Letter from Cape Town: Finding Shakespeare

Last week, the British Council held its annual “Going Global” conference for the first time in Africa. It was a good opportunity for all of us to meet with colleagues who bring different perspectives on the most urgent challenges facing higher education today. An IIE team member, Caitlin McNamara, who works on the Fulbright Scholar program, had an IIE Traveling Fellowship to attend and present a poster session on the impact of the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program. I was invited to offer some perspective on the role of higher education in today’s refugee crisis on a panel with European and Lebanese colleagues. In war zones, and in crisis zones under repressive regimes, the international community often thinks first of humanitarian aid, providing food, shelter, and medicine to displaced persons and others. Education usually comes last. At IIE, we have been working to help students and scholars in crisis, so I welcomed the chance to join this conversation.

Throughout the conference, much was made of Shakespeare. The British Council is doing a series of “Shakespeare Lives” events all this year as part of the 400th anniversary marking his death. In Cape Town the BBC World Service Forum recorded a session on brain drain, scheduled to air on Tuesday, May 17, that began with four drama students rendering lines from various works of Shakespeare in multiple African languages. Even for listeners who are not proficient in those languages, you can still understand what they are saying. There is something to Shakespeare’s rhythm and the students’ performance that made the scenes come alive even if you don’t quite remember the most famous lines from each play.

The evening before, the opening reception featured South African actor and playwright John Kani. Kani played Othello when it was not safe for a black South African to do so. Many prisoners on Robben Island were prohibited from having reading materials, and yet one somehow persuaded his jailers that a version of The Complete Works of Shakespeare was actually a copy of the Bible. This book was shared with Nelson Mandela and other prisoners, each memorizing their own passages to draw the strength and inspiration from the text needed to continue in the liberation movement. Kani told us that, “It is our duty to embrace the true message of Shakespeare: we are all human.”

As he said this, I thought about what I was going to say the next day. In my remarks, I note how ironic it is that the only surviving piece of paper that contains something written in Shakespeare’s own hand is a scene about refugees. It is from a play (authored by someone else) about those fleeing continental sectarian violence, allowed entry to England by King Henry VIII, and then finding themselves the target of London riots seeking to throw them out in 1517. Shakespeare asks the audience to imagine what it would be like facing such conditions. Five centuries later, his words still have the capacity to remind us that we could all be refugees. Shakespeare indeed lives.