What’s up with Qaddafi and Shakespeare?

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What was up with Qaddafi and Shakespeare?
Defiant and delusional until the end, Muammer Qaddafi showed no incertitude about his right to hold power in Libya, no matter how many people he killed in the process. Perhaps like Richard III he felt he was ‘so far in blood that sin will pluck on sin’. Stuart Hampton-Reeves’s fascinating and presciently-titled post, ‘The Death of Tyrants’ (Oct 4, 2011), drew connections between the twisted Libyan dictator and those who lose power in Shakespeare. The piece made me think of an article I had read in the New York Times in March of this year.

During the early days of the Libyan uprising, four of its journalists had been held captive for six days by the Libyan government before being freed. The journalists, Anthony Shadid, Lynsey Addario, Stephen Farrell and Tyler Hicks, captured while covering the conflict in the eastern city of Ajdabiya, gave a harrowing and heart-rending account of their ordeal. Their article stayed in my mind, not only for what the group went through, but also for an unexpected piece of information. Finally moved to Tripoli and handed over to military intelligence, they were held in a detention centre that looked ‘more like a double wide trailer’ and which, oddly enough, also heldfive of Shakespeare’s plays and a two-volume German-Arabic dictionary on its shelves. The captives were treated relatively kindly here than by the thuggish militias who initially brutalized them. One of the journalists read Julius Caesar, another started Othello. They joked about putting on a Shakespearean production if held for longer. Luckily they were freed.

Intrigued by what the other three plays might be, I contacted the journalists. Antony Shadid and Stephen Farrell graciously responded. Shadid remembered four of the plays and Farrell all five: apart from Julius Caesar and Othello, there was Antony and Cleopatra, Richard III and King Lear. Farrell provided the additional detail that he read Richard III since he had not read it for many years and then started Antony and Cleopatra. None of the journalists read King Lear, perhaps because it is a tragedy too devastating to provide any escapism.

It is clear that nothing in Qaddafi’s Libya could be read unless it was state sanctioned, which basically meant by him. The question, however, is: why these particular plays?

Famously known for claiming Shakespeare as one of his own, an Arab migrant named Sheikh Zubeir, one can perhaps explain Antony and Cleopatra’s and Othello’s appeal to Qaddafi for their North African connections, as stories of a neighbouring Egyptian queen and a Moor. Did Qaddafi find affinities with Julius Caesar as another army type vying for an emperorship? Although he styled himself the ‘Brotherly Leader and Guide’ of his downtrodden people, the gaudy opulence of his palatial compound providedstark evidence of his kingship: ‘For a Kingdom any oath can be broken’ (3 Henry VI 1. 2.16). Did Qaddafi recognise in Richard III’s ruthlessness and dissembling the way to enforce a tyrannical rule? Easy comparisons can be drawn between Qaddafi and Lear in his end. According to his driver he was confused and delusional in Sirte, a ‘depis’d old man’ forced to flee.

In all these plays Shakespeare is concerned with ambition, the lust for power, pride, and disempowerment – all themes which embody Qaddafi’s own life and death. Why choose these plays from the canon and why have them placed in a detention centre?

The New York Times article referred to is ‘4 Times Journalists Held Captive in Libya Faced Days of Brutality’, 23 March 2011.

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Yasmin Arshad is a Ph.D. student in the Department of English at University College London, working on Cleopatra in the Early Modern period.
  • guest

    Great article! 

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