Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 973. Monday, 26 December 1993.
From: Michael Sharpston <
Date: Sunday, 25 Dec 1993 21:48:00 -0500 (EST)
Subject: "Shakespeare in the Bush", Universality
First of all, thank you to everyone for leading me to read Laura Bohannan's
"Shakespeare in the Bush". [BTW, it IS Natural History, Aug-Sept 1966, 29-33.
There was some dispute at one point on the exact date, but I have now read the
original in the Library of Congress].
It is delightfully humorous, and excellent anthropology, and it would be
churlish indeed not to enjoy it as such. I did. However, I would now like to
do a replay being rather more 'ernst'. Incidentally, Laura herself tells us
why the Tiv ragged her a bit as she told the tale: '"One does not discuss
serious matters when there is beer"'.
Clearly, we are not dealing here with Shakespeare's language, let alone a
staging of Hamlet and whether the Tiv could appreciate that. We are dealing
essentially with the Hamlet fable or story.
The first problem was about the Ghost. But then, I seem to recall we had some
pretty animated discussion about the Ghost here on SHAKSPER. '"It was an omen
sent by a witch"' does not seem so bad as one possible view. And later on we
have, '"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."' A man-who-sees-the-truth we in the
West would nowadays call a psychic. Not bad advice (although the
counter-argument that the person concerned might be influenced by power
relationships is also shrewd). Hamlet was indeed seriously concerned whether
he should believe the Ghost, or whether he was simply hearing what at some
level he wanted to hear ("O my prophetic soul!"). Ok. From the summary of
David Lester, "Astrologers and Psychics as Therapists", American Journal of
Psychotherapy, 36 (1) 56-66, January 1982, we have, "Thus the clients of
astrologers and psychics may be those who do not see their problems as
psychological or psychiatric and would feel stigmatized by a visit to a
psychotherapist. Transcripts of consultations with astrologers and psychics
provided examples of advising, increasing the client's self-esteem, preparing
the client to face future trauma, and empathic client-centered dialogue".
Moving right along to '"He did well", the old man beamed', when he was told
that Claudius had married his dead brother's wife. Not surprising at all that
this threw Laura, but there is more to say on the subject. Not just the Tiv,
but also under the old Mosaic law, this would have been the thing to do. The
underlying human concept is that you should look after your dead brother's
progeny, (even create them for him -- see Genesis 38:8, "And Judah said unto
Onan, Go in unto thy brother's wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy
brother".) The Tiv and at one stage the Jews believed you should look after
your brother's wife and progeny by marrying your brother's wife. For more on
Levirate marriage see Deut 25:5-10, and Ruth 4. And it was still a current
enough concept in Jesus' time for it to be a way of devising a trick question:
"Saying, Master, Moses said, If a man die, having no children, his brother
shall marry his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother". (Matthew 22:24.
Similarly Mark 12:19). And Shakespeare and his audience would have been well
aware of all this, because life was more Bible-centered in those days. So
presumably would Hamlet & Co., there is lots of evidence of a knowledge of
Christianity in the play. [There is also evidence of a knowledge of clashing
cultural imperatives: Horatio's "I am more an antique Roman than a Dane".]
... A key underlying **human** issue in 'Hamlet' is "Will a king really look
after his brother's son? Or will he treat him as a rival to the throne?" and
that plays regardles of the way "look after" is supposed to be culturally
expressed. The question to Laura, '"Did Hamlet's father and uncle have one
mother?"' captures the essence of the issue of family dynamics remarkably well,
and echoes to Hamlet's own words strangely closely: "A little more than kin,
and less than kind."
In my book Laura is remarkably inflexible in negotiating the issue of the
appropriate time for mourning. Too short, and the internal and external
function of mourning is not fulfilled. Too long, and life's mundanities receive
too little attention, just as the Tiv wife points out. There should have been
room for compromise somewhere between one month and two years.
Along the same lines, that the Tiv have no concept of madness coming from
internal causes seems at first blush a pretty bad problem, but once there are
omens, and witches that can send false ones, on the whole you're in business.
And certainly the view of madness today (or in 1966) is a long way from the one
most familiar to Shakespeare and his audience: as is our feelings about ghosts,
a subject of recent discussion. (For that matter, "Casting out devils", as in
the Bible, would not be a popular way to describe matters today, but I am not
at all sure that it lacks a certain psychological verity). And the Tiv
attitude to the 'insanity defence' seems virtually identical to the main lines
of our own or Shakespeare's. 'The old man was reproachful. "One cannot take
vengeance on a madman".' This goes just fine with,
If Hamlet from himself be ta'en away,
And when he's not himself does wrong Laertes,
Then Hamlet does it not; Hamlet denies it.
Who does it then? His madness.
If 't be so, Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong'd;
His madness is poor Hamlet's enemy.
Laura expressly tells us that 'My audience suddenly became much more attentive'
when she tried to convey to them the 'dubious quality of Hamlet's madness.
They could intuit that this was one of the key points in the play, for all the
Last but not least, one important aspect of Tiv behaviour seems right in line
with life at Claudius' court. Hamlet himself says:
But what is your affair in Elsinore?
We'll teach you to drink deep ere you depart.
Rather Laura Bohannan's experience, whatever else she learned?