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Shakespeare in Swahililand: In Search of a Global Poet

Shakespeare in Swahililand: In Search of a Global Poet

by Edward Wilson-Lee

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An exploration of Shakespeare as a global poet

Shakespeare in Swahililand tells the unexpected literary history of Shakespeare’s influence in East Africa. Beginning with Victorian-era expeditions in which Shakespeare’s works were the sole reading material carried into the interior, the Bard has been a vital touchstone


An exploration of Shakespeare as a global poet

Shakespeare in Swahililand tells the unexpected literary history of Shakespeare’s influence in East Africa. Beginning with Victorian-era expeditions in which Shakespeare’s works were the sole reading material carried into the interior, the Bard has been a vital touchstone throughout the region. His plays were printed by liberated slaves as one of the first texts in Swahili, performed by Indian laborers while they built the Uganda railroad, used to argue for native rights, and translated by intellectuals, revolutionaries, and independence leaders.

Weaving together stories of explorers staggering through Africa’s interior, eccentrics living out their dreams on the savanna, decadent émigrés, Cold War intrigues, and even Che Guevara, Edward Wilson-Lee—a Cambridge lecturer raised in Kenya—tallies Shakespeare’s influence in Zanzibar, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Sudan. Traveling through these countries, he speaks with everyone from theater directors and academics to soldiers and aid workers, discovering not only cultural dimensions traceable to Shakespeare's plays but also an overwhelming insistence that these works provide a key insight into the region.

An astonishing work of empathy and historical vision, Shakespeare in Swahililand gets at the heart of what makes Shakespeare so universal and the role that his writings have played in thinking about what it means to be human.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Wilson-Lee, a fellow in English at Cambridge University, spent his childhood in Kenya, and he intersperses his scholarly, rather esoteric study of Shakespeare in colonial East Africa with his own recollections and impressions in this complex, challenging work. As Wilson-Lee admits, his book is as much personal memoir and travelogue as inquiry into Shakespeare’s appeal across continents. He begins with explorers Richard Burton and Henry Morton Stanley, who brought Shakespeare to the region he calls Swahililand—today’s Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda—and fetishized Shakespeare as an antidote to “going native.” He then describes how, in 1867, the missionary Edward Steere translated storybook versions of Shakespeare’s plays into Swahili. Wilson-Lee draws a rich portrait of a region of Africa in which Shakespeare was familiar, adored, and widely performed with numerous local embellishments. Acrobatic in style and impressive in scholarship, his account arrives 400 years after Shakespeare’s death with a cross-cultural bang. It is not an easy book to digest. Wilson-Lee’s florid language, off-topic ramblings, travel adventures, and speculative flights widen his report but come at the cost of coherence and clarity. Agent: Isobel Dixon, Blake Friedman Agency. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Wilson-Lee (English, Cambridge Univ.) rejects the view that Shakespeare represents British imperialism. Part travelog, part meditation on Shakespeare's role in East Africa ("Swahililand"), his book explores diverse ways in which Shakespeare has been adapted to situations and needs of countries in this region. Julius Kambarage Nyerere, first president of Tanzania, translated The Merchant of Venice as a vehicle to foster his anticapitalist agenda. George Mungai staged the play in Nairobi, Kenya, with Gikuyu businessmen. Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin produced Othello in Ethiopia because he thought it mirrored his country's condition. On South Africa's Robben Island in the late 1970s, Nelson Mandela and 33 other political prisoners marked their favorite passages in a volume of Shakespeare that has become known as the "Robben Island Bible." For the imprisoned men these lines expressed their political struggle. To mark South Sudanese independence from Sudan, actors from that fledgling country performed Cymbeline at the Globe in London in 2012 because the play recounts a successful rebellion against a dominant overlord. VERDICT This readable account shows that Shakespeare is universal because his work can be read in all types of environments, reflecting eternal truths and current conditions worldwide.—Joseph Rosenblum, Univ. of North Carolina, Greensboro
Kirkus Reviews
Pursuing the Bard across the history, geography, and culture of East Africa.Wilson-Lee (English/Sidney Sussex Coll.; co-editor: Translation and the Book Trade in Early Modern Europe, 2014), who spent his childhood in East Africa and teaches Shakespeare, takes readers on a trek through Zanzibar, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Sudan to discover Shakespeare's legacy on those areas. He begins with famous African explorers for whom Shakespeare was indispensable; Sir Richard Francis Burton carried a volume of Shakespeare while crossing both bog and savanna when he set out to find the source of the Nile. Henry Morton Stanley "recounted burning his copy of Shakespeare to mollify tribesmen who viewed his books as witchcraft. Wilson-Lee chronicles his visit to Zanzibar, the site of Edward Steere's 1867 printing of the Hadithi za Kiingereza, a collection of four Shakespearean tales and one of the earliest printed publications in Swahili; and Mombasa, where, at the end of the 19th century, tens of thousands of Indians arrived to build the railways, bringing their love of Shakespeare with them. The author also discusses his visit to Makerere University in Kampala, where teaching and performance of Shakespeare flourished during the 1940s; Dar es Salaam, where the first president of Tanzania translated Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice into Swahili; and Ethiopia, where Poet Laureate Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin won favor from Emperor Haile Selassie for his production of Othello. In Nairobi, on the grounds of the coffee farm described by Karen Blixen in Out of Africa, Wilson-Lee reminisces about his youth among the Gikuyu people there. At its core, Shakespeare in Swahililand is as much the author's story as it is Shakespeare's or Africa's. Wilson-Lee enjoyably melds memoir, history, and literary travelogue to reveal the surprising hold that Shakespeare continues to have on a culture remote from his own.
From the Publisher

