Literary markers of anxiety in the works of Shakespeare and Ferdowsi

Plan Author

  • Benjamin Rejali, 2018

Fields of Concentration

Sample Courses

  • Course: Reporting the Arab Spring and Aftermath
  • Course: Selected Plays of Shakespeare
  • Tutorial: Studies in Islamic Civilization and Thought
  • Tutorial: Seminar on the Persian Literary Renaissance

Faculty Sponsors

Outside Evaluator

  • Justine Landau, Harvard University


In this Plan I focus on Shakespeare and Ferdowsi’s portrayals of disorder, commentaries on kingship, and expressions of cultural hybridity to demonstrate the uncanny resemblance between the Shahnameh and Shakespeare’s plays. In Part 1, I examine how in the tragedy of King Lear, Shakespeare affirms the hierarchical order of the chain of being, while simultaneously criticizing its false claim of permanence. In Part 2, titled “Understanding the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi as Islamic Literature,” I provide an in-depth analysis of the Islamic character of the text. In Part 3, “The Dismembered Body in Titus Andronicus,” I examine the literal dismembered bodies of the Andronici family as the disturbing representation of cultural hybridity. In Part 4, I examine the Shahnameh, with reference to a few other works of the Persian literary renaissance, as a presentation of an alternative political model to that of the deteriorating caliphate. Finally, in Part 5 I compare three episodes from the Shahnameh with scenes or figures from Troilus and CressidaKing Lear, and Titus Andronicus. This paper analyses the parallel depictions of disorder as reflections of the developmental challenges in the writers’ times.


King Lear acts as a figure that both upholds and complicates the beliefs Shakespeare’s age inherited. Shakespeare exists at a cultural crossroads in which the system of order has been challenged so sufficiently that the chain of being is no longer held to be a simply immovable reality, but instead the chain of being plays a dual role in society by remaining in some regard a fixed system but a system whose authority has diminished to the point that its existence can be legitimately questioned.

Through a careful analysis of religious expression in several episodes of the Shahnameh, paying close attention to the resemblance between Ferdowsi’s portrayal of religion and the language and principles of the Qur’an, this paper argues that the presence of Islam in the work is idiomatic. Ferdowsi employs the meaning-making capacity of Islam to express his work without feeling any impulse to explicitly reference the Qur’an or adhere to Islamic structures of history. What is gained in accounting for the vital presence of Islam in the Shahnameh, is a deeper and more complex understanding of what Ferdowsi sought to convey. If we remember Meisami’s assumption about historigraphy, that “each age rewrites the past in the image of its present,” one no longer limits the scope of analysis to simply considering the epic an expression of the past or a lamentation on Iran’s former power.187 Ahmed’s methodology allows one to analyse the Shahnameh as Ferdowsi’s vision of a unified Islamic Iran and critically investigate the work as an attempt to answer the question of how to be Muslim without becoming Arabised.

The plays of William Shakespeare and the epic poem of Abol Qasem Ferdowsi express political and cultural dynamics in strikingly similar forms. Despite the gulf in both geography and time that separates the writers, their works examine ideal governance through near-identical narrative frames which convey an acute sense of anxiety concerning the stability and legitimacy of authority. The images of society and politics depicted are characterised by the presence of an all-ordering, unifying power — embodied in the rule of a legitimate monarch — and the continual threat of that unity’s dissolution. The societies depicted are in stages of anxious transition, in which the constancy of political security and the continuity of cultural values are being questioned.

In an illustration from the Shahnameh, Rostam mourns the death of his father and his uncle.