Shakespeare and South Africa

Shakespeare and South Africa

Shakespeare and South Africa

Shakespeare and South Africa


This book is a lively and topical study of the teaching and criticism of Shakespeare in South Africa. Johnson covers a number of key historical moments in the interpretation of Shakespeare from the early nineteenth century to the present day, and uses a wide range of source materials to detail the formulation of a literary education policy in South Africa. Johnson's work will serve as a significant resource for South African cultural studies, while furthering the debates on the neo-colonial use of English literature and on the conditions of cultural assimilation.


My central concern is to relate the political mission of English studies in South Africa over the past 200 years first to its historical context, and second to current cultural, political, and theoretical debates reflecting on its future.

The range and variety of English studies in contemporary South Africa can best be conveyed by juxtaposing two very different versions of Shakespeare I encountered in 1989. The first Shakespeare was firmly entrenched at Athlone Teachers Training College in Paarl, where students were protesting against apartheid education policy, the state of emergency, and elections for the discredited tricameral parliament. This Shakespeare is described in prescriptive detail in the college's English examination paper from the previous year as follows:

It sounds absurd to ask why one should read Shakespeare, but the unfortunate fact is that very few grown-up people read him at all. And most boys and girls read him not because they want to, but because public examinations demand that they should.

Everybody agrees to put Shakespeare on a pedestal, which is the last place he would care to choose for himself. The truth about him is that he is the greatest living writer that we have ever had, for the simple reason that he knew more about humanity than anyone else of whom we know. Other men may have known more, but they could not express their knowledge, and it isn't much good having knowledge or sympathy if you can't express them.

Again, if you are amongst those who are bored by Shakespeare, you must remember that the reason for your boredom lies in your own dullness, not Shakespeare's. If a man has interested all types of people for several hundred years it is probable that if he fails to interest you, there is something radically wrong with you. You may prefer authors like Zane Grey, Edgar Rice Burroughs or Barbara Cartland just as some of your ignorant ancestors preferred the Zane Greys and Edgar Rice Burroughs of their time, whose works are deservedly forgotten.

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