The Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad this week featured this photo :
The photo captures a moment in a demonstration in the Syrian capital Damascus, one of the many demonstrations protesting against the cartoons placed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. We see a large group of male demonstrators carrying signs in Arabic, signs that I cannot read. The male protestors are captured either with their eyes closed, or looking at each other and each others’ signs. In the foreground of the picture is a woman who looks straight into the camera of Dirk-Jan Visser, press photographer at Reuters. She carries a sign that I can read, with a quotation that is immediately familiar.
What is Shakespeare doing in Damascus? What do Marcellus’ words, spoken in the depth of night on the watchtower of Elsinore, mean in this woman’s hands? She is looking us into the eye, addressing us in English, and she speaks in the words of one of Europe’s most canonical authors. The authority – the cultural capital – of Hamlet’s canonical status is strategically entered into the demonstration, to make a point about the decadence of European culture. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is thrown back at the Western world. Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy, as a symbol of European culture, is here appropriated with a vengeance.