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. Read More