The Poetry of Subversion: On ‘Shakespeare in Swahililand’

August 25, 2017 | 1 7 min read


On September 5, 1607, the British trade ship Dragon found itself off the coast of Sierra Leone, and Capt. William Keeling and his Portuguese interpreter were entertained by the sailors staging what is supposedly the earliest recorded production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We are informed that the play was presented to keep the crew from “idleness and unlawful games, or sleep.” While the existence of the so-called “bad quartos” assures us that Hamlet’s premiere was on the stage of the Globe in Southwark, England, the earliest specific dated mention of the play being staged was aboard the warped wooden planks of this worn vessel (though some have convincingly doubted the veracity of Keeling’s diary). If the accounts are to be believed, at the outset of what would be a three-year voyage to round the Cape of Good Hope in search of Indonesian spices, the seamen working on behalf of the East India Company performed the play “and in the afternoone… went altogether ashore, to see if… [they] could shoot an elephant.” Shakespeare was still alive when this production of the Danish play first premiered, his celebrated sonnets to be printed two years after that evening aboard the Dragon and a year before the ship would once again find itself in the port of London. Fully eight more plays were to be written by the Bard after this extemporaneous staging of his most famous play in view of those white-sand beaches of the gold and ivory coasts—and in view of the slaving castles, which the English had operated for a generation already.

covercovercoverTellingly, one of those eight plays yet to be written was The Tempest, Shakespeare’s prescient allegory of colonialism, a tale of “A brave vessel, /Who had, no doubt, some noble creatures in her;” if the records are to be believed, the noble creature in the Dragon was Shakespeare’s words. Prospero is an appropriate corollary to the crew, being as they were only the first in a long line of travelers who brought Shakespeare along on their trips to Africa, both in pamphlet and pig-skin bound volume, including characters as varied as the Victorian adventurer and translator of the Kama Sutra Richard Burton, the infamous self-promoter Henry Morton Stanley in search of Dr. Livingstone, Teddy Roosevelt on a post-presidential safari, the Danish coffee magnate and writer Karen Blixen, and the communist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara holed up in the Cuban embassy at Dar es Salaam reading from the folio.

Yet it is the Dragon as origin myth that provides the most arresting image. Hamlet, as it were, has many African origins; if the Dragon’s seafaring production was the first we have official record of, than the first “talkie” film version of Shakespeare found its genesis in 1935 Mombasa, where Indians brought by the British to build eastern Africa’s network of rails had their Urdu production Khoon ka Khoon pressed to celluloid.

Both anecdotes are recounted in Cambridge professor and Shakespeare scholar Edward Wilson-Lee’s fascinating Shakespeare in Swahililand: In Search of a Global Poet. Reflecting on how “the earliest recorded production of Hamlet was a command performance for a Portuguese-speaking native of the West African coast” is part of his project to move a bit closer to that “Holy Grail of Shakespeare studies: an understanding of Shakespeare’s universal appeal” while remaining painfully aware of the fact that “that very universalism [has been]…used as a tool to exclude [some] from the bounds of the human.” Raised in Nairobi by American conservationists, Wilson-Lee is aware of the ways in which Shakespeare was often handmaid to the subjugation of people by English colonialists, who used the playwright as evidence of British superiority, while at the same time acknowledging the complicated ways Shakespeare was used by people across Africa in their own striving for national self-determination.

There are, of course, unmistakable political implications for a white Oxbridge African such as Wilson-Lee writing about Shakespeare’s reception across Africa. Readers may be uncomfortable at Wilson-Lee’s recounting of a colonial childhood of wild monkeys in the yard and mango for breakfast, but the author doesn’t shy away from acknowledging his privilege, freely admitting to luxuries such as travelling throughout East Africa by rail, where “white-gloved stewards turned down starched sheets,” visits to Kenya’s air-conditioned shopping malls constructed in imitation of American suburban convenience, and G&T’s at the Aero Club of East Africa. This privilege is most damningly on display in his reflections on the nature of white guilt at his family’s employment of black domestic laborers, a theme he sees in Shakespeare’s “obsession with master-servant relations.”

Wilson-Lee’s is an odd hodgepodge of a book—part memoir, part travelogue, part historical account, part literary criticism. And yet despite its chimerical nature, it is an effective book, combining as it does an adept theoretical orientation, an admirable facility with the Explication de texte of Shakespeare’s language, and a humanism that is sometimes lacking in the most arid of literary theory. Too often, conservative “defenders” of Shakespeare against some imagined threat to the canon obscure the very real ways in which both Shakespeare in particular and English literature in general were used to erase the lives and culture of people in colonized lands, as a type of soft artillery. But Wilson-Lee isn’t wrong when he says that it’s hard not to feel that Shakespeare “almost alone among writers, defies such cynicism.” He conjectures that though Shakespeare’s genius may simply be “some grand collective delusion, a truism rather than a truth,” he can’t help but find that “every time, the dawning freshness of a turn of phrase, a short exchange or an orchestrated speech makes dull the cleverness which wrote these impressions off as nostalgic.” In what is one of the book’s most poignantly beautiful scenes, Wilson-Lee describes listening to two surviving records of that Urdu production of Hamlet preserved at the British Library (the film itself being lost to posterity), explaining that the music of that production was pressed neither on vinyl nor wax cylinder, but rather “on discs made from shellac, crushed beetle-shell.” And so he could hear “the same sounds that would have rung out of the ramshackle theatres onto the Mombasa streets, the love songs of Hindustani Shakespeare, preserved in the carcasses of beetles which had once footled around the forests of Bengal.”

