Shakespeare on South African television

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

This study undertakes the analysis of the eight productions of Shakespeare that were produced for television by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) between 1977 and 1988. The plays that were selected for production are Much Ado About Nothing (1977) Macbeth (1980) Twelfth Night (1981), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1982), Hamlet (1983), and The Merchant of Venice (1987). The SABC has also televised two stage productions by performing arts councils; these are Romeo en Juliet (1982) and The Winter's Tale (1988). The approach I have taken is a cultural materialist one. The television productions are analysed within the context of the SABC as a social, political and cultural institution, whose policies and practices are in turn shaped by the wider national political, economic and social context. The cultural role of the SABC is a dominant one, not least because of its monopoly over South African broadcasting until 1986. Its perception of its role and function is based on the passive "mirror" theory of media communication whereby "reality" is simply reflected within the operations and by the products of radio and television. In contrast, my approach to broadcast media incorporates the view that a broadcasting institution has a mutually active relationship with the community it addresses itself to, that this relationship undergoes change through historical development and that its products engage with their audience as it engages with them; they are as much informed as informing. In exploring the conditions of production of the SABC's television Shakespeares, I have undertaken to interview as many people as possible involved in their production. Analysis of their approach to the production of Shakespearean drama in South Africa combined with (semiotic) analysis of the message of production leads to an interpretation of the ideological reference of these productions. I conclude that the eight television productions of Shakespeare (separately and together) reinforce the traditional idealist attitudes towards Shakespeare instilled by critical orthodoxy. To a large extent, these attitudes are maintained by the educational, theatrical, and popular cultural background which produces the "Shakespeare myth" in South Africa.