Shakespeare in Swahililand

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 83

Two literary scholars discuss Shakespeare’s influence on the politics, history, and literary culture of East Africa. 
Edward Wilson-Lee, the son of white wildlife conservationists, spent his childhood in Kenya and now teaches Shakespeare at the University of Cambridge in England. Over the past few years he has spent extended periods back in Kenya, as well as in Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, and South Sudan, researching his book, Shakespeare in Swahililand
Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o, the renowned Kenyan playwright, novelist, dissident, and social activist, grew up in Kenya when it was still a British colony and is now a Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent work is the memoir Birth of a Dream Weaver
Ngũgĩ and Edward were interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published October 3, 2017. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode, “The Language That I Have Lived In,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We had help from Barbara Caldwell at the University of California  Irvine, Evan Marquardt at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Roger Chatterton at Kite Recording Studio in Cambridge, England.

Read an excerpt from Shakespeare in Swahililand on the Shakespeare & Beyond blog.

Previous: Barry Edelstein on Thinking Shakespeare



MICHAEL WITMORE: Let’s start, as we sometimes do, with a bit of Shakespeare.

[CLIP from The Merry Wives of Windsor in Swahili from the Globe to Globe festival]

If you don’t recognize that scene—and by the way, it's Mistress Ford and Falstaff from The Merry Wives of Windsor—it’s likely because you’re not one of the millions of people in the world who speak Swahili. While spoken in many places, Swahili is most tied to one particular part of the African continent—the one we’ll be talking about in this episode. This episode is about Shakespeare and East Africa.

[Music plays]

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger's Director.

If you aren't from East Africa, you may have never really considered the outsized role of our favorite English playwright on the region’s politics, history, and literary culture. In this episode, we speak with two people who are profoundly interested in the subject—on a deeply personal level. These two literary scholars both grew up in Kenya—but at different times and under completely different circumstances.

Edward Wilson-Lee, the son of white wildlife conservationists, spent his childhood in Kenya. Today he teaches Shakespeare at the University of Cambridge in England. Over the past few years he has spent extended periods back in Kenya, as well as in Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, and South Sudan, researching his book, Shakespeare in Swahililand. Edward is joined by one of his great literary heroes, the renowned Kenyan playwright, novelist, dissident, and social activist Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o. Ngũgĩ also grew up in Kenya – when it was still a British colony. Ngũgĩ is now a Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent work is the memoir Birth of a Dream Weaver.

Before we start, two pieces of context: In this conversation you’ll hear references to Henry Morton Stanley and David Livingstone. They were both 19th century explorers in Africa. You’ll also hear the language of Swahili referred to, interchangeably, by both of its names: Swahili and Kiswahili.

We call this podcast “The Language That I Have Lived In.” Ngũgĩ and Edward are interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

BOGAEV: Edward if we could, let’s begin with basics, just defining our terms. What are we talking about when we talk about Swahililand?

WILSON-LEE: So this was a term that I’m not the first to use, but it’s not a very commonly used term. But it was a way of capturing a particular group of East African countries to which Swahili was spoken essentially as the British administrative language during colonial times. So the colonizers landed first of course on the coastal regions where Swahili is spoken, and they learned Swahili, and they weren’t going to learn… they were damned if they were going to learned another language, so as they moved inland they started to force everyone else to speak Swahili as well.

NGŨGĨ: Swahili is basically a Bantu language developed in the coast of East Africa: Mozambique, Kenya, Mumbasa, Malindi, Zanzibar, okay, but very much influenced also by Muslim culture and Arabic, a very rich language. And now Kiswahili is a national and official language in Kenya, has a lot of users in Uganda, in Tanzania is both the national and official language, in Mozambique… In the Congo, it is the fourth largest language, you know, in the country. Plus, if you go to many universities all over the world, you know, from China, to Europe, to America, and so on, if there is one African language which is taught, it’s likely to be Kiswahili.

