Does Shakespeare really have “universal appeal”?
From the U.K. cover of Shakespeare in Swahililand.
“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.
The claim that Shakespeare possessed a universal genius, and that his plays transcend culture, is at least as old as the first published edition of his works. “He was not of an age, but for all time!” Ben Jonson declared in the “Eulogy” accompanying Shakespeare’s First Folio in 1623. Prefacing his own edition of the works in 1765, Samuel Johnson confirmed that Shakespeare’s plays had “long outlived his century,” and argued that the secret to their durability was universalism:
His characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpracticed by the rest of the world; by the peculiarities of studies or professions, which can but operate upon small numbers; or by the accidents of transient fashions or temporary opinions: they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply and observation will always find.
Jonson’s verdict went essentially unchallenged for centuries, during which the English language—and Shakespeare’s plays—rapidly spread across the globe. English colonists, imperialists, and travelers encountered characters and incidents that echoed his works, giving rise to what Wilson-Lee describes as “a belief … that certain scenes in life have an eternal form, a universal structure.” In the circular logic of colonialism, Shakespeare’s presence in far-flung places was proof of his universalism, regardless of how he got there.
But in recent years Shakespeare’s universal appeal has become something of a critical punching bag. Universalism, its critics argue, is yet another eraser of diversity, an assertion that the traditionally privileged are humankind’s exemplars. Contemporary criticism locks Shakespeare in the era Jonson claimed he transcended—the patriarchal, class-divided, white Western world of late Tudor and early Stuart England. That project has met its own critical backlash, such that now it would be difficult to say which is the more radical claim: that Shakespeare is of an age, or for all time.
Shakespeare in Swahililand begins in Zanzibar, where a nineteenth-century missionary named Edward Steere distributed a hand-stitched pamphlet featuring four stories, translated into Swahili, from Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, a popular 1807 children’s book that condensed Shakespeare’s plays into simple prose. While his contemporaries wanted to unify humanity under a common God, Steere sought harmony through Shakespeare. He was as committed to an idea of Shakespeare’s universalism as he was to the equality of souls, and he “believed in the possibility of shared thought, language, culture … a common humanity which reversed the fragmentation of human society after the Tower of Babel.”
Edward Steere, third Missionary Bishop of Central Africa.
That belief set Steere apart from many Western explorers, who carried the works not as a means of connection but as a prophylactic, a talisman of self-proclaimed civility. When Teddy Roosevelt embarked on his two-year hunt in Africa, he brought along “a veritable ark of Western culture,” a fifty-five volume, sixty-pound “pigskin library” that included three volumes of Shakespeare and required its own porter. Early explorers Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke bore the Bard during their search for the source of the Nile. With the plays in one’s pocket, “the reader’s poetic soul was immune to the lures of barbarism.”
If, in East Africa, Shakespeare’s plays saw little success as texts, they fared much better in performance, through which they bridged the cultural gap so successfully, Wilson-Lee writes, that many of them eventually found their way into East African folklore. This transition began with “one of the most incredible stories in all of Shakespeareana,” the staging of Hamlet onboard an East India Company ship off the East African coast in 1607. (“Shakespeare was being acted off the Swahili coast even as Shakespeare was still alive and writing plays,” marvels Wilson-Lee.) But even more marvelous are the performances by Indian rail workers in Mombasa, which began in 1896. British imperialism was so well established at this point that Indian workers were staging performances in Kenya, performing in a variety of Indian languages.
Throughout the twentieth century, Shakespeare’s presence in Africa took on a more political aspect. An astonishing number of key post-independence players studied English literature at Kenya’s Makerere College, with a heavy emphasis on the Bard. Perhaps most notable was the future first president of Uganda, Apollo Milton Obote, who starred in a production of Julius Caesar while leading protests against the Ugandan elites—faculty members were forced to don the production’s helmets and shields to protect themselves from the protestors’ stones.
Wilson-Lee argues for the vital importance of such early exposure to Shakespeare. Not only did the productions give these future leaders some of their first experiences of community organization, he claims, but the students learned to turn “what they had received as the totem of British civility” against them. During a heated debate in the Kenyan Legislative Council, its first African member, Eliud Wambu Mathu, protested unfair taxation by comparing the government to Shylock and their tax to a pound of flesh. If Shakespeare had once served as the emblem of British enlightenment, then it carried an extra sting to have his words describe British barbarity.
