Shakespeare in the Bush

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

The old man quelled the babble of disbelief that arose immediately and told me with that insincere, but courteous, agreement one extends to the fancies of the young, ignorant, and superstitious, “No doubt in your country the dead can also walk without being zombis.” From the depths of his bag he produced a withered fragment of kola nut, bit off one end to show it wasn’t poisoned, and handed me the rest as a peace offering.

“Anyhow,” I resumed, “Hamlet’s dead 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. “In 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 hastily about for some 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.”

“Why not?” asked the wife, who had settled down on the edge of 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 chief’s 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 of the 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 frightened her. 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 understand 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 a 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 and 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. Hamlet had not been exposed to the beings that lurk in the forests. Only his relatives 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 else. “He was sure that something much more important was troubling Hamlet’s heart.”

“Now Hamlet’s age mates,” I continued, “had brought with them a famous storyteller. Hamlet decided to have this man tell the chief and all his homestead a story about a 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 reading 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 before 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 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.” I paused for dramatic effect. “He had killed Polonius.”

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