BOGAEV: Okay, thanks for that grounding. And now to Shakespeare in Swahililand. When and how did Shakespeare first arrive in what we’re calling Swahililand? And there’s a disputed, possibly forged story about a performance of Hamlet onboard ship in 1608, correct?

WILSON-LEE: Yeah, so the date of his arrival depends on who you believe. There’s this fantastic story in which the third voyage of the East India Company in 1607-09, two of the ships get slightly lost, and as they’re meandering down the coast of West Africa and then up the coast of East Africa, there’s a report which says that the sailors acted the Hamlet off the coast of Sierra Leone in 1607. And then in 1608 acted Richard II off northwest of Madagascar. And I’m telling the story kind of tentatively because the report comes from a log from the East India Company that was reported in the early 19th century and has subsequently been lost. And some people believe that this was actually a forgery of the notorious Victorian forger John Payne Collier who wanted to create this extraordinary discovery of Shakespeare being performed off the coast of Africa. And if these reports were true, it would mean that not only was Shakespeare being performed off East Africa in Shakespeare’s lifetime, but that the first recorded performance of Hamlet was not in Suffolk or in Shoreditch, but instead off the coast of Sierra Leone and what’s more was being performed for Portuguese-speaking Sierra-Leonean Africans. So it kind of shakes up the history of what we understand about Shakespeare, and, you know, who were the first witnesses of Shakespeare, who were the experiencers of Shakespeare, if it’s true.

BOGAEV: If it’s true, and that’s the important phrase here, right. And again, if it’s true, if it happened at all, and it’s highly likely that it did not, but it is mind-blowing. And Ngũgĩ, I know you told our producer that this was for you the most fascinating story in the book.

NGŨGĨ: Oh yes, that one, and also the… you know in The Tempest, Shakespeare’s Tempest, there’s the island, Caliban’s island. I always thought it was somewhere in the Caribbean area, and then I read Wilson’s book, and I find he talks about Zanzibar being that particular island, and I have been to Zanzibar, and really… I mean the magical island, even today, is still magical in some cases.

WILSON-LEE: So, when…

BOGAEV: So you’re saying you’re a true believer, in…

NGŨGĨ: Yeah, well, it’s very, very fascinating. He makes it very compelling. And if you go to Zanzibar, even today, you know when Caliban is talking about, you know, how the magic of the island, the sounds he hears, you know, that whole thing could be actually a description of Zanzibar even today.

BOGAEV: Oh, that’s so enticing, but again, odds might be against this… any of this being true, right? And as I said the operative phrase is, “if it happened,” but really the question for you, Edward, is: If all this probably or likely didn’t happen, why is it useful for us to be talking about it?

WILSON-LEE: Well, so I think that story is illustrative because it’s equally interesting if it didn’t happen, because it’s representative of a particular urge that 19th century Romantic and Victorian British culture felt to find Shakespeare in the quote-unquote “dark continent.” There was almost this kind of symbiotic relationship where Shakespeare’s universality couldn’t really prove itself unless he showed himself to also be capable of existing in this faraway place. And this becomes part of a tradition when Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke go off on their cartographic exhibition to try and establish the source of the Nile, and they take with them the complete works of Shakespeare, and spend the time reading the complete works of Shakespeare. And Burton even uses Shakespearian insult to have a go at Speke when Speke has the unforgiveable luck to have found the Nile… the source of the Nile… by himself when Burton wasn’t there. He, you know, pulls a quote from The Two Gentlemen of Verona and says that Speke, as “the damsel Lucetta” says in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, “like a woman’s reason, I think it so because I think it so.” So, and this begins a tradition where pretty much everyone who comes to East Africa from England in the 19th century talks about how they brought with them as their only reading the complete works of Shakespeare. So the idea that this story is trying to put across in the early 19th century of Shakespeare being first performed off the coast of Sierra Leone is I think drawn from a deep Victorian fascination of couplings between what they think of as this kind of amulet of British culture and this dark continent which fascinates and horrifies in equal parts.