A production of Coriolanus staged at Makerere University in 1951. Courtesy Makerere University Library Archive.
To proceed with his search for the universal, Wilson-Lee eventually forfeits the historical basis of Shakespeare’s presence in East Africa: “The Victorians’ idolization of Shakespeare meant that he would have a place at the foundations of language learning in their colonies,” making his prominence in East Africa inevitable. But embedding Shakespeare in political conditions, he argues, “can explain how Shakespeare got into these hands or those, but it doesn’t explain what happened when he got there.” The plays have functioned in wide capacities since their arrival, as “a primer for children’s reading in a foreign tongue, a prompt for fantasies in the wilderness and urban revelry, a tool for testing what we share with others and a weapon used by colonizer and colonized.” These varied, sometimes contradictory uses of Shakespeare prove his universal application, but do they suggest a universal quality?
In the concluding pages, Wilson-Lee floats a personal impression of what’s essential to the works. “There is nothing more ever-present in his plays than the border of meaning,” he writes, “the cliff’s edge beyond which lies the incomprehensible realm in which answers are thought to reside.” Some who have journeyed this far will be disappointed by Wilson-Lee’s destination, as if being told a barren stretch of sand is the site of a mythical kingdom. Indeed, “the border of meaning” might aptly describe the route of his search; for all his admirable research and fieldwork, he never quite defines the universal. Merely unearthing our common ancestor doesn’t provide the meaning of the bones.
If having a universal quality means simply sustaining a popular presence in various countries, through various periods, then a great many authors meet the definition. But if a universal poet is meant to be like water—something truly no one can do without—then it’s an impossible standard. As Tolstoy said of Shakespeare’s works, “Not only did I feel no delight, but I felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium,” and one wouldn’t need to travel outside London to find people who manage perfectly well without the Bard.
Shakespeare in Swahililand compels us to wonder why Wilson-Lee felt it so important to seek Shakespeare’s universalism. It would be a coup to somehow prove Ben Jonson’s instincts correct, but considering the simplicity of the English Renaissance view of the world, it wouldn’t even be desirable—humankind became more interesting after Babel. Perhaps the most miraculous thing about Shakespeare is that, through the accidents of history, he’s come to form a global point of reference. Through him, we can better perceive the refractions of culture. Such chaotic variety might not be what Jonson had in mind, but it will keep humanity transfixed for all time.
Michael LaPointe (@MWLaPointe) lives in Toronto. He contributes to the Times Literary Supplement and writes a monthly literary essay for The Walrus.
The Chandos portrait, artist and authenticity unconfirmed (National Portrait Gallery, London, currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.).
|Born||baptised 26 April 1564 (birth date unknown)|
Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England
|Died||23 April 1616|
Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England
|Occupation||Playwright, poet, actor|
Shakespeare's influence extends from theatre and literature to present-day movies, Western philosophy, and the English language itself. William Shakespeare is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the history of the English language, and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He transformed European theatre by expanding expectations about what could be accomplished through innovation in characterization, plot, language and genre. Shakespeare's writings have also impacted a large number of notable novelists and poets over the years, including Herman MelvilleCharles Dickens, and Maya Angelou, and continue to influence new authors even today. Shakespeare is the most quoted writer in the history of the English-speaking world after the various writers of the Bible; many of his quotations and neologisms have passed into everyday usage in English and other languages.
Changes in English at the time
Early Modern English as a literary medium was unfixed in structure and vocabulary in comparison to Greek and Latin, and was in a constant state of flux. When William Shakespeare began writing his plays, the English language was rapidly absorbing words from other languages due to wars, exploration, diplomacy and colonization. By the age of Elizabeth, English had become widely used with the expansion of philosophy, theology and physical sciences, but many writers lacked the vocabulary to express such ideas. To accommodate, writers such as Edmund Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare expressed new ideas and distinctions by inventing, borrowing or adopting a word or a phrase from another language, known as neologizing. Scholars estimate that, between the years 1500 and 2018, nouns, verbs and modifiers of Latin, Greek and modern Romance languages added 30,000 new words to the English language.
Influence on theatre
Shakespeare's works have been a major influence on subsequent theatre. Shakespeare created some of the most admired plays in Western literature (with Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear being ranked among the world's greatest plays), and transformed English theatre by expanding expectations about what could be accomplished through plot and language. Specifically, in plays like Hamlet, Shakespeare "integrated characterization with plot," such that if the main character was different in any way, the plot would be totally changed. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare mixed tragedy and comedy together to create a new romantic tragedy genre (previous to Shakespeare, romance had not been considered a worthy topic for tragedy). Through his soliloquies, Shakespeare showed how plays could explore a character's inner motivations and conflict (up until Shakespeare, soliloquies were often used by playwrights to "introduce (characters), convey information, provide an exposition or reveal plans").
