In an earlier column, I had written about the controversy in South Africa regarding ballet being now viewed as “Eurocentric” and “colonial”.

More recently, it is the turn of Shakespeare as well. I watched a news item on BBC World about Shakespeare being seen as “not relevant” to South African children today. This is echoed by Wits University Professor Chris Thurman, who admits he might be “talking himself out of a job” as he teaches Shakespeare at university level and enjoys it. He doesn’t seem too worried if Shakespeare is dropped entirely from South Africa’s school curriculum, although he argues for a place for it at extracurricular levels and in higher education.

He makes the case for Shakespeare being encountered in performance, in translation, and in context to contemporary politics, and even agrees to the use of the term ‘decolonising’ Shakespeare.

The controversy has been brewing for a while. Thurman himself reviewed a book “Shakespeare and the Coconuts: On post-apartheid South African culture” by Natasha Distiller, in 2012. The term ‘coconut’ is familiar to us as well, its derogatory sense, as describing “someone, who due to their behaviour, identifications, or upbringing, is ‘black’ on the ‘outside’ and ‘white’ on the inside’”.

In his review, Thurman puts forth the argument of the book, that in essence “we are all coconuts”, and therefore should celebrate our “coconutiness” (that “messy in-betweenness, the mixed-up inside-outsideness”) and “take a political stand, one which refuses to see colonial history and its aftermath as containable by binaries: coloniser/colonised, oppressor/oppressed, European/African”.

I would heartily agree with this view. We have seen through the brilliant films of Vishal Bhardwaj, how Shakespeare can both be translated and put into context and made extremely relevant for an Indian audience.

Shakespeare means different things to different people in South Africa. Nelson Mandela was moved by him: one of the exhibits in the British Museum’s 2012 “Shakespeare: staging the world” exhibition was a unique edition of the Collected Works of Shakespeare, dubbed ‘the Robben Island Bible’ as it was circulated among Mandela’s fellow prisoners there. Interestingly, it was disguised as the Hindu scriptures by fellow political prisoner Sonny Venkathraman, as mainstream literature would be confiscated by prison authorities. In the book, Mandela highlighted Julius Caesar’s soliloquy “Cowards die many times before their deaths;/ The valiant never taste of death but once./ Of all the wonders that I yet have heard/ It seems to me most strange that men should fear;/ Seeing that death, a necessary end,/ Will come when it will come.”


shakespeare south africa

One can see how Mandela drew solace from these lines. The book was passed around among political prisoners and used as starting points for many a debate on moral, ethical and political issues. Other prominent political prisoners also marked their chosen passages from the plays: Mandela’s close confidante Walter Sisulu chose Shylock’s “Still I have borne it with a patient shrug,/ For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe” from ‘The Merchant of Venice’. Another close friend Ahmed Kathrada earmarked “Once more unto the breach” from Henry V.

“Somehow Shakespeare always had something to say to us”, Kathrada reminisced to Anthony Sampson in his authorised biography of Nelson Mandela. Sampson observed “Shakespeare became politically more relevant than the Bible or Marx…Successive generations saw his plays as an inspiration for their struggle and for humanity.”

I would have thought that, for this reason alone, Shakespeare ought very much to remain in South Africa’s academic curriculum, even if just as a reminder of the role played by his plays in the freedom struggle.

In all, 32 political prisoners dipped into the Robben Island bible, and their most popular choices among the plays are quite revealing: Hamlet, King Lear, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and The Tempest.

The chosen passages of each inmate almost came to define them, not only on Robben Island, but even in their lives as free men. Mandela would often quote Shakespeare in his speeches, as did another South African politician Thado Mbeki.

The author, journalist and iconic politician Sol Plaatje translated ‘Julius Caesar’, ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ and ‘A Comedy of Errors’ into the Setswana language.

But Shakespeare is also seen as the poster boy of ‘high western culture’ and ‘white English liberals’. Parallels are also drawn between Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, the legendary Roman leader banished from Rome for refusing to bow to the will of the people; and Thado Mbeki, (who considered Coriolanus one of his favourite Shakespeare plays) who was banished from the African National Congress (ANC) and his general fall from grace on account of his high-handedness.

Thurman argues that such parallels with contemporary politics are what can keep a sixteenth-century English bard relevant far from those shores, and in our time. God knows we have several parallels of our own in contemporary Indian politics and popular culture, with so many Shakespearean comic, heroic and tragic characters from his plays. Sometimes it is easier to resort to allegory as a means of teaching and commenting upon contemporary politics and unrest.

Part of the ‘problem’ with Shakespeare is also the fact that his oeuvre is in the English language, with all the baggage that comes with it, as we know all too well with our own MoI (Medium of Instruction) storm-in-a-teacup. And with Shakespeare, it’s not just English, but English from another era, needing to be deciphered and understood almost line by line.

It is in how we approach or are exposed to culture, especially that which did not originate on our land that we react with love or loathing. Thurman cites his own experience with first-year students: “Students who love Shakespeare invariably had teachers who made the texts alive, accessible and relevant; students who hate Shakespeare invariably had teachers who made the texts dull, incomprehensible, irretrievably distant from their own lives and time.”

And although purists (and perhaps rightly so) may complain that much gets lost in translation, there are new dimensions to a literary work that open up new vistas and challenge you in unforeseen ways. What would Shakespeare himself have made of Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Hamlet, ‘Haidar’? I’m inclined to think that he’d have been favourably impressed.

John Kani, who played the first Black Othello in South Africa in 1997, is equally passionate about human rights, and served time in jail for resisting apartheid. He was attracted to Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, but translated into his own Xhosa language. “To me, Shakespeare is like an African storyteller…His words paint pictures in glorious colour in my language. They were written by a man whose use of words fit exactly into Xhosa.”

In this 125th anniversary of our own Konkani tiatr, it is worthwhile remembering that some of the earliest tiatr plays were also adaptations of Shakespeare plays (The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet). If only one could find the scripts to those early tiatrs! This would be the perfect occasion to re-stage them.

(An edited version of this article was published on 23 April 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)