Bohannon – Shakespeare in the Bush

Shakespeare in the Bush
An American anthropologist set out to study the Tiv of West Africa and was taught the true meaning of Hamlet

by Laura Bohannon

[Bohannan, Laura. 1966. “Shakespeare in the Bush.” in Natural History.. August.]

Points & Quotes:

  • Bohannon—an anthjropologist of the West African Tiv people—was chatting with an English friend:
“You Americans, often have difficulty with Shakespeare. He was, after all, a very English poet, and one can easily misinterpret the universal by misunderstanding the particular.”
I protested that human nature is pretty much the same the whole world over; at least the general plot and motivation of the greater tragedies would always be clear—everywhere—although some details of custom might have to be explained and difficulties of translation might produce other slight changes. To end an argument we could not conclude, my friend gave me a copy of Hamlet to study in the African bush: it would, he hoped, lift my mind above its primitive surroundings, and possibly I might, by prolonged meditation, achieve the grace of correct interpretation.”

  • Bohannon, finding that during the rainy season everyone among the Tiv sits around and drinks, decides to tell the elders the story of Hamlet, proving her point that the basics of narrative are rather universal…
  • Highlights of the Retelling:

[Bohannon] “One night three men were keeping watch outside the homestead of the great chief, when suddenly they saw the former chief approach them.”

“Why was he no longer their chief?”

“He was dead,” I explained. “That is why they were troubled and afraid when they saw him.”

“Impossible,” began one of the elders, handing his pipe on to his neighbor, who interrupted, “Of course it wasn’t the dead chief. It was an omen sent by a witch. Go on.”…[Bohannon] “The dead chief’s younger brother had become the great chief. He had also married his elder brother’s widow only about a month after the funeral.”“He did well,” the old man beamed and announced to the others, “I told you that if we knew more about Europeans, we would find they really were very like us. In our country also,” he added to me, “the younger brother marries the elder brother’s widow and becomes the father of his children.”…[Young Tiv Man] “For a man to raise his hand against his father’s brother and the one who has become his father— that is a terrible thing. The elders ought to let such a man be bewitched.”“No,” pronounced the old man, speaking less to me than to the young men sitting behind the elders. “If your father’s brother has killed your father, you must appeal to your father’s age mates: they may avenge him. No man may use violence against his senior relatives.” Another thought struck him.“But if his father’s brother had indeed been wicked enough to bewitch Hamlet and make him mad that would be a good story indeed, for it would be his fault that Hamlet, being mad, no longer had any sense and thus was ready to kill his father’s brother.”There was a murmur of applause. Hamlet was again a good story to them, but it no longer seemed quite the same story to me….

The old man made soothing noises and himself poured me some more beer. “You tell the story well, and we are listening. But it is clear that the elders of your country have never told you what the story really means. No, don’t interrupt! We believe you when you say your marriage customs are different, or your clothes and weapons. But people are the same everywhere; therefore, there are always witches and it is we, the elders, who know how witches work. We told you it was the great chief who wished to kill Hamlet, and now your own words have proved us right.”…“Listen,” said the elder, “and I will tell you how it was and how your story will go, then you may tell me if I am right. Polonius knew his son would get into trouble, and so he did. He had many fines to pay for fighting, and debts from gambling. But he had only two ways of getting money quickly. One was to marry off his sister at once, but it is difficult to find a man who will marry a woman desired by the son of a chief. For if the chief’s heir commits adultery with your wife, what can you do? Only a fool calls a case against a man who will someday be his judge. Therefore Laertes had to take the second way: he killed his sister by witchcraft, drowning her so he could secretly sell her body to the witches.”

I raised an objection, “They found her body and buried it. Indeed Laertes jumped into the grave to see his sister once more—so, you see, the body was truly there. Hamlet, who had just come back, jumped in after him.”

“What did I tell you?” The elder appealed to the others. “Laertes was up to no good with his sister’s body. Hamlet prevented him, because the chief’s heir, like a chief, does not wish any other man to grow rich and powerful.”…

“That was a very good story,” added the old man, “and you told it with very few mistakes. There was just one more error, at the very end. The poison Hamlet’s mother drank was obviously meant for the survivor of the fight, whichever it was. If Laertes had won, the great chief would have poisoned him, for no one would know that he arranged Hamlet’s death. Then, too, he need not fear Laertes’ witchcraft; it takes a strong heart to kill one’s only sister by witchcraft.”

