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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: January ::
Re: Shakespeare in the Bush
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.0120  Thursday, 20 January 2000.

[1]     From:   Nick Moschovakis <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 19 Jan 2000 09:49:15 -0600
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.0112 Re: Shakespeare in the Bush

[2]     From:   Deborah L. Reed <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 19 Jan 2000 12:05:23 -0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.0112 Re: Shakespeare in the Bush

[3]     From:   Mary Jane Miller <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 19 Jan 2000 17:46:32 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.0116 Shakespeare in the Bush

[4]     From:   Tiffany Rasovic <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 19 Jan 2000 18:30:00 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.0112 Shakespeare in the Bush

[5]     From:   Diana Sweeney <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 19 Jan 2000 20:09:23 EST
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.0112 Re: Shakespeare in the Bush

[6]     From:   Norman J. Myers <
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        Date:   Thursday, 20 Jan 2000 08:33:18 -0500
        Subj:   Re: Shakespeare in the Bush


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Nick Moschovakis <
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Date:           Wednesday, 19 Jan 2000 09:49:15 -0600
Subject: 11.0112 Re: Shakespeare in the Bush
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.0112 Re: Shakespeare in the Bush

Mike Jensen wrote:

>I am curious about C. David Frankel's post,

>> As I'm sure many of you know, Laura Bohannan wrote an article years ago
>> entitled "Shakespeare in the Bush."  Does anyone know of any article or
>> articles that attempt to assess or critique Bohannan's conclusions?
>
>... C. David, would you mind reminding us what those
>conclusions were?  That may make any answers to your post easier to
>understand.

Without having any special knowledge about Bohannan's 'subjects' in that
study, I would venture a guess that her 'conclusions,' in so far as she
had any, are quite obviously and trivially true. That is to say that
Bohannan wrote the story not so much as a contribution to her 'science',
but rather to introduce a popular audience to the unusual experience of
ethnographic fieldwork in a remote region - as it has commonly been
constructed (and, needless to say, idealized) by Western professional
anthropologists. Her central aim was to impress that audience with the
full sense of the anthropologist's alienation in such conditions, and
especially of the substantial differences between the sets of guiding
assumptions with which distant and different cultures will approach the
interpretation of any given narrative. Her broadly polemic, or
educational, point was that even a plot that 'we' take for granted as
much as that of Hamlet is radically changed by cultural translation,
enough to become unrecognizable to its 'home fans.'

It might be possible to accuse Bohannan of exaggerating this point, of
making a distant culture seem even more ineluctably 'other' than it is,
and thus flattering the colonial mentality to which most of her Western
readers must have subscribed (if only by default). In any case, the
story is still, I believe, included as the introductory reading in some
textbooks for undergraduate anthropology surveys, as a way of jarring
complacent students into an appreciation of cultural difference.

Nick Moschovakis

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Deborah L. Reed <
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Date:           Wednesday, 19 Jan 2000 12:05:23 -0800
Subject: 11.0112 Re: Shakespeare in the Bush
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.0112 Re: Shakespeare in the Bush

From:           Mike Jensen <
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 >:

>I don't recall Bohannan's conclusions.  I remember her just telling the
>story to show cultural differences, but that may be the fault of my
>middle-aged memory.  C. David, would you mind reminding us what those
>conclusions were?  That may make any answers to your post easier to
>understand.

I'm not C. David Frankel, but he couldn't have asked the question at a
more opportune moment for me, since I am also seeking responses to
Bohannan's article.

Bohannan begins her account with two contesting premises about reading
Shakespeare and, by extension, any "literary" text. (I beg pardon for
the lack of a citation: I don't have my copy of the essay to hand.)

A very English friend of Bohannan claimed that "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.

Her perceived failure to transmit the mind-lifting majesty of Hamlet to
the Bushmen because the story became bogged down in contested details
would suggest that the English friend was correct, though Bohannan ends
her anecdote without stating any conclusions. (It might also suggest
that Bohannan was a poor translator or, as she states in the essay, a
poor storyteller.) I assume that a critique of Bohannan's essay in the
last ten years might target the notion of a transcendent "correct
interpretation."

Deborah Reed

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Mary Jane Miller <
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Date:           Wednesday, 19 Jan 2000 17:46:32 -0500
Subject: 11.0116 Shakespeare in the Bush
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.0116 Shakespeare in the Bush

I'm doing Hamlet right now and by happenstance a copy of the article
"Shakespeare in the Bush" Laura Bohannnan's account of her telling the
story of Hamlet to the Tiv in West Africa on her second field trip,
surfaced. I don't know from what book I got the Xerox but have the
citation for the original source:  "reprinted from Natural history
Magazine August /Sept 1966."

