May: Richard II and African Languages

In 1597, William Shakespeare’s Richard II was registered with the Stationers’ Company by an Andrew Wise, a bookseller. The play was probably written two years earlier. It completed a sequence of history plays beginning with Richard II and ending with Richard III. In all, a sequence of eight plays tells the story of five monarchs. Richard II and Richard III were among Shakespeare’s most popular plays, at least to judge from their sales. They both went through five quarto editions.

The details of his book sales are among the many things we know about William Shakespeare. Among playwrights of the time, only Ben Jonson can match Shakespeare for biographical record. It was a New England woman of the mid-nineteenth century who got the idea that William Shakespeare might have been Sir Francis Bacon. Her conviction arose from the fact that her name was Delia Bacon. Had she been born Delia Shakespeare, the Baconian theory would never have arisen. Nathaniel Hawthorne, also a New Englander and who knew Delia Bacon, spells out her delusion in Our Old Home, his book about Old England.

An unusual fact about Richard II is that it is entirely in verse without a line of prose.  It shares that distinction with Henry VI Parts One and Three, but there any likeness ends. The Henry VI plays were written at the very beginning of Shakespeare’s career, and they show a ready ruggedness, strong beyond apprentice work but not the work of a master playwright.

Richard II was written in the same year as Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, plays that show the language of Shakespeare at its lyrical best. This was the period of Shakespeare’s narrative poems, in particular of Venus and Adonis.  Based on Ovid’s record of Venus’s falling desperately in love with the ravishingly beautiful but mortal young man Adonis, it was a piece of high Renaissance camp. Richard II, no love story, effortlessly matched the poetry of Venus and Adonis and Romeo and Juliet.

In Richard II, pragmatic and prosaic characters rose to verbal heights. An uncle told a nephew that exile was not a grim prospect so long as the exile could think of a happy return. In response, the nephew used the power of imaginative verse to show the limits of imaginative power:

O, who can hold a fire in his hand
By thinking on the frosty Caucasus,
Or cloy the hungry edge of appetite
By bare imagination of a feast,
Or wallow naked in December snow
By thinking on fantastic summer's heat?
O no, the apprehension of the good
Gives but the greater feeling to the worse.
Fell sorrow's tooth doth never rankle more
Than when he bites, but lanceth not the sore.

(Richard II Act 1, Scene 3)

The eloquent nephew was Henry Bolingbroke who would return from exile to depose King Richard and become a usurping king. That theme made Richard II a dangerously topical play in 1595. Shakespeare’s queen, Queen Elizabeth, did not like her people to be reminded that crowned monarchs could be uncrowned. Moreover her grandfather, Henry Tudor, had been a usurper. He had uncrowned Richard III and become king in his place. To suggest that the Tudor line was illegitimate was a quick route to a traitor’s death.

Richard II touched on unsafe ground, but that did not prevent its being a play that men and women wanted to see. And there is in Shakespeare legend a curious tale that relates to the popularity of Richard II and relates Richard II to Africa. In 1607, a London merchant ship, The Red Dragon, on its way to Java, became delayed off the West African coast. It is said that for the amusement of themselves and attendant Africans, the Dragon’s crew staged an on-deck performance of Richard II.

This first staging abroad of a Shakespeare play is recorded in the standard Shakespeare reference works, though its first notice to scholarship did not come until the nineteenth-century discovery of a document that purported to tell the tale. In Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys around Shakespeare's Globe, Andrew Dickson makes much of it without fully endorsing the Dragon’s production. Whatever, it makes a wonderful picture, and it draws attention to some extraordinary and parallel developments in English commerce and language.

In 1562, two years before William Shakespeare was born, Sir John Hawkins was using guns to capture Africans. Shortly thereafter, the English learned to use guns not to capture Africans but to buy Africans. Lisbon and Seville dominated slaving, but London forced its way into the world’s most foul trade. Elizabethan slavers visited the Gold Coast so regularly that Africans began to find it useful to learn the language of Shakespeare.

