Visiting Luxor in Egypt, Edward Wilson-Lee was surprised to be hailed by a local man whose opening gambit was the first line of a soliloquy from Macbeth: ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’. Wilson-Lee responded with the next line from the play and the two strangers traded iambic pentameters from Shakespeare until they tailed off. Then, since the Egyptian had no further conversational English, the encounter ended and Wilson-Lee moved on.
The English language has certainly reached far-off, even surprising places, and Shakespeare has often been its standard-bearer. Having been brought up in East Africa, Wilson-Lee, a Cambridge academic, was emboldened by his Luxor experience to look into the history of Shakespeare’s reception in that part of the world. He knew that one of the first books printed in Swahili was Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, which was published by the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa (UMCA) in the late 19th century as Hadithi za Kiingereza (‘English Tales’) on the island of Zanzibar in a translation probably by the local bishop, Edward Steere. And he wanted to know more.
Wilson-Lee has developed this idea into a fascinating book – part travelogue, part cultural history – that throws a colourful sidelight on this year’s 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Even while the Bard was alive, Hamlet was performed on board the English ship Dragon when it was anchored off Sierra