BOGAEV: And by amulet, do you mean that in the sense of Shakespeare, say, is a signifier of civilization?

WILSON-LEE: Yeah, so I think a number of these bizarre Shakespeare-on-safari stories… Henry Morton Stanley is one of the great Shakespeare-on-safari storytellers, and one of the paradigmatic stories he tells is one in which, you know, he’s in Congo and a tribe confronts him because they think he’s making black magic by writing. And Henry Morton Stanley is pretending that, you know, these people have never seen writing, whereas actually Arabic traders had been bringing written Qurans into this area for ages. And this tribe confronts him and says that they’re going to have to… that he has to burn his writing. And he can’t burn his expeditionary notebook that he’s been writing in, but the only other thing he has with him is this volume of the complete works of Shakespeare. And he has this long and melodramatic scene in his book in which he talks about how Shakespeare has long been his genial companion and the only thing he has with him that kind of connects him to civilization, and then Shakespeare is cast into the flames, and Shakespeare plays the part of Christ here, going into the flames to sate the devils but, you know, innocent himself.


WILSON-LEE: But the wonderful sting in this story is, we can compare Stanley’s version in his book with the expeditionary diaries and it’s a complete fabrication. He’s just made this up. But he’s made it up because it’s something that the Victorian audience needed in order to prop up the idea of Shakespeare’s immortality, for there to be these barbaric readers who don’t understand him.

BOGAEV: Ngũgĩ, you’re laughing, you’re laughing at that Henry Morton Stanley story.

NGŨGĨ: No, no, I’m laughing because… oh yeah, I… that’s true. Shakespeare generally was used not as a… really… as a playwright, more as a symbol of light in a dark continent. Shakespeare, the great writer, in a continent where there are no writers, so the whole idea of light and darkness, Shakespeare would represent, obviously, the highest expression of light, as opposed to darkness.

BOGAEV: A very Shakespearean…

NGŨGĨ: Yeah…

BOGAEV: Yeah, comparison.

NGŨGĨ: Yeah, yeah, and…

BOGAEV: …And you had English travelers and explorers going back and forth to Africa and coming back with these remarkable tales, as you say, some of which include Shakespeare, and you write that this kind of reached its peak in the boys’ adventure novels by H. Rider Haggard…

NGŨGĨ: H. Rider Haggard… [OVERLAP]

BOGAEV: …Yeah, and… and Edward, you call him “the great fountainhead of the African adventure story.” What were his books like?

NGŨGĨ: Racist. Racist… [LAUGH]

BOGAEV: With a capital R.

NGŨGĨ: …through and through, you know, everything.

WILSON-LEE: Yeah, no, Rider Haggard is providing Victorian England with this kind of pure racist fantasy that they have, that essentially somewhere in Africa there’s a kind of little British kingdom that every English person can go out there and find and become king of, so in King Solomon’s Mines, which I, you know, I read as a child…

NGŨGĨ: No, I mean, we all read him, and it’s full of adventure and so on, so you don’t think about the racism, even if you’re an African. You just see, you know, great characters, sharp contrasts, evil and good and so on…

BOGAEV: So was it a kind of Indiana Jones of that time?

NGŨGĨ: Kind of. The idea of adventure was very, very important.

WILSON-LEE: Yeah, so, I mean, you’re right, it’s kind of Indiana Jones, it’s man goes off and, you know, does tough things in the wilderness, but the structures, as Ngũgĩ will know, now that you’re older, you can look at it and see was some Englishman sets off into Africa and discovers a magical lost kingdom of basically lost European people where he, you know, fights a battle, marries the queen, and then ends up as king of this kind of mythical lost kingdom in Africa, and the repeated nature of it makes it quite clear that this is, you know, an extraordinary racist and colonial fantasy.