"Wilson-Lee enjoyably melds memoir, history, and literary travelogue to reveal the surprising hold that Shakespeare continues to have on a culture remote from his own." —Kirkus Reviews

"Wilson-Lee draws a rich portrait of a region of Africa in which Shakespeare was familiar, adored, and widely performed with numerous local embellishments. Acrobatic in style and impressive in scholarship." —Publishers Weekly

"There is no better time to recommend Shakespeare in Swahililand: In Search of a Global Poet. A lecturer at Cambridge, Wilson-Lee was born on the African continent and spent his formative years in Kenya. This book evinces a remarkable familiarity with Africa, filtered through the lens of that most-English poet and playwright. Tracing the history of Shakespeare’s impact on Africa—from Victorian settlers to modern independence movements—Wilson-Lee shows the Bard to be a man for all continents." —The New Criterion

"Edward Wilson-Lee . . . has successfully told a lesser-known story of Africa, and it is a story worth knowing." —The Economist

"A fascinating book—part travelogue, part cultural history . . . Wilson-Lee proves a perceptive and entertaining guide to the Bard's influence in Swahililand." —Andrew Lycett, Literary Review

"Wilson-Lee’s account of his East African Shakespeare-hunt is vivid and full of insights." —Daniel Hahn, The Independent

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Shakespeare in Swahililand

In Search of a Global Poet

By Edward Wilson-Lee

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2016 Edward Wilson-Lee
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71444-4



Shakespeare and the Explorers

    ... they take the flow o'th' Nile
    By certain scales i'th' pyramid. They know
    By th' height, the lowness, or the mean if dearth
    Or foison follow. The higher Nilus swells,
    The more it promises; as it ebbs, the seedsman
    Upon the slime and ooze scatters his grain,
    And shortly comes to harvest.

Antony and Cleopatra (II.vii.17–23)

Although the world was beginning to open up during Shakespeare's lifetime, with Jesuit missions to the Far East and growing settlements in the Americas, he lived in an age in which the Mediterranean still merited its name as 'the middle sea', the place in the centre of the world. Around this great inland sea all places of importance were arranged – notably excluding the backwater island which Shakespeare never left – and through it man's greatest voyages had taken place. The classical geographer Pliny, still a respected authority in the Renaissance, declared that while men of the south were born burnt by the sun, and those of the north had frosty complexions, the blended climate of the middle lands made for fertile soils and minds. Only there, he contends, do the people have proper governments, while 'the outermost people ... have never obeyed the central people, for they are detached and solitary, in keeping with the savagery of Nature that oppresses them'. About half Shakespeare's plays are set in his native Islands; the rest, with the important exception of that strange beast Hamlet, arrange themselves around the Med. Its waters were so thick with history and myth that Odysseus's ten-year cruise from Asia Minor to the Greek Islands remained the archetypal sea voyage even long after Shakespeare's contemporaries had circumnavigated the globe through far more treacherous waters. And into this central body of water flowed the most famous and strangest of rivers, the Nile.

