In search of Shakespeare’s universalism

In search of Shakespeare’s universalism

Edward Wilson-Lee talks Shakespeare in East Africa.

‘There’s this incredible and, in some ways, rather admirable, drive to recreate the historical experience of Shakespeare – the Globe in London, for instance. And you go to watch a Shakespeare play in this recreated space, with an expert team having researched how it would have been seen in the 17th century. Yet, in a way, you can never really recreate the historical experience of watching Shakespeare. You travelled there on a train. You’ve got a mobile phone. There’s a plane flying above you. You’re experiencing Shakespeare’s work as something historical, whereas Shakespeare’s original audience experienced it as something novel. So there are always going to be things which are lost to us.’

Edward Wilson-Lee, a fellow in English at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, pauses for a second, the sound of undergraduate chatter suddenly noticeable from the lawn below. ‘It’s interesting’, he continues, ‘on the one hand we always talk about Shakespeare’s universalism – that the reason he deserves the industry around him is because his work is universal and timeless – and yet we constantly attempt to reinsert him and anchor him in a very particular time and place. We want to watch him at the Globe, or in Stratford, and see his work exactly how it would have been performed 400 years ago. It’s a bizarre pair of claims to set alongside one another. On the one hand, it’s claimed that Shakespeare is universal. On the other, it’s claimed you can only really appreciate that universalism if you seek to recreate exactly the form in which he would have been consumed – which is a bizarre counterfactual.’

It is to the vexed question of Shakespeare’s uncanny ability to resonate down the ages, and across continents, that Wilson-Lee’s compelling and affecting new book, Shakespeare in Swahililand, is addressed. Not that that is all it is. It’s also a travelogue, replete with Wilson-Lee’s moving evocations of time and place as he explores parts of East Africa, first tracing the steps of those explorers and missionaries who first brought Shakespeare to Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and so on, before seeking out the emergence of a ‘hybridised’ and ‘Africanised’ Shakespeare during the throes of decolonisation and civil war. And it’s personal, too. Wilson-Lee spent his childhood in Kenya, a young boy, as he recalls, dreaming of baseball. Now a Shakespeare scholar, often ensconced in ‘dusty libraries in Europe’, he often dreams of his one-time home. But above all Swahililand is driven by the quest for what he calls ‘the Holy Grail of Shakespeare studies: an understanding of Shakespeare’s universal appeal’.

‘There is a personal side to it’, he explains. ‘But alongside that, it became quite clear early on that this would be a good way to ask questions about universals, because if you’re going to demonstrate something to be universal, then the only way to do that is to take it into the least promising place, and see if it still makes sense. And as the project developed, it became clear that all these people – these explorers, these missionaries, these educators – were doing just that. They were all testing universals.’

Not in the same way, of course. British explorers, spurred on by expanding markets and an increased interest in Africa’s myriad natural resources, almost always self-consciously carried Shakespeare’s works with them as a mark of their civilisation, and, therefore, their distinction from the natives of the Dark Continent. Shakespeare is universal, and the natives can’t absorb him, therefore the natives aren’t human, ran the logic. A collection of Shakespeare’s plays was also an amulet to ward off the impinging barbarism. Without it, you were potentially lost. As Wilson-Lee points out in Swahililand, it is telling that Kurtz, in Joseph Conrad’s dark take on empire, Heart of Darkness, does not have any books with him. ‘Kurtz’s famous final words – “The horror! The horror!” – gesture to exactly what Shakespeare was supposed to conjure away: the chaos, depravity and existential nihilism that lay just at the doorstep of Victorian confidence.’

