Shakespeare in the Bush

An essay text by Laura Bohannan



“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.”






The quotation above was made by Laura Bohannan, reproducing a remark made by a friend about his alleged failure to understand Shakespeare – and more specifically Hamlet – outside the English universe. Such comments were followed by Bohannan’s protest recalling the universality of the playwright’s texts.


Our tragedy tells us the sufferings of Prince Hamlet, when he found that his uncle killed his father and married up his mother, having the right to the throne of Denmark. Here, there are some of Shakespeare’s most famous dialogs and phrases, such as: “to be or not, that is the question”, “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” and “The rest is silence”.


Among the issues raised in the tragedy, Hamlet meditates on mortality, also bringing to light the oedipal questionings, as Freud would name later. So, he mixes concepts (not properly mentioned but strongly suggested) related to a non-consummated incest (evidenced by his extreme maternal jealousy) with the idea of the frustrated son who kills the father (from the myth of the “primal horde”), becoming haunted by him.



But in Hamlet’s case, the father to be murdered is, actually, his uncle who, eager to seduce his brother’s wife, kills his “opponent” and assumes himself the throne: the Culture’s Founding Myth will, therefore, be replaced by the Myth of Brotherhood and Otherness, in which every brother wants to destroy the other, becoming the cradle of all neurotic relations involving ‘alterity’ in human societies throughout the times.


The death of the “father” (or “uncle”, in our case) occurs, thus, as a result of a violent explosion of all drives, originated in the long abstinence of an obedient child. In addition, there is an entire (but secondary) questioning concerning women’s apparently peripheral meaning, almost reduced to a currency to be exchange or a mere adornment to represent power.


When we talk about Shakespeare, which seems to be certain, as well argued by Bohannan, is the universality of his themes. But the sophistication of this tragedy, based on Oedipus Tyrannus, brings an extra challenge to be replicated in other cultures, especially the Tiv, with “their high standards” and “very critical” posture, causing the “proof of Hamlet’s universal intelligibility” to be converted in an arduous feat.


At the very beginning, the difficulty was to explain that the “chief” (it is, the king of Denmark) appeared to three men and the son, even after his death. An elder of the tribe retorts: “Impossible (...). Of course it was not the dead chief. It was an omen sent by a sorcerer.” Worse still, it was to locate specifically one of them in this episode: Horatio, a “wise” man, was explained as “a man who knows of things”, something that sounded as “witch" to them, as both words have exactly the same meaning for the Tiv.


After getting around the initial difficulty, Bohannan realized that one of the main elements in the plot would be completely disregarded by the listeners: for the Tiv, it is totally natural that the brother marries his sister-in-law as the son does not succeed his father. She unsuccessfully tried to raise the indignation of her audience, by saying that the mother married the brother of Hamlet’s father of Hamlet just after two months of his death, not respecting a mourning period of at least two years. “Two years is a long time”, said one of the women who were listening to the story…



The public seemed, therefore, convinced that Claudius and Gertrude had behaved perfectly well and within the normal rules, since Claudius had all the reasons to marry the widow of his brother, manly due to the fact that he had just one woman, which is something very strange – almost a misbehaving – for the Tiv.


In the hope that listeners would disapprove the fratricide, Bohannan reminded them of what Hamlet’s father said, but one of the elders replied, emphatically, that “omen don’t talk”. Nothing else remained to our story teller than introducing the English concept of “ghost” which, obviously, was not understood as they were a people who did not believe in individual life after death. Among parallel attempts involving terms such as “zombie” or “shadow”, a provisional consensus was reached and, then, the narrative followed up.


The next difficulty was to understand Polonius’ role of adviser, as well as his objections concerning the prince’s approach to Ophelia. And if the concern about his daughter’s reputation was something unintelligible, what to say about the dubious character of Hamlet's madness, followed by Ophelia’s own outbreaks? “Only witchcraft can leave someone crazy,” said one of the listeners. Would such “ghost” be, actually, a “devil” as Hamlet even suspected?


And how to explain to those distinguished hunters the mistake committed by Hamlet, when he killed Polonius thinking it was a rat behind the curtain? Interestingly, it was what shocked them the most: Polonius spoke something before being killed, and even listening to his voice, Hamlet killed him as he believed it was the “great chief” (the uncle-king) who was hidden behind the curtain, in a desired of avenging the death of his father. “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.”


Needless to remember that it was, actually, the murderer of Hamlet’s father, “No man may use violence against his senior relatives” But the same elder who condemned the prince’s attitude built another thought and reached a different conclusion, now antagonist: “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.”



Claudius did not feel sorry for Polonius’ death, as he saw an opportunity to get rid of Hamlet: the prince should go to England, escorted by two of his companions, who received, each one, papers determining measures to be taken at their final destination. Bohannan, then, noticed a reproachful glare when she said that Hamlet changed the two letters from “the great leader” (uncle-king), replacing the originals given to his two “treacherous age mates” – which determined his death – by counterfeit copies condemning their own carriers.


