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Shai Baitel

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Power and Downfall -- Between Shakespeare and Arab Tyrants

Posted: 07/13/11 02:23 PM ET

On June 28, the United Nations-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, tasked "to prosecute persons responsible for the attack of 14 February 2005 resulting in the death of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and in the death or injury of other persons," indicted four senior members of Hezbollah, the Shiite terrorist group that has massively increased its power, not least thanks to Iran and Syria. For Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah this is just another occasion to rage against the West and, of course, Israel. His aim is the 'resistance' against Israel and the reshaping of Lebanon.

The brutality and determination in achieving the goal of gaining or retaining control is familiar element in dictatorial regimes worldwide. But it is in the Middle East where this struggle particularly captures our attention and fascination today. It is in the Arab world where we find some of the most oppressive and ghastly regimes that do not hesitate to rule with an iron fist. Think Iran, Syria, Libya. And, in Lebanon, Islamist fundamentalists steadily and in a determined fashion take down a secular regime. The popular struggles in the Arab world so far succeeded only where the regimes were the least ruthless.

Comparisons are not always accurate. But it can be at least interesting and maybe even instructive to ponder similarities, differences, and meanings. When a celebrated film and stage director of the caliber of Sam Mendes directs William Shakespeare's Richard III at London's Old Vic he can be relied upon to create a mesmerizing and relevant interpretation. Kevin Spacey as the villainous king is at the top of his game. Mendes already directed this play, which portrays the brutal ascend of Richard III to the throne and his demise, 20 years ago, is more relevant today than ever.

It is this trifecta of Shakespeare for writing this cautionary tale that is such a perennial classic, Mendes for proving once again that he is master of his craft, and Spacey for his phenomenal acting of a particularly cruel and monstrous ruler that makes this Richard III such a triumph of English theater.

But can Shakespeare's Richard III, in Mendes's thoughtful interpretation and irresistibly brought to life by Spacey, compare to the ilk of the rulers of Iran, to Bashar al-Assad, to Hassan Nasrallah, to Muammar Gaddafi?

Richard III cunningly built his power base, brutally secured loyalty of an elite group and punished anyone who was a threat or even a potential threat. Surrounded by a group of confidants, Richard III utilized them systematically to remove every obstacle in his way to become a king. But in the end, when he faced a battle of his own, he did not prove invincible, almost becoming a paper tiger. Mendes's choice of having the monarchists wear crowns made of paper reflects this fragility.

But unlike Richard III our Middle Eastern despots have a larger arsenal at their hands: they are a 21st century variety of ruthless sovereigns, with propaganda, mass media, surveillance and intelligence agencies, sophisticated weapons and technology, as tools to keep their people in check and secure their rule. Richard III was left with shamelessly sowing terror. He did not hesitate to kill, including members of his own family, to reach his goal. Whoever had the temerity to disagree with Richard III's opinion or argued with him went to prison -- at best -- or had to die. And he had the absolute power of the armed forces, which he used against his enemies. In that respect there are parallels indeed between Richard III and the modern-day Arab tyrannical leaders.

The comparison is weaker when looking at the setting: Whereas Shakespeare's Richard III is a singular sociopath with limited if sufficient resources to secure his reign, the Arab/Muslim despots reflect a cultural deformity where modern technology can be used as much to defend their rule and they are supposedly instruments to bring about their downfall.

We know which fate met Richard III. There is hope that by the time the Old Vic Shakespeare's Machiavellian masterpiece, with Kevin Spacey in the lead role, comes to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in February 2012 we will know which fate met one or the other of those Middle Eastern ghastly bastards.