The missionaries, funded by industrial philanthropists looking for a cultural foothold in East Africa, were different. Shakespeare’s assumed universality meant precisely that he could be absorbed by the colonised. So it was, on the island of Zanzibar in the 1860s, that one of the first books printed in Swahili turned out to be a translation of Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. The man responsible was Edward Steere, third missionary bishop to Central Africa. ‘On the one hand’, says Wilson-Lee, ‘Steere’s doing this with the aim of liberating slave boys, so it serves a far more benign end than the explorer’s use of Shakespeare, where it’s very much a token of difference, a way of maintaining one’s separateness from the Dark Continent. But, on the other, Steere is very conscious of the fact that linguistic colonisation is part of colonisation proper. Steere himself says “It’s clear to me that East Africa will be either Christian or Mohammedan, and a lot of it will turn on who learns to read and write their languages first.” So, to an extent, Shakespeare’s translation is entwined with religious, economic and eventually political colonialism.’

But what’s fascinating about Wilson-Lee’s account of Shakespeare in East Africa is the way in which the plays escape their British propagators and evangelists. So, in Mombassa at the turn of the 20th century, a rapidly growing Indian subpopulation, thanks to the demand for labourers to work on building the railways, brought with them an often irreverent set of Shakespeare productions, complete with plot changes and musical additions. More striking still, is the flourishing of Shakespeare during the 1940s and 1950s at Makerere University in Uganda, where, under the auspices of ‘the largely British faculty’, a roll-call of Africa’s independence leaders studied English, immersed themselves in Shakespeare in particular, and started to see the world in terms of their interpretations of Shakespeare. Take Makerere alumni Julius Nyerere, who in 1962 became the first president of Tanzania. As Wilson-Lee puts it, ‘Nyerere was translating Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice into Swahili in spare evening moments during the very years that he was taking his country from British colony to independent nation and then to grand experiment in African socialism’.

Nyerere’s interest in those plays wasn’t incidental to his vision; it was essential. ‘As Nyerere translated Julius Caesar’, writes Wilson-Lee, ‘he was experiencing, as almost no other reader of the play ever has, the core elements of Shakespeare’s play: both the crucial importance of friendship and its fragility in the turbulent crucible of power from which a new state emerges.’ Again, as Wilson-Lee tells me, The Merchant of Venice, and Timon of Athens (which was Marx’s favourite play) appealed to Nyerere because they revealed something of his own socialist vision. ‘Nyerere is interested in Antonio and Bassanio’s relationship and the marvellous nature of Shylock’s bond, which allows Shylock to turn his “alienated ability of mankind”, namely money, into something real, into his actual heart’s blood. So there’s a metaphor at the heart of The Merchant of Venice that can be read as quite socialist and which fascinated Nyerere. And that is a million miles away from how the play was being read elsewhere – it’s something very specific to East Africa’s political and social situation at the time.’

Or take Ethiopia – exceptional in its relative lack of colonisation – and the brilliant playwright and poet Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin, whose inflammatory translations of the regicidal, court-based tragedies, Macbeth and Othello, keyed into, and criticised, the bizarre, decadent world of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie. ‘On the one hand these were attempts to make Ethiopia’s mark on the world stage’, writes Wilson-Lee, ‘but the Shakespeare translations were also deeply concerned with the internal politics of the country… [They] were undertaken with all the urgency of political acts during the period of Tsegaye’s radicalisation; they found, in the relationship between human weakness and political power, something universal, something which spoke as powerfully while revolution stirred in Ethiopia as it had during Shakespeare’s lifetime.’ Wilson-Lee even manages to track down one of the few remaining copies of Tsegaye’s Makbez, and finds the cover itself, in black and red, depicting a crown, a skull and blood, to be suitably subversive.

Yet as compelling and fascinating as Wilson-Lee’s narrative is, does the hybridisation and Africanisation of Shakespeare’s work really demonstrate its universality? If the colonisers were of a different nationality, or had different cultural tastes, could another playwright or poet have been equally as culturally dominant? Is there really anything unique about Shakespeare?

Wilson-Lee responds carefully. ‘The academic study of Shakespeare is very suspicious of universals and very strenuous in the testing of them, largely because of the influence of historicist and materialist modes of reading Shakespeare over the past 30 years. So, the standard response would be to say that cultures have figureheads and the British presence in East Africa meant that a British figurehead assumed the dominant role.

