If you like Shakespearian drama with its witchcraft and verbose smouldering insults, you’ll love Nigerian cinema says Yomi Adegoke

As a lifelong fan of both Nollywood and literature, something mind-blowing has come to my attention. Nollywood – Nigeria’s ever-growing film industry – and Shakespearean theatre, are virtually indistinguishable.

‘Lend me your ears’. Or rather, ‘abeg, drag your ear, make you hear me well oo’. It may seem like a reach of epic proportions, but with a little bit of imagination, anyone can understand why the comparison is drawn. One is an internationally-enjoyed, high-drama spectacle, peppered with moralistic messages and gruesome deaths – the other is Shakespeare.  

In both, tales of wicked wives, warring kingdoms and meddlesome witches reign supreme. Treacherous leaders engage in fierce disputes over power, against a backdrop of madness, envy and bitter family rivalries. And of course, the characters in both have a penchant for poisoning.

And let’s take a look at the characters. Strong and scheming matriarchs are at the core of Nigerian cinema. It takes hardly any stretch of the imagination to imagine infamous Nollywood villainess Patience Ozokwor as a gele wearing Lady Macbeth, in a colour-coordinated heels and bag combo. In fact, Brett Bailey’s 2014 reimagining of the Scottish play saw the character become a headstrong ‘aunty’, with Macbeth himself transformed into a warlord in the modern day Democratic Republic of Congo. The transition was so seamless and believable, in part because the melodrama, supernatural themes and betrayal simply made one feel as though they were tuned into Nigerian-film streaming service irokotv.

As integral as the femme fatale is to the genre, like Shakespeare Nollywood would be nothing without the long-suffering, tragic-heroine character too. A Lavinia, a Desdemona, a Cordelia – and Nigerian films have them aplenty. The ever-tearful Mercy Johnson as Ophelia (or Oluwapelumi?) practically writes itself. And leading men Jim Iyke and Desmond Elliot have been cast several times as the navel-gazing anti-heroes who invite audiences into their train of thought. They are usually fickle, jealous, remorseful, contemplative and brooding – like Othello or Hamlet.

Let’s not forget the ‘fool’ characters that so often come in the form of the gatemen. Whilst providing quick quips and belly laughs, they often are the first characters to provide astute observations on the protagonists in pidgin. The Royal Shakespeare Company wrote the Fool ‘acts as a commentator on events and is one of the characters…who is fearless in speaking the truth. The Fool provides wit in this bleak play’. Look closely at most Nollywood films and the roles are often sprinkled with Shakespeare: they even have a fondness for casting admonishing ghosts (sometimes in costumes as convincing as they would have been in Elizabethan England).  

Like the Bard, Nollywood script writers truly have a way with words. And similarly, their characters are prone to overlong monologues and soliloquies. When a character in Nollywood is suffering from a crisis of conscience or confidence, it often expressed with a diatribe of Hamlet proportions. The grandiloquence of language is present throughout, be it in a witch’s curse or the foreboding warning of a disgruntled mother.

Even when it’s not verbose, it is distinctly Shakespearean. Take the following line from Nollywood drama Iwogbe, part 2. “Is this pleasing to the ears, that my own daughter has gone mad?” laments a character. “My creator, come to my rescue.” It’s phrasing could easily confound in a ‘Who said it? Shakespeare or Nollywood veteran Pete Edochie?’ quiz. Most threats tend to have an ‘a plague o’ both your houses’ air to them, and Shakespeare had a knack for insults that was decidedly Nigerian. Delights such as “More of your conversation would infect my brain” and “The rankest compound of villainous smell that ever offended nostril” are personal favourites. Or his referring to someone as a “Dissembling harlot” which I’m almost sure much have graced the lips of Tonto Dikeh in at least one Nollywood fight scene.

At first glance, the themes in both can appear universal: Love. Power. Laughter laced with tragedy. But let’s get more specific. As any Nollywood aficionado knows, magic, spells and witchcraft are it’s bread and butter, as are prophetic dreams. Pray tell; what exactly is the difference between the omens of the witches in Macbeth and the premonitions of a native witch doctor? And don’t get me started on the comparative sorcery and dreams prevalent in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest.

As in Romeo and Juliet, themes such as love and hate, fate and fortune are riddled throughout Nigerian scripts. Jealousy and vengeance are popular subjects too, cropping up in Shakespeare’s works such as Hamlet and Othello again. Descent into madness and betrayal are rife, as in King Lear, as well as corruption, sin and salvation. The warring kingdoms in Coriolanus, Henry V and Titus Andronicus, become Nigerian villages in combat. Ambition, guilt, conscience, justice…The list is quite literally endless.

For the sake of argument, it’s worth comparing a few synopses. Nollywood film My Darling Princess is a contemporary Romeo and Juliet; an intertribal romance story of a Yoruba Princess and an Igbo boy who fall in love, much to the ire of their parents. “The older generation on both sides have deeply ingrained prejudices.” the plot reads. “Their love becomes one big battle to fight against their respective families.”  As in Macbeth, the film ‘Witch Messengers’ sees human destinies meddled with by a trio of witches, manipulating the characters into disaster and casting spells that ruin lives. King Lear fans will immediately surmise what play ‘Royal madness’ is referencing, as the heir to the throne of a great kingdom descends into madness and the loyalty of royal advisors is tested.

Hamlet crops up just about everywhere in Nollywood; in Warrior’s Heart which sees the king poisoned by his cousin in a bid for the throne, and in The Witch And The Tyranny King where the unsettled spirit of a deceased king returns to find his kingdom in disarray under the new ruler. And as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shattered Future sees a woman married to a man under the influence of a love spell cast by her once-spurned husband. These of course are but a handful of examples – but immediately recognisable ones. You can even go as far to argue Nollywood films are even organised in ‘acts’ of sorts, many having a ‘part two’ (at the very least) and most of the romantic comedy films fit the very Shakespearian definition of a comedy, concluding with a happy marriage.

Nigerian cinema has clearly, even if unconsciously has been influenced by the works of Shakespeare, and like his plays, the films continue resonate with people from all walks of life across the globe. But it is often something viewed with scorn and condescension, as revered as it is resented. Sure, Nollywood can be ridiculous and over the top, but no more so than William’s equally as implausible works – the very same histrionics celebrated in one, lead to the mocking of the other.  

Despite this, its cultural significance and impact can’t be denied; perhaps in 450 odd years, students worldwide will be dissecting the script of Osuofia in London? After all, it includes all the drama of Shakespeare and much more. One thing is for sure, once noted the similarities cannot be unseen – try re-reading A Midsummer’s Night Dream and not seeing either of the comedic duo Aki and Pawpaw as Puck.

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Yomi Adegoke is a journalist who writes about race, feminism, popular culture and how they intersect, as well as class and politics. She is co-author of ‘Slay In Your Lane’, a guide to life for young black British women.

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