Learning to Hate Shakespeare
What are the implications of being engaged with Shakespeare at the expense of what could otherwise be regarded as a black or African authenticity?
Cecil John Rhodes is buried in a country that hates him. In the picturesque hills of Matopos, his grave is nestled in the heart of a giant boulder. Every week, Zimbabweans visit the Matopos, most with one purpose: to defile the grave as much as they can. They jump on it, spit and scratch at it. It’s emblematic of the continued resentment for colonialism and the strained landscape of post-colonial Africa. For proud Africans, it’s easy to resent England and her champions. All of them can sod off, as many a Pan-Africanist would say, from Churchill and Thatcher to Bannister and Rhodes. They’ve been expelled from our daily discourse, our curricula, our esteem, and our minds. All except one artful wordsmith from Stratford-upon-Avon.
Looking at Literature syllabi across former British colonies, Shakespeare has persisted to this day. The recent syllabus from the West African Examinations Council (including countries like Ghana, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone) has Othello as a compulsory text, with Shakespeare granted equal status as “Non-African Drama” and “African Drama.” Paper 3 of the Zimbabwe School Examination Council A-Level English makes Shakespeare (mentioning Measure for Measure and King Lear) equal with “Other Dramatists” (some of them African). Even South Africa has three years of readings, including Hamlet and Macbeth in the final year, listed under “Home Languages.” For countries that really want to be free of British influence, we sure have a tough time letting go of Shakespeare.
What to make of this literary Stockholm syndrome? Why the difficulty divorcing Shakespeare from the destructive colonial forces that brought him to Africa? That the writing is good is not in question. We get it. We really do. The man could write a sonnet. Great tragedies and comedies artfully told. Iambic pentameter. The works. His name is synonymous with mastery and superiority. But what are the implications of being strongly engaged with Shakespeare at the expense of what could otherwise be regarded as a black or African authenticity?
For one thing, Kim F. Hall, curator of the #ShakeRace hashtag on Twitter, has observed that the figure of “fairness” in Shakespeare’s Sonnets can perpetuate racial insecurity while propping up colonial ideas of white supremacy. The sustained use of “fair” to describe the poet’s lover makes whiteness an ideal. This world of fair maidens with golden locks and rosy cheeks is not one the African child can take hold of, not without leaving something behind. That something is an unapologetic and extremely un-English Africanness that has no voice in Shakespeare’s works. You can’t get authentic Africa in, say, the caricatured Prince of Morocco in the Merchant of Venice, or the under-explored life of Othello. But we strive for Shakespeare — are made to strive — because his place in our curricula leads us to believe deep down that his world is better than ours. Aspirational black men and women abandon their own values to pursue his, including a smiley celebration of whiteness: a Shakes-centric inferiority complex. Seeing Shakespeare as the marker of high human culture, our measuring rod of literary greatness, creates a self-defeating cycle.
Shakespeare’s plays also distance the supposedly learned African elite from a working class with no time for him. Kopano Matlwa’s Coconut chronicles a young black girl named Fikile’s desire to escape her blackness, presenting Shakespeare as one flawed way to do so. Fikile’s uncle is a caricature of an African who foolishly uses Shakespeare as his best and only tool to engage with the ruling class whites and their presumed higher culture. Shakespeare is used here as stepping stone to display superiority, the same superiority we resented the colonizers for.
More recently, figures like Thabo Mbeki represent one sort of African who readily laps up the bard’s work and regurgitates it in his rhetoric. That strategy is interestingly counter-productive. The local people reject Mbeki and see him as otherwise disinterested in their actual struggles and needs, opting for the less well-spoken but more authentic Jacob Zuma, who values speaking to disenfranchised South Africans over quoting Shakespeare. This brought him closer to the people; quoting Shakespeare took Mbeki further from his supporters. For the post-colonial leader, the markers of what made a learned man in colonial times (classical Eurocentric education and knowledge of Shakespeare’s canon) have become obsolete. The average African who does not make it past Primary School has no bearings when it comes to Shakespeare. In nations where education is a privilege, Shakespeare is not a tool, but a weapon.
Africa hungers for something different. African stories abound and are ready to be told. African texts for African contexts. African syllabi. Perhaps the way to African individual and societal development lies in ridding the curricula of Shakespeare, the last and biggest footprint of the colonial presence. Perhaps it’s time to bury him in the Matopos Hills. Then he too will be dead in a country that hates him.
But would that be an even greater disservice to the historically disadvantaged African, cutting us off from one of the essential and culturally significant authors of world literature? Cutting us off from the way world literature like Shakespeare has been used in Africa? Perhaps, instead of abandoning Shakespeare, he just needs to be put in his place, restructured in the syllabi, settled into a more minor role of “Other Dramatists.” Perhaps our syllabi can make Shakespeare a footnote to African literature, rather than vice versa. Shakespeare can be buried but not forgotten. If properly framed, studying Shakespeare can help Africans understand the history of colonialism and its legacy today, including difficult cultural negotiations like this. The Bard is inextricably part of our post-colonial dialogue but he need not dominate it. We can decide what he means. We can ascribe the value. Shakespeare is a part of our past; the future belongs to us.
Jordan Mubako is a rising Sophomore at Harvard majoring in Economics and minoring in Chemistry.