Every year, at the end of summer, the waters of the Nile rose above its banks and flooded the plains of northern Egypt, a potent symbol of the unexplained and irresistible force of nature. 'My grief', says Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus at the sight of his raped and mutilated daughter Lavinia, 'was at the height before thou cam'st / And now like Nilus it disdaineth bounds' (III.i.70–71). The destructive power of the Nile, however, was matched by its near-magical fertility. As the annual flood subsided, the river left behind water and silt rich enough for agriculture to flourish in the middle of a desert land. The power of the Nile mud to make things grow was held in such high regard that naturalists from ancient Greece to Renaissance Europe believed it capable of spontaneously generating animal life, though (as was fitting for a river whose source lay deep in an unknown continent) the 'fire / That quickens Nilus' slime' (Antony and Cleopatra, I.iii.67–9) could only produce monstrous serpents and crocodiles.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, much of the mythical aura had evaporated from the Nilotic delta. If the British biologist Thomas Huxley would soon suggest that all life did ultimately have its beginnings in the primordial slime, few believed any longer in life regularly emerging from the inanimate. Egypt had been invaded by Napoleon and had then fallen (as he had) under the growing British sphere of influence; its ancient artefacts were fast becoming familiar exotics in the museums of Europe. (By the end of the century, Sigmund Freud would plumb the middle-class European mind from a consulting room bursting with Egyptiana, including a mummy's mask that he liked to stroke.) The Egyptian floodplains had been given over to the industrial-scale production of cotton and fledgling tourism was starting to be seen in Cairo and on the river. Much of the continent from which the Nile flowed, however, was still completely unexplored, and the undiscovered source of the great river remained a tantalizing symbol of the stubborn resistance of parts of the world to the increasingly bullish European powers. Sir Roderick Murchison, the President of the Royal Geographical Society, blended the languages of intellectual and financial speculation when he declared (in his presidential address of 1852) that there was 'no exploration in Africa to which greater value would be attached' than establishing the source of the Nile, and that the men who achieved it would be 'justly considered among the greatest benefactors of this age of geographical science'.

Though Vasco da Gama had pioneered the sea route to India around the Cape of Good Hope as early as the 1490s, European travel into the interior had not greatly progressed by 1800, and settlement was very thin and almost entirely restricted to the coast. Africa had, for a long time, been an extremely unattractive prospect to the white traveller: its landscape, its illnesses, and the extremes of its climate were death both to the unwitting European traveller and to the pack animals on which he was wholly reliant; and even if the central African environment had not proven quite so resistant, the interior of the continent offered few obvious prizes to adventurers, apparently having none of the great mercantile empires of the East Indies, nor the bottomless mines and rolling grasslands of the Americas. That Africa became suddenly and immensely attractive to Europeans and Americans in the mid-nineteenth century was the result of a number of factors which were closely related. The Industrial Revolution had both created new markets and reaped great wealth from them. Industrial philanthropy paid in large measure for the scientific and evangelical expeditions that made their way into Africa, and these expeditions saw the lack of 'civilization' in the continent as an opportunity rather than a deterrent. Africa would provide both souls for religious instruction and challenges to be overcome by the unstoppable leviathan of Western Knowledge. In the event, and not unpredictably, the altruism of these philanthropists was lucrative beyond imagining. Despite the fact that these ventures were thought of by contemporaries as foolishly benign, often being criticized for throwing good money after bad, they nevertheless produced raw materials which made new fortunes. Rubber, harvested from trees in the central African forest, was transformed by the discovery of vulcanization into an indispensable commodity; eastern Africa was found to be perfect for cultivating sisal (for rope fibre) and pyrethrum (for industrial pesticides). And if at the beginning of the century European governments were largely indifferent – even hostile – to the idea of colonies in Africa, by the end they were convinced of the vital strategic importance of not letting anyone else get there first. For Britain, the Nile would form the backbone of a British Africa which stretched from Egypt through Sudan to East Africa and Nyasaland, then down through Rhodesia to the Cape.

