Turkey and Shakespeare

Gönül Bakay
16 December 2004

Translating between cultures presents many challenges. It can give rise to misreading and misrepresentation. Or it can bring creative rejuvenation and fresh confluences of intellect and energy. Orientalism is now a familiar concept, but throughout history, cultures that represent “the other” have also absorbed and selected from the west. This has been particularly true in times of modernisation. Beneath the more readily visible influence of western commercial culture, deep cultural exchange also takes place.

One window on how western influence is mediated and the “universal” made particular when borders are crossed is through Turkey’s relationship with William Shakespeare, which burgeoned during the Tanzimat reform period (1839-76).

Shakespeare’s fame is universal. To many contemporary readers, Shakespeare the man is not just a playwright but also a phenomenon, an object of myth. His work’s appeal is not confined to Anglophone audiences or those who have grown up in an English tradition. So why is it that Shakespeare is still read and performed with enthusiasm four centuries after his death? Why does he appeal to people from different lands and backgrounds?

Also by Gönül Bakay in openDemocracy, “The Turk in English Renaissance literature” (February 2003 )

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Shakespeare’s universal quality can be attributed to a range of factors, from excellent stage technique to powerful language, and his treatment of universal themes like hatred, love, jealousy, desire for power. His protagonists come from many countries (they include Italians, Trojans, Moors, Egyptians, and Norwegians) and from all levels of society (kings, fools, commoners, aristocrats). His work was well-known in countries with similar cultural backgrounds to England’s, like Italy, Germany and France, long before it reached Turkey. It was after the Tanzimat modernising reforms, which brought enthusiasm for translating and understanding works from foreign cultures, that Turkish interest in Shakespeare’s plays took off. This was the start of a keen, and sometimes surprising, creative relationship.

Translation and transformation

The first production of Shakespeare in Turkey was by Armenians in 1862; the first Turkish and Armenian translations of Shakespeare soon followed.

Translators in the middle and late 19th century faced three problems - censorship, cultural difference, and difficulty in language. When Güllü Agop established a new theatre in 1868 and started staging Shakespeare’s plays, he was criticised by local papers for daring to translate the works of such a popular playwright without having proficiency in the English language.

The first play Güllü Agop translated was Romeo and Juliet. The play’s success may partly be owed to the fact that it echoed the many similar stories in Ottoman culture. Othello was the next Shakespeare play to be translated, by Hasan Bedreddin and Mehmet Rıfat in 1876. Jean-Francois Ducis’s French translation was used, though (in Inci Enginün’s words) “it was monotonous and haphazard”. Ducis, who had devoted his life to Shakespeare adaptations, had an uncertain grasp of English.

From the Ottoman period through to the early 1920s, many Shakespeare works were censored for theme or language. Shakespeare’s negative references to Turks were omitted in translation and The Merchant of Venice was banned because it was believed that the theme would offend the empire’s (after 1923 the republic’s) Jewish population.

Differences in culture led to the omission, or adaptation, of some parts of the plays. The use of Ducis’s translations rather than the original works meant that his own changes were reproduced in the Turkish versions. Ducis was not ashamed to confess that he had altered many of the play’s tragic events in order to render them more bearable for the audience.

One such play was Othello - performed between 1857-77 in Gedikpaşa theatre in Istanbul, it introduced the Turkish audience to the Othello theme without even mentioning the lead character’s name. In this version, even the characters’ names and relationships were changed; for example, Loredane (Cassius) was transformed from a friend of Othello into his rival. In other early adaptations, the pillow Othello uses to murder Desdemona became a dagger, because the latter was perceived to be a more valiant weapon for killing people.

During the Tanzimat period, translators faced the problem of language by using very simple language, with the aim of making the works accessible to a larger public. It was inevitable that this process would result in significant diminution in the rich meaning of Shakespeare’s works.

Ali Neyzi, a famous translator into Turkish, observes: “Some writers believe and actively assert that in translating a play, one should try to recreate the sense that the author had brought out in his own language”. He adds that the respected poet Can Yücel never claimed to be translating Shakespeare but to be “saying it in Turkish”.

