Shakespeare’s legacy in Kenyan political idioms

'Wild goose chase' trended after Supreme Court ruling

In Summary

• Colourful language used by judges of the apex court have roots in the poet's words

Court ruling
Court ruling

William Shakespeare would be celebrating his 459th birthday had he lived to this very weekend. The bard of Avon was born in April 1564. He died 52 years later. Those who knew him and created the records of his life report that he died in April, too. To add more ingredients to the life of this master of words, it is said that he was born on April 23 and died on April 23.

Pundits argue that those whose dates of birth are embellished with signs of wonder are special. They go ahead to assert certain extraordinary qualities to such personages. People of the Orient go a long way to ensure that rites of birth, initiation, nuptial and death are mapped by dates chosen with the carefulness of a cardiologist.

Take the case of Mr Biswas, who, though born in the West Indies, was of oriental ancestry going way back to ancient India. Kenyans know this famous character from the 1961 novel that made VS Naipaul of Trinidad famous. Sir Naipaul is the 2001 Nobel Laureate for Literature.

The coveted global prize of literary excellence was awarded to him in the same year A House for Mr Biswas, a former Kenyan secondary school set book, celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. Focussing on the foibles of Biswas, many consider it the epitome of postcolonial art.

Biswas’ immanence as a postcolonial subject begins with a prediction by a pundit that he will be quite the character: a spendthrift, lecher who shall cause the death of one of the parents. This prediction bears semblance to other such auspicious births recorded in history.

From the birth of great antique emperors of the East, such as Cyrus the Great, to leaders of religion, such as Jesus from the kingdom of Herod the Great, or Gautama Buddha, reference is made to children who, even before their birth, were deemed special in many a way.

The same may not hold water in the history of the Western Civilisation, apart from the case of Oedipus. This is the man whose name has given modern psychology the complex revolving around the extraordinary mother-son bond. He was destined to destroy his own father (and marry his mother). The prophecy that announced his weird circumstances pre-birth came to pass accurately, with incredible and indescribable consequences.


Back to our man of the weekend, William Shakespeare. Special indeed is his alpha and omega dates: birth on April 23, 1564, and death on the same date of the same month 52 years later. Was this a coincidence? Was this a temporal accident or a cosmic conspiracy that would render the man eternal, at least up to now? Granted, no writer of the English language has gained prominence in death as has this monument of its literary heritage.

Kenyans are Anglophones, even as speech communities of French and Chinese among other multilateral languages live in this land and expanding by the years are. In their usage of English as an official language of public interaction, people of this land find great enjoyment in some of the common phrases.

Take the two examples here that Kenyans love to the seventh heavens. Firstly, we have the most current and with judicial flavour: a wild goose chase. It is here in Kenya that a gruesome duel at the highest level of national politics is adjudicated by the apex court, also called Mahakama ya Upeo in Kiswahili.

Eyebrows of half the political class are still stuck raised in wonder when the same court used the wild-goose-chase phrase to dismiss election rigging claims of opponents of the current ruling coalition. A wild goose chase is what the Bible calls chasing after the wind. An exercise in futility. The phrase first appeared in English in Romeo and Juliet, the famous play that Kenyans had as a set book in the early to mid-1990s.

Shakespeare lived in an age of hunts, royal and majestic, complete with horses, hounds and hunters with crows. Yet to chase a goose is to assume that it is solely terrestrial. It is not. At the apex of excitement of a hunting expedition, this delicious bird is known to tuck its feet into the warm underbelly and use powerful wings to swim into the skies. A thousand hunters, a hundred hounds and a dozen horses cannot fly.

Savour the second common phrase in Kenyan English. For goodness sake. It carries the same emotional impact as the word “jamani” in Kiswahili. Grammarians of both languages will insist that it features an exclamation punctuation mark at the end. The phrase first appeared in the manner that we use it today in Henry VIII, another literary tour de force of the great playwright.

It is not far-fetched to imagine how the opponents of the ruling coalition reacted as the landmark, unprecedented, unanimous Supreme Court ruling was issued in one of the quickest renditions in Kenyan legal history.

You can imagine the battalion of learned friends who had defended the leader of the Opposition and his allies using “for goodness sake” to exude their consternation. The choice of words and phrases from English used by the apex court to render their ruling is the subject of debate to this very day. Remember Shakespeare and his linguistic legacy in Kenya this weekend. Rare is the man whose pen inspires beyond centuries.

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