The expedition which finally succeeded in locating the source of the Nile left the coast of modern-day Tanzania in 1857 and was led by Captain Richard Francis Burton. Burton was not yet forty, but he was already the Victorian traveller par excellence; most notably, he had undertaken the pilgrimage to Mecca – the Hajj – with a shaven head and in disguise, and his account of the feat had made him celebrated for both his daring and his phenomenal linguistic skills. In later life Burton would lead further expeditions throughout Africa and the Americas, while also finding time to translate the Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra as well as writing learned treatises on Etruscan history, medieval literature and fencing. Even a bibliophile like Burton, however, could not afford to take much reading with him when heading into the African interior. The tsetse fly reliably killed off horses and pack-mules before they were a hundred miles inland, and the brigades of native porters also dwindled with terrifying speed as the journeys progressed. Some of them deserted early on while the coast was still in reach, undeterred by the loss of pay and the threat of execution by the expedition leader as he (often hysterical with fever and fear) struggled desperately to hold on to the remainder of his men. The rest of the native contingent was decimated by disease, starvation and punitive raids from the tribes whose land they were crossing. Available porterage was reserved, then, for ammunition, medicine and materials for trade with the locals, primarily American calico (called merikani) and copper wire, which was sold en route to tribes who wore it decoratively.

Burton did, however, find a little space for one or two volumes:

The few books – Shakespeare, Euclid – which composed my scanty library, we read together again and again ...

The volume of Shakespeare Burton took with him is lost, most likely destroyed in a warehouse fire which burned many of his possessions in 1861. (His edition of the Sonnets, which does survive in the Huntington Library in California, amusingly contains pencil corrections to Shakespeare's lines where Burton felt he could do better.) But the extensive quotation from the works in the expeditionary account he published on his return suggests how intimately he knew them and how constantly he read them on that expedition. The Lake Regions of Central Africa was, like most of these narratives, written at great speed on the steamer voyage home in order to avoid being beaten to the punch by competing accounts from fellow expedition members, and Burton seems to have followed his (also lost) expedition diary closely in writing it, taking the Shakespeare-heavy description of the interior direct from the diary pages where he reflected on each day's events and reading.

The competing account of the expedition, in this instance, was to come from the other European who accompanied him, John Hanning Speke, with whom Burton read Shakespeare intensively and repeatedly as the pair crossed the savannah scrubland. Their pages were undoubtedly marked, as mine were as I read my own Complete Works travelling through East Africa in their tracks, by sweat from the daytime and at night by winged insects drawn to the lamplight and trapped between the pages as they turned. There would have been periods, especially when their travel on foot was impeded by heavy rains which turned the dry land to bog, when reading would have been a welcome distraction from the frustrations of enforced indolence. It was important for expedition leaders to be close – they were, after all, heavily dependent on one another during long periods of malarial delirium – and their reading of Shakespeare seems to have been a central part of this: they read (as Burton says) 'together', and the way Burton quotes odd lines suggests this meant reading plays side by side and not simply passing the book back and forth to declaim famous speeches.

As the mention of Shakespeare alongside Euclid's geometrical treatise (the Elements) suggests, however, Burton had no room for books which were not useful as well as beautiful, and Shakespeare's lines are repeatedly called into service in The Lake Regions to provide English equivalents to local phrases and customs. In one instance, a Kinyamwezi saying ('He sits in hut hatching egg') is 'their proverbial phrase to express one more eloquent – "Home keeping youths have ever homely wits"'. The line is taken from The Two Gentlemen of Verona, a not entirely successful comedy about friendship and betrayal that is thought to be one of Shakespeare's earliest works. The frequency with which this play crops up in Burton's Lake Regions is rather surprising, given how minor a work it is usually thought to be. This might be explained in part by the fact that it was printed as the second play after The Tempest in Shakespeare's First Folio of 1623 and in almost every edition after that until the twentieth century; one is tempted to think that the Two Gentlemen was the beneficiary of many determined attempts to read the Works from cover to cover that foundered in the early pages.

