The Bard under apartheid

Shakespeare and South Africa
March 7, 1997

Perhaps the most telling paragraph in David Johnson's fascinating and frustrating account of nearly 200 years of Shakespeare in South Africa is the last one: "My impulse to write this book," he confesses, "developed in three years of teaching English to adults at night school in Wynberg, Cape Town. This book stands as a long answer to those students, many of them Xhosa-speaking, who struggled to pass their examinations on the Shakespeare plays." Struggling, in turn, to make sense of their "failures", Johnson explores the "political mission" of English literary education in general and Shakespearean studies in particular, from the beginnings of British rule in the early 19th century to present-day South Africa.

The canvas is clearly vast, as are Johnson's ambitions to straddle the division which he perceives between "those who largely theorise about colonial history writing" like Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Homi Bhabha, and those who write social histories about colonial subjects; to place the reading of select texts within their broader social, economic and political framework in Britain and South Africa; and, finally, to relate the history of English studies in South Africa to contemporary political, theoretical and cultural debates. Johnson concludes by finding that in the final analysis, his Xhosa students' "failures" with Shakespeare are part of much larger histories of imperial violence, in which the Bard plays a central and deeply compromised role." This may come as something of a surprise to the Bard, less so to those post-colonial literary critics, who have linked colonial racism and liberal humanism. The much-vaunted universalism of the liberal culture of English studies, with Shakespeare at its heart, turns out to be the parochialism of imperialism.

The problem with this argument is that while it shows that the link between colonial racism and liberal humanism was contingent, it does not prove that it is intrinsic; nor of course does it tell us much about why Shakespeare became so important and enriching for so many colonial subjects. Here, the author's three-page treatment of Sol Plaatje is particularly revealing. Plaatje, intellectual, political activist and first secretary of the South African Native Congress, was also the translator of The Comedy of Errors (published as Diphosho' phosho), Julius Caesar and Much Ado About Nothing (unpublished) into SeTswana. In 1916 he contributed an essay to Israel Gollancz's A Book of Homage to Shakespeare. Johnson uses this essay, from which he quotes one paragraph, to explore four possible "readings" of the encounter between Plaatje as "colonial subject" and Shakespeare, using anti-imperialist writers like Franz Fanon and Albert Memmi, Marxist theorists like Marx and Lenin, post-modern literary critics, and South African social historians.

The object of these 20 pages is to show the ways in which "each version of Plaatje and Shakespeare should be read as revealing at least as much about these very distinct generations of writers who have reflected on the troubled relationship between colonial subjects and high western culture" as about the particularities of Plaatje's own responses to Shakespeare. The result is that Plaatje as black South African has been as effectively silenced by Johnson as by any of the liberal white literary critics he so excoriates. He lists Plaatje's major writings in English, but seems unaware of Plaatje's translations and the furore the appearance of Diphosho' phosho caused. Moreover, while Johnson recognises the problem of language posed by Shakespeare for contemporary South Africans, he fails to engage with the issues of translation, whether linguistic or cultural, that are raised so profoundly by Plaatje. Despite his own caveats about "travelling theory", Johnson is oblivious to the creative "hybridity" of Plaatje and his peers in their reception of English literature.

The book was written, as a doctoral thesis, in the uneasy and creative period between 1990 and 1994, and its objectives are in uneasy, if often instructive, tension. The text and the brief afterword, written since 1994, raise the crucial questions: What kind of literature for what kind of South Africa? And who decides? It does little to help resolve them.

Shula Marks is professor of the history of southern Africa, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Shakespeare and South Africa

Author - David Johnson
ISBN - 0 19 818315 1
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £40.00
Pages - 6

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