Anthro Classics Online: Shakespeare in the Bush

When I asked for suggestions for how this blog should move forward, one issue that was raised was the lack of discussion targeted at anthropological novices. For this reason I am starting a new series linking to classical works in anthropology which are available online. The idea is to both encourage newbies to read some classical anthropological texts as well as allow those with Ph.D.s in the discipline to debate the contemporary value of these works.

Today’s entry is Laura Bohannon’s essay “Shakespeare in the Bush.” First published in 1971, reading this essay in high school really turned me on to anthropology. It explores how difficult it is to translate Shakespeare’s Hamlet into the cultural idiom of the Tiv in West Africa (the Tiv are mostly located in Nigeria). While the article takes on a straw-man argument (the idea that there is something universal about Shakespeare’s plays overlooks just how hard it is for even American school kids to learn to appreciate Hamlet), it is a well written article which I believe holds up to the test of time. With Bohannon playing the fool, we follow along as she struggles to explain European notions of kinship, ghosts, and justice to her Tiv audience. It works so well because it is Bohannon who is the butt of the joke, not the Tiv (although the self-assurance of the Tiv elders that they know better than Shakespeare how this story should be told is part of the story’s charm). Despite its whimsical tone, I think we actually learn quite a bit about Tiv culture and society in this short article.

Reading this article again just now I was struck by the fact that her audience consists of respected elders. My guess is that she would have found the audience much more receptive to Shakespeare’s narrative if they had been lower status members of society, such as children. In other words, I don’t think it is simply a case of the Tiv failing to understand Hamlet. Rather, I suspect that these elders perceive Bohannon’s narrative as a threat and are eager to “correct” her in order to neutralize that threat, whereas children or other members of the society less threatened by narratives suggesting alternative social structures would have had considerably less trouble understanding Bohannon’s retelling of Hamlet. This suspicion comes out of my own understanding of ideology as what Zizek calls the “active refusal to know.” According to such an interpretation of Bohannon’s article, there is nothing specific about Tiv society which prevents them from understanding Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but her storytelling is frustrated by the “will to ignorance” of the elders. Sure, even Tiv children would have been confused by many aspects of the story, just as American children are, but I’m simply suggesting that they might not have rejected the very premise of the story in the way that the elders did. Of course, we would probably have learned much less from such an exchange.

One thought on “Anthro Classics Online: Shakespeare in the Bush

  1. While I understand what you’re saying about Hamlet’s target audience, I’m not sure that the disadvantaged would be more open. On a basic level that is often overlooked, Hamlet is upset because he is robbed of the throne that would be due to him through the established political custom. Because of this, it seems to me that the indignation is fitting to the powerful elders.
    On a different note, thank you for running and maintaining such an excellent website to keep me busy at work. I’m an anthropology major from Washington University in St. Louis, about to enter sophomore year, and I have read “Shakespeare in the Bush” for two classes, most recently last semester.

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