Early on she says that flooding stopped the ceremonies she had hoped
observe and so she was asked to tell a story from her culture. She says
that beer helped the narration along - and its subsequent interpretation
by this respected elder, head of a homestead of 140 people who pointed
out that the best thing of all is for the brother of the old chief to
become the new chief on his death. Much better than the son etc . If
indeed he had killed him. Then only the other senior relatives or age
mates may act to correct the situation.

Here is a late paragraph and the last two paragraphs:

"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. . . ."

"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."

Mary Jane

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Tiffany Rasovic <
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Date:           Wednesday, 19 Jan 2000 18:30:00 -0500
Subject: 11.0112 Shakespeare in the Bush
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.0112 Shakespeare in the Bush

Hi...

Laura Bohannan's article is also included in a Cultural Anthropology
textbook entitled Conformity and Conflict, Eds. Spradley and McCurdy,
8th Edition, published by Harper Collins in 1994.

Ms. Bohannon was presented with a copy of Hamlet by a British friend
before her trip to West Africa to visit an isolated tribe called the
Tiv. The giver of the book says that Shakes. is "a very English poet"
and that's why Americans "have difficulty" with his works. Bohannon
protests that human nature is the same everywhere, so anyone can relate
to and understand almost any story's message...tragic or
otherwise...Well, the Tiv value beer drinking and great story-telling,
so Bohannon decides, when called upon by the village elders to
participate in the exchange of tales, to share the tragedy of Hamlet.
She proceeds, bravely and with the aid of beer, in the language of the
Tiv to tell her tale.  Here are some of the problems:

--The Tiv do not believe that ghosts ever appear to people, thus the
appearance of Old Ham is a trick played upon him by a witch-Bohannon
later manages to convince them that in her country dead people can talk
to living people.

--The Tiv find it totally acceptable, it's even their own practice, for
the "chief's" widow to marry his brother soon after the chief's death.
A year or two would be way too long to wait.

--It is wrong in every way for Hamlet to desire to kill his Uncle.

--You can only go mad by sorcery or by seeing evil creatures in the
woods.

(They do, however think Polonius is a complete fool.)

Bohannan's, well, Shakespeare's, tale quickly gets taken over by the Tiv
who invent reasons for Hamlet's and Ophelia's madness; they begin to
work out how witches might have helped Claudius and Laertes to make
insane and kill both Hamlet and Ophelia. (It gets a bit complicated
here, but you get the gist-the whole thing becomes a tale of
witchcraft.) Ironically, their reason for altering the tale is based
upon the fact that people are the same everywhere, so witchcraft must
work the same way everywhere, and they must correct Bohannan's version
of the story...Hmmm.

Finally, they thank Bohannon for the story, but urge her to tell them
more so that they can "instruct [her] in their true meaning" so that her
own "elders" will see how much wisdom she has accumulated in her time
with the Tiv.

Bohannan offers no real conclusions, which is good form for an
anthropologist, but it is then difficult to say what the episode
"proves"... Shakespeare's story entertained the Tiv, but it had been
altered to suit the particularities of the audience's culture-- (of
course, we do that all the time in our own re-tellings, don't we?)  Does
that make the tale not Shakespeare's and thus not translatable to all
human beings?--(after all, the Tiv fail to identify with Hamlet's plight
at all)  Or is the fascination with the plot sufficient proof that we
all at least share a taste in stories of intrigue?  These are some of
the questions raised by the article, but they are not answered.

FYI,
TR

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Diana Sweeney <
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Date:           Wednesday, 19 Jan 2000 20:09:23 EST
Subject: 11.0112 Re: Shakespeare in the Bush
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.0112 Re: Shakespeare in the Bush

FYI:  The essay also appears in Critical Essays on Shakespeare's Hamlet,
edited by David Scott Kastan.

Best wishes,
Diana Sweeney

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Norman J. Myers <
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Date:           Thursday, 20 Jan 2000 08:33:18 -0500
Subject:        Re: Shakespeare in the Bush

Laura Bohannan's "Shakespeare in the Bush" is in Natural History,
Aug/Sept.  1966.  The text can also be found on the Net at the following
sites, among others:

http://www.oberlin.edu/~njones/English200/Bohannan

http://www.cc.gatech.edu/people/home/idris/Essays/Shakes_in_Bush.htm

I just went to "Google," the meta search engine, typed in "Shakespeare
in the Bush" and found it and commentary on it all over the place.  I'n
not sure about the legality of reproduction, but the texts on these
sites appear to be from web sites for English courses, so those
professors don't seem concerned.  I don't know how Ms. Bohannan might
feel.

Norman Myers
 

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