An Easter's Tale: Lions, Shakespeare, and Geography

We’ve all heard the phrase “you had to be there”, and sometimes, it couldn’t be more true.

One of the big arguments that old Shakespeare didn’t write his plays is that an actor and playwright from Stratford, the son of a glove maker, couldn’t have visited all the wonderful places that appear in the plays, such as Venice, Sardinia, Messina and Bohemia. The big flaw in this argument is that the man who wrote those plays probably hadn’t been to any of those places. Despite Shakespeare’s poetic and dramatic skill, his geography was a little dodgy. One of Shakespeare’s most famous geographical mistakes, scathingly mocked by fellow dramatist Ben Jonson, was to give a sea ports to various landlocked countries and cities. So how can obvious gaffes like these be reconciled with Shakespeare’s apparent knowledge? The answer lies in the vogue travel books in Shakespeare’s time. Libraries like John Dee’s, which Shakespeare may have had access to, were full of travel books describing far off climes. Although descriptions in these books were detailed, a series of literary vignettes can never make up a whole picture. For some things, you had to be there.

In the same way, before I went to Kenya my mind was already awash with images of that country, yet I had no idea what to expect. Photographs in books and online, and the immense popularity of wildlife programmes like David Attenborough’s Africa mean that, even in England, we can be saturated with pictures of the Kenyan bush. But these are no more than snapshots that leave us with a fractured and incomplete picture. We are bound to make the sorts of mistakes and assumptions that Ben Jonson mocked Shakespeare for. How do they all fit together? What do the roads look like? What are the people like? What are the shops like? How far apart are these stunning vistas? Why have the animals evolved to look like that?

When I arrived in Kenya it was nothing like I had expected, but sure enough, everything fitted together and had its place. For a start, like Prospero and Caliban’s island in The Tempest, the Kenyan bush is “full of noises”. A cacophony of the strangest and most varied bird song I have ever heard overwhelmed my ears. At the same time, my senses were assaulted by the stunning colours that saturated the landscape: the golden-yellow of the fever trees, the dusky red of a fire finches, and the shocking, electric blue of the Agama lizards. For the tourist in Kenya, the wildlife is probably the most famous thing to see, so I will talk about that. I had often wondered why zebras were black and white, and why giraffes were so enormous, with such bold markings: surely these distinctive markings and colours made them easy targets for predators. When these animals are seen in their natural habitat, in context, the surprising shapes and colours of Africa’s iconic animals make total sense; they are perfectly camouflaged.

What was most delightful about these creatures was their social interactions and their communities, something that never comes across in a google search, or even on a documentary. One day we went to visit the lions on the Mugie conservancy (I would recommend a stay at Mugie for any visitors to Kenya - it is stunning). Looking around, it seemed as if we were totally alone in the landscape. But then we spotted them: a pair of ears, distinct from the silhouette of the tree. And then nothing. We drove a little closer. Perhaps there were a couple of lionesses there, I thought. But as we drew closer, careful to remain downwind of the pride, we could see that there were no fewer than ten lionesses, of various ages, sprawled under the same tree. What perfect camouflage. This family group, we were told, was looking well-fed and content. Even I could see that. They lounged about, half asleep, leaning on one another comfortably: a real family. Then one of the cubs got up. Not one of the youngest, or the oldest of the cubs, still with the spots that lion cubs are born with. The cub picked up a forked branch in her mouth and preceded to pick her way through the group, poking and tickling her fellows. The mature lionesses waved her away, not wanting their rest to be disturbed. This scene of family interaction reminded me so much of when my siblings and I were little and the type of behaviour we would employ to provoke tired family members out of their rest and into play.

Another truly memorable moment occurred the day, we went for lunch at the beautiful Sirikoi lodge (for a little glimpse of how wonderful this place is, check out their blog). We ate the most delicious meal outside on a wooden deck, surrounded by curious monkeys. Just beneath the deck there was a watering hole, and as we ate our lunch, the space in front of us was gradually populated by impala, gazelle, buffalo, and even rhino, all coming to drink together. As the animals moved towards the water there were playful tussles between the young buffalo. As we watched, we noticed the odd shape of a male ostrich, darting back and forth. Soon, we could see the reasons for his strange behaviour, in his wake was a brown, female ostrich, and at her feet was a cluster of tiny ostrich babies. The erratic male was casing the joint, and looking for a safe place for his young to feed. It was amazing, but a description isn't enough: you had to be there.

What I loved most about the trip was seeing the subtle interactions between animals, the family groups, the sibling rivalries, even the aggressions between different groups of animals. For many people, it is similarly the subtle, social interactions that make Shakespeare’s work such a joy. Just like the lionesses we saw at Mugie, in Act II Scene I of The Winter’s Tale, the heavily pregnant Hermione brushes away her overly active son. Like many mothers before and since, Hermione gathers herself and dreams up a quieter game to keep her son occupied: “Come, sir, now / I am for you again: pray you, sit by us, / And tell 's a tale.” This interaction between Hermione and Mamillius does not further the plot and may seem irrelevant.  Yet this moment concerning mother and son is essential for the audience to recognise Hermione as a tired, pregnant woman, taking care of her child, and oblivious to the madness raging inside her husband’s mind. It is this brilliant contrast that creates the tension in the first section of the play. Shakespeare may not get his geography right, but his anthropology is much better.


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