Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 785. Saturday, 13 November 1993.
Date: Friday, 12 Nov 93 10:52:13 EST
Subject: Societal expectations and Shakespeare
The recent discussions of historicity and of Gertrude's guilt/innocence
remind me of Laura Bohannon's intriguing article "Shakespeare in the Bush".
Bohannon's tale of trying to prove the "universality" of Shakespeare makes
for not only a thoroughly enjoyable read, but a portentous critique of the
myriad cultural assumptions we all bring to every work of art. In attempting
to explain this story of "things of long ago" to Tiv tribesman in West
Africa, Bohannon meets every imaginable obstacle. There is no Tiv word for
"scholar", so she describes Horatio as "one who knows things", unfortunately
a standard euphemism for a witch. The Tiv elders then proceed to interpret
the tale for themselves (and for Bohannon): Since ghosts don't exist, the
apparition of Hamlet senior was actually an omen sent by a witch. Perplexed
that Hamlet's father had but one wife, the Tiv elders at least take
consolation in the fact that Claudius married Gertrude so quickly: he behaved
exactly as a brother should in such unfortunate circumstances. Hamlet was
wrong to attempt to avenge himself on Claudius: he should have taken the
matter to Claudius' age-mates, who might perhaps have legitimately exacted
vengeance. And *Laertes* killed Ophelia so he could sell her body to
witches. At the end, the tribal elders graciously offer explain other tales
to Bohannon: they, after all, are elders, she is young (and female).
We respond to this active and honest misunderstanding with a mix of mirth and
sympathy, but we are forced to acknowledge that cultural biases influence
everything about our response to any aesthetic experience. Of course, a
number of anthrolopogists have scoffed at Bohannon for "bad science" (proving
that Shakespeare critics do not have a monopoly on ossification), but I've
never seen any of them really dispute the accuracy of her observations.
Thought this might brighten what is (around here, at least) a very November
day. I'll dig up the citation if anyone's interested.
-- Rick Jones