‘But there is something about Shakespeare, something that the Romantics called his “negative capability”, or what the great critic Erich Auerbach called his “God-like non-partisanship”. This is partly because Shakespeare is writing drama, and for effective drama characters have to be believable, and have believable motivations for acting like they do, even when behaving badly. And that means a lot of different people looking at the world in different ways. No characters are caricatured in Shakespeare, and each of their particular positions can be understood, even Richard III “cast into the world half made-up” – he’s villainous, but you enjoy his villainy. Shakespeare isn’t tempted to flatten characters, to sort them into the good and the bad, and what that means is that he opens himself up to so many different readings that it’s possible to find in various parts of Shakespeare expressions of so many sentiments appropriate to almost any particular situation.’

This, admits Wilson-Lee, is ‘a kind of weak universalism’; ‘it’s saying Shakespeare is such a broad tent, that we can all love Shakespeare, without necessarily loving the same Shakespeare. Some love the “we few, we happy few” tub-thumping, nationalist Shakespeare; some love the more cynical Shakespeare, the Timons and the Lears.’

But Wilson-Lee’s ambition is greater than that. He’s clearly searching for something more than a ‘broad tent’ theory of Shakespeare’s value. And he’s also trying to escape the aporia of too much so-called critical theory, where, as he puts it, cultural forms have been reduced to little more than legitimations of ‘asymmetrical power relations’, justifications of the status quo, apologies for an ever-widening variety of inequalities.

‘Shakespeare’s work is unlike almost anything else’, he says, ‘and this is why it’s very difficult to put your finger on who Shakespeare was. Read Marlowe or Jonson, and the same kind of structures appear over and over again, which give a you a sense of how that person thought about the world. But that’s completely untrue of Shakespeare. Every time, he shows himself capable of releasing himself to the demands of dramatic structure and character, such that you can’t say Shakespeare is obsessed with putting that type of character on stage, or Shakespeare thought that about kingship, or that about women. He always seems to allow the demands of dramatic structure and character to take over.

‘So, what I tried to do towards the end of this book was to find a form of universalism that is less weak than the tent being broad enough to house everyone. That is, there is a sense in Shakespeare of not quite being able to put your finger on things, of not quite being able to find the essence of something, of things just being beyond your grasp – and, with that, a sense of aesthetic pleasure, of death and being nearly alive, so that sometimes when you’re thinking about beauty, you’re thinking about not being there anymore. And that might be something prior to any kind of cultural construction. It might mean that some things in the world we experience in a similar way, despite the different economic and political structures within which we experience them.’

This is the red thread running through Shakespeare in Swahililand, from Wilson-Lee and his Egyptian interlocuter swapping lines from Macbeth at the book’s opening, to his identification with Joseph Abuk, the South Sudanese dramaturge behind a 2012 production of Cymbeline, at the book’s close: namely, that in the ineffable pleasure of Shakespeare’s work, ‘it’s epic non-partisanship’, we partake in something of the universal. This is beyond aesthetics as a species of instrumentalism, beyond the idea of art as little more than the legitimation of asymmetrical power relations, beyond didactic, politically useful art.

‘You never feel like Shakespeare is telling you something, that this is the lesson that you must learn’, says Wilson-Lee. ‘And, therefore, you’re always left grasping slightly. And that, in part, means that Shakespeare’s work doesn’t age in the same way as fashionable dogma would. And it means we return to it, still trying to find that thing that is always over the horizon, that essence, which, importantly perhaps, isn’t there.’

Edward Wilson-Lee is the director of studies in English at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and the author of Shakespeare in Swahililand: Adventures with the Ever-Living (2016) (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).).

He was talking to spiked review editor, Tim Black.

Picture copyright: University of Makerere archives.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.


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