The Merchant Of Venice As A Once Upon A Time Set Book In Kenya

Mislike me not for my complexion, the barnished livery of the sun…

This is a line from the Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, a set book I did in my last year of high school, which pretty much made no sense to me. I hated reading that book and for the mere reason that the English was a handful. There is no doubt that William Shakespeare is one of the greatest writers to have ever lived but I question the relevancy of his work to an East African setting.

I bet many who read the book, can agree with me that they could not really relate to it as much as they did to Half a Day, an additional set book which was a collection of short stories, from the African continent. Specifically from North Eastern and Eastern Africa. Whoever settled on the Merchant of Venice, for our last year of Secondary School Literature study must have been quite ambitious. We really struggled with that book.

You can imagine an East African student born and raised in an East African environment, trying to decipher the hidden meanings behind a 16th century play written in the English of that time. And while some sections of the book made for some good comic relief, like the aforementioned line which always got us giggling, as it referred to a Moroccan Prince whose skin, we assumed from the description looked like ours, a greater majority of the book was simply gibberish.

It did little to make us appreciate the literary prowess of our own African writers, whose books would have been a worthier choice for Literature study. As a matter of fact, my copy of the Merchant of Venice is still gathering dust in my metallic box, the one I used in high school.

 

Domestic Pains: Diary of a Househelp, my serialized novel, resumes in the next post.

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One comment

  1. My secondary school (i.e. high school) Shakespeare was The Tempest. I can see the logic, it being set on an island (in the Caribbean) and dealing with themes that resonated with our history of colonialism. I even remember sections of verse we were made to memorize. But I didn’t understand it (the language mostly which obstructed my access to story) and none of it settled in my bones…until years later when I grew to appreciate his mastery of craft and strong characters (during my college years when we got to SEE the plays – King Lear and Othello were probably my favourites from this period) and (in university) fall in love with his language (which I almost entirely credit to Sonnet 116). Some of it has to do with how it’s taught, some with maturity, some with what you said about language and relatability. I was fortunate that we were exposed to a mix of literature – so that roughly around the time I was doing The Tempest in secondary school, I was also doing, for instance, American writer Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Caribbean writer V. S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas…and of the three, it’s Mockingbird that I fell in love with. But I’m glad that I was forced to give Shakespeare a second and third look because the language really is beautiful and he really is the father of the ‘modern’ drama. We continue to grapple with his works in interesting ways – e.g. Caribbean author Elizabeth Nunez’s Prospero’s Daughter (which re-imagines The Tempest from a post-colonial space). That said, I haven’t yet revisited The Tempest.

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