“Sometime,” concluded the old man, gathering his ragged toga about him, “you must tell us some more stories of your country. We, who are elders, will instruct you in their true meaning, so that when you return to your own land your elders will see that you have not been sitting in the bush, but among those who know things and who have taught you wisdom.”

Annotation Summary for: Laura Bohannon – Shakespeare in the Bush

  • Highlights of the Retelling:

[Bohannon] “One night three men were keeping watch outside the homestead of the great chief, when suddenly they saw the former chief approach them.”

“Why was he no longer their chief?”

“He was dead,” I explained. “That is why they were troubled and afraid when they saw him.”

“Impossible,” began one of the elders, handing his pipe on to his neighbor, who interrupted, “Of course it wasn’t the dead chief. It was an omen sent by a witch. Go on.”

[Bohannon] “The dead chief’s younger brother had become the great chief. He had also married his elder brother’s widow only about a month after the funeral.”
“He did well,” the old man beamed and announced to the others, “I told you that if we knew more about Europeans, we would find they really were very like us. In our country also,” he added to me, “the younger brother marries the elder brother’s widow and becomes the father of his children.”
[Young Tiv Man] “For a man to raise his hand against his father’s brother and the one who has become his father— that is a terrible thing. The elders ought to let such a man be bewitched.”
“No,” pronounced the old man, speaking less to me than to the young men sitting behind the elders. “If your father’s brother has killed your father, you must appeal to your father’s age mates: they may avenge him. No man may use violence against his senior relatives.” Another thought struck him.“But if his father’s brother had indeed been wicked enough to bewitch Hamlet and make him mad that would be a good story indeed, for it would be his fault that Hamlet, being mad, no longer had any sense and thus was ready to kill his father’s brother.”
There was a murmur of applause. Hamlet was again a good story to them, but it no longer seemed quite the same story to me.

The old man made soothing noises and himself poured me some more beer. “You tell the story well, and we are listening. But it is clear that the elders of your country have never told you what the story really means. No, don’t interrupt! We believe you when you say your marriage customs are different, or your clothes and weapons. But people are the same everywhere; therefore, there are always witches and it is we, the elders, who know how witches work. We told you it was the great chief who wished to kill Hamlet, and now your own words have proved us right.”

 

“Listen,” said the elder, “and I will tell you how it was and how your story will go, then you may tell me if I am right. Polonius knew his son would get into trouble, and so he did. He had many fines to pay for fighting, and debts from gambling. But he had only two ways of getting money quickly. One was to marry off his sister at once, but it is difficult to find a man who will marry a woman desired by the son of a chief. For if the chief’s heir commits adultery with your wife, what can you do? Only a fool calls a case against a man who will someday be his judge. Therefore Laertes had to take the second way: he killed his sister by witchcraft, drowning her so he could secretly sell her body to the witches.”

I raised an objection, “They found her body and buried it. Indeed Laertes jumped into the grave to see his sister once more—so, you see, the body was truly there. Hamlet, who had just come back, jumped in after him.”

“What did I tell you?” The elder appealed to the others. “Laertes was up to no good with his sister’s body. Hamlet prevented him, because the chief’s heir, like a chief, does not wish any other man to grow rich and powerful.”

“That was a very good story,” added the old man, “and you told it with very few mistakes. There was just one more error, at the very end. The poison Hamlet’s mother drank was obviously meant for the survivor of the fight, whichever it was. If Laertes had won, the great chief would have poisoned him, for no one would know that he arranged Hamlet’s death. Then, too, he need not fear Laertes’ witchcraft; it takes a strong heart to kill one’s only sister by witchcraft.”

“Sometime,” concluded the old man, gathering his ragged toga about him, “you must tell us some more stories of your country. We, who are elders, will instruct you in their true meaning, so that when you return to your own land your elders will see that you have not been sitting in the bush, but among those who know things and who have taught you wisdom.”