Upon his return, Hamlet meets Ophelia’s funerals, who drown herself as a result of a psychological outbrake: “Only witches can make people drown”, said an old man. “Water itself can't hurt anything.  It is merely something one drinks and bathes in.”, he concluded. Bohannan continued and said that Hamlet met there Laertes, Ophelia’s brother and Polonius’ son, just returned from France for the funerals. Claudius, the usurper uncle-king, takes advantage of the situation and reveals to Laertes that Hamlet was who murdered his father, Polonius.


Despite of new objections involving characters’ motifs, she continued until the tragedy’s climax: the fight with machetes between Hamlet and Laertes, when both where seriously injured. To celebrate his good performance in the fight, Hamlet’s mother toasted her son with the “beer” (actually, a wine) that the “big chief” had separated to offer to Hamlet, if he won the dispute. The prince, then, gave his back to Laertes to warn his mother that he had not still ended the fight, when he received a coup from his opponent, with a poisoned sword. So, Hamlet takes the same sword and hurts Laertes, who fell to ground.


The queen feels badly and the fight is interrupted. And by realizing that the wine she drank was poisoned, she tries to warn Hamlet about the danger but she dies in her son’s arms. Even with a wheezing breathing and close to death, Laertes confesses to Hamlet on the conspiracy along with Claudio. With extreme rage, the prince kills Claudius with the poisoned sword, also forcing him to drink the poisoned wine. Finally the death of the father was revenged.



Horatio, horrified by the carnage, takes the poisoned wine and proposes to join his friend in death, but Hamlet takes the cup of wine from his hands and orders him to tell his story to the world, as a manner restore his good name.


Then, the elder who was listening to the narrative suddenly broke his silence and said: “That was a very good story, 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", the old man continued, Claudius should no longer “fear Laertes’ witchcraft”, remembering that “it takes a strong heart to kill one’s only sister by witchcraft” referring to Ophelia’s madness, triggered after the prohibition of her approaching to Hamlet, determined by Laertes and endorsed by Polonius, before his forced travel to France. Laertes’ interest was, in fact, to prevent that his sister’s reputation was shaken, which could make a good – and rich – suitor to give up of her, in the future, avoiding his to have all his own financial problems definitively solved.


Finally, the old Tiv concluded: "sometimes you must tell us some more stories (…) and we 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.”



The Objections:



         The following list contains the most remarkable objections that Laura Bohannan faced, while she was trying to tell the story of Prince Hamlet to the elders of the Tiv Tribe, in Western Africa. The order below reflects the objections as they appear in the original text (with quoted fragments of it), as well as it follows the sequence used in the group presentation:







        ( Page 2    7th Paragraph )


– “He was dead," I explained. "That is why they were troubled and afraid when the 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.”





        ( Page 2    9 th Paragraph )


– “One of these three was a man who knew things” – the closest translation for scholar, but unfortunately it also meant witch.” (…) “Then the man who knew things – his name was Horatio – said this event was the affair of the dead chief's son Hamlet.”





        ( Page 2    12 th Paragraph )


– “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 3    2nd Paragraph )


– “(…) 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.






        ( Page 3    3rd Paragraph )


– “Did Hamlet's father and uncle have one mother?”


– “(…) 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 3    5 th Paragraph )


– “Two years is too long,” objected the wife.


– “(…) Who will hoe your farms for you while you have no husband?”





        ( Page 3    8 th Paragraph )


(...) One of the younger men asked me who had married the other wives of the dead chief.


– “He had no other wives,” I told him.


– “But a chief must have many wives!  How else can he brew beer and prepare food for all his guests?”





        ( Page 3    15 th Paragraph )


– “(…) that night Hamlet kept watch with the three who had seen his dead father. The dead chief again appeared, and although the others were afraid, Hamlet followed his dead father off to one side. When they were alone, Hamlet's dead father spoke.”


– “Omens can't talk!”  The old man was emphatic.





        ( Page 3    16 th Paragraph )


(…) unlike many of the neighboring tribes, these people didn't believe in the survival after death of any individuating part of the personality.


– “What is a 'ghost?' An omen?”


– “No, a 'ghost' is someone who is dead but who walks around and can talk, and people can hear him and see him but not touch him.”





        ( Page 4    2nd Paragraph )


They objected, “One can touch zombies”.


– “No, no! It was not a dead body the witches had animated to sacrifice and eat. No one else made Hamlet's dead father walk. He did it himself.”


– “Dead men can't walk,” protested my audience as one man.





        ( Page 4    7 th Paragraph )


I was quite willing to compromise, “A 'ghost' is the dead man's shadow.”


But again they objected. “Dead men cast no shadows.”


– “They do in my country,” I snapped.






