Shakespeare in Africa

This essay was composed for the NEH Summer Institute: Shakespeare from the Globe to the Global (seminar).

Rebekah Bale, Prince Mohammad bin Fahd University


An oft-quoted story from Richard Hakluyt’s writing tells of two Shakespeare productions, Richard II and Hamlet, performed by men from the ship “Dragon,” which was anchored off Sierra Leone in 1607. The performances (and presumably the preparation) were to keep the men from “idleness.” These first contact narratives begin the story of Shakespeare in Africa, at least as far as we have written records. Of African contemporaries of Shakespeare we know nothing.

Translations formed the first wave of African Shakespeare—the first of his plays translated into Arabic was Othello, performed in Egypt in 1884. Other key moments in the translation history include Sol Plaatje’s renderings into Tswana (South Africa) in the early twentieth century and Julius Nyerere’s translations into Swahili. It is interesting that in the latter case, translations done by Tanzania’s independence hero became victims of the trend towards African-ization in East Africa. This was primarily in post-independence Kenya where the trend succeeded in removing nearly all Western literature from the school syllabus until the restoration of Romeo and Juliet in 1992 (Mazrui 64).

The rise of adaptations began with the trend towards decolonization in the political arena and the influence of works by Franz Fanon (Algeria), Aime Césaire (France/Martinique) and Leopold Sedar Senghor (Senegal). Of these only Césaire attempted a Shakespeare adaptation—Une Tempête— but the theoretical work done on the psychology of the colonized subject and the power relations inherent within the system were extremely influential on the latter adaptations.

Moving into the post-colonial period, South African Welcome Msomi’s uMabatha played a key role in the first wave of works which were concerned with raising the profile of African traditions. In Sierra Leone, Thomas Decker’s translations into Krio, beginning in 1964 with Julius Caesar, were influential in promoting the language itself as something that could handle even the most serious of themes and of exposing people who had not received a French education to Shakespeare.

In the modern era, both Dev Virahsawmy in Mauritius (early 1990s) and Sony Labou Tansi in Congo-Brazzaville (late 1980s to 1995) have treated Shakespeare’s plays in fascinating and provocative ways. Once the first wave of national pride had ebbed, fifteen or twenty years after independence, these writers, amongst others, turned to Shakespeare to help articulate the disappointments and complexities in both the literary and political arenas.


The following is meant to serve as a brief, annotated introduction to some interesting adaptations of Shakespeare plays produced for the theatre by African and Asian directors. I have included ways to find scripts and performance video as appropriate.

Toufann, Dev Virahsawmy, dir. (1999)

In English translation, for script see Suggested Reading below.

The figure of Dev Virahsawmy looms large in the cultural life of Mauritius. For decades he has been the premier exponent of Creole (Kreol) in both linguistic and artistic spheres. Director, playwright and translator, he has explicitly stated his intention to raise Mauritian Kreol from a spoken language to a written one with its own creative products. The history of Kreol in Mauritius is partly a history of the island’s inhabitants who can trace their origins from other parts of Africa, India, and China, as well as Europe. Virahsawmy’s concern then is not so much to increase the prestige of Kreol but to publish and produce art in Kreol which can add to its status as a ‘literary’ language alongside English and French. Virahsawmy makes Kalibann the secret lover of Kordelia and the father of her unborn child. Although it is clear that his industry and skill will enable Kalibann to inherit Prospero’s technological empire (and he is the only character with that particular skill-set), Prospero despises him and treats him with condescension. He calls Kalibann a ‘batar’ a word that the English translators left in Kreol and which means both illegitimate and mixed-race. By keeping the balancing act going, Virahsawmy does not provide an idealistic vision of Mauritius or its problems. He is content to conclude with the ambiguous “new king, new problems! Mari sa!” the latter an untranslatable phrase meaning something like “it’s all crazy, so it goes.”

