AMONG history’s greats, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is often considered sui generis — a man of such stupendous genius that the world may never see his like again.
Last week was the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare. Some people will ask: What’s the relevance of writing about someone who was born in England and died centuries ago?
Well, Shakespeare’s footprints are there today. One of the most memorable confrontations in the Parliament of Zimbabwe just after independence was when Zanu PF’s Herbert Ushewokunze, a medical doctor, and PK van der Byl of the Conservative Alliance (formerly Rhodesian Front, the white supremacist party of Ian Smith), traded Shakespearean insults and barbs. Showing off — yes, the two (may their souls rest in peace) were incurable and ultimate show-offs — their erudition from opposing sides, they reeled off one Shakespearean quote after another as they went toe-to-toe. There was no verbal diarrhoea, as the two razor-sharp and witty minds gave as good as they got. Ushewokunze, who was equally at home with a stethoscope and Shakespeare, won the encounter by this clincher: “Blow, blow, thou colonial wind”, paraphrasing the quote “Blow, blow, thou winter wind” from As You Like It, one of Shakespeare’s comedies.Suffice to say the whole Lower House across the political divide erupted in rib-cracking laughter, palpably relieving racial tension in the chamber and beyond?
I cannot claim to be a Shakespearean boffin or expert — far from it. But the not-so-little knowledge I have acquired from him has been of inestimable value to me. I must also confess that I haven’t read Shakespeare’s works extensively. I have read in depth only three of his plays — Julius Caesar, Othello (both tragedies) and A Winter’s Tale (comedy), the first as a set book at “O” Level and the latter two at “A” Level way back in Rhodesia, but Shakespeare wrote for all times.
My first exposure to Shakespeare was in primary school through an abridged version of the edgy and suspenseful The Merchant of Venice (a comedy) and I was bowled over when the main character, loan shark Shylock, met his comeuppance. That’s when it burst upon me that things can backfire in life. The villainous Shylock would repeatedly take advantage of people in vulnerable economic situations demanding his “pound of flesh” and make a luxurious living in that way. This sharpened my moral sense.
Now with the maturity and wisdom of hindsight, the main lesson from Shylock is this: Revenge in the guise of justice will never result in anything other than more revenge. We see the same kinds of issues played out in society today, proving that what Shakespeare meant to teach us through Shylock remains relevant today.
Oh, something good could yet come out of the raging faction fights in Zanu PF. Wrote Shakespeare in Othello: “If after every tempest come such calms/May the winds blow till they have waken’d death!” In Shona they say “kuzvimutsira zvanga zvirere” (stirring up trouble for oneself). Now they are revealing secrets about their corrupt ways — a sure way to self-destruction.
Shakeaspeare also has a gem of advice for some of today’s misguided youths who are determined to defend individuals, not State institutions. The so-called “one-million-men march” planned for May is not in service of Zimbabwe, but an individual — President Robert Mugabe. But Zimbabwe is bigger than an individual in the same way Rome was bigger than its ruler Julius Caesar. Wrote Shakespeare in Julius Caesar: “Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.” This is tailor-made for those who, to all intents and purposes, seem to think that Zimbabwe revolves around Mugabe, that he is the beginning and end.
And then this one from Julius Caesar again: “Why, man, he (Caesar) doth bestride the narrow world/ Like a Colossus, and we petty men/Walk under his huge legs and peep about/To find ourselves dishonourable graves. Men at some time are masters of their fates.”
Indeed, Zimbabweans have just got to wake up to the fact that their destiny is primarily and ultimately in their own hands. Picking up fights and being petulant with foreign embassies for supposedly not doing enough and abandoning people to the regime won’t help at all.
Yes, we need hot heads, but also cool minds. We need less whinging and more action from the opposition. We can’t put our fate on unrealistic expectations, for instance, that the United Kingdom will come as the rescuer. While the UK is a stakeholder, Zimbabweans are the stockholders.
But the biggest lesson is for the regime to take it — or leave it.
Exhorted Mark Athony after the assassination of Caesar: “Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war!” “Cry havoc” — or “let no one cry” — is used to express what is surely and shortly to come if the people’s restraint is tested to the limits. The point being that not everyone was ready to take Caesar’s death lying down. In Zimbabwe, people are similarly being driven to the edge and the mood is now markedly different. War veterans and an increasing number of Zanu PF supporters are now as angry as everybody else as they realise they are being more and more marginalised like the opposition supporters they used to mock. They now see State capture with kleptocratic leaders and their front men and women indulging in systemic political corruption to drive their private interests, using State institutions. Now war vets have been reduced to “affiliate” citizens like the rest of us.
Let no one cry when the people demand their pound of flesh.
Conway Nkumbuzo Tutani is a Harare-based columnist. Email: email@example.com