What does renowned playwright William Shakespeare have to do with Iran? Evidently, quite a lot, as several articles in recent weeks have discussed the Bard’s reception in the Islamic state as the world marks the 400th anniversary of his death.
In late 2014, Tehran University pioneered an international conference on Shakespeare. Keynote speaker Stephen Greenblatt, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and Harvard professor, described the experience of, well, reading Shakespeare in Tehran in The New York Review of Books. He wrote of the censorship and dangers faced by academics in Iran, and his doubts about the conference: “If I went to the Iranian Shakespeare Congress, it would not be with the pretense that our situations were comparable or that our underlying values were identical.” Greenblatt stressed that while “sharing an interest in Shakespeare counts for something,” it does not “magically erase all differences” with Iran, including the highly questionable research interests of his prospective hosts. He describes how his Iranian host had authored articles about the “gory diabolical adventurism” of international Zionism and how “The tentacles of Zionist imperialism are by slow gradation spread over [the world].”
Regarding the here and now of Iran, Greenblatt states clearly that “support for basic civil liberties, advocating women’s rights or the rights of gays and lesbians, an interest in free expression, and the most tempered and moderate skepticism about the tenets of religious orthodoxy are enough to trigger denunciations and arouse the ire of the authorities. Iranian exiles have detailed entirely credible horror stories of their treatment—pressure, intimidation, imprisonment, and in some cases torture—at the hands of the Islamic Republic”.
Ben Jonson summed up values manifested in Shakespeare: “Shakespeare was honest, and of an open and free nature”.
Shakespeare is very far from Iran, if you ask Greenblatt, who in Iran relinquished “the last vestiges of the dream of an honest, free, and wide-open world […] that Shakespeare continues to embody.” Interestingly, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (who clearly doesn’t see anything out of the ordinary in being a Shakespeare aficionado while issuing or upholding the fatwa against author Salman Rushdie), seems to be in agreement with Greenblatt’s view. The powerful cleric recently took to Twitter to express his admiration for the English playwright, and for “The Merchant of Venice” (yup, the one featuring Shylock) and “Othello” in particular, but added a caveat: that the plays are all “in accordance with values, but Western values.”
This view hasn’t stopped various news outlets from celebrating Shakespeare as a playwright who “brings the world closer.” One of the foremost examples these reports have cited of the dramatist’s global reach is, of course, Iran: Shakespeare is loved “as far as Tehran,” they marvel. But after all, it is not the reading of Shakespeare that is important but the values drawn from it. Remains for us to ask – where is Shakespeare and where is Iran?