shakespeare_in_the_bush[1] (1)

shakespeare_in_the_bush[1] (1) - Laura Bohannan All of us...

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Unformatted text preview: Laura Bohannan All of us use the cultural knowledge we acquire as members of our own society to organize our perception and behavior. Most of us are also naive realists: we tend to believe our culture minors a realitv shared bv every- one. But cultures are different, and other people rarely behave or inter-— pret experience according to our cultural. plan. In this article, Laura Bo- hannan describes her attempt to tell the classic story of Hamlet to Tiv elders in West Africa. At each turn in the7 story. the Tiv interpret the events and motives in Hamlet using their own cultural knowledge. The result is a very different version of the classic play. K ‘ _. ust before I left Oxford for the'Tiv in West Africa. conversation turned . to the season at Stratford. "You Americans," said a friend, “often have difficulty with Shakespeare. He was, after all, a very English poet. and one . can easrly misinterpret the universal by misunderstanding the particular. " l 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 \ Reprinted with permission by the author from‘ Natural Historv I l . . . y. Au 11 US t b. . ‘. Copyright © by Laura Bohannau, 1966. 8 5 9P cm W lqfib '34 alnpfer 3 Shakespeare: in thr ‘1 ' ’ 3‘5 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-medita- tion, achieve the grace of correct interpretation. ’ It was my second field trip to that African tribe, and I. thought myself ready to live in one of its remote sections—an area difficult to cross even on foot. I eventually settled on the hillock of a very knowledgeable old man, the head of a homestead of some hundred and flirty people. all of whom were ei- ther his close relatives or their wives and children. Like the other elders of the vicinity. the old man spent most of his time performing ceremonies sel- dom seen these days in the more accessible parts of the tribe. 1 was delighted. Soon there would be three months of enforced isolation and leisure, between the harvest that takes place just before the rising of the swamps and the clear- ing of new farms when the water goes down. Then, I thought. they would _ have even more time to perform ceremonies and explain them'to me. I was quite mistaken. Most of the ceremonies demanded the presence of elders from several homesteads. As the swamps rose, the old men found it too difficult to walk from one homestead to the next, and the ceremonies gradually ceased. As the swamps rose even higher, all activities but one came to an end. The women brewed beer from maize and millet. Men. women. and children sat on their hillocks and drank it. ' People began to drink at dawn. By midmorning the whole homestead was singing. dancing, and drumming. When it rained, people had to sit inside their huts: there they drank and sang or they drank and told stories. In any case, by noon or before, I either had to join the party or retire to my own hut and my books. “One does not discuss serious matters When‘there is beer. Come, drink with us.” Since I lacked their capacity for the thick native beer, I spent more and more time with Hamlet. Before the end of the second month.‘ grace descended on me. I was quite sure that Hamlet had only one possible interpretation, and that one universally obvious. - ' Early every morning, in the hope of having some serious talk before the beer party, I used to call on the old man at his reception hut—a circle of posts supporting a thatched roof above a low mud wall to keep out wind and rain. One day I crawled through the low doorway and found most of the men of the homestead sitting huddled in their ragged cloths on stools, low plank beds. and reclining chairs, warming themselves against the chill of the rain around a smoky fire. In the center were three pots of beer. The party had started. ' The old man greeted me cordially. "Sit down and drink." I accepted a large calabash full of beer. poured some into a small drinking gourd, and tossed it down. Then I poured some more into the same‘ gourd for the man second in seniority to my host before I handed my calabash over to a young man for further‘distribution. Important people shouldn‘t ladle beer them- selves. -’Ol’\€ll’\7\fl H 36 Law. “It is better like this,” the old man said. looking at me approvingly and plucking at the thatch that had caught in my hair. “You should sit and drink with us more often. Your servants tell me that when you are not with us, you sit inside your hut looking at a paper.” The old man was acquainted with four kinds of “papers": taxreceipts, bride price receipts, court fee receipts, and letters. The messenger who brought