115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Shakespeare in Hawai‘i: Puritans, Missionaries, and Language Trouble in a Hawaiian Pidgin Translation of Twelfth Night

Rhema Hokama, Singapore University of Technology and Design

My talk discusses the connection between religious identity and creole language in James Grant Benton’s 1974 play Twelf Nite o Wateva!, a Hawaiian pidgin adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. I argue that Benton uses Shakespeare's references to Puritans and early modern religious fundamentalism to comment upon issues of religion, race, and class in contemporary Hawai‘i.


Cultural context: Hawaiian Creole English, known locally as pidgin, has its origins in the sugar plantations of territorial Hawai‘i, where Native Hawaiians and immigrant laborers from Japan, the Philippines, southern China, Portugal, and Puerto Rico developed pidgin dialects to communicate among each other. Today, Hawaiian pidgin is spoken to some degree by nearly all residents of Hawai‘i, and remains the primary language of Hawai‘i’s working class.

In 1974, Hawaii-based actor and director James Grant Benton translated Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night into Hawaiian pidgin. The resulting play, Twelf Nite o Wateva!, was staged that December at Honolulu’s Kumu Kahua theater. While all of Benton’s characters speak pidgin in Twelf Nite, the heaviness of their pidgin differs among their social class and cultural aspirations.

Proposal: I argue that Benton uses Shakespeare’s references to Puritans and early modern religious fundamentalism to comment upon issues of religion, race, and class in contemporary Hawai‘i. In doing so, Shakespeare’s original language becomes a model for inauthentic, pretentious language in the pidgin version of the play. In Twelf Nite, Shakespeare’s early modern English becomes conflated with the standard American English of the Christian missionaries to Hawai‘i.

In Twelf Nite O Wateva!, linguistic mobility along the pidgin spectrum is linked with social, racial, and religious mobilities in contemporary Hawai‘i. In his efforts to woo his mistress Princess Mahealani (Olivia) and marry up in the Island’s social hierarchy, Malolio (Malvolio) uses pretentious pidgin English, as he attempts to emulate what he thinks Standard English should sound like. As he seeks to win the Princess’ favor, Malolio co-opts the language and religion of the haole (white) Christian missionaries from New England. Often, his most “pretentious” moments are nearly verbatim translations of Shakespeare’s language itself. Ironically, it’s Shakespeare’s own language that the other characters ridicule as “30-cent poetry.”

Benton’s paradoxical Malolio embodies the political and social contradictions of what pidgin means for locals from Hawai‘i. Malolio is reviled for trying to speak something other than pidgin, but he also models the process of linguistic reinvention that nearly every local from Hawai‘i must undergo in order to achieve professional success in the Islands or on the mainland USA. Twelf Nite explores the limits of pidgin—as a language, as a portal to an inherited literary tradition, as a vehicle for social and cultural mobility, and as a means of self-reinvention.