South Africa, Shakespeare, and Post-Colonial Culture

Author: Distiller, Natasha
This book works within the frameworks of post-colonial studies and cultural studies in order to theorise, and then to illustrate, the possibilities for cultural creation in the context of oppression. It re-works the concept of hybridity, and the philosophies of liberalism and humanism, in order to suggest that these important and much-contested terrains within critical theory have specific potential in a South African context. This book applies these theoretical points to a specific trajectory of writing in English in the region, which it finds embodied in the writing of Solomon Plaatje, Peter Abrahams, Es’kia Mphahlele, Bloke Modisane, and Can Themba. By seeking to unlock the complex and sometimes contradictory ways in which Shakespeare is useful to these writers, the book addresses the traditional imbalance of knowledges in Shakespeare Studies by conceptualizing the presence of Shakespeare in these texts as indicative of an act of cultural appropriation and political resistance. Ultimately, the book makes a contribution to post-colonial and cultural studies’ engagements with how culture works, how resistance is inscribed, and what role theory can play in the neo-colonial world.


“In her incisively original contribution to the debate about the place of Shakespeare in South Africa, Natasha Distiller tackles this paradox from a refreshingly new perspective, not least because she has the courage to ask the question that threatens to incapacitate its initiating premises: “why bother with Shakespeare in South Africa at all?” … Distiller bothers … she has been able to reveal the inadequacy of “traveling theory” as it has been applied to the South African Shakespeare … One of the most refreshing aspects of Distiller’s scholarship is her re-examination … of the much-derided role precisely of humanism, and to a lesser degree, liberalism, in shaping opposition to apartheid and the subjectivities of a number of local writers who made Shakespeare their own in the first half of the twentieth century … Moving beyond rhetorical claims about Shakespeare in our education system, Distiller has, unusually, bothered to talk to teachers and curriculum planners … [This book] promises to transform the terms on which we talk to each other about and through Shakespeare, whoever “he” is, was, or will be for us.” – (from the Commendatory Preface) David Schalkwyk, Professor of English, University of Cape Town

“With [this book], Shakespeare studies in South Africa take an important turn. In recent years, historical materialist criticism has delivered a trenchant critique of the ways in which Shakespeare and Shakespeare studies have been institutionalized. While Distiller shares some of the revisionist energy of these critiques, she also shows their limitations … In particular, Dr. Distiller shows that the climate amongst black intellectuals over several generations has accommodated the influence of Shakespeare as a benchmark of humane thought and cultural self-definition on the part of the oppressed … .she makes a valuable contribution to local critical theory. Her work is both welcome and timely.” – David Attwell, Professor, Chair in English, School of Literature and Languages Studies, University of the Witwatersrand

“[This book’s] major strengths are the effort in relation to South African Shakespeare studies to concretely exemplify Bhaba’s third space taking on local lineaments in a complex socio-political environment … This book will appeal to scholars increasingly unhappy with the abstract generalizations of postcolonial theory, and seeking more thorough discussion of ways in which the local and global can relate, while not sacrificing the first to the second … The study is thoroughly grounded in the strain of academic discourse to which it contributes … The writer’s style is zestful and engaging … this is a valuable contribution to the growing literature on Shakespeare in specific sites, and should prove a marketable product speaking to a wide range of academic interests within postcolonial and materialist theory.” – Lawrence Wright, Professor, Director, Institute for the Study of English in Africa, Rhodes University

Table of Contents

1. Towards Post-Colonial Culture
2. Shakespeare and the Essentially Human
3. South African Shakespeare: Tracing the Trajectory
4. Drum’s Shakespeare
5. Shakespeare in Post-Apartheid South African Education