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Shakespeare nearly censored?

Dr. Richard Pankurst’s comprehensive and absorbing essay on Ethiopia’s introduction to Shakespeare, that appeared in a journal Research in African Literatures twenty years ago, tells how Shakespeare’s works became immensely popular in Ethiopia after the British action in the country’s liberation from Italian fascit rule in 1941 and the resultant choice of English as the language of education.

But the performance of one of his plays, Julius Caesar posed problem for the reign-that held the view that portrayal of a leader’s assasination should not be allowed to impinge too closely on public attention.Here is Dr.Pankurst’s account of the event and decide whether Shakespeare nearly escaped censorship or not.

The first-known Shakespeare performance in Addis Ababa was a memorable production of Julius Caesar in 1952.It was presented by British teachers and Ethiopian students at the General Wingate School and was given in the presence of Emperor Haile Sellassie.The show, like several that followed, ran into censorship difficulties because of the view, then strongly held by the Ethiopian goverment that disasters in general, and the murder in particular, should receive a minimum of public attention.

Since a Shakespearean plot obviously could not be changed, a compromise was arrived at whereby the stabbing of Caesar was made to take place behind a thin curtain,with lights dimmed.

(An exaggereated account of this show is given in W.H. Seed, Ethiopian’s Iron Curtains (Chicago:n.p) 20, which claims “the death of Caesar was omitted by order of the censor,” and that “the murder of the King was deleted from the film version of “Hamlet” at a local cinema.)


Shakespeare in Ethiopia

Richard Pankhurst

Research in African Literatures, Volume 17, Number 2, Summmer 1986

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