In the story Shakespeare in the Bush, author Laura Bohannan has an argument with a friend about the interpretation of Shakespeare’s literature. Her friend stated that Shakespeare was “a very English poet” and that people of other cultures could certainly misunderstand his literal meanings. The author then argues that the plots and motivations of Shakespeare’s tragic plays will always be apparent because human nature is more or less universal through out the world. She does however take into account that the customs and translation of his works could produce slight differences in their interpretations. The argument remained a stalemate as she was preparing to travel to Africa. Her friend gave her a copy of Hamlet as a parting gift with hopes that perhaps she would find the true interpretation. On her trip to Africa the author finds out that custom, translations, and culture play a larger role in the interpretation of Shakespeare and that his meanings were not as universal as she previously thought.
During her stay with the Tiv in Africa, Bohannan gets a chance to relay the story of Hamlet to the tribe. She began the tale with the appearance of Hamlet’s fathers ghost. Right away the elder questioned this. The concept of someone having a ghost or living after they die was very foreign to them. They were convinced that the author had gotten the story wrong because the only explanation for a spirit could be that it was an omen sent by a witch. Horatio was also viewed as a fool for not bringing such an important matter before a person with proper knowledge of such omens. The Tiv’s perspective was that hamlet this matter should have never been brought to Hamlet’s attention. It is obvious that their customs and traditions were already biasing their interpretation of the story. If Hamlet were not informed of this “omen” he would have never sought revenge for the death of his father, thus changing the plot dramatically.
Another major complication with the story the Tiv had, was Hamlet’s uncles’ succession to the throne. In Tiv society it is only natural for the brother of the chief to become chief in the event of his brothers death. The Tiv also commended the speed with which Hamlet’s mother remarried after the death of her husband. A wife of one of the elders overheard this part of the story and explained that a quick remarriage is ideal. She stated that without a husband the farm would not be cultivated, therefore a quick remarriage was essential so that lack of food would not occur. It was obvious to the Tiv woman that the mother had done this in the best interests of the family so Hamlet had no reason to feel negatively about it.
The author tried in vain to explain why these things would make Hamlet miserable. Fear of famine was not on the mind of Hamlet’s mother for she was powerful enough not to rely on her husband for food. Western society would view this remarriage as a form of incest and would not be socially acceptable. Also a mourning period would be expected before a widow could be remarried and this was not done. In the elders minds these were normal events and which should not motivate anyone to be depressed. This proves that the authors’ argument of motivation of the greater tragedies being clear everywhere is flawed.
The Tiv elders had many explanations for the behavior of Hamlet, which held the authors interest. They all agreed that Hamlet was being bewitched and this was the cause of his strange behavior. They clarified that only a male member of ones family had the power to bewitch people therefore it was clearly king Claudius who was behind this. The Tiv also had an explanation for he supernatural events that occurred. They believed the presence of his fathers ghost was understandably an omen sent by a witch to Hamlet to tell him the truth of his father’s death while trying not to offend the current king. Although these answers were not the same the author viewed she found them fascinating and she modeled the remaining parts of the story around them. Bohannon was learning that the Tiv culture and belief systems did not allow the storyline to progress in the same way as Shakespeare wrote it.
After hearing of the death of Ophelia from the author, the Tiv elder wished to know whom her male relatives were in order to find who was responsible. Upon hearing that Laertes, Ophelia’s only living male relative, had returned from France the elder was bold enough to offer his prediction for the end of the story. He proceeded to tell how Laertes was scheming to get money to pay off his debts. According to the elder, Laertes had bewitched his sister in order to sell her body to the witches. The Author protested to this by saying that the body was in fact buried and Laertes had jumped into the grave and was followed by Hamlet.
The elder then concluded that Hamlet had jumped in after him to prevent Laertes from snatching the body. He continued to say that the son of a chief would not want to see another man to become rich and powerful. He said Laertes would be angry with this and try to kill Hamlet. Bohannan had to agree with this although it may not have been exact; Laertes did wish to kill Hamlet. Perhaps the elder’s abstract interpretations of the story had led him to universal conclusion after all. In his own eyes, the elder understood the meaning of the story correctly even though his thoughts did not match with the authors.
