Shakespeare’s most cited quote when big people die—especially folks with contentious legacies—is theoretically handicapped to a degree. That “the evil that men do lives after them and the good is oft interred with them in the bones” is simply a cry of a grief-stricken kindred. Because everything that men do lives after they have died. But our choice of memory is simply a matter of perspective. So, while the children of a renowned murderer would mourn the death of their most cherished breadwinner, their victims will be singing “good riddance.” But sometimes, some thievery is so deeply established that either cry means nothing: the bread will continue coming, and songs of good riddance only mean no riddance. As Africans, we ought not to miss this sense of things in reference to the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Peoples in all “formerly colonised” places reacting to the death of the queen of England—in some celebratory fashion, marked with refusals to mourn and or wish her eternal peace—ought to beware that the queen is not dead.
The statement by South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighter (EFF), as one outstanding example, received immense welcome from anti-colonial voices. But while refusing to mourn her death may bring some catharsis in the hearts of her victims, it ought to be understood that her death matters little to the empire. If the African encounter with England and Queen Elizabeth II was only possible because of their colonial exploits, Africans ought to beware that the queen—as a symbol of colonialism—only evolved through the years. But the ambitions and aspirations that she represented and stood for as a monarch of the coloniser are alive and well, more sophisticated and even more dangerous than before.
But this essay is not about the continuity of colonialism per se, but rather about how Queen Elizabeth II—in both life and death—defies the logic of the monarchy’s most prized export to the colonised world, William Shakespeare. Indeed, if Shakespeare were still alive today, and still writing, he would be bamboozled by the unusualness of Queen Elizabeth II. He would find her a strange heroine who despite being queen (potential for classic tragedian drama) is unworthy of his ink. This is not simply because Shakespeare’s tragedian heroes and heroines were never as aggressively imperial as this recently deceased queen, but because she would refuse to die—even when she has actually passed. A closer reading of Shakespeare reveals a nobility about his major characters that enabled them peaceful rest after they died. They found victory in their death. Ironically, with Queen Elizabeth II being an unfitting heroine in a Shakespearean drama, it is arguable that this speaks about the life she lived, one that is bereft of all nobility of Shakespeare’s royals, which would then cast the pomp and ceremony about her funeral as an equally ignoble exercise.
Talking to the savages
Readers of the colonial British Empire appreciate that among the many things the British exported to the colonised world was their literature—or the practice of writing literature: the novel, the play and poetry as texts that are written and read. This was not an act of generosity on their part, neither was it simply a means of cultural control. While the British never obsessed with cultural assimilation as the French did (but turning the backwards into people of the modern world, something like white folks in Black skin), the natives had to be spoken to. Interestingly, however, what started as “we need to teach these savages our language, because we need to talk to them,” would soon end up as lessons in poetry, phonetics, and literary stylistics: “Can she recite Sonnet 18? — and do they also understand it?”
There is also cricket as one of the British exports, and Trinidadian historian, C.L.R. James wrote a major book about cricket that he called Beyond a Boundary, which among other things, exposes the colonial entanglements embedded in the sport. But while cricket, quite exclusively, blossomed in the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent including Pakistan, English as an export became the language of the world (with slight and major modifications, of course). Perhaps it is only fair to say that English had an easier ride than cricket especially because it is a language, which had to be spoken as media of communication, and the other an elite sport, which could be opted out for other sports.
Enter William Shakespeare
How would the British teach the backward peoples their beautiful language without making them read the classics of the English canon? There was no way. Thus, it became standard for high school students in the colonised world—be they students of natural or human sciences—to have read Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters (Emily and Charlotte), Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell, William Shakespeare, and several others. The problem with this being the language of the coloniser—and supposedly the language of the modern world—the classics-teaching curriculum was sustained even after independence. Yes, we had been conscripted to this colonial modernity, and this is one of the living embodiments of the postcolonial struggle between modernity and tradition.
But there is no author more in the British canon that is as widely read and utilised as poet and dramatist, William Shakespeare. In his book, Highbrow/Lowbrow: the emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, historian Lawrence Levine has actually written that Shakespeare in 1700-1800 rural, urbanising America formed part of expressive culture. He was the texts of the masses—popular culture—before it got gentrified becoming literature of the high class. In one beautiful example, Levine notes the ubiquity of Shakespearean humour in several minstrels. So, playing with the “Seven Ages of Man”, in As You Like It, the humourist would say:
All the world is a bar/
And all the men and women merely drinkers/
They have their hiccups and their staggerings.
