"We, who are elders, will instruct you in their true meaning..."
June 11, 2006 8:43 PM   Subscribe

Shakespeare in the Bush: in which an anthropologist tells the story of Hamlet to a group of Tiv, and ideas about the universal nature of literature get the worst of it.
posted by a louis wain cat (27 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Not all people response to this (old) issue the same way. I've read speculation that the correcting of the story by the elders she spoke with was possibly a reaction against the fact that the story decimates the same social class the elders belong to. In effect saying, telling the story to members of the underclass of Tiv might have produced quite a different reaction.

There is a bit of a strawman fallacy in assuming that Hamlet is universal, then going to prove it may not be.

This is a pretty old piece (30+ years) and while it has some good points, it is high school / or into to Antro level.
posted by edgeways at 9:07 PM on June 11, 2006

One of my favorite essays ever. I once spent some time in the library tracking down the original article in Natural History. The essay is also available here at fieldworking.com which has many other good essays. There's also this post about the history of the text which asks some questions about how it really came about. Idris Hsi has also collected lots of other good stuff at his website.
posted by wobh at 9:13 PM on June 11, 2006

Related previous posts: Porn in the woods.
I'm really sorry about that...
posted by Chuckles at 9:18 PM on June 11, 2006

it is high school / or into to Antro level.

I did, in fact, read this in Grade XII English.
posted by Zozo at 9:20 PM on June 11, 2006

As you hike it.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:26 PM on June 11, 2006

Edgeways, the strawman you mention is a gross overgeneralization of the actual theme. The narrator begins with an idea that what is universal in Hamlet the emotional life of the characters, and this only broadly so. What she learns is that this isn't universal at all. In learning this and in understanding the Tiv Hamlet (a great story itself), I think it's reasonable to infer that the narrator has learned that action and the desire for meaning are both more universal than emotion.

Also reviews of Shakespeare Porn [NSFW].
posted by wobh at 9:39 PM on June 11, 2006

One puzzling thing. Early in the story, he says
"One of these three was a man who knew things"--the closest translation for scholar, but unfortunately it also meant witch.
At the very end, the old man says
We, who are elders, will instruct you in their true meaning, so that when you return to your own land your elders will see that you have not been sitting in the bush, but among those who know things and who have taught you wisdom."
Now, is the expression that he used to mean "a man who knew things" the same as the expression the old man uses when he refers to "those who know things"? Because it clearly contains the meaning he was going for. And if it wasn't, might he have saved a lot of confusion if he had used it instead of the one he did?
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:00 PM on June 11, 2006

Bohannon's article, while a classic, is ancient history for anyone even remotely acquainted with cultural anthropology. The debate over the universality of emotions has proceeded significantly since then. In the 80s and 90s, Catherine Lutz, Michelle Rosaldo, Lila Abu-Lughod, Naomi Quinn, Richard Shweder, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, and numerous others advanced this discussion significantly past LB's classic essay.

Not to say it's a bad post, but "Shakespeare" does not represent the current state of thinking in the discipline, at all.
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:18 PM on June 11, 2006

You haven't truly enjoyed Shakespeare until you've read it in the original Klingon.
posted by First Post at 10:28 PM on June 11, 2006

Well, the problem is she tried to tell the story without trying to set any sort of cultural context. Now I've never actually read hamlet, but I imagine you have to have at least a basic understanding of European feudal governments, and family structure to appreciate it.

And look at this:

"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.

And this is of course absurd. They have the concept of a "zombie" rather then trying to build from that into the concept of a "ghost" she acts like ghosts are something that actually exist and have some rather difficult to believe properties. Rather then trying to broaden their understanding, she tries to fit everything into terms that they already understands, and fails.
posted by delmoi at 10:31 PM on June 11, 2006

I think my question might have gone better if I'd actually taken note of the author's sex.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:57 PM on June 11, 2006

I think the framing of this post didn't quite come out the way I intended- I probably should have said "her ideas about the universal nature of literature".

Anyway, I'm aware that it's a pretty dated essay in a lot of ways, but I've always thought it's an entertaining and thought-provoking one, all the same. I wanted to include more on the Tiv, but there doesn't seem to be much about them online. I did find this piece on their traditional concept of time, which didn't really fit with the main post, but which was quite fascinating in its own right, though it's also pretty old.

edgeways: I've read speculation that the correcting of the story by the elders she spoke with was possibly a reaction against the fact that the story decimates the same social class the elders belong to. In effect saying, telling the story to members of the underclass of Tiv might have produced quite a different reaction.

I kind of got that impression as well- it's actually implied a bit in the essay itself, when it gets to Hamlet trying to kill Claudius and the old man is "speaking less to me than to the young men sitting behind the elders."
posted by a louis wain cat at 11:03 PM on June 11, 2006

delmoi: Agreed, but have you tried explaining new concepts to someone in a language you're barely proficient at?

Although it wouldn't necessarily be THAT hard - explain the ghost as being both like a zombis and a omen in that all can see and hear it (like a zombis) and yet none can touch it (like an omen)... However I got the impression that she was getting a little impatient with their ribbing :p
posted by crocos at 11:22 PM on June 11, 2006

I've encountered this before, and always thought that the elders had a perfectly reasonable interpretation of Hamlet. Never understood what all the fuss was about.
posted by kyrademon at 11:34 PM on June 11, 2006

I admit, I assumed that the writer was male as well, as she seemed to hanging out with the men as somewhat of an equal.