NGŨGĨ: The portrayal of Af… okay, I can… but he provides a certain structure of images, later actually come to impact the general portrayal of Africa. For instance, in Rider Haggard, good, noble, African is the one who doesn’t question the presence of…


BOGAEV: How convenient…

NGŨGĨ: …or even more, the one who cooperates with the European adventurers in showing them where the hidden treasures are, right?


BOGAEV: And that’s the colonial…

NGŨGĨ: Yeah, that, yeah…

BOGAEV: …line through and through, yeah.

NGŨGĨ: The very bad African, the evil one, the one you don’t want to associate with, for whom you have no empathy, are the ones who are trying to prevent Europeans from getting to the treasure.

BOGAEV: [LAUGH] And to bring this back to Shakespeare, and what you were just saying, Edward and Ngũgĩ, is that he was fantasizing about an England before… really an England that never existed. It’s like a nostalgia of a fantasy of a kind of Shakespearean England before industrialization.

WILSON-LEE: Yeah, so I think, you know, this is one of the things that Victorian fantasies about Africa… colonial fantasies about Africa… are performing for that society, is they’re suggesting that there’s a place where they can get back before industrialization and cities and mass proletariat, where they can kind of live an Elizabethan, Shakespearean, merry England life, and of course, to a certain extent, the white settlers who ended up in Kenya, that was what they were trying to do. They were trying to recreate a kind of English country-house life halfway across the world, so Rider Haggard’s novels are to a certain extent tapping into that.

BOGAEV: And it seems that Shakespeare also provides some seeds for that…

NGŨGĨ: Yeah.

BOGAEV: …for that colonial fantasy.

NGŨGĨ: More… I think more, like, “We produce Shakespeare. You have no Shakespeare, right?”


NGŨGĨ: So that’s really the question. Because it’s nothing to do with what Shakespeare says about anything. It’s more this… that he is perfect, right, that he is the… this good writer, this is…

BOGAEV: Unparalleled…

NGŨGĨ: An unparalleled writer. You know, “you have not produced a Shakespeare…” that approach, I think, yeah.


BOGAEV: In addition to these adventure stories, you also… and explorers, you also had missionaries going to Africa, and you tell a story about this very different type of Englishman who comes to Africa and uses Shakespeare for entirely different purposes, and this is Edward Steere. So who is he?

WILSON-LEE: So Edward Steere is the third missionary bishop to Central Africa, from the university’s mission to Central Africa. So David Livingstone comes back in the 1850s and speaks at universities in Britain about the slave trade in eastern Africa, and charitable societies get together and send a bishop out to East Africa to try and convert the natives to Christianity. And Edward Steer is the third person to be sent out, and I think he’s slightly uncomfortable in the role in that he gets out there. And instead of actually spending much time on conversion, Steere spends the entire time with his printing press that he’s brought out with him, translating things from English into Swahili and from Swahili into English. And one of the earliest things that he translates is a little schoolbook called Hadithi za Kiingereza, which is a selection of stories from Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, and it went on to become an incredibly popular school textbook in East Africa.

BOGAEV: I have to say ironically both you and Ngũgĩ, it seems, despite your differences in age and race and upbringing, I understand you both came to Shakespeare the same way, and that was through this Charles and Mary Lamb book that…

NGŨGĨ: Oy, that was part of…

BOGAEV: …Edward Steere had translated.

NGŨGĨ: …that was part of the general reading.

BOGAEV: So, a foundation book.

NGŨGĨ: Yeah, foundation book, you know.

BOGAEV: And then Edward you also, that was a foundation text for you as well.

WILSON-LEE: Yeah, no, I was no, you know, Rossetti-esque child sitting around reading Dante in Italian when I was four or anything, but I certainly remember being read, you know, Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare at a very early age, but that was…

BOGAEV: And this was at where, at boarding school in England, in Europe?

WILSON-LEE: No, no this was… sorry, this was at school in Kenya, so at an early age, probably six or seven years old, in Nairobi, where I was at school at the time.