Annotation Summary for: Laura Bohannon – Shakespeare in the Bush
Page 1, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: ““You Americans,” said a friend, “often have difficulty with Shakespeare. He was, after all, a very English poet, and one can easily misinterpret the universal by misunderstanding the particular.” “
Page 1, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “I protested that human nature is pretty much the same the whole world over; at least the general plot and motivation of the greater tragedies wouldalways be clear—everywhere—although some details of custom might have to be explained and difficulties of translation might produce other slight changes. To end an argument we”Page 1, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “could not conclude, my friend gave me a copy of Hamlet to study in the African bush: it would, he hoped, lift my mind above its primitive surroundings, and possibly I might, by prolonged meditation, achieve the grace of correct interpretation.”Page 1, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “Soon there would be three months of enforced isolation and leisure, between the harvest that takes place just”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “before the rising of the swamps and the clearing of new farms when the water goes down. Then, I thought, they would have even more time to perform ceremonies and explain them to me.”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “As the swamps rose even higher, all activities but one came to an end. The women brewed beer from maize and millet. Men, women, and children sat on their hillocks and drank it.”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “People began to drink at dawn.”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: ““One does not discuss serious matters when there is beer. Come, drink with us.” Since I lacked their capacity for the thick native beer, I spent more and more time with Hamlet. Before the end of the second month, grace descended on me. I was quite sure that Hamlet had only one possible interpretation, and that one universally obvious.”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: ““It is better like this,” the old man said, looking at me approvingly and plucking at the thatch that had caught in my hair. “You should sit and drink with us more often. Your servants tell me that when you are not with us, you sit inside your hut looking at a paper.””

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “The old man was acquainted with four kinds of “papers”: tax receipts, bride price receipts, court fee receipts, and letters.”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: ” I hastily explained that my “paper” was one of the “things of long ago” of mycountry.”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: ““Ah,” said the old man. “Tell us.” I protested that I was not a storyteller. Storytelling is a skilled art among them; their standards are high, and the audiences critical—and vocal in their criticism. I protested in vain. This morning they wanted to hear a story while they drank. They threatened to tell me no more stories until I told them one of mine. Finally, the old man promised that no one would criticize my style, “for we know you are struggling with our language.” “But,” put in one of the elders, “you must explain what we do not understand, as we do when we tell you our stories.” Realizing that here was my chance to prove Hamlet universally intelligible, I agreed.”

Page 3, Stamp (openStarred)

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: ““Not yesterday, not yesterday, but long ago, a thing occurred. One night three men were keeping watch outside the homestead of the great chief, when suddenly they saw the former chief approach them.” “Why was he no longer their chief?” “He was dead,” I explained. “That is why they were troubled and afraid when they saw him.””

Page 3, Underline (Blue):
Content: “One night three men were keeping watch outside the homestead of the great chief, when suddenly they saw the former chief approach them.” “Why was he no longer their chief?” “He was dead,” I explained. “That is why they were troubled and afraid when they saw him.””

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: ““Impossible,” began one of the elders, handing his pipe on to his neighbor, who interrupted, “Of course it wasn’t the dead chief. It was an omen sent by a witch. Go on.””

Page 4, Underline (Blue):
Content: ““Impossible,” began one of the elders, handing his pipe on to his neighbor, who interrupted, “Of course it wasn’t the dead chief. It was an omen sent by a witch. Go on.””

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “Then the man who knew things—his name was Horatio—said this event was the affair of the dead chief’s son, Hamlet.” There was a general shaking of heads round the circle. “Had the dead chief no living brothers? Or was this son the chief?” “No,” I replied. “That is, he had one living brother who became the chief when the elder brother died.” The old men muttered: such omens were matters for chiefs and elders, not for youngsters; no good could come of going behind a chief’s back; clearly Horatio was not a man who knew things.”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: ““In our country the son is next to the father. The dead chief’s younger brother had become the great chief. He had also married his elder brother’s widow onlyabout a month after the funeral.” “He did well,” the old man beamed and announced to the others, “I told you that if we knew more about Europeans, we would find they really were very like us. In our country also,” he added to me, “the younger brother marries the elder brother’s widow and becomes the father of his children. Now, if your uncle, who married your widowed mother, is your father’s full brother, then he will be a real father to you. Did Hamlet’s father and uncle have one mother?” “

Page 4, Underline (Blue):
Content: “The dead chief’s younger brother had become the great chief. He had also married his elder brother’s widow only about a month after the funeral.””

