The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1895 Friday, 13 September 2002
Date: Thursday, 12 Sep 2002 12:30:34 -0700
Subject: Bushmen Don't Understand Hamlet
On the AnSax list, a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist, Walter
Kingsborough, contributed this anecdote to a thread about humor in
different cultures. (Relayed by Al Magary)
I apologize for stepping in without references, however I can add to
this thread that trans-cultural humor, though not my area of emphasis,
is a well established topic in Anthropology. Many ethnographic sources
are available it you check with your Anthro Dept. The reference to
Shakespeare puts me in mind of one ethnologist who, after many weeks of
listening to nightly story telling among the San Bushmen of Southwest
Africa, offered to tell a story. His hosts were delighted that he wanted
to participate and so he began to tell them the story of Hamlet. Not to
recite the play so much as simple tell the story of a King murdered by
his brother, an incestuous marriage, and a troubled nephew torn between
revenge for his father and fear for his own soul.
The San audience failed to grasp even what we would consider to be the
most basic foundation stones of the plot. Aside from the concepts of
King and Kingdom, they bore total disbelief that a brother would murder
or that an uncle and nephew would ever have such an antagonistic
relationship. They decided that the ethnologist was pulling their
collective leg and no people would ever act that way.
As to Shakespeare's clowns: not only was humor somewhat different, but
the definition of clown and the clown's role in theatre was also
different (particularly Shakespeare's clowns as he redefined their role
from what had been their standard role up to that time).
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