him letters from the chief used them mainly as a badge of office, for he always knew what was in them and told the old man. Personal letters for the few who had relatives in the government or mission stations were kept until someone went to a large market where'there was a letter writer and reader. Since my arrival, letters were brought to me to be read. A few men also brought me bride price receipts, privately, with requests to change the figures to a higher sum. I found moral arguments were of no avail, since in- laws are fair game, and thetechnical hazards of forgery difficult to explain to an illiterate people. I did not wish them to think me silly enough to look at any such papers for days on end, and I hastily explained that my "paper" was one of the "things of long ago" of my country. ' "Ah," said the old men. “Tell us." I protested that I was not a storyteller. Storytelling is a skilled art among them: their standards are high. and the audiences critical—and vocal in their criticism. I protested in vain. This morning they wanted to hear a story while they drank. They threatened totell me no more stories until I told them one of mine. Finally, the old man promised that no one would criticize my style “for we know you are struggling with our language."_ “But." put in one of the elders, “you must explain what we do not understand, as we do when we tell you our stories." Realizing that-here was my chance to prove Hamlet univer- sally intelligible. I agreed. . The old man handed me. some more beer to help me on with my story- telling. Men filled their long wooden pipes and knocked coals from the fire to place in. the pipe bowls: then, puffing contentedly, they. sat back to listen. I began in the proper style, “Not yesterday. not yesterday, but long ago, a thing occurred. One night three men were keeping watch outside the homestead of the great chief. when suddenly they saw the former chief approach them.” “Why was he no longer their chief?" ~_“He was dead." I explained. "That is why they were troubled and afraid when they saw him." . ' . “Impossible," began one of the elders, handing his pipe on to his neigh- bor, whointerrupted. ”Of course it wasn't the dead chief. It was an omen sent by a witch. ‘Go’ on." Slightly shaken, I continued. “One of these three was a man who knew things'P—the closest translation for scholar, but unfortunately it also meant witch. The second elder looked triumphantly at the first. "So he spoke to the dead chief, saying. ‘Tell us what we must do so you may rest in your giave.’ but the dead chief did not anSWer. He vanished, and they could see him no more. Then the man who knew things—his name was Horatio—said this event Was the affair of the dead chief‘s son. Hamlet." Ax Chap-Eu- 3 Shakespeare in the l ' . 37 - hThere was a general shaking of'heads around th " “ chief no living brothers? Or was this son the chief?" 9 Cerle-- Had the dead “No.” I replied. “That is. he had one livin broth ' when the elder brother died." 3 er Who became the Chef -The old men muttered' such omens were ' . matters for chiefs and eld not for youngsters no good could come of bein b ' ' ers. . , eh d ~ Horatio was not a man who knew things. g 111 a Chef's baCk' Clearly “Yes, he was " I insisted shooin ' I .’ I , g a chicken away from in beer. “1 country the son is next to the-father. The dead chiefs younger tll'other held (1)): come the great chief. He had also married his elder brother's widow 1 about a month after the funeral.” on y “He did well ." the old man beamed and annou . . , need to the othe , “ you that if we knew more about Europeans. we would find they relaslly Int/gig very like us. In our country also." he added to me. “the younger brother mar- 1165 the elder brother's widow and becomes the father of his children. Now if ylpunr Illincleilviého marlritecih your widowed mother, is‘ your father's full brother e e w1 ’ ’ I mower?" e a rea I a er to you. Did Hamlet s father and uncle have one His question barely penetrated my mind' I was t . , 00 11 set and thr far off balance by having one of the most important Elements ofoflfldlniloetl knocked straight out of the picture. Rather uncertainly I-said that I thought they had the same mother, but I wasn't sure—the story didn’t say. The old man told me severely that these genealogical details made all the difference and that when II got home I must ask the elders about it. He shouted out the doe;3 to one Ofé'lls younger wives to bring his goatskin bag. - etermine to save what I could of the mother motif I to . .. . ok a dee .b and began again. The son Hamlet was very sad because his mother hadiigfdchl again so quickly. There was no need for her to do so, and it is our custom for a Widow not to go to her next husband until she has mourned for two years." M Two years 1: too ling,” objected the wife, who had appeared'with the 0 man s attere goats in ba . ”Who w'll h ' ' have no hquand?" g i oe your farms for you while you “Hamlet " I retorted Without thinkin " I , . . g. was old enou h t h ' mother s farms himself. There was no need for her to reirfgarry?