Neyzi emphasises the necessity of “inspiration”, and comments on the difficulties he encountered when translating Love’s Labour Lost: “My friend Adrian asked: ‘How is it going?’ I said I was relying more on my intuitions than the Redhouse dictionary and Adrian was delighted. ‘You could not have picked a better way of saying it!’”

Othello’s Turkish themes

After the end of the Ottoman era and the declaration of the Turkish republic in 1923, Shakespeare performances increased. Muhsin Ertuğrul, the director of the Turkish state theatre in the 1950s and 1960s, would always start the season with a Shakespeare play. These were usually selected from the four plays that hold particular appeal for Turks: Troilus and Cressida (perhaps of interest because the site of the Trojan war is in modern Turkey), Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth.

The attraction of Hamlet is its plot. Engin Cezzar, now a renowned actor, says that when Muhsin Ertuğrul asked him to play the role of Hamlet his “whole acting career was transformed”. He broke two world records - by playing Hamlet in 180 consequent performances (later exceeded only by Richard Burton), and by being at 23 the youngest actor (apart from Alec Guinness) to perform as Hamlet in a state theatre. The population of Istanbul was one million in the 1950s (it is now about14 million) and 100,000 watched his performance.

Othello is probably the most popular play with Turkish audiences. It has been adapted under various names – including “The Revenge of the Negro” - and most famous Turkish actors have played in it. The director and actor Haldun Dormen said that watching an excellent production of Othello was one of the main reasons for his decision to pursue an acting career. Othello treats various themes that have special resonance for Turkish audiences: the theme of the “other”, alienation, loneliness, the life of a soldier – even the problem of Cyprus.

Many Turkish emigrant workers – especially in western, nominally Christian countries - must have felt the alienation and strangeness of contact with a foreign culture, and fully comprehended what it is to feel “other”. One reason why Othello is so easily swayed by Iago’s insinuations is the fact that he is not a Venetian. He is an outsider, a stranger, a foreigner. The generations of Turkish labourers from small Anatolian villages encountering European customs and values have experienced feelings similar to Othello’s rejection and loneliness.

Turkish people, like Othello himself, are proud and soldierly. They can identify with Othello in Iago’s description:

    “The moor is of a free and open nature
    And thinks men honest but seem so.”

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Europeans saw Turks as powerful, ferocious fighters. Ottoman forces had conquered the Balkan lands and had reached the gates of Vienna. Shakespeare shared the common European view of Turks and İslam; all the thirty-five references to Turks in his plays are disparaging or have negative connotations. This is understandable; as Edward Said observes: “For Europe, Islam was a lasting trauma. Until the end of the seventeenth century the ‘Ottoman peril’ lurked alongside Europe”, endangering “the whole of Christian civilization”; “in time European civilization incorporated that peril and its lore, its great events, figures, virtues and vices, as something woven into the fabric of life”.

The early, Ottoman-period translations expunged the negative imagery. But because most Turkish people are aware that powerful Turkish armies and İslam were considered a real threat by most European countries, they are not irritated by the depiction of Turks in Shakespeare’s plays. Rather, they engage with it in open interest, whether the words are arcane or seemingly of acute contemporary relevance:

“Are we turned Turks and to our selves do that
Which heaven hath forbid the Ottomites?”

“We must not think the Turk so unskilful,
To leave that latest, which concerns him first.”

“The importance of Cyprus to the Turk;
As it more concerns the Turk than Rhodes.”

There is a more personal reason for Othello’s popularity among Turks. Turkish people identify with Othello’s jealous nature. Turkish men are jealous of their loved ones and cannot accept betrayal by women. Othello, newly married to Desdemona, could believe Iago’s insinuation of her betrayal partly because he did not know her very well. Turks can sympathise with a man whose honour has (supposedly) been besmirched.

The betrayal of fathers holds particular weight in Turkey. The patriarchal system of many of the rural districts and villages of this huge and populous country still resonates. Some fathers expect their daughters to obey their wishes on matters of marriage. So the words of Desdemona’s father -

“Look to her Moor if thou hast eyes to see:
She hast deceived her father, and may thee.”

- carry special meaning for many Turkish fathers.

