April 2019 marks the 403rd anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. Behind his fame lie two things: his genius and the strength of the English press over the centuries. Reported to be the most studied secular author, the adulation he has received is close to hero-worship. Playwright George Barnard Shaw termed it “bardolatry”.

The fame he has received — mostly positive — is so great that any person who has encountered the English language, from whatever country in the world, has heard or read about Shakespeare. But with decolonisation a major talking point in today’s discourse, it is worth pausing to think about Shakespeare in SA and other parts of the world.

In 2017 there was talk that SA schools might stop teaching Shakespeare. A committee was given the task of reviewing the overall literature in 2018 and it is scheduled to report back in 2020.

This could be seen by some as a step backwards. Shakespeare Schools Festival SA (SSFSA) head Kseniya Filinova-Bruton believes that “the benefit that can be gotten out of studying Shakespeare sharpens skills across the English subject and the entire curriculum”.

SSFSA provides resources for schools to stage their own Shakespeare productions, and holds annual schools Shakespeare festivals. The festivals, Filinova-Bruton says, are transformative platforms for pupils as they are not only exposed to Shakespeare but theatre as well.

There’s so much fun pretending to be kings, queens and magical characters like fairies from plays such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she says. As children grow and are tasked with the challenge of finding meaning in Shakespeare’s difficult archaic language, they indirectly learn to sharpen their communication skills, which can spill over to other areas of their lives, she says.

“Grappling with Shakespeare is hard, so it requires perseverance and elevated thinking skills. This in turn gives students the skill and courage to deal with other challenges in their lives.”

Shakespeare ZA (a non-profit organisation for Shakespeare lovers) says it disagrees with those who associate Shakespeare with colonialism, elitism and Englishness.

What about the introduction or promotion of African playwrights? Filinova-Bruton believes that more should be done to develop SA writers and says Xthe SSFSA festival supports schools that introduce pupils to local playwrights, but she is adamant that classics like Shakespeare have a bigger role in the growth of pupils’ analytical and intellectual skills.

But Shakespeare hasn’t always occupied this hallowed position. It’s worth noting that the bard wrote at a time when English society was not certain about its literature. Their bookshelves and libraries paled in comparison with what the Greeks and Romans had produced. This was a time when English authors sought to up their game and produce big dramas like the other nations had done.

Shakespeare’s educated contemporaries saw it as their duty to undertake this great mission. An uneducated, unconnected upstart like Shakespeare was the last person they expected to tag along. While he received levels of success in his time, he wasn’t expected to become as popular, influential and significant as he later would. His plays are enacted across the world and movies based on his work continue to be made.

The Chinese are sceptical of Western ideas. American tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Twitter do not have a free rein there. As a result, the Chinese have Baidu as their search engine, and Weibo and WeChat as social media platforms and instant messaging tools. But they have been shown to be receptive to Shakespeare’s plays, which speak to their horrors and aspirations.

Back home, the bard has his own detractors. There are a tiny few who dispute that Shakespeare wrote the plays and poems attributed to him. His knowledgeable works and, to some extent, his unexpected success, as well as the fact that he never went to university, inform the Shakespeare authorship debate.

Filinova-Bruton says “there is much more evidence that William Shakespeare wrote those plays than anyone else”.

Whatever one thinks of this debate and the bard’s work and image, there is a charm in the story of an outsider who now symbolises the English language and has brought pride to nation.

The first SSFFA festival for the year runs at the Artscape Arena Theatre from April 16 to 18.