His plays exhibited "spectacular violence, with loose and episodic plotting, and with mingling of comedy with tragedy". In King Lear, Shakespeare had deliberately brought together two plots of different origins. Shakespeare's work is also lauded for its insight into emotion. His themes regarding the human condition make him more acclaimed than any of his contemporaries. Humanism and contact with popular thinking gave vitality to his language. Shakespeare's plays borrowed ideas from popular sources, folk traditions, street pamphlets, and sermons. Shakespeare also used groundlings widely in his plays. The use of groundlings "saved the drama from academic stiffness and preserved its essential bias towards entertainment in comedy ".Hamlet is an outstanding example of "groundlings" quickness and response. Use of groundlings enhanced Shakespeare's work practically and artistically. He represented English people more concretely and not as puppets. His skills have found expression in chronicles, or history plays, and tragedies.
Shakespeare's earliest years were dominated by history plays and a few comedies that formed a link to the later written tragedies. Nine out of eighteen plays he produced in the first decade of his career were chronicles or histories. His histories were based on the prevailing Tudor political thought. They portrayed the follies and achievements of kings, their misgovernment, church and problems arising out of these. "In shaping, compressing, and altering chronicles, Shakespeare gained the art of dramatic design; and in the same way he developed his remarkable insight into character, its continuity and its variation". His characters were very near to reality.
"Shakespeare's characters are more sharply individualized after Love's Labour's Lost". His Richard II and Bolingbroke are complex and solid figures whereas Richard III has more "humanity and comic gusto". The Falstaff trilogy is in this respect very important. Falstaff, although a minor character, has a powerful reality of its own. "Shakespeare uses him as a commentator who passes judgments on events represented in the play, in the light of his own super abundant comic vitality". Falstaff, although outside "the prevailing political spirit of the play", throws insight into the different situations arising in the play. This shows that Shakespeare had developed a capacity to see the plays as whole, something more than characters and expressions added together. In Falstaff trilogy, through the character of Falstaff, he wants to show that in society "where touchstone of conduct is success, and in which humanity has to accommodate itself to the claims of expediency, there is no place for Falstaff", a loyal human-being. This sentiment is so true even after centuries.
Shakespeare united the three main streams of literature: verse, poetry, and drama. To the versification of the English language, he imparted his eloquence and variety giving highest expressions with elasticity of language. The second, the sonnets and poetry, was bound in structure. He imparted economy and intensity to the language. In the third and the most important area, the drama, he saved the language from vagueness and vastness and infused actuality and vividness. Shakespeare's work in prose, poetry, and drama marked the beginning of modernization of English language by introduction of words and expressions, style and form to the language.
Influence on European and American literature
Shakespeare is cited as an influence on a large number of writers in the following centuries, including major novelists such as Herman Melville,Charles Dickens,Thomas Hardy and William Faulkner. Examples of this influence include the large number of Shakespearean quotations throughout Dickens' writings and the fact that at least 25 of Dickens' titles are drawn from Shakespeare, while Melville frequently used Shakespearean devices, including formal stage directions and extended soliloquies, in Moby-Dick. In fact, Shakespeare so influenced Melville that the novel's main antagonist, Captain Ahab, is a classic Shakespearean tragic figure, "a great man brought down by his faults." Shakespeare has also influenced a number of English poets, especially Romantic poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge who were obsessed with self-consciousness, a modern theme Shakespeare anticipated in plays such as Hamlet. Shakespeare's writings were so influential to English poetry of the 1800s that critic George Steiner has called all English poetic dramas from Coleridge to Tennyson "feeble variations on Shakespearean themes."
Influence on the English language 
Shakespeare's writings greatly influenced the entire English language. Prior to and during Shakespeare's time, the grammar and rules of English were not standardized. But once Shakespeare's plays became popular in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century, they helped contribute to the standardization of the English language, with many Shakespearean words and phrases becoming embedded in the English language, particularly through projects such as Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language which quoted Shakespeare more than any other writer. He expanded the scope of English literature by introducing new words and phrases, experimenting with blank verse, and also introducing new poetic and grammatical structures. He also inspired modern terms commonly used in the twenty-first century, such as the word "swag", which derives from "swagger", first seen in the text of his plays "Henry V" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream".
