Every word doth almost tell his name

March 31, 2006

Shakespeare continues to speak to people across a kaleidoscope of cultures with undiminished vitality and relevance, Alastair Niven reflects

When I was a Commonwealth scholar in Ghana in the late 1960s, I was cast as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in a production of Twelfth Night at the Arts Centre in Accra. Among the cast was Paul Danquah as Feste. Danquah, son of one of the founding fathers of modern Ghana, had been in the film A Taste of Honey but was now a respectable lawyer.

His legal training, his precarious film career and his determination to contribute to his country's development summed up some of the paradoxes of modern African education. Shakespeare would have caught him brilliantly. I discovered then - and have found ever since on many visits to Anglophone universities around the world - that Shakespeare's work resonates as no other author's does.

Whereas other writers are accused, denigrated and finally deconstructed to ruination by postcolonial discourse, Shakespeare remains largely immune.

This is all achieved without the benefit of regular productions of his plays in Africa, the Indian sub-continent, the Caribbean and vast tracts of the former dominions. When rare professional productions are mounted, it is striking how a different cultural eye can remake the plays. Umbatha , the Zulu Macbeth , is a famous example, and it has been brought to this country on several occasions. We are shortly to see a new South African production of Hamlet in Stratford-upon-Avon, and advance billing suggests that we shall be startled anew by insights that would just not be possible in this country because they are rooted in another landscape.

Elizabeth I is said to have banned Richard II with the words: "Know ye not that I am Richard II?" The political resonances of Shakespeare's plays are still acute in undemocratic countries, which can make staging them risky.

As a student, Milton Obote, the strongman who twice ruled Uganda, played the title role in Julius Caesar at Makerere University. On the last night of the play's run he is supposed to have said that it would be the only occasion on which he would be assassinated and that he would do better than Caesar by proving as "constant as the northern star". I recall taking a seminar on Shakespeare while visiting Malawi when Hastings Banda, who had proclaimed himself President for Life, was in power. Halfway through, I realised that the students could not speak about Richard III's character or whether Coriolanus was a fascist because they were frightened to express a view of any kind on an issue that had a political dimension.

Despite these tensions, Shakespeare has a unique hold over Commonwealth writers. I looked up "Shakespeare" in the indexes of books of Commonwealth and postcolonial literary criticism and found him mentioned in two thirds of my substantial collection. The key player is Caliban - there are more references to him and to The Tempest than any other Shakespearean topic. But there is general acknowledgement of the playwright as the shaping force in matters of language and identity. In 1970, Jonathan Miller staged The Tempest at the Mermaid Theatre in London as a fable of colonial exploitation featuring a black slave-like Caliban and an "exploiting"

Prospero. The ideas inherent in that interpretation have permeated postcolonial discourse. As the Nigerian writer J. P. Clark puts it in The Example of Shakespeare , in reflections that apply all around the Commonwealth: "There has been no agitator in all of colonial Africa to better Caliban's story and struggle."

In his diasporic poem A Far Cry from Africa , Derek Walcott writes:

"I who am poisoned with the blood of both

Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?

I who have cursed

The drunken officer of British rule, how choose

Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?"

This dilemma faces every indigenous writer outside Britain. Shakespeare's position as the strongest literary shaper of modern English means that he has been appropriated even by people who question the values of the society that produced him.

Apart from Clark, there have been some outstanding critics who manage to be both major Shakespearean scholars and big influences in postcolonial discourse, among them Eldred Jones, former principal and professor of English at the University of Sierra Leone, Fourah Bay. In a classic study that unites the two worlds, Othello's Countrymen: The African in English Renaissance Drama , Jones examines black characters in Elizabethan drama, headed by the two Moors, Othello and Aaron, whom he sees as outsiders corrupted by the societies in which they find themselves.

Shakespeare is still taught in most Commonwealth universities, but seldom as "English literature". He has become both universal and local.

In G. V. Desani's All about H. Hatterr , a foundation stone of modern Indian writing in English, Mr Banerrji has a Shakespearean quotation to suit every occasion. His delightful confusions somehow say everything about the presence of "the Bard", as he always calls him, in the literary and academic life of Commonwealth countries. "The Bard has said, Who steals my purse, steals trash! Nevertheless, Mr H. Hatterr, ahead of us is Double, double, toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble! I am not a sob-sister, but, excuse me, the situation reminds me of Hamlet . To be! But firstly, let us be calm, honest Iago."

Whether in calm or in tempest, at the centre or in the margins, hegemonic or other, Shakespeare is a living spirit in the Commonwealth of the mind.

Alastair Niven is principal of Cumberland Lodge, Windsor, Berkshire, and a former director of literature at the British Council.

  High returns -  'I was given an excellent opportunity to develop. I am directing research projects that I would not even have understood before I was awarded this fellowship'

Zuaidah Mohd Don is back at the University of Malaya after a year-long research fellowship at Lancaster University. The experience she gained abroad was the key to her gaining promotion to professor.

She spent her time at Lancaster in 2003-04 learning about linguistics in connection with natural language processing and she began to apply new methods to the study of his native language.

"I was given an excellent opportunity to develop the new techniques that I was interested in. I have been promoted to professor of linguistics and I am directing major research projects that I would not even have understood before the award of the fellowship."

She has been able to start a number of research projects and to help train several colleagues.

"Malaysia is about to launch a major initiative in speech and language technology this year. The long-term outcome of my fellowship is that I am able to take on the role of director of the language part of this programme. It also appears that at the moment I am the only linguist in Malaysia who can do this.

"Had it not been for the fellowship, it might not have been possible for this programme to go ahead at all. My fellowship has led to a significant transfer of knowledge and skills in an area of very rare expertise from the UK to Malaysia, with the result that within a short period Malaysia is now able to undertake a programme of direct relevance to national development that might not otherwise have been possible."

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