Page 4, Underline (Blue):
Content: ““He did well,” the old man beamed and announced to the others, “I told you that if we knew more about Europeans, we would find they really were very like us. In our country also,” he added to me, “the younger brother marries the elder brother’s widow and becomes the father of his children.”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “His question barely penetrated my mind; I was too upset and thrown too far off-balance by having one of the most important elements of Hamlet knocked straight out of the picture. Rather uncertainly I said that I thought they had the same mother, but I wasn’t sure—the story didn’t say. The old man told me severely that these genealogical details made all the difference and that when I got home I must ask the elders about it.”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “Indeed”—I was fumbling for words to express the dubious quality of Hamlet’s madness—“the chief and many others had also noticed that when Hamlet talked one could understand the words but not what they meant. Many people thought that he had become mad.” My audience suddenly became much more attentive.”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “Polonius, however, insisted that Hamlet was mad becausehe had been forbidden to see Ophelia, whom he loved.””

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: ““Why,” inquired a bewildered voice, “should anyone bewitch Hamlet on that account?” “Bewitch him?” “Yes, only witchcraft can make anyone mad, unless, of course, one sees the beings that lurk in the forest.” “

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: ““The great chief told Hamlet’s mother to find out from her son what he knew. But because a woman’s children are always first in her heart, he had the important elder Polonius hide behind a cloth that hung against the wall of Hamlet’s mother’s sleeping hut. Hamlet started to scold his mother for what she had done.” There was a shocked murmur from everyone. A man should never scold his mother. “She called out in fear, and Polonius moved behind the cloth. Shouting, ‘A rat!’ Hamlet took his machete and slashed through the cloth.” I paused for dramatic effect. “He had killed Polonius.” The old men looked at each other in supreme disgust. “That Polonius truly was a fool and a man who knew nothing! What child would not know enough to shout, ‘It’s me!’” With a pang, I remembered that these people are ardent hunters, always armed with bow, arrow, and machete; at the first rustle in the grass an arrow is aimed and ready, and the hunter shouts “Game!” If no human voice answers immediately, the arrow speeds on its way. Like a good hunter, Hamlet had shouted, “A rat!””

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: ““Polonius did speak. Hamlet heard him. But he thought it was the chief and wished to kill him to avenge his father.”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “This time I had shocked my audience seriously. “For a man to raise his hand against his father’s brother and the one who has become his father— that is a terrible thing.”

Page 10, Underline (Blue):
Content: ““For a man to raise his hand against his father’s brother and the one who has become his father— that is a terrible thing.”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “The elders ought to let such a man be bewitched.””

Page 10, Underline (Blue):
Content: “g. The elders ought to let such a man be bewitched.””

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: ““No,” pronounced the old man, speaking less to me than to the young men sitting behind the elders. “If your father’s brother has killed your father, you must appeal to your father’s age mates: they may avenge him. No man may use violence against his senior relatives.” Another thought struck him. “But if his father’s brother had indeed been wicked enough to bewitch Hamlet and make him mad that would be a good story indeed, for it would be his fault that Hamlet, being mad, no longer had any sense and thus was ready to kill his father’s brother.””

Page 10, Underline (Blue):
Content: ““No,” pronounced the old man, speaking less to me than to the young men sitting behind the elders. “If your father’s brother has killed your father, you must appeal to your father’s age mates: they may avenge him. No man may use violence against his senior relatives.” Another thought struck him.“But if his father’s brother had indeed been wicked enough to bewitch Hamlet and make him mad that would be a good story indeed, for it would be his fault that Hamlet, being mad, no longer had any sense and thus was ready to kill his father’s brother.” There was a murmur of applause. Hamlet was again a good story to them, but it no longer seemed quite the same story to me.”