Cyprus has always been an important issue for Turks. For the Ottomans, the island had strategic importance in the eastern Mediterranean. When the occupying Venetians gave support to pirates attacking Turkish fleets, the Ottomans decided to conquer the island in 1571. In his treatment of the Turco-Venetian wars in Othello, Shakespeare rewrote Turkish history. In 2002, the Cyprus premiere of the play took place - in the Othello Tower in Famagusta, reportedly its actual setting. It was a remarkable event.

Performance: translating onto the stage

Cultural difference can emerge onstage as well as on the page. At a recent Shakespeare conference, Talat Halman and Yıldız Kenter recounted a hilarious episode from a 1962 production of Macbeth in Istanbul.

A major production of the play was being staged in the open-air rotunda of a mid-15th century fortress. The site was majestic, the space for the performance quite expansive. The director understandably wanted scores, even hundreds of extras, especially for the battle-scenes.

But where were they going to find so many extras? Somebody had a bright idea: why not the nearby 66th battalion (of the Turkish army)? The producers managed to obtain the approval of the military authorities; 400 soldiers came to the fortress on the evening of the premiere. The director told the major, their commanding officer: “We’ll give your men sackcloth costumes and wooden shields and swords. They’ll be lined up, waiting to run down the slopes. When the time comes, I’ll give you a flying cue. You’ll command them to run down and confront each other at the rotunda below. They’ll engage in mock-battle. But please tell them to run vigorously and fight dynamically!”

The commanding officer relays the orders to his men. Later that evening, Macbeth starts. The Turkish soldiers take up their positions. Act V, Scotland: Macbeth’s men and Macduff’s soldiers will fight. The director sends his flying cue to the major, and the major gives his order: “All right men! Do your best, run down there and fight!” 400 eager Turkish soldiers start running down the slopes with the traditional Turkish-Islamic battle-cry: “Allah! Allah! Allah! Allah!”

The producers had other problems. Sometimes they were too poor to pay the players. Talat Halman recalls Sadi Tek’s 1946 production of Hamlet on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. Before the curtain is raised, Sadi Tek addresses the audience: “Ladies and gentlemen, my fellow-actors who play Horatio and the Ghost are unable to appear tonight due to illness” (clearly, Tek was unable to pay their salaries, and they were refusing to take the stage). The veteran actor then announces: “With your permission, besides Hamlet, I shall play Horatio and the Ghost as well.”

The curtain goes up. Act I, Scene V. All three are on the stage. Sadi Tek speaks Hamlet’s lines…runs out...wraps himself up in a sheet and runs into the stage as Ghost... Exits as Ghost, comes back as Horatio...in and out, as Hamlet, Ghost, Horatio. Tek is over 50, already slightly old for Hamlet and Horatio, and corpulent. He keeps running out of breath, panting, his tongue hanging out. Despite it all, he manages his triple feat, a “historic” first.

Talat Halman mentions that twenty-five years later, while he was serving as Turkey’s minister of culture, Sadi Tek sought an appointment with him. Halman reminded him of the incident. Tek paused, smiled, and responded: “Of course I remember. But it was even more interesting the following night. Horatio and the Ghost didn’t show up again – and the Queen and Ophelia failed to come as well…”.

A deepening relationship

Since Turkey’s first Shakespeare performances in Istanbul in the mid-19th century, Turkish audiences have watched his plays with mounting enthusiasm and interest. In the creative sphere, the influence of Hamlet and Macbeth on Turkish authors is clear. Two works by the famous patriotic poet Namık Kemal reflect them directly: Homeland and Silistre and Gülnihal. The graveyard scene in the former is borrowed from Hamlet, and the character of Gülnihal in the latter has – in her greed, desire for power and ambition – a strong resemblance to Lady Macbeth.

In 2004, six Shakespeare plays were produced in Turkey. Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University held a conference on “(Re)reading Shakespeare: Text and Performance”, with John Drakakis as the keynote speaker. Shakespeare in Turkey is finding new meanings and new audiences.

The inclusion of Shakespeare’s plays in most Turkish high-school and university curricula means that young generations are raised with an appreciation and taste for the playwright. This proves once again that supreme art knows no boundaries and is one of the most powerful tools in crossing borders and uniting nations, races, and people of different levels of society.

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