Should Shakespeare’s plays be taught in Africa’s schools and universities? It’s a question that emerges, sometimes flippantly and sometimes in earnest, when conversations about post-colonialism and decolonization turn to literature and culture.
It’s a useful and necessary question that I am often asked – and one that I often ask myself. But it is also a question which needs rephrasing.
The first problem is in generalizing 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.
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An obvious division could be made between Francophone and Anglophone countries, but even these categories falter. The engagement of African and Caribbean writers such as Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire with The Tempest influenced the Negritude movement, associated with poet and first leader of Senegal Léopold Senghor. Césaire’s post-colonial adaptation 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 founding member of the African National Congress (ANC) Sol Plaatje translated several of Shakespeare’s works into his mother tongue Setswana at the turn of the 20th century.
But there is also the Shakespeare of white English liberals, and the Shakespeare invoked by the old 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, not helped by his quoting of the Bard.
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, emphasise and analyse the baggage that Shakespeare brings.
Shakespeare traditionally goes hand in hand with English classes. In secondary schools, this implies that his work will be studied as a literary text. English at high school is also about the acquisition of the language, particularly for those who have it as a second or additional tongue.
Is the difficulty – sometimes the downright opacity – of Shakespeare’s early modern language helpful to these students? Probably not. Arguably, without a very skilful and enthusiastic teacher, Shakespeare remains obscure even for mother-tongue or bilingual speakers.
Here a case may be made for translation as a vital aspect of teaching and learning Shakespeare. Why can’t extracts from Shakespeare, or even entire plays, be studied in translation into Gikuyu or isiZulu? From these languages the work could be translated once again, into contemporary English.
Teachers could then draw on the resource of a polyglot classroom, affirming rather than undermining their pupils’ multilingual confidence. At the same time, Shakespeare could be placed in dialogue with African writers such as Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o or South African poet laureate Mazisi Kunene.
All of this hinges, however, on the awkwardness of the word “should” in the original question. Making something compulsory usually has the effect of making it resented – and that’s anecdotally the case for most who have sweated over Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets.
Students could encounter Shakespeare outside of the classroom environment: on stage, on screen, modernised, translated, without the stigma of being a canonical author. Some might arrive at university without having studied him at all. Would this be a bad thing? Imagine discovering Shakespeare in a political science class, or a philosophy course, or through art history or economics.
Ultimately, the discipline in which Shakespeare belongs is drama. Sometimes that’s in the context of theatre and performance, or it may be in a field like film study.
Perhaps, then, there’s only one “should” when it comes to teaching Shakespeare. Whether it’s as part of a formal curriculum or extra-curricular activity, in Africa or elsewhere in the world, the magic of performance should remain at the core of any meeting with Shakespeare.