NGŨGĨ: Generally the syllabus in the school system was broadly based on what would have obtained in London. So I’m not surprised that… I’ve been to Hong Kong, for instance, and Malaysia, and…

BOGAEV: Same syllabus, right? No?

NGŨGĨ: …and then when we talk, you know, we start to talk and then you know we are talking about the same thing, the same text.

BOGAEV: It’s as if you all went to school together.

NGŨGĨ: Yeah, we’re talking about Charles Lamb, we’re talking about Shakespeare, and particularly Tales of Shakespeare, and so on. It was all pervasive everywhere in the empire. Just to illustrate just how pervasive Shakespeare was as a talisman, really, more than anything else, was I went to a school called Alliance High School in Kenya, but I remember in my years, they are between 1955 to 1959, my four years there, was Shakespeare. Every year, the end of the year, you know, sort of, there’d be a major production of Shakespeare. Not to talk about a Shakespeare text being part of the courses from first year, second year, third year, fourth year, so one came to think of—it seemed there was no other playwright in the world, let me put that… [LAUGH]


NGŨGĨ: …but Shakespeare, right? So he was all pervasive, his presence was enormous. And even then, this persistent thread, that he is… he is the example of light, as high as clarity, and that notion that we or our civilization was able to produce Shakespeare, the implication being all the time, where is your… or you never produced Shakespeare. Just in the same way as the idea of inventing the wheel was used.


NGŨGĨ: You never invented the wheel. So in the same breath, you never had a Shakespeare. So some of these have contradictory cause… impact. For instance, it was actually through Shakespeare that gradually some students of Alliance High School start writing their own plays in Kiswahili to perform in African townships and so on, and remember some of their plays that we did at the time, written by the students, had this Shakespearean structure to them, and so on. They are inspired, actually, by Shakespeare. But nevertheless, they were writing these plays in an African language.

BOGAEV: But then a transition happened, right? You had this inclusion of Shakespeare, it continued from the colonial era and colonial schooling, as you’re describing it, to the early days of the African independence movement, which you… you were there for, and in fact there was almost a conscious effort to include Shakespeare in so many ways in your schooling, and then it started to change, so how did this transition go down?

NGŨGĨ: It doesn’t really… Shakespeare’s still very revered, I… really, and…

BOGAEV: But the Shakespeare that you were taught de-emphasized and tapped…

NGŨGĨ: Oy, no, no…

BOGAEV: …tapped down the revolutionary spirit…

NGŨGĨ: He’s not the… he’s not a thinker, he’s a genius of that civilization, kind of thing, you know…

BOGAEV: An idol, an icon.

NGŨGĨ: …idol, kind of mindless genius, if you like. It’s not really Shakespeare as someone who is talking about society. That untouchable ideal that has no real relationship with the blood and tears and—although he talks about all that in the texts—that was divorced from what was going on, say, in the colony. But what happens after independence is that for some of us… me, well… tried to change the way literature is taught, and we tried to center it with Africa as the center…

BOGAEV: …as opposed to a tool…

NGŨGĨ: Yeah, as opposed… yeah, yeah, yeah, right.

BOGAEV: …of cultural hegemony.

NGŨGĨ: And even we brought Shakespeare in but not as a central focus of everything, you know.

BOGAEV: Well there is also the chapter, though, that we haven’t talked about, or that we’ve just begun to talk about: this pushback against Shakespeare, from the 1960s to later in the 20th century, and Ngũgĩ I know you were part of that.

NGŨGĨ: More… my thing more, like… It was actually… Things don’t always work the way they were intended, right?



NGŨGĨ: It was when we tried to change the syllabus at the University of Nairobi, in 1969 or thereabout, I remember how we were denounced in Kenyan parliament by ministers and attorney general and so on. And one of the biggest accusations I remember was the fact that we were trying to kill Shakespeare. [LAUGH]


NGŨGĨ: That’s… that was like an argument… if you say that, look what they’re trying to do, they are trying to remove Shakespeare from syllabus. And we were not… I cannot emphasize this… we were just rejecting the whole organization of literature in Africa.