Shakespeare's story of the noble Valentine betrayed by his treacherous friend Proteus seems, however, to have struck a deeper chord after the friendship turned sour, in large part because Speke had the unforgivable good fortune to discover the major source of the Nile – which he named Lake Victoria Nyanza – on a side expedition of his own. Burton may well in that moment have recalled Valentine's raw words at the betrayal of Proteus:

I must never trust thee more,
But count the world a stranger for thy sake!
The private wound is deepest. [...]


In the first volley of a spat that was to continue for many years, Burton attempted in the Lake Regions to discredit Speke by rather ungenerously arguing that his discovery had been down to luck and not skill. In this he compares him not to The Two Gentlemen of Verona's treacherous fair-weather friend Proteus, but (even more gallingly) to a maidservant in the play:

The fortunate discoverer's conviction was strong; his reasons were weak – were of the category alluded to by the damsel Lucetta, when justifying her penchant in favour of the 'lovely gentleman' Sir Proteus:

I have no other but a woman's reason.
I think him so because I think him so.

The pettiness of Burton's sentiment might almost distract us from the exquisite strangeness of the whole situation: that a man ravaged by physical hardship and fever, surrounded by danger in an inhospitable land, racked by wounded pride and doubtless the feeling that he was both betraying his friend and being betrayed by him, should reach angrily for lines written for Elizabethan Londoners several hundred years earlier.

During the months I spent preparing for my first research trip to East Africa, I made my way through dozens of expeditionary accounts by Burton and those who came after him, looking for the books that they took with them on these jaunts out into the unknown. Reading about Burton's strong attachment to his Shakespeare, even when isolated in ways scarcely imaginable to modern minds, stirred my own memories of reading in remote places. I trace the beginning of my true devotion to literature to a volume of Auden's poetry given to me to read while in the Jiddat al-Harasis desert in Oman (though that properly belongs to another story). But the accounts of bush camps by Burton and others also cast new light on my own childhood, much of which was spent on safari in eastern Africa. I was born into a family of conservationists – my literary work is something of an anomaly, and a confusing one for them – so I spent most school holidays with my parents in areas chosen for their remoteness. These were, of course, entirely less dangerous affairs than the Victorian expeditions: convoys of Land Rovers, tented camps often with generators and two-way radios, and usually no more than a few hours from something recognizable as a road. What had not changed, however, since the time of those early adventurers, was the curious blend of luxury and primitiveness which characterized these travels. Even in the days of Land Rovers food supplies sometimes ran low, and among my clearest childhood memories is a scene of Samburu warriors in northern Kenya bringing to our camp the goat for which my father had bargained, its square and staring eyes as it bled out into a lip in its throat. Nothing was wasted, down to a coin-purse from the scrotum, and the goat meat was later fire-roasted by a cook as the adults had cocktails at sundown.

This blend of the primitive and the decadent seemed unremarkable to me at the time – simply part of how things were done – and it was only later that I became aware that many in Europe and America escape into nature with the conscious design of depriving themselves of life's comforts. An early twentieth-century traveller, the self-styled backwoodsman Theodore Roosevelt, complained repeatedly about the self-indulgence he encountered during his two-year hunting safari in Kenya, which he gave himself as a present on his retirement as US President in 1909:

At Kapiti plains our tents, our accommodation generally, seemed almost too comfortable for men who knew camp life only on the Great Plains, in the Rockies, and in the North Woods. My tent had a fly, which was to protect it from the great heat; there was a little rear extension in which I bathed – a hot bath, never a cold bath, is almost a tropic necessity; ... Then, I had two tent-boys to see after my belongings, and to wait at table as well as in the tent. ... The provisions were those usually included in an African hunting or exploring trip, save that, in memory of my days in the West, I included in each provision box a few cans of Boston baked beans, California peaches, and tomatoes.


Excerpted from Shakespeare in Swahililand by Edward Wilson-Lee. Copyright © 2016 Edward Wilson-Lee. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Meet the Author

Edward Wilson-Lee was raised in Kenya by conservationist parents, studied English at University College London, and completed a doctorate at Oxford and Cambridge. Over the past few years he has spent extended periods in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. He now lives in Cambridge with his wife and son, and teaches Shakespeare at Sidney Sussex College.

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