What does Shakespeare mean to you?

2016 marked four hundred years since Shakespeare’s death, and the flurry of activity around this anniversary seemed to confirm his pre-eminent status: the world’s greatest writer and dramatist, celebrated in every part of the globe.

For South Africans, however, “Shakespeare” is often a word that carries all the wrong associations. Too many high school learners have experienced Shakespeare as a source of trauma – a famous author whose work has to be studied even though it seems obscure. He has been and remains a dependable staple of the curriculum, but teaching him can be a chore.

These foundational schooling experiences create, for adult citizens, a sense that Shakespeare is simultaneously sacrosanct and irrelevant, profound but inaccessible, brilliant but boring. In a South African context, moreover, Shakespeare is also often linked to colonialism, elitism and “Englishness”. 

But Shakespeare doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, limited to these negative connotations. Shakespeare on South Africa’s stages and screens can be a thought-provoking and politically nuanced phenomenon. Various South African theatre practitioners and film makers have produced inventive versions of Shakespeare’s plays that speak to the here and now – to our country, our time, our identities – and in our languages. Likewise, contemporary South African scholarship on Shakespeare investigates and challenges not only the role that “Shakespeare” has historically played (for better and worse) but also what “Shakespeare” has become: a playwright, a series of dramatic texts and related artworks, a complicated social or cultural symbol. 

Shakespeare ZA aims to connect the groups described above. It is a virtual meeting-place, created to:

  • promote the work of South African theatre-makers, film-makers, researchers and writers engaging with Shakespeare

  • keep people who are interested in Shakespeare updated with news of South African productions, conferences and other events

  • ensure that performances of Shakespeare’s work inform literary or cultural studies, and vice-versa

  • take academic ideas out of the “ivory tower”

  • help teachers to reinvigorate their methods and materials

  • help pupils to gain pleasure and new skills from their schooling

  • make “Shakespeare” start to mean something different in South Africa