For the first time, the English language began to move out of the British Isles. Until then, English had been spoken by the English only. For a thousand years, it had been an invaded language, first by Danish and next by French. In 1600, English was experiencing a third invasion, that of Latin. But, by 1600, English was also on its way to becoming an invader language rather than an invaded language. In Africa, it got its first purchase. It became an African lingua franca as a stage to becoming the global lingua franca.

African Shakespeare is mainly staged in English, but Shakespeare has been translated into Sotho, Tsonga, Venda, Xhosa, Yoruba, Zulu. Many of these are Niger–Congo languages, languages profoundly different from English. They are equally different from Danish, French and Latin, the languages that shaped Shakespeare’s English. English, Danish, French and Latin are members of the Indo-European language family, and, within that huge family, English, Danish, French and Latin are closely related.

Two thousand years ago English and Danish were the same language, a language given the name Proto-Germanic. The prefix ‘proto’ indicates that there is no written evidence for Proto-Germanic, but that its vocabulary, grammar and phonology have been conjectured by identifying the common elements of its descendant languages. Fifteen hundred years ago French was evolving from Latin, as Latin had evolved from a language called Proto-Italic. Six thousand years ago, Proto-Italic and Proto-Germanic were evolving from Proto-Indo-European, the original of languages from Lisbon to Moscow and from Stockholm to Delhi.

Is there a proto-language from which Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Niger-Congo have descended? No satisfactory construction of such a language has been made. Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Niger-Congo languages are too dissimilar. Did human language arise just the once so that all present-day languages have evolved over the past hundred thousand years from a single language? Perhaps, but perhaps not.

When Elizabethan mariners carried English to the West Coast of Africa, they carried English into a new linguistic world. If Jacobean mariners staged Richard II off the Gold Coast in 1607, the play must have appeared strange to African eyes but not as strange as the sound of an Indo-European tongue to Niger-Congo ears.

Had the mariners staged Richard II in Yoruba, Bolingbroke’s lines on the limits of the imagination would have sounded like this:

Irẹ, ti o le mu a iná li ọwọ rẹ
Nipa lerongba lori awọn frosty Caucasus,
Tabi cloy awọn ti ebi npa eti ti yanilenu
Nipa igboro inu ti a àse,
Tabi máa yíràá ìhòòhò ni December egbon
Nipa lerongba on ikọja ooru ká ooru?
Eyin ko si, awọn apprehension ti awọn ti o dara
Yoo fun ṣugbọn awọn tobi inú si awọn buru.
Subu si ibinujẹ ká ehin li kò rankle diẹ
Ju nigbati o buniṣán, ṣugbọn lanceth ko ni ọgbẹ.

Thanks go to Google for the translation. Whether or not Google has done a good job, only a Yoruba speaker can say. There are distances to be overcome: distances between English and Yoruba; Europe and Africa: Indo-European and Niger-Congo.

The Red Dragon was not a slaver. It had paused off the West African Coast on its way to the East. There it hoped to get a cargo more valuable than human beings. It was going for a shipload of spices that if returned to London would make the captain and his backers rich men. After Africa, Asia was the next continent to be invaded by the English. In 1616, at the time of Shakespeare’s death, India was poised to become one of the great places of the English language. Within four hundred years of his death, it would have an English-speaking population that vastly outnumbered that of the British Isles.


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Bosworth, Joseph, and T. Northcote Toller. An Anglo-Saxon dictionary, based on the manuscript collections of the late Joseph Bosworth.Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1882. See today:

Crystal, David. The Stories of English. Woodstock: Overlook Press, 2005.

Dickson, Andrew. Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys around Shakespeare's Globe. London: The Bodley Head, 2015.

Dobson, Michael, ed. The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Page 517.

Garner, Bryan A. "Shakespeare's Latinate Neologisms.’ Shakespeare Studies, 15 (1982): 149-170.

Kemmer, Suzanne. ‘Loanwords.’ Words in English. Rice University:, 2003.

Moffat, Alistair. The British: A Genetic Journey. Kindle Edition. Edinburgh: Berlinn, 2013. 

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Steinsaltz, David. ‘The Politics of French Language in Shakespeare’s History Plays.’ Papers. Oxford: