"Master Harold" and the Bard: Education and Succession in Fugard and Shakespeare


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

"You must teach the boys to show you more respect, my son."1

For thou hast lost thy princely privilege

With vile participation.2

Fugard's "Master Harold" . .. and the boys has been called a ''family history" because it is based on incidents in the author's own life, yet it is also set during a crucial period in the history of South Africa, two years after the 1948 elections that brought the Nationalist Party to power, when the Nationalists were crafting legislation that would continue to shape South African life until the time of the play's composition (1982) and beyond.3 This choice of time, in which Fugard departed from biographical accuracy to highlight the historical context of the play's action,4 prompts us to look at "Master" Harold's psychological dilemma in the context of the ideological needs of the new Nationalist regime, and it is in this context that some striking resemblances appear between Fugard's play and Shakespeare's Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, which likewise are set in the early years of a new regime and deal with that regime's attempts to solidify its power. Fugard's historical portrait, unlike Shakespeare's history plays, is not painted on a wide canvas that includes courts, battlefields, and taverns, yet political changes such as the Group Areas Act, which proclaimed that certain "controlled" areas could be owned and occupied only by members of a designated racial group, are part of the implied setting of the drama.5 More importantly, both authors show the development of a young man into a member of the ruling elite of a nation--a process during which he must choose between competing ideologies and political visions associated, respectively, with members of the upper and lower classes. By "competing ideologies" I refer to sets of beliefs, metaphors, and arguments that serve to justify different configurations of social and economic relations. An ideology suited to the needs of the upper class of a given society will usually support existing social and economic relations, whereas one suited to the needs of the lower class (though not necessarily adopted by a majority of lower-class persons) will usually promote some sort of critique of that power structure. In both Shakespeare and Fugard, the upper-class ideologies "win" the competition, and the young men turn away from their former companions of the lower class, yet the political sympathies of the authors differ markedly, as we can see from the ways in which they present these similar situations.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.