Among Shakespeare's greatest contributions to the English language must be the introduction of new vocabulary and phrases which have enriched the language making it more colourful and expressive. Some estimates at the number of words coined by Shakespeare number in the several thousands. Warren King clarifies by saying that, "In all of his work – the plays, the sonnets and the narrative poems – Shakespeare uses 17,677 words: Of those, 1,700 were first used by Shakespeare." He is also well known for borrowing from the classical literature and foreign languages. He created these words by "changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and devising words wholly original." Many of Shakespeare's original phrases are still used in conversation and language today. These include, but are not limited to; "seen better days, strange bedfellows, a sorry sight," and "full circle". Shakespeare added a considerable number of words to the English language when compared to additions to English vocabulary made in other times. Shakespeare helped to further develop style and structure to an otherwise loose, spontaneous language. Written Elizabethan English stylistically closely followed the spoken language. The naturalness gave force and freedom since there was no formalized prescriptive grammar binding the expression. While lack of prescribed grammatical rules introduced vagueness in literature, it also expressed feelings with profound vividness and emotion which created, "freedom of expression" and "vividness of presentment". It was a language which expressed feelings explicitly. Shakespeare's gift involved using the exuberance of the language and decasyllabic structure in prose and poetry of his plays to reach the masses and the result was "a constant two way exchange between learned and the popular, together producing the unique combination of racy tang and the majestic stateliness that informs the language of Shakespeare".
While it is true that Shakespeare created many new words (the Oxford English Dictionary records over 2,000), an article in National Geographic points out the findings of historian Jonathan Hope who wrote in "Shakespeare's 'Native English'" that "the Victorian scholars who read texts for the first edition of the OED paid special attention to Shakespeare: his texts were read more thoroughly, and cited more often, so he is often credited with the first use of words, or senses of words, which can, in fact, be found in other writers."
Many critics and scholars consider Shakespeare's first plays experimental, and believe the playwright was still learning from his own mistakes. Gradually his language followed the "natural process of artistic growth, to find its adequate projection in dramatic form". As he continued experimenting, his style of writing found many manifestations in plays. The dialogues in his plays were written in verse form and followed a decasyllabic rule. In Titus Andronicus, decasyllables have been used throughout. "There is considerable pause; and though the inflexibility of the line sound is little affected by it, there is a certain running over of sense". His work is still experimental in Titus Andronicus. However, in Love's Labour's Lost and The Comedy of Errors, there is "perfect metre-abundance of rime [rhyme], plenty of prose, arrangement in stanza". After these two comedies, he kept experimenting until he reached a maturity of style. "Shakespeare's experimental use of trend and style, as well as the achieved development of his blank verses, are all evidences of his creative invention and influences". Through experimentation of tri-syllabic substitution and decasyllabic rule he developed the blank verse to perfection and introduced a new style.
"Shakespeare's blank verse is one of the most important of all his influences on the way the English language was written". He used the blank verse throughout in his writing career experimenting and perfecting it. The free speech rhythm gave Shakespeare more freedom for experimentation. "Adaptation of free speech rhythm to the fixed blank-verse framework is an outstanding feature of Shakespeare's poetry". The striking choice of words in common place blank verse influenced "the run of the verse itself, expanding into images which eventually seem to bear significant repetition, and to form, with the presentation of character and action correspondingly developed, a more subtle and suggestive unity". Expressing emotions and situations in form of a verse gave a natural flow to language with an added sense of flexibility and spontaneity.
He introduced in poetry two main factors – "verbal immediacy and the moulding of stress to the movement of living emotion". Shakespeare's words reflected passage of time with "fresh, concrete vividness" giving the reader an idea of the time frame. His remarkable capacity to analyze and express emotions in simple words was noteworthy:
"When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her, though I know she lies-"
— (Sonnet CXXXVIII)
In the sonnet above, he has expressed in very simple words "complex and even contradictory attitudes to a single emotion".
The sonnet form was limited structurally, in theme and in expressions. Liveliness of Shakespeare's language and strict discipline of the sonnets imparted economy and intensity to his writing style. "It encouraged the association of compression with depth of content and variety of emotional response to a degree unparalleled in English". Complex human emotions found simple expressions in Shakespeare's language.
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