectuals and students deal with certain sensitive issues, such as gender segregation, without generating too much suspicion and criticism from public and religious authorities: “The cultural cachet accorded to Shakespeare serves, at times, as a buffer against censorship.” (p. 153) However, controversies surrounding these representations have also been persistent, linked to the text itself as much as to non-verbal elements of performance.

3Katherine Hennessey’s writing is as lively as can be. Using the tools of sociology, political science, history and comparative literature, combining her knowledge of Arabic with her precise understanding of the original texts of Shakespeare, her book is a pleasant read. It is also free of jargon and thus accessible. The detailed accounts of the theatrical representations, the multiple stakes described (in particular in the context of the 2011 Yemeni uprising) are fascinatingly well rendered while the author herself, present throughout the book, has found the right distance between her object and her analysis. The successive chapters transform Hennessey’s apparently arduous object into a most relevant entry into the social, political and cultural transformations of the contemporary Arabian Peninsula.

4Such an entry has the advantage of going well beyond the usual stereotypes regarding these societies – violence and poverty when it comes to Yemen, conservatism and money in the six monarchies. It gives much-needed flesh and life to profound dynamics that remain out of the dominant scope of the media and many experts, on cosmopolitanism, class, censorship and cross-cultural interactions.

5Among the numerous interesting aspects of Katherine Hennessey’s book is her account of the cosmopolitan dimensions of societies in the Arabian Peninsula. Rather than only focusing on the local renditions of Shakespeare in Arabic – ones which would be depicted as “pure” or “endogenous”, she also takes into consideration creations by “expatriate” troupes or artists whether Indian, Canadian or British who make up, often on par with “nationals”, the social and cultural dynamics of Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait and others. This is a welcome contribution since these segments and their cultural lives have long been ignored by social scientists, often tacitly in quest of authenticity, and which implicitly acknowledge the solidity of segregated societies in the Gulf. A new trend of research focusing on Westerners in these countries is developing a critical approach, highlighting the prevalence of mechanisms of economic and racial domination. While this problematic, entrenched in postcolonial studies, is obviously relevant it may also at times risk occulting the complexities of the individual experiences of Westerners in the Arabian Peninsula. These cannot systematically be reduced to cupidity and the construction of white ghettos. In this context, Katherine Hennessey’s analysis of foreign community and amateur theatre companies (such as the Doha Players established in 1954) and performances in foreign schools and universities brings nuance to our understanding of cultural pluralism (however biased and constrained) in the Arabian Peninsula. She consequently parts from a number of subjective pre-qualifications about what or who is authentic or reputable. As Katherine Hennessey argues, “performances from troupes whose members hail from various ethnic, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds may reflect better the contemporary cosmopolitan demographics of Gulf societies than do all-citizen groups” (p. 15). She also accounts for teaching experiences in the English departments of national universities and the role of long-standing foreign professors who imposed Shakespeare in the classrooms, sparking fascinating debate. These all shed a nuanced light on the encounters favored through literature and theatre as much as through the recent development of academic institutions in which “students and professors alike can engage in the necessary work of socio-cultural excavation, investigation and critical reflection” (p. 87) despite evident censorship and political constraints.

6In the same trend, the book focuses on a number of transnational connections through which Shakespeare has traveled. Flows from India to Yemen in the early 20th century, then from the 1970s onwards between Egypt and the Gulf, and later tours by professional troupes coming from the West and India, renew our understanding of the way the cultural fields have structured themselves across the Peninsula, both because of the involvement of the states or due to capitalism and interpersonal interactions.

7Despite the author’s evident goodwill and efforts, one remains puzzled by the near absence of Saudi Arabia in the book. The Gulf’s “elephant in the room” remains patently understudied by social scientists. Recent developments and, allegedly, a new openness regarding certain forms of leisure may well change things in the future. However, when it comes to culture, in its local Arab form or its cosmopolitan incarnations, Saudi society continues to be a kind of black box. While Katherine Hennessey accounts for one theatrical rendition of Shakespeare in 1991 in Dammam, analyses at length a reinterpretation of Hamlet first presented during the 2014 Riyadh book fair and looks into a 2016 Saudi romantic comedy entitled Baraka Yuqabil Baraka, it is likely there is more to be uncovered than what the chapters tell us, be it through the internet, in classrooms or in the private space of houses. Reception of the performances are only hinted at and, while fieldwork is made visible elsewhere in the Peninsula, Saudi Arabia has only been approached by Katherine Hennessey through secondary sources and YouTube videos. Such a statement is not a criticism, rather an invitation to pursue the research and intuitions found in Shakespeare on the Arabian Peninsula. While political matters in Saudi Arabia have been the focus of significant publications over the past fifteen years, it is likely that popular and cosmopolitan cultures now constitute an avenue for research, one that is compatible with the increasingly tight constraints imposed by state authorities on researchers working in the Arabian Peninsula as a whole.

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Laurent Bonnefoy, « Katherine Hennessey, Shakespeare on the Arabian Peninsula », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 11 | 2019, mis en ligne le 21 novembre 2019, consulté le 24 janvier 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Laurent Bonnefoy

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