After the stories conclusion the elder added his thoughts about the tales finish. The poison beer that killed Hamlets mother was obviously meant for the winner of the fight. According to him if Laertes won the duel, the great chief would have given him the poison. This way no one would no that the king arranged Hamlets death. In addition the elder claimed that the chief would have done this also for fear of Laertes witchcraft. Someone who kills his own sister with witchcraft is potentially very dangerous. Very pleased that he had correctly interpreted the story, the elder told Bohannan that she should tell them more stories from her country. The elders would then instruct her about the true meaning of the stories so that she could return home unlighted by their wisdom. The Tiv felt that the author was the one
Reexamining the argument, which fueled this story, it is clear to see that the author’s friend was correct. The difference in culture had a large impact on the interpretation of Hamlet. The argument Laura Bohannan presents is flawed. Even though the Tiv elder was able to loosely predict the outcome of the story, Bohannan failed to prove that the plot and motives of Shakespeare’s great tragedies were universal. The Tiv had very different rationalizations for the plot progression and the character motives. The author did not take seriously enough the enormous impact the Tivs different customs and traditions would have on their analysis of Hamlet. Through out this story you can see that human nature does plays no part in the Tivs interpretations of Hamlet. The author learns that culture is the main reason for these differences of opinion. Taking into account the cultural differences of the author, her friend, and the Tiv it seems clear why they would interpret Shakespeare in very different ways.
Shakespeare in the Bush
This story, by Laura Bohannan, is a perfect example that literature is open to many interpretations. To many people in our culture the play of Hamlet is well-known, and accepted without many difficulties. However, in the Tiv culture there are several errors in the plot that the chiefs point out.
While visiting the Tiv in Africa, Laura is asked to tell the elders a story from our culture. It is at this point that she finds her chance to tell about Hamlet because she thinks it is one of the most important pieces of literature in our society. Laura thinks that the story will be fairly easy to explain because of it is generally understood by everyone. Also, she thinks that the elders will understand because before starting to tell the story, Laura thought that every culture would understand the plot of the story in the same way our society does. "I was quiet sure that Hamlet had only one possible interpretation, and that one universally obvious” (Bohannan 24). Once the story started, it was clear that the Tiv had a completely different way of thinking, and interpreting story’s.
The first error that the elders found in the story was the word usage that was used to translate non-existent word in the Tiv vocabulary. The word "chief" was used in place of king or ruler, which may not seem to make a difference to our understanding. However, to a culture that relies heavily on chiefs, the story is greatly changed because the word “chief” brings about many responsibilities. Trying to explain that the “chief” was dead, brought about a lot of confusion. To the Tiv people there is no such thing as a ghost, which means as soon as they found that King Hamlet came back to visit Hamlet, the Tiv thought it to be an omen sent by a witch. The Tiv rely on interpretations to make sense of stories, and the only way for them to interpret Hamlet is to relate its meanings to their culture.
Throughout the story telling by Bohannan it is clear that each society has their own interpretations of stories no matter what culture the story’s come from. When Bohannan finish’s telling her interpretation of Hamlet the elders tell her that it was a good story, but there are errors that were over looked. This is the ending scene, where Hamlet and Laertes get into a machete fight, and Hamlet is supposed to die of poisoning. Most people over look the fact that it was who ever won the fight that drank from the poison cup. This meant that it wasn’t only Hamlet that would die if he won the fight, if Laertes won then he too would drink from the cup.
From this story we find that elders in every society feel that they know what is best. Bohannan was told several times to check with her elders at home to get the real meaning of Hamlet. Elders are often listened to because they are thought to have much experience in the ways of life. Laura came into the Tiv culture thinking that everyone thought alike, but really she found that everything is open to interpretation and experience. One person is listened to if we believe that their experience is better than our own.