Shakespeare in Africa

Back in 2016 I wrote about a Shakespeare exhibition and the man’s connection with Africa as I knew it then. Well, the man has come back into consciousness unexpectedly on two fronts, both inspired by consciously working through my collection of unread books – someone once mentioned that the average person never reads more than 1/3 of their collection, so I set out to prove otherwise but as the argument goes, you can’t really work out an accurate figure as there are so many variables. According to Penguin UK, the average person who reads manages 12 books a year in the US while only 34% in the UK managed 10 or more books in one year. Given that my job and hobby both involve reading and that I read for pleasure, I’m definitely one of the 34% who reads more than 10 or 12 books a year, but it’s only having done a clear out of my library (lots of teaching/text books I won’t go back to) and removing reference books such as dictionaries from my list (yes, I have a list with dates when I finished a book), that I’ve finally made it to 35% excluding those recently bought…

So where does Shakespeare fit in? Apart from working through the collection of his writings, I happen to have read concurrently (I’m a book in nearly every room kind of person) the Brian Willan biography of Sol Plaatje and Antony Sher’s The year of the King in which he records his experience of performing Richard III. It was following my earlier encounters with Sher from his Titus Andronicus performance in South Africa and in ID about Verwoerd’s assassination, that I started collecting his written work and it’s taken me until now to read one. At one point he sees Lion’s Head in Cape Town as an inspiration for how Richard III will look – in case you’re wondering he’s also a sketch artist so has some amazing illustrations to show his thinking. This is all happening in 1983/4.

However, just over 80 years earlier, Sol Plaatje had discovered Shakespeare and saw Hamlet amongst others reflecting society as he knew it being a Barolong. In May 1916, while in England to lobby the British government to stop the SA Native Land Act of 1913, he is able to celebrate the Shakespeare tercentenary on the bard’s own soil. Plaatje watches a performance of Julius Caesar* in Stratford-upon-Avon, wrote a South African Homage to Shakespeare which was published that year in a commemorative compilation and on route back to South Africa later that year he starts translating The Merchant of Venice into Setswana. He would translate 6 of Shakespeare’s plays. Since then there have been numerous (relatively speaking) other translations and adaptations by South Africans.

And it’s not just South Africa where Shakespeare features. Alamin Mazuri considered Shakespeare in Swahili back in 1996, while in 2019 there was a Shakespeare Youth Festival. Shakespeare in Africa has podcasts by various people on the topic while Nigeria seems to have explored some alternative ways of performing/interpreting the man. You can also listen to some Hamlet in Yoruba. No doubt other African countries have their links too which Google et al will help source.

What is remarkable is how this man writing so many years ago still resonates today across continents, cultures and language.

*I wonder if Kitchener got to see the performance at Drury Lane theatre in the week before he drowned. Kitchener was one of the founding members of the Drury Lane Masonic Lodge, for actors, and had “directed” a battle scene at a preview following his return to Britain after he had conquered Khartoum.

By me William Shakespeare

I had the privilege of seeing By me William Shakespeare on the preview night. Although there is no Africa mentioned in the exhibition, it is definitely worth a visit if you are in London near the Strand (King’s College London to be precise).

The basic requirement for me to write about something on this site is that it has to have a link with Africa, and there is no exception here. One of the first productions I saw at The Globe theatre was the Zulu rendition of Macbeth (Umabatha). What an experience – Old London, traditional Zulu dance with a modern audience and ticker tape telling us what was happening. Not long after, we saw Antony Sher, well known for his love of Shakespeare perform at the Globe too alhtough I can’t remember which production. We had seen him a few year’s before in South Africa at the Market Theatre doing a modernised version of Titus Andronicus. I don’t remember much about the production other than the armoured tanks and cars and his outburst at South Africans’ non-appreciation of the bard. I must admit, I really came to appreciate his acting when I saw ID, – a one-man production about the assassination of Hendrik Verwoerd, but that is taking us away from Shakespeare.

Shakespeare (1564-1616) was alive at the time the white man was discovering Southern Africa and deciding whether or not to settle there. The decision to set up victualling stations was finally made after his death with the Dutch under Jan van Riebeeck (video) forming a settlement at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. The man has continued to be linked with South Africa appearing in correspondence such as that of Jan Smuts to NJ de Wet on 28 February 1901 when he quoted Hamlet v.ii.10 ‘There’s a divinity which shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will.’ This was in response to news of his wife being in a British concentration camp.

400 years on, Shakespeare is remembered fondly while there are mixed views over South Africa’s past… what they have in common is that the full story is not known and never will be. However, we have reminders of things past which we interpret based on our various life experiences – By me William Shakespeeare provides an opportunity for such reflection – seeing Shakespeare’s last Will and Testament, account books and various other bits of his life (note none of his plays on exhibition) gives a tiny insight to a different world – the forerunner of ours. How different to the life of those setting out to explore and inhabit new worlds 400 years ago. Today, the politics of Shakespeare’s plays, as demonstrated by Sher and others, continues to resonate in communities across the globe, in all languages: People are people

#BymeShakespeare @UKNatArchives #Africa