covercovercoverShakespeare in Swahililand functions both as a historical account of the role that the Bard has played in east Africa, as well as the author’s own travelogue through the historically Swahili-speaking parts of the continent, including Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, with stops outside of Swahililand in Ethiopia and South Sudan, noting that “one of the first books printed in Swahili was a Shakespearean one” in the form of a translation of Charles and Mary Lamb’s sanitized Victorian bestseller Tales from Shakespeare. His historical account moves from Shakespeare’s own day through 2012 when the South Sudanese delegation to the Cultural Olympiad staged a Juba Arabic performance of Cymbeline for London’s Globe Theater. Shakespeare in Swahililand is replete with fascinating anecdotes about the poet’s reception, while never losing sight of the complexities of that reception. These include descriptions of Roosevelt in the bush reading the Collected Works by gas lamp; Blixen arguing with her servant Farah about The Merchant of Venice, the latter interpreting Shylock as the unequivocal hero of the play; Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere’s scholarly Swahili translation of Julius Caesar, a performance of that same play with the title role being filled by Uganda’s future president Apollo Milton Obote in a 1948 version staged at Makerere University; and the brilliant performance of one of that university’s first Muslim female students, Assiah Jabir, in the role of Volumna in Coriolanus. There are even shades of our current controversy over the Central Park Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar, as a similar imbroglio occurred in Ethiopia in 1952 when the Roman tyrant reminded audiences of Emperor Haile Selassie.

Wilson-Lee’s story isn’t an uncomplicated one of people across Africa simply taking to the essential core of the Bard; the playwright was enlisted as a subject for Indians to “pass exams for the Colonial Service,” and after Britain’s empire collapsed, theaters were funded by the CIA front the Congress for Cultural Freedom to further American corporate interest, ensuring “the continuation of capitalism,” with unprofitable east African theaters “regularly subsidized by the American oil company Caltex.” And yet for all of the imperial usages of Shakespeare, a subversive core endures, as he becomes something that can be made distinctly and confidently “African.”

coverIt’s a conclusion which neither reduces Shakespeare to Immutable Platonic Genius, nor to to colonial handmaiden viewed as great only because a bunch of genocidal Englishmen forced people to say so at the point of a bayonet. Rather, Shakespeare becomes a multivocal, contradictory, expansive author, one for whom the inconsistencies become precisely the point. This is a “universalism born not of a shared and distinct experience but of mutual contemplation of something so vast and varied as to accommodate every point of view.” And so we have an Indian version of Twelfth Night titled Bhul Bhuliyan, which recasts the opening Illyrian shipwreck as a tragic railroad bridge collapse, with Wilson-Lee reminding us that few “members of the Mombasa audience would not have known or been related to at least one of the 2,498 men who died during the construction of the line which ran from the coast to Lake Victoria.” Or we have Nelson Mandela, imprisoned on Robben Island reading and rereading the plays to keep his sanity and his spirit intact. Or the linguist Alice Werner who in 1913, while studying Bantu, had The Story of the Flesh and the Thigh told to her as an indigenous tale, realizing later that it drew its narrative from Edward Steere’s Swahili version of The Merchant of Venice.

The most famous challenge to the supposed universalism of Shakespeare is in anthropologist Laura Bohannan’s 1966 classic Natural History article “Shakespeare in the Bush.” She recounts how she is asked to tell a story by a gathering of Tiv tribal elders in the highlands of Nigeria, and so she ultimately chooses Hamlet. The elders supposedly reacted with incomprehension at the strange tale: all Tiv know that ghosts are not real, no Tiv would ever scold his mother as Hamlet does, and Ophelia could not have drowned herself because only a witch can do that. As Bohannan records, the elders said “We believe you when you say your marriage customs are different, or your clothes and weapons. But people are the same everywhere; therefore, there are always witches and it is we, the elders, who know how witches work”—a telling if ironic inversion of the normalcies of western triumphalist universalism.

coverAnd yet, while Bohannan’s anecdote was meant to demonstrate the fallacy of literary universalism, Wilson-Lee would argue that it only proves that universalism is innately complicated. Witness Hamlet looking for his father’s ghost on Mughal battlefields, or the Marathi translation of Romeo and Juliet inventing an entire backstory for Romeo’s first lover Rosalind (she marries Tybalt and is responsible for losing Friar Lawrence’s message about Juliet’s sleeping potion). Such revisions are as if “watching someone you love in costume, newly beautiful but still the same.” As Wilson-Lee takes pains to explain, despite Shakespeare’s original role in colonialism, African liberation proponents “and other political agitators became adepts at using the colonials’ cultural totems against them,” just like “Caliban cursing Prospero in his own language.”  Yet Caliban need not only curse, for the subaltern may speak, and sing too. As a result, across Shakespeare in Swahililand we discover that Wilson-Lee’s African Shakespeare is both colonizer and colonized, Prospero and Caliban, invading Roman of Cymbeline and resisting Celt of that same play, for “everyone can, to an extent, find their own Shakespeare.” This then, is the other side of appropriation, the sublime poetry of subversion.

is the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. A regular contributor at several different sites, his collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be released by Zero Books this year. He can be followed on Facebook, his website, or on Twitter at  @WithEdSimon.

One comment:

  1. An important book–and review–on the relativity of literature.
    Two other references worth looking into:
    Norman Lavers’ short story, “The Translator,” about a translator in an unnamed war-torn Asian country who transforms Macbeth in unusual ways.
    And the work of Kathakali performer Arjun Raina, whose version of Othello is a powerful cultural reversal:

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