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Shakespeare’s plays worth studying if we are to understand African politics

OPINION
By By Anyang' Nyong'o | November 24th 2013

By Anyang' Nyong'o

There was a heated debate in the sixties in East Africa regarding what type of literature should be taught our students in high schools and universities. Previous to that English Literature was the in thing. But literary giants like Okot p’Bitek, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Micere Githae Mugo, John Ruganda, Pio Zirimu, Charles Mangua, Jared Angira, Okello Oculi and many others pointed out, quite rightly so, that literature was universal notwithstanding the medium through which it was communicated to people. Language is but a medium of communication: the substance of the language, the literature, is what matters.

In that regard Africans, as well as Asians and Mongolians, had always had their literature told in many languages characteristic of those societies. “Song of Lawino,” Okot’s epic poem, was first told and written by Okot in his own language Acoli as “Wer Pa Lawino.” When it was finally translated into English it could not all of a sudden become English literature; it was still Acoli literature but told in English. And that is why we all reached an intellectual and sensible conclusion that English, as a language, was to be used for teaching literature in East Africa wherever that literature came from.  The teaching of  “Literature in English”, as was finally agreed, was a liberating moment which eventually saw the mushrooming of diverse works of art in poems, plays and novels in our region.  

Some pundits, however, thought that the moment of liberation meant a complete delinking from literature emanating from Europe that was read and taught in the past. Some people even frowned on teaching Shakespearean literature as retrogressive, as something that was resurrecting the discarded English Literature. But English Literature, if we forget, for the moment, such medieval works of art by people like Chaucer — ancient and complicated as they are — is still literature worth reading and teaching students. The complicated examination of the human psyche and feelings, involving deep sentiments of love and melancholy that D.H. Lawrence dwells on in his novels, is a literature that cannot be confined to the shores of England. In like manner, I find Shakespeare’s historical plays worth studying if we are to understand African politics today.

The politics of conspiracy and betrayal that comes out in Richard the Second is very reminiscent of “the traitor” episode of 1983 when Moi quickly dispensed with Charles Njonjo after a rather bizarre debate in Parliament when “the hounds of Baskerville” competed with each other on who would howl against Sir Charles the most.

More recently was the MoU that made Raila support Kibaki to power. But on ascending to the throne Kibaki did not waste one moment to distance himself from the many Northumberlands (the LDP leadership) who had deserted Moi’s court to help him to power.

Let me summarise what happened to King Richard the Second. Richard had ascended to the throne in the latter quarter of the 14th century. He ran afoul of his own ruling class and factions developed which led to Henry Bolingbroke, a respected Lord within the King’s court, masterminding a rebellion that deposed Richard as King with Henry himself assuming the throne as King Henry IV. One of Richard’s close confidantes, Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, surprised the King by siding with Bolingbroke in that plot that deposed him from power.

When Bolingbroke finally ascended to the throne and Richard was lying desolate in the Tower, he lamented to Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland in the following words:

“Northumberland , thou ladder wherewithal

The mounting Bolingbroke ascends my throne,

The time shall not be many hours of age

More than it is ere foul sin gathering head

Shall break into corruption;

Thou shalt think though he divide the realm

And give thee half

It is too little, helping him to all.

And he shall think that thou,

Which know’est the way

To plant unrightful kings, will know again,

Being never so little urged, another way

To pluck him headlong from the usurped throne.

The love of wicked men converts to fear;

That fear to hate, and the hate turns one or both

To worthy danger and deserved death.”

The much better known play by Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar”, has always intrigued readers by how vividly it brings out the vicious nature of the struggle for access to powerful offices in government, corporations or even social clubs.

Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, on other hand, makes a mockery of social prejudices that can divide the human race for decades and decades, adding nothing to human achievement except the vicarious satisfaction that “if my enemies don’t get it,” then “I am even better off doing without it as well.” But love always breaks through this all the time, even if love, like Jesus, is quite often crucified on the cross for its superlative goodness. “Romeo and Juliet” is a clear condemnation of the stupidity of racism, tribalism, clannism and other forms of social bigotry that have emerged in human society since time immemorial. Why don’t we then study Shakespeare to learn more about politics, political intrigue and human nature in general?
 

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