‘ 1:: 01:11: looked convmced. I gave up. "His mother and the great chief told Hamlet not to be sad, for the great chief himself would be a father to Hamlet. Further- rthore, Htamlt: vyould be the next chief: therefore he must stay to learn the in s o .a c ' . H ' ' beef" ie amlet agreed to remain, and all the rest went off to: drink While I paused perplexed at how to render Haml ' ' ' I ’. et 5 disgusted 50111 to an audience convmced that Claudius and Gertrude had behaved in mafia: possible manner one of the younaer men asked m ' . . e who h d ‘ other Wives of the dead chief. D a married the “He had no other wives," I told him. "But a chief must have many wives! How else can h b I pare food for all his guests?" e rew beer and PM} _I saidr I that in our country even chiefs had only one wife, that they had servz .o do their work. and that they paid them from tax money. - ~ It was better, they returned, for a chief to have many wives and sons who would help him hoe his farms and feed his people; then evervone loved the chief who gave much and took nothing—taxes were a bad thing. I agreed with the last comment, but for the rest fell back on their favorite waydoftfobbing off my questions: “That is the way it is done, so that is how we 0 1 - . I decided to skip the soliloquy. Even if Claudius was here thought quite right to marry his brother's widow, there remained the poison motif, and I knew they would disapprove of fratricide. More hopefully I resumed, "That night Hemlet kept watch with the three, who had seen his dead father. The dead chlef again appeared, and although the others were afraid, Hamlet fol- lowed his dead father off to one side. When they were alone. Hamlet’s dead father spoke.” I ' ”Omens-can't talk!" The old man was emphatic. “Hamlet's dead father wasn’t an omen. Seeing him might have been an omen, but he was not." My audience looked as confused as I sounded. “It was Hamlet’s dead father. It was a thing we call a 'ghost.’" 1 had to use the English word, for unlike many of the neighboring tribes, these people didn’t believe in the-survival after death of any individuating part of the personality. “What is a “ghost"? An omen?” "No. a ‘ghost’ is someone who is dead but who walks around and can talk, and people can hear him and see him but not touch him." They objected. f‘One can touch zombis." ' “No, no! It was not a dead body the witches had animated to sacrifice and eat. I\lo one else made Hamlet's dead father walk. 'He did it himself." 'Dead men can't walk." protested my audience as one man. I was quite willing to compromise. "A ‘ghost’ is a dead man’s shadow." But again they objected; "Dead men cast no shadows." "They do in mycountry," ‘I snapped. ' The old man quelled the babble of disbelief that rose immediately and- told me with that insincere, but courteous, agreement one extends to the fan- c1es of the young, ignorant, and superstitious, "No doubt in your country the dead can also walk ”without being zombisJ' From the depths of his bag he pro— duced a withered fragment of kola nut, bit off one end to show it wasn't poi— sone‘d, and handed me the rest as a peace offering. Anyhow," I resumed, "Hamlet'sdead father said that his own brother, the one who became chief, had poisoned him. He wanted Hamlet to avenge him. Hamlet believed this in his heart, for he did not like his father’s brother." I took _ another swallow of beer. "1n the country of the great chief, living in the same homestead, for it was a very large one, was an important elder who was often With the chief to advise and help him. His name was Polonius. Hamlet was , courting his daughter, but her father and her brother . . . [I cast hastilv about for sorne tribal analogy] warned her not to let Hamlet visit her when she was alone on her farm, for he would be a great chief and so could not marry her." r L/IuI'JIL‘r _, __-r|L\I{:'.