Page 10, Stamp (yesgrn)

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “There was a murmur of applause. Hamlet was again a good story to them, but it no longer seemed quite the same story to me.”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “Laertes came back for his father’s funeral. The great chief told him Hamlet had killed Polonius. Laertes swore to kill Hamlet because of this, and because his sister Ophelia, hearing her father had been killed by the man she loved, went mad and drowned in the river.””

Page 11, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: ““Have you already forgotten what we told you?” The old man was reproachful. “One cannot take vengeance on a madman; Hamlet killed Polonius in his madness. As for the girl, she not only went mad, she was drowned. Only witches can make people drown. Water itself can’t hurt anything. It is merely something one drinks and bathes in.””

Page 11, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “The old man made soothing noises and himself poured me some more beer. “You tell the story well, and we are listening. But it is clear that the elders of your country have never told you what the story really means. No, don’t interrupt! We believe you when you say your marriage customs are different, or your clothes and weapons. But people are the same everywhere; therefore, there are always witches and it is we, the elders, who know how witches work. We told you it was the great chief who wished to kill Hamlet, and now your own words have proved us right. Who were Ophelia’s male relatives?””

Page 11, Underline (Blue):
Content: “The old man made soothing noises and himself poured me some more beer. “You tell the story well, and we are listening. But it is clear that the elders of your country have never told you what the story really means. No, don’t interrupt! We believe you when you say your marriage customs are different, or your clothes and weapons. But people are the same everywhere; therefore, there are always witches and it is we, the elders, who know how witches work. We told you it was the great chief who wished to kill Hamlet, and now your own words have proved us right. Who were Ophelia’s male relatives?””

Page 11, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: ““Listen,” said the elder, “and I will tell you how it was and how your story will go, then you may tell me if I am right. Polonius knew his son would get into trouble, and so he did. He had many fines to pay for fighting, and debts from gambling. But he had only two ways of getting money quickly. One was to marry off his sister at once, but it is difficult to find a man who will marry a woman desired by the son of a chief. For if the chief’s heir commits adultery with your wife, what can you do? Only a fool calls a case against a man who will someday be his judge. Therefore Laertes had to take”

Page 11, Underline (Blue):
Content: ““Listen,” said the elder, “and I will tell you how it was and how your story will go, then you may tell me if I am right. Polonius knew his son would get into trouble, and so he did. He had many fines to pay for fighting, and debts from gambling. But he had only two ways of getting money quickly. One was to marry off his sister at once, but it is difficult to find a man who will marry a woman desired by the son of a chief. For if the chief’s heir commits adultery with your wife, what can you do? Only a fool calls a case against a man who will someday be his judge. Therefore Laertes had to take”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “the second way: he killed his sister by witchcraft, drowning her so he could secretly sell her body to the witches.””

Page 12, Underline (Blue):
Content: “the second way: he killed his sister by witchcraft, drowning her so he could secretly sell her body to the witches.””

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “raised an objection. “They found her body and buried it. Indeed Laertes jumped into the grave to see his sister once more—so, you see, the body was truly there. Hamlet, who had just come back, jumped in after him.””

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: ““What did I tell you?” The elder appealed to the others. “Laertes was up tono good with his sister’s body. Hamlet prevented him, because the chief’s heir, like a chief, does not wish any other man to grow rich and powerful. “

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: ““That was a very good story,” added the old man, “and you told it with very few mistakes.” There was just one more error, at the very end. The poison Hamlet’s mother drank was obviously meant for the survivor of the fight, whichever it was. If Laertes had won, the great chief would have poisoned him, for no one would know that he arranged Hamlet’s death. Then, too, he need not fear Laertes’ witchcraft; it takes a strong heart to kill one’s only sister by witchcraft.”

Page 12, Stamp (yesgrn)

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: ““Sometime,” concluded the old man, gathering his ragged toga about him, “you must tell us some more stories of your country. We, who are elders, will instruct you in their true meaning, so that when you return to your own land your elders will see that you have not been sitting in the bush, but among those who know things and who have taught you wisdom.””

Page 12, Underline (Blue):
Content: ““Sometime,” concluded the old man, gathering his ragged toga about him, “you must tell us some more stories of your country. We, who are elders, will instruct you in their true meaning, so that when you return to your own land your elders will see that you have not been sitting in the bush, but among those who know things and who have taught you wisdom.””

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