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|Title page of the First Folio, 1623. Copper engraving of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout.|
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It’s a useful and necessary question that I—as a scholar who teaches and writes about Shakespeare in a South African context—am often asked. Indeed, it’s one that I ask myself frequently.
But it is also a clumsy question and it needs rephrasing—or, at least, the terms in which it is couched need further investigation if we are to attempt a nuanced, coherent answer.
Africa is not a country
The first problem is in generalising about the African continent. Education systems and their infrastructural or economic contexts are vastly different. This is not only true from country to country and region to region, but also within each country and region.
It’s impossible to speak accurately about “Shakespeare in Asia” without accommodating the fact that his place in India – with its colonial history and linguistic environment – is a phenomenon that’s almost incomparable to Shakespeare in China or in Japan.
In Europe, national distinctions are equally severe. The history of Shakespeare’s reception in France is completely unlike that in Germany.
Likewise, there’s no singular “Shakespeare in Africa”.
An obvious division could be made between Francophone and Anglophone countries, but even these categories falter. The engagement of writers such as Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire with Shakespeare’s “colonial” play The Tempest influenced the Negritude movement associated with Léopold Senghor and, through him, with Senegal. Césaire’s Une Tempête was first performed in Tunisia. But this has no purchase in other Francophone African countries like Gabon or Niger.
In Zimbabwe, despite occasional posturing, Shakespeare is a common and largely unproblematic reference point in political speeches, newspaper articles and daily conversation.
This is not the case in neighbouring South Africa, where there are again many different Shakespeares. He was one of Nelson Mandela’s favourites and a copy of the Collected Works was circulated among prisoners on Robben Island. Author, journalist and political icon Sol Plaatje translated several of Shakespeare’s works into Setswana.
But there is also the Shakespeare of “white English liberals”, and the Shakespeare invoked by the apartheid state as an example of exclusively European “high culture”. Then there is the Shakespeare associated with former president Thabo Mbeki, who was seen as something of an intellectual elitist and was ultimately recalled by the governing African National Congress.
These examples make it clear that Shakespeare can’t be viewed or read—and therefore can’t be taught—in an ahistorical or apolitical vacuum. If we are to teach Shakespeare in Africa, we cannot teach the text alone.
We owe it to students to acknowledge, indeed to emphasise, and then to analyse the baggage that Shakespeare brings with him.
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
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