>l.nngrl: Il'\ "1:: f“ ”at "Why not?" asked the wife. who had settled down on the ed. the old man's chair. He frowned at her for asking stupid questions and growled, “They lived in the same homestead.” ”That was not the reason," I informed them. “Polonius was a stranger who lived in the homestead because he helped the chief, not because he was a relative." "Then why couldn't Hamlet marry her?" "He could have," I explained, “but Polonius didn't think he would. After all, Hamlet was a man of great importance who ought to marry a chiefs daughter, for in his country a man could have only"one wife. Polonius was - afraid that if Hamlet made love to his daughter, then no one else would give a high price for her.” "That might be true,” remarked one ofthe shrewder elders, "but a chief’s son would give his mistress's father enough presents and patronage to more than make up the difference. Polonius sounds like a fool to me.” “Many people think he was," I agreed. "Meanwhile Polonius sent his son Laertes off to Paris to learn the things of that country, for it was the homestead of a very great chief indeed. Because he was afraid that Laertes might waste a lot of money on beer and women and gambling, or get into trouble by fighting, he sent one of his servants to Paris secretly. to spy out what Laertes was doing. One day Hamlet came upon Polonius's daughter Ophelia. He behaved so oddly he frightenedher. Indeed"——I was fumbling for words to express the dubious quality of Hamlet's madness—“the chief and many others had also noticed that when Hamlet talked one could under- stand the words but not what they meant. Many people thought that he had become mad." My audience suddenly became much more attentive. “The great chief wanted to know what was wrong with Hamlet. so he sent for two of Hamlet's age mates [school friends would have taken long explanation] to talk to Hamlet and find out what troubled his heart. Hamlet, seeing that they had been bribed by the chief to betray him. told them nothing. Polonius, however,_insisted that Hamlet was mad because he had been forbidden to see Ophelia, whom he loved." . . "Why," inquired a bewildered voice, "should anyone bewitch Hamlet on that account?” ' "Bewitch him?" "Yes, only witchcraft can make anyone mad, unless, of course, one sees the beings that lurk in the forest. " _ I stopped being a storyteller, took out my notebook and demanded to be told more about these two causes of madness. Even while they spoke and I jotted notes, I tried to calculate the effect of this new factor on the plot. Ham- let had not been exposed to the beings that lurk in the forest. Only his rela- tives in the male line could bewitch him. Barring relatives not mentioned by Shakespeare, it had to be Claudius who was attempting to harm him. And, of course, it was. ' For the moment I staved off questions by saying that the great chief also refused to believe that Hamlet was mad for the love of Ophelia and nothing 40 Laura Bolxcinn an else. “He was sure‘ that something much moreimportant was troubling Ham- let's heart." “Now Hamlet's age mates," 1 continued, “had brought with them a famous storyteller. Hamlet decided to have this man tell the chief and all his home- stead a story about the man who had poisoned his brother because he desired his brother’s wife and wished to be chief himself. Hamlet was sure the great chief could not hear the story without making a sign if he was indeed guilty, and then he would discover whether his dead father had told him the truth.” The old man interrupted, with deep cunning. "Why should -a father lie to his son?" he asked. , _ I hedged: "Hamlet wasn’t sure that it really was his dead father." It was impossible to say anything, in that language, about devil-inspired visions. “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 read- ing 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." _ ' - . The shrewd elder ventured to disagree. “Because his father's brother was a great chief. one-who-sees—the-truth might therefore have been afraid to tell it. I think it was for that reason that a friend of Hamlet’s father—a witch and an elder—sent an omen so his friend’s son would know. Was the omen true?" “Yes," I said, abandoning ghosts and the devil; a witch-sent omen it would have to be. “It was true, for when the storyteller was telling his tale be- fore all the homestead, the great chief rose in fear. Afraid that Hamlet knew his secret, he planned‘to have him killed.” The stage set of the next bit presented some difficulties of translation. I I began cautiously. “The great chief told Hamlet's mother to find out from her son what he knew. But because a woman’s children are always first in her heart, he had the important elder Polonius hide behind a cloth that hung against the wall of Hamlet's mother's sleeping hut. Hamlet started to scold his mother for what she had done.” , There was a shocked murmur from everyone. A man should'never scold .his mother. "‘She called out in fear, and Polonius moved behind the cloth. Shouting ‘A rat!‘ Hamlet took his machete and slashed through the cloth." 1 paused for a dramatic effect. “He had killed Polonius!" , The old men looked at each other in supreme disgust. "'That Polonius truly wa...
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