BOGAEV: Right, it wasn’t a ban.

NGŨGĨ: Yeah, it’s not a ban on Shakespeare, it’s saying look, if in Africa, you have to begin from where you are, and then expand outwards, not bring English literature as if the center of your life and history and everything… I like to think of it as liberating Shakespeare. [LAUGH]


NGŨGĨ: Liberating Shakespeare…

BOGAEV: From his colonial prison.

NGŨGĨ: Yeah, yeah, from kind of English prison.

WILSON-LEE: It’s a very Shakespearean plot in some ways. People thought you were killing him, but you were really just breaking him out of prison.


BOGAEV: That’s right.

NGŨGĨ: Yeah, yeah, exactly, exactly, yeah, freeing him, freeing… [LAUGH]

BOGAEV: And this idea of appropriating Shakespeare for one’s own culture is something that you get into, Edward, in the chapters in which you discuss Julius Nyerere’s translation of Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice in Tanzania. There was also S. S. Mushi’s translation of Macbeth in Tanzania, and there was Thomas Dekker’s Julius Caesar in Sierra Leone, and Edward you talk in the book about the national poet of Ethiopia translating Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet into Amharic. Now Edward, you see these translations as yet another side of this story where Shakespeare in Africa is not about Britain; in fact it’s divorced from Britain.

WILSON-LEE: Yeah, I mean, I think one of the interesting things about the Ethiopian translations and some of the Indian performances in the early 20th century is that this stops it just being a two-way conversation between Britain and the world. You know, Shakespeare is here not being seen as a token of Britishness. When Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin is translating Shakespeare into Amharic in Ethiopia in the 1960s, he’s doing it because he finds a particular kismet between Shakespeare’s own treatment of court intrigue and autocracy in the history plays and the tragedies and what he’s seeing going on in Ethiopia around Haile Selassie. And so this is someone engaging with Shakespeare… obviously Ethiopia has an… immense symbolic potential for the pan-Africanist movement at that time, because Ethiopia represents this long and proud tradition of an uncolonized African culture with a long written history and everything. So in part, Haile Selassie’s patronage of the poet who is translating these things is to do with showing Ethiopian culture and showing Amharic to be on the level of other great world cultures.

Actually, the way in which Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin is translating is quite a subversive way, and that turns it into much more internal conversation and something that, you know, I think he’s translating Shakespeare not as some kind of totem or idol but as someone who he’s finding great affinities with as a writer.

You know, where the story of Shakespeare in East Africa… some of its most interesting parts are where it becomes detached from being used as a kind of British idol or being rejected as a British idol. You know, for instance, a lot of the Ethiopian Shakespeare influence comes from Russian cinema, and similarly when I went to South Sudan towards the end of this project to meet Joseph Abuk who had translated Cymbeline into Juba Arabic for the Globe to Globe festival in 2012. He had grown up on Shakespeare, but he’d grown up reading Shakespeare in Arabic through the translations of the Egyptian Renaissance in the early 20th century.

So I think there are lots of these stories where actually the conversations are… you know, that Shakespeare has long since ceased to be a British possession and something that the British simply get to nominate as their own and to use as a symbol of themselves, and has become alive again in circles far separated from them.

BOGAEV: And this gets to… really I think the central… I guess what we constantly talking about it and it’s a cliché by now, the universality of Shakespeare, and from what both of you are saying, in Africa’s case it might be more to the point to think about it in terms not of universality but that Shakespeare’s literally ubiquitous. It’s in the… it’s your foundation text, it’s… The works are simply available and accessible in the most literal sense. It’s unavoidable in culture. And that’s kind of… looking at it that way, it’s a bit of a reality check.