It was only in the American popular cultural space that Shakespeare became popularized among ordinary folks. Shakespeare became friends with many young people in formerly colonised spaces. He would be used in writing love letters, and sometimes used to boast of special learning. Not that these young Africans had volunteered to this Shakespearean modernity, but the school and university being a colonial construct, they been conscripted to this modernity, which limited and also stretched their creativity. It is not surprising that this biopic of “the mother of the nation” about South African anti-apartheid hero, Winnie Madikizela Mandela opens with a younger Winnie reciting “Sonnet 18” to the satisfaction of the British school inspector. She would recite the same poem towards a fly later during solitary confinement. High schools across Africa annually stage Shakespeare’s plays at national theatres, and plenty of Shakespearean speech is commonly used. Thus, there is a sense of bonding and reference between the African or all formerly colonised world with the world that Shakespeare crafted for them.
Readers of Shakespeare’s tragic drama know that these dramas concerned themselves with matters of statecraft. This is also true of Greek drama with writers including Sophocles, Aristophanes etcetera. Thus, the main characters in these tragic plays tended to be men and women of outstanding stature and nobility. These ranged from kings and queens, prince and princesses, military generals, or folks of special talents. In Greek drama for example, heroes such as Electra, Antigone, Creon, Orestes are members of the royal family. In Shakespeare, Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, and Cordelia are loyal while Lear, Othello, Macbeth are outstanding military generals. So is Queen Elizabeth II. But being royal imposed onto them a peculiar importance, and nobility that demanded of them a particular ethic and worldview of the world.
But as with all men and women of great importance, they would be gifted with special talents, such as bravery, beauty, eloquence—they spoke in verse—which sadly, would be their actual undoing. Thus, these characters, because of their own brilliance, ended up caught in a web of tragic circumstances, making it difficult for them to extricate themselves. Writing in The Theatre Experience, critic and writer, Edwin Wilson noted that, “there is no honourable avenue of escape.” But in this complex web of circumstances—as Queen Elizabeth II was with the colonial web and all the unravelling racism—approached their dilemma with nobility, determination and grace. The heroes often accepted responsibility for their actions and were willing to suffer immensely for their actions. Not once did our deceased Queen consider the many available options including returning some precious stolen properties.
Consider this, for example: Edwin Wilson continues that these noble classic Tragedian heroes as ready “to endure their going hence even as their coming hither.” So, “Oedipus puts out his own eyes; Antigone faces death with equanimity; Othello kills himself, King Lear suffers immensely living through personal humiliation, a raging storm on a heath, temporary insanity and death of his daughter and finally confronts his own death.” Clearly, if Queen Elizabeth were to be dropped into this Shakespearean/Greek imaginary of herohood, she struggles to fit in.
Having found herself to have superintended over an abusive and colonialist regime, resisted violently by almost all the colonised people, and having been compelled to leave the colonised world alone, one would have expected Queen Elizabeth II, in classic tragedian nobility, to take responsibility for her actions. Perhaps issue some apologies. Return some of the wealth, and leave all the worlds alone. Instead, she remoulded her role into some sort of benevolent monarch. This finds itself in the so-called Commonwealth, and continued stay as head of state of 15 so-called independent nation states. Shakespeare would not approve of this.
Consider this also: because of the importance of these characters and the spaces they occupied, they tended to represent entire constituencies as symbols of a culture or society. Captured in Julius Caesar, Mark Antony tells us:
Great Caesar fell. Oh! What a fall was there, my fellow countrymen. Then I, and you, and all of us fell down…”
This is not simply symbolic representation of the collapse of an emperor, and those people whom associated with them. But an absolute representation of their worlds, which they are convinced have committed so much wrong and should come to an end. What we are witnessing in Windsor and London is that as Queen Elizabeth II fell, her empire, culture and society has showed no readiness of falling with her. Immediately replaced after her fall, her imperial culture across the world simply continues to thrive. Greek tragedian authors would be shocked by the nature of this royal lady. Perhaps it is because they lived and wrote in a pre-colonial, and pre-imperial era where nobility, legacy, and honour were more important than wealth and estates.