Hamlet, Hugues Serge Limbvani, dir. (2005)
In French, available on DVD at

Limbvani, a Congolese director who works in French, casts Gertrude in the role of a young African girl, in love with the Claudius character but forced by her family to marry the old King. As the shift in perspective shows, the narrative according to Gertrude is a very different one than Shakespeare’s and the director uses the familiar story to highlight the contemporary problem of arranged marriage. Using a mixed group of actors, he also highlights the presence of the dead amongst the living through a connection with certain African spiritual beliefs. The director has also produced a version of Othello where the protagonist is a white mercenary employed by the Kingdom of Kongo in pre-colonial times. More information and statements by Limbvani about his work are available at <a href="" target="_blank"></a> where Boyokani is the name of the theatre company, meaning &#145;union’ in Lingala.

La Résurrection rouge et blanche de Roméo et Juliette, Sony Labou Tansi. dir.
Script in French available as a supplement to the issue of Acteurs, 1990
Performed in France and Congo Brazzaville, 1991.

Sony Labou Tansi was a writer and director from Congo-Brazzaville who is best known for his novels of the absurd. Tansi’s work, both novels and plays, has been widely cited as an example of post-colonial concerns, with its chaotic use of language and its depiction of the state as refusing to function in any meaningful way. As a writer and political activist, Tansi links the traditional with the post-modern aesthetic and rejects the linear narrative of suffering that has been the hallmark of much post-colonial literature. This version of the play also concerns itself with racial types in its casting. The mothers of Romeo and Juliet are of mixed race, and the nurse is Chinese. The competitive spirit (and social class) of Romeo is captured in his being a talented tennis player, not a common sport in Africa. The family feud continues much as in the original, as the two lovers are married by a friar, and ends in death for both. But the sense of a society on the verge of civil war is heightened by erasing several sub-plots, including the marriage to Paris and the death-like sleep of Juliet. The playwright’s adaptation focuses on the “bystanders” who are both perpetrators and victims of the communal violence.

Macbeki, Pieter-Dirk Uys, dir. (2008)

Script available for download from
First performed in February 2009; no performance video is available.

Uys’ satirical retelling of the Macbeth story, Macbeki centers on three key figures of the post-apartheid South African political scene: Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, and Jacob Zuma. The triangular nature of the relationships is taken as a base by Uys, who transposes Mandela into Duncan, Mbeki into Macbeth, and Zuma into Malcolm. Uys’ main reason for choosing Mbeki as his target seems to have been the high cost of Mbeki’s denialism about HIV/AIDS. In addition, he was perceived as unaware of the real problems threatening South Africa: unemployment, poverty, and disease. It also made fun of the elderly but revered leader (Mandela/Maduba) and the rough, young upstart (Zuma/Lord McZum). It was performed first before the June 2009 elections which Zuma won. Uys therefore focuses on the schism in the ANC rather than the figure of Zuma himself. MacBeki is given several quotes by Shakespeare, and he always notes “Shakespeare” after speaking them. His wife, Lady Manta, who speaks a version of the “unsex me here” speech combined with “Mirror, mirror on the wall,” to make her desires clear: “Power / And better hair” (11). Having the witches re-appear as journalists meant Uys was able to take a frightening part of the original play and insert it in a humorous and disconcerting way into the satire.

Suggested Reading

Banham, Martin, Roshni Mooneeram, and Jane Plastow. “Shakespeare And Africa.” In The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Stage. 284–299. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 3 Dec. 2011.

Ghazoul, Ferial J. “The Arabization Of Othello.” Comparative Literature 50.1 (1998): 1. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 Dec. 2011.

Kliman, Bernice W. "At Sea About Hamlet At Sea: A Detective Story." Shakespeare Quarterly 62.2 (2011): 180–204. Academic Search Complete. Web. 25 May 2012.

Mazrui, Alamin M. “Shakespeare In Africa: Between English And Swahili Literature.” Research In African Literatures 27.1 (1996): 64. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 Dec. 2011.

Suzman, Janet. “South Africa In Othello.” Shakespeare and the Twentieth Century. 23–40. Newark, DE; London, England: U of Delaware P; Associated UP, 1998. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 3 Dec. 2011.

Wilkinson, Jane. “&#145;The Sayings Of Tsikinya-Chaka’: Shakespeare In South Africa.” Africa: Rivista Trimestrale Di Studi E Documentazione Dell’istituto Italo-Africano 54.2 (1999): 193. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 3 Dec. 2011.