        ( Page 4    10 th Paragraph )


– “In the country of the great chief, living in the same homestead, for it was a very large one, was an important elder who was often with the chief to advise and help him. His name was Polonius. Hamlet was courting his daughter, but her father and her brother...[I cast hastily about for some tribal analogy] warned her not to let Hamlet visit her when she was alone on her farm, for he would be a great chief and so could not marry her.”






        ( Page 4    14/15 th Paragraph )


– “Then why couldn't Hamlet marry her?”


– “He could have,” I explained, “but Polonius didn't think he would. After all, Hamlet was a man of great importance who ought to marry a chief's daughter, for in his country a man could have only one wife. Polonius was afraid that if Hamlet made love to his daughter, then no one else would give a high price for her.”


– “That might be true,” remarked one of the shrewder elders, “but a chief's son would give his mistress's father enough presents and patronage to more than make up the difference. Polonius sounds like a fool to me.”






        ( Page 4    16 th Paragraph )


– “(…) One day Hamlet came upon Polonius' daughter Ophelia. He behaved so oddly he frightened her. 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.”






        ( Page 5    2nd Paragraph )


– “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 5    6 th Paragraph )


Hamlet was sure the great chief could not hear the story without making a sign if he was indeed guilty, and then he would discover whether his dead father had told him the truth.

The old man interrupted, with deep cunning, “Why should a father lie to his son?” he asked.

I hedged: “Hamlet wasn't sure that it really was his father.” It was impossible to say anything, in that language, about devil-inspired visions.






        ( Page 5    8 th Paragraph )


– “You mean,” he said, “it actually was an omen, and he knew witches sometimes send false ones. Hamlet was a fool not to go to one skilled in reading omens and divining the truth in the first place. A man-who-sees-the-truth could have told him how his father died, if he really had been poisoned, and if there was witchcraft in it; then Hamlet could have called the elders to settle the matter.”






        ( Page 5    12 th Paragraph )


– “(…) 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.






        ( Page 5    15 th Paragraph )


(…) 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!' (..)”.






        ( Page 7    1st Paragraph )


I broke down, unable to describe to these pagans, who had no belief in individual afterlife, the difference between dying at one's prayers and dying “unhousell'd, disappointed, unaneled.”

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. The elders ought to let such a man be bewitched.”






        ( Page 7    3rd Paragraph )


I nibbled at my kola nut in some perplexity, then pointed out that after all the man had killed Hamlet's father.


– “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 7    5 th Paragraph )


–“The great chief,” I went on, “was not sorry that Hamlet had killed Polonius. It gave him a reason to send Hamlet away, with his two treacherous age mates, with letters to a chief of a far country, saying that Hamlet should be killed. But Hamlet changed the writing on their papers, so that the chief killed his age mates instead."  I encountered a reproachful glare from one of the men whom I had told undetectable forgery was not merely immoral but beyond human skill.  I looked the other way.






        ( Page 7    7 th Paragraph )


–“Before Hamlet could return, Laertes came back for his father's funeral.


(…) 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.


– “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.”






        ( Page 7    7 th Paragraph )


– “(…) 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.”







C o n c l u s i o n:



“Shakespeare in the Bush” by Laura Bohannan has, as its main feature, an extra-linguistic, more pragmatic focus, when reporting the difficulties to tell the story of Hamlet to the components of the Tiv tribe, in Western Africa.


And the complication increases when we face texts that require a deep cultural formation, as in the described case of Hamlet’s story “told” to the Tiv: the translator becomes, in such extreme cases, a kind of mediator between the more universal philosophical concepts inherent to the text and the ideology and other sociological characteristics of the final reader.


Now, far beyond a mere commitment to the content of what is written, improvisations and artifacts are required, in order to reach the central idea of the text, as close as possible to the original – and more similar to the original idea conceptualized by the author.


In this difficult task, what counts more is all Bohannan’s improvisation, much beyond any sociological or linguistic theories. After all, creativity – coupled with a solid humanistic background – plays an important role in this challenge, since the “co-author” (or the story-teller), just like the actors who perform on stage several scenes and embodying all sort of characters, also make their individual reinterpretation by putting his genius at the service of creation.


Yes, the possibility of Hamlet’s universal intelligibility was proved: the problem was to hit the appropriate means in view of a successfully ending, in the difficult search for a format which would permit a greater understanding of the Shakespearean tragedy, through all its nuances and passages. And, in order to reach her goals, Bohannan sought the needed adequacy of the “new” story to be told.




B i b l i o g r a p h y:



  Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. In The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. New York, NY: Gramercy Books, 1975.



  Bohannan, Laura. Conformity and Conflict; Readings in Cultural Anthropology. Boston, Mass.: Little Brown & Company, 1971.



  Bohannan, Laura. Shakespeare in the Bush. In Natural History Magazine. New York, NY: American Museum of Natural History. August/September 1996.