Does Shakespeare really have “universal appeal”?
“People frequently ask me why I devote so much time to seeking out facts about man’s past,” the paleontologist Louis Leakey said in 1964. “The past shows clearly that we all of us have a common origin and that our differences in race and color and creed are only superficial.” Leakey sought to prove that humankind’s earliest ancestors evolved in East Africa’s Rift Valley, and in doing so, to invert the common Western idea that “Africa is always producing something new.” Rather than an endless fount of novelty, Leakey’s Africa held a promise of the immutable. He believed that excavating African earth could speak to the universal essence of humankind.
Over the past few years, the literary critic Edward Wilson-Lee went searching in East Africa for his own evidence of a shared humanity. Wilson-Lee, a Kenyan-born son of British descent, sought “the Holy Grail of Shakespeare studies”—the key to the Bard’s “universal appeal.” His new book Shakespeare in Swahililand: In Search of a Global Poet asks whether Shakespeare’s plays, like Leakey’s specimens, can point toward an essential human quality.
The claim that Shakespeare possessed a universal genius, and that his plays transcend culture, is at least as old as the first published edition of his works. “He was not of an age, but for all time!” Ben Jonson declared in the “Eulogy” accompanying Shakespeare’s First Folio in 1623. Prefacing his own edition of the works in 1765, Samuel Johnson confirmed that Shakespeare’s plays had “long outlived his century,” and argued that the secret to their durability was universalism:
His characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpracticed by the rest of the world; by the peculiarities of studies or professions, which can but operate upon small numbers; or by the accidents of transient fashions or temporary opinions: they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply and observation will always find.
Jonson’s verdict went essentially unchallenged for centuries, during which the English language—and Shakespeare’s plays—rapidly spread across the globe. English colonists, imperialists, and travelers encountered characters and incidents that echoed his works, giving rise to what Wilson-Lee describes as “a belief … that certain scenes in life have an eternal form, a universal structure.” In the circular logic of colonialism, Shakespeare’s presence in far-flung places was proof of his universalism, regardless of how he got there.
But in recent years Shakespeare’s universal appeal has become something of a critical punching bag. Universalism, its critics argue, is yet another eraser of diversity, an assertion that the traditionally privileged are humankind’s exemplars. Contemporary criticism locks Shakespeare in the era Jonson claimed he transcended—the patriarchal, class-divided, white Western world of late Tudor and early Stuart England. That project has met its own critical backlash, such that now it would be difficult to say which is the more radical claim: that Shakespeare is of an age, or for all time.
Shakespeare in Swahililand begins in Zanzibar, where a nineteenth-century missionary named Edward Steere distributed a hand-stitched pamphlet featuring four stories, translated into Swahili, from Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, a popular 1807 children’s book that condensed Shakespeare’s plays into simple prose. While his contemporaries wanted to unify humanity under a common God, Steere sought harmony through Shakespeare. He was as committed to an idea of Shakespeare’s universalism as he was to the equality of souls, and he “believed in the possibility of shared thought, language, culture … a common humanity which reversed the fragmentation of human society after the Tower of Babel.”
That belief set Steere apart from many Western explorers, who carried the works not as a means of connection but as a prophylactic, a talisman of self-proclaimed civility. When Teddy Roosevelt embarked on his two-year hunt in Africa, he brought along “a veritable ark of Western culture,” a fifty-five volume, sixty-pound “pigskin library” that included three volumes of Shakespeare and required its own porter. Early explorers Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke bore the Bard during their search for the source of the Nile. With the plays in one’s pocket, “the reader’s poetic soul was immune to the lures of barbarism.”
If, in East Africa, Shakespeare’s plays saw little success as texts, they fared much better in performance, through which they bridged the cultural gap so successfully, Wilson-Lee writes, that many of them eventually found their way into East African folklore. This transition began with “one of the most incredible stories in all of Shakespeareana,” the staging of Hamlet onboard an East India Company ship off the East African coast in 1607. (“Shakespeare was being acted off the Swahili coast even as Shakespeare was still alive and writing plays,” marvels Wilson-Lee.) But even more marvelous are the performances by Indian rail workers in Mombasa, which began in 1896. British imperialism was so well established at this point that Indian workers were staging performances in Kenya, performing in a variety of Indian languages.
Throughout the twentieth century, Shakespeare’s presence in Africa took on a more political aspect. An astonishing number of key post-independence players studied English literature at Kenya’s Makerere College, with a heavy emphasis on the Bard. Perhaps most notable was the future first president of Uganda, Apollo Milton Obote, who starred in a production of Julius Caesar while leading protests against the Ugandan elites—faculty members were forced to don the production’s helmets and shields to protect themselves from the protestors’ stones.
Wilson-Lee argues for the vital importance of such early exposure to Shakespeare. Not only did the productions give these future leaders some of their first experiences of community organization, he claims, but the students learned to turn “what they had received as the totem of British civility” against them. During a heated debate in the Kenyan Legislative Council, its first African member, Eliud Wambu Mathu, protested unfair taxation by comparing the government to Shylock and their tax to a pound of flesh. If Shakespeare had once served as the emblem of British enlightenment, then it carried an extra sting to have his words describe British barbarity.
To proceed with his search for the universal, Wilson-Lee eventually forfeits the historical basis of Shakespeare’s presence in East Africa: “The Victorians’ idolization of Shakespeare meant that he would have a place at the foundations of language learning in their colonies,” making his prominence in East Africa inevitable. But embedding Shakespeare in political conditions, he argues, “can explain how Shakespeare got into these hands or those, but it doesn’t explain what happened when he got there.” The plays have functioned in wide capacities since their arrival, as “a primer for children’s reading in a foreign tongue, a prompt for fantasies in the wilderness and urban revelry, a tool for testing what we share with others and a weapon used by colonizer and colonized.” These varied, sometimes contradictory uses of Shakespeare prove his universal application, but do they suggest a universal quality?
In the concluding pages, Wilson-Lee floats a personal impression of what’s essential to the works. “There is nothing more ever-present in his plays than the border of meaning,” he writes, “the cliff’s edge beyond which lies the incomprehensible realm in which answers are thought to reside.” Some who have journeyed this far will be disappointed by Wilson-Lee’s destination, as if being told a barren stretch of sand is the site of a mythical kingdom. Indeed, “the border of meaning” might aptly describe the route of his search; for all his admirable research and fieldwork, he never quite defines the universal. Merely unearthing our common ancestor doesn’t provide the meaning of the bones.
If having a universal quality means simply sustaining a popular presence in various countries, through various periods, then a great many authors meet the definition. But if a universal poet is meant to be like water—something truly no one can do without—then it’s an impossible standard. As Tolstoy said of Shakespeare’s works, “Not only did I feel no delight, but I felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium,” and one wouldn’t need to travel outside London to find people who manage perfectly well without the Bard.
Shakespeare in Swahililand compels us to wonder why Wilson-Lee felt it so important to seek Shakespeare’s universalism. It would be a coup to somehow prove Ben Jonson’s instincts correct, but considering the simplicity of the English Renaissance view of the world, it wouldn’t even be desirable—humankind became more interesting after Babel. Perhaps the most miraculous thing about Shakespeare is that, through the accidents of history, he’s come to form a global point of reference. Through him, we can better perceive the refractions of culture. Such chaotic variety might not be what Jonson had in mind, but it will keep humanity transfixed for all time.
Michael LaPointe (@MWLaPointe) lives in Toronto. He contributes to the Times Literary Supplement and writes a monthly literary essay for The Walrus.