NGŨGĨ: Yeah. By the way, let me tell you, I’m… This semester I’m teaching a course on the whole theme of the colonizer and colonized, and my first class on Thursday, guess what text I shall be using: The Tempest. So I shall be talking about Prospero and Caliban…

BOGAEV: And Zanzibar, and… [LAUGH]

NGŨGĨ: [OVERLAP] boy, and Zanzibar, I have to bring Zanzibar, of course, you know I…


NGŨGĨ: I’ll mention your book called…

WILSON-LEE: Oh, that’s very kind.

BOGAEV: Edward, would you like to pick up on that idea of the cliché question, the universality of Shakespeare?

WILSON-LEE: Yeah, I mean I… you know, I think one of the things that I spent a lot of time thinking about when writing this book was this notion of universality, and I think a lot of these different people taking Shakespeare to Africa are kind of testing his universality.

So the colonial travelers are saying that Shakespeare is universal, but therefore anyone who doesn’t get him isn’t included with the universal human and is inhuman. Whereas the missionaries who translate him have, you know, idea in a creator God who created everyone and therefore everyone must have some sort of shared language and shared beauty that they can all appreciate, so they all have these difference versions of universality.

So I think Shakespearean universality in reality obviously has a lot more to do with power struggle and his… the ubiquity that has come through the size of the British Empire.

But I think that, you know, there are redeemable ideas of his… if not universality, his universal accessibility. Shakespeare first and foremost is a storyteller, and in order to create compelling stories, he doesn’t flatten his characters, he gives them motives and depth and so and so forth. So I think the fact that people, even after the trauma of having this text imposed upon them by colonization, can come back to it in a different guise at a different time and see something else in it, speaks to Shakespeare’s… if not universality, at least his extraordinary, almost unparalleled openness to being appropriated and to being read in different ways and to appealing to different people.

NGŨGĨ: Yeah. No, he is a great writer, and you really put it this way: as a writer, I’ve got to appreciate even more what I think is a range of characters from the highest social grouping to the socially low in terms of structures of the societies and so on, the way he looks at how power actually operates in society. He tackles things like racism in the case of Othello, he can sort of… this can be said better, you know, Merchant of Venice and anti-Semitism, and you know sort of… You know, he has really packed a lot of things in his texts. And the struggle over Shakespeare, quite frankly, was that the colonial Shakespeare tried to ensure the content of his plays had no relevance. So the struggle really was… let’s have Shakespeare, but he must be this sanitized Shakespeare, not the Shakespeare who talks about Macbeth assassinating Banquo in his bedroom as a guest. If this happened today, oh my God, you know, that’d be something else, but it’s there in Shakespeare. So it’s the question of really appropriating that essential Shakespeare. And I think what appeals to so many people in Shakespeare is that Shakespeare is able to look at society and capture all the contradictions that move society, but to try to make him this great writer, “there’s no other writer like Shakespeare”—it’s a fantasy.

WILSON-LEE: Well, it’s a fantasy that no one who ever read Shakespeare could possibly, you know, could possibly have, because that kind of idol in Shakespeare always turns out to be, you know, the tyrant, the person set apart. You know, Richard III tries to pretend to be this kind of pious idol and turns out to be an evil, rooting hog, so Shakespeare has no sympathy for alabaster idol types generally.

BOGAEV: It… I could talk all day with both of you about Shakespeare, and it’s such a pleasure. Thank you so much for doing this.

NGŨGĨ: Okay, thank you.

WILSON-LEE: Thank you Barbara, thank you for hosting.

NGŨGĨ: Yeah.

WITMORE: Edward Wilson-Lee teaches medieval and early modern literature, including Shakespeare, at Sidney Sussex College at the University of Cambridge in England. He is the author of the 2016 book Shakespeare in Swahililand: In Search of a Global Poet, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Kenyan novelist and playwright Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent work is the memoir Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Writer’s Awakening, which was published by the New Press in 2016. Ngũgĩ and Edward were interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

“The Language That I Have Lived In” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the Associate Producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Barbara Caldwell at the University of California Irvine, Evan Marquardt at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Roger Chatterton at Kite Recording Studio in Cambridge, England.

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Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world's largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.