Shakespeare in the Bush

An American anthropologist set out to study the Tiv of West Africa and was taught the true meaning of Hamlet.

Slightly shaken, I continued. “One of these three was a man who knew things”—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 grave,’ 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.”

There was a general shaking of heads round the circle. “Had the dead chief no living brothers? Or was this son the chief?”

“No,” I replied. “That is, he had one living brother who became the chief when the elder brother died.”

The old men muttered: such omens were matters for chiefs and elders, not for youngsters; no good could come of going behind a chief’s back; clearly Horatio was not a man who knew things.

“Yes, he was,” I insisted, shooing a chicken away from my beer. “In our country the son is next to the father. The dead chief’s younger brother had become the great chief. He had also married his elder brother’s widow only about a month after the funeral.”

“He did well,” the old man beamed and announced to the others, “I told you that if we knew more about Europeans, we would find they really were very like us. In our country also,” he added to me, “the younger brother marries the elder brother’s widow and becomes the father of his children. Now, if your uncle, who married your widowed mother, is your father’s full brother, then he will be a real father to you. Did Hamlet’s father and uncle have one mother?”

His question barely penetrated my mind; I was too upset and thrown too far off-balance by having one of the most important elements of Hamlet 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 I got home I must ask the elders about it. He shouted out the door to one of his younger wives to bring his goatskin bag.

Determined to save what I could of the mother motif, I took a deep breath and began again. “The son Hamlet was very sad because his mother had married 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.”

“Two years is too long,” objected the wife, who had appeared with the old man’s battered goatskin bag. “Who will hoe your farms for you while you have no husband?”

“Hamlet,” I retorted, without thinking, “was old enough to hoe his mother’s farms himself. There was no need for her to remarry.” No one looked convinced. 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. Furthermore, Hamlet would be the next chief: therefore he must stay to learn the things of a chief. Hamlet agreed to remain, and all the rest went off to drink beer.”

While I paused, perplexed at how to render Hamlet’s disgusted soliloquy to an audience convinced that Claudius and Gertrude had behaved in the best possible manner, one of the younger men asked me who had married the other wives of the dead chief.

“He had no other wives,” I told him.

“But a chief must have many wives! How else can he brew beer and prepare food for all his guests?”

I said firmly that in our country even chiefs had only one wife, that they had servants to 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 everyone 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 way of fobbing off my questions: “That is the way it is done, so that is how we do it.”

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 Hamlet kept watch with the three who had seen his dead father. The dead chief again appeared, and although the others were afraid, Hamlet followed his dead father off to one side. When they were alone, Hamlet’s dead father spoke.”

“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.’” I 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. “One can touch zombis.”

“No, no! It was not a dead body the witches had animated to sacrifice and eat. No 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 the dead man’s shadow.”

But again they objected. “Dead men cast no shadows.”

“They do in my country,” I snapped.

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