Reading it, I was thinking that she should have been explaining the aspects of her culture much as they did for her. Saying that a ghost is "dead" is not the same as the truth, which is that Europeans did/do not believe the body to be the true person, but a shell, the ghost is the true immaterial person which should go up to heaven, but is sometimes trapped because of a great wrong.

Or the whole marrying your brother's wife thing, which is a taboo we don't have in the same way anymore. At the time of the setting of Hamlet, marrying your brother's wife was legally the same thing as marrying your sister. Henry VIII had to get special permission from the Pope to marry Catherine of Aragon, who had been married to his brother Arthur.* The reason is that, in marrying Arthur, Catherine and Arthur became as one person, and thus Catherine was Henry's sister. This was not true in ancient Jewish law (where a man was required to marry his dead brother's sister to look after her, just as among the Tiv), nor is it really true now (though perhaps we would look askance at it), but it was a very serious issue in the 16th century. Claudius and Gertrude's marriage was meant to have a strong ick factor beyond just the speed, as it was a kind of incest.

Basically, she would have had to teach them a lot about early modern European society, almost as much as she was learning about Tiv culture.

I don't know if this shows that literature isn't universal -- the phenomenon is, like art. The drive to tell stories is there. But the shape, the specifics never would be, because they are themselves shaped by the culture and it's values. What I most enjoy about reading literature from other cultures (especially when well-glossed) is that it is like a window into that culture and how different it is from my own. Shakespeare is a window into the sixteenth and seventeenth century**, and the Tiv version is one into their own culture.

The permission was granted, as Henry claimed Catherine's first marriage had not been consumated and thus they were never truly married. When he wanted to divorce her, one of Henry's grounds was that the pope had over-reached his power in setting aside such an important religious law and the marriage was never legal to start with. (This is why Henry sought an anullment, not technically a divorce.)

I had never actually thought about Hamlet in this context before and it surprised me for a moment that Shakespeare would have written something which could be taken as such a strong criticism of a Tudor prince, but then, of course, he was writing under Elizabeth and James, and Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry's second marriage, after the end of his "illegal one". Elizabeth was only legitimate if the marriage to Catherine of Aragon had been illegal.

**Maybe that's why I find some attempts to move the setting of Shakespeare just don't work, because you have to find a setting which matches the power and gender relations of the 16th cent (or whatever 16th cent England believed about the culture of the setting of the play, whether contemporary Italy or ancient Rome) to be believable.

posted by jb at 11:48 PM on June 11, 2006

It's a great post. I thought this was on MeFi before, but can't seem to find it. The anecdote may a bit dated and have a slightly different meaning forty years later, but it is still interesting and almost universally relevant. Who hasn't read or seen Hamlet? I don't think you get out of HS without it and it's performed frequently; I have probably seen the play three or four times in the last ten years. It's everywhere. The bushmen's take on ghosts, royalty, etc. remains interesting even if there has been more in depth scholarship on these cultural issues since then. Thanks for the post.

What I always liked about this piece is the little bits of culture which are more similar between modern day bushmen and Shakespeare than between modern day Western society and Shakespeare. They quibble over some of the details, but Will remains universally relevant.
posted by caddis at 11:48 PM on June 11, 2006

I'm betting that Shakespeare would just want to know the Tiv box office reciepts, then go have a beer himself.
posted by Ohdemah at 12:34 AM on June 12, 2006

receipt, s'blood!
posted by Ohdemah at 12:36 AM on June 12, 2006

I'm not sure that universality applies to cultures at every level of their development.

Still, this was an excellent read... why isn't there a best of the Blue? Or one for links and one for discussion...
posted by ewkpates at 5:05 AM on June 12, 2006

Well, there is also the problem that Hamlet exists in a literary time-warp. The original story is pre-Christian Scandinavian. Hamlet according to Shakespeare is a 16th century German-trained Lutheran. Elsinore Castle exists in some timeless space in between. The play mashes together a fair number of anachronisms, and Shakespeare wasn't one to let accuracy get in the way of a good story.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:23 AM on June 12, 2006

It is not clear how proficient she was in the language of these people - trying to translate out of one's native language very rarely produces satisfactory results.
posted by altolinguistic at 10:17 AM on June 12, 2006

Thanks, a louis, I really enjoyed that, and despite everyone else's jibes, I have a Social Anthropology degree and I'd never heard this story before (maybe it's more common in the US?).
posted by penguin pie at 2:04 PM on June 12, 2006

a louis wain cat, have you been reading my correspondence? I referred this very link to a co-worker about 4 weeks ago. I first encountered it in Anthro 101 some 25-odd years back.

The funny/sad thing about this is that my colleague, though well-educated in engineering, had tracked away from literature so early that he knew nothing about the basic plot of Hamlet.
posted by Araucaria at 2:51 PM on June 12, 2006

I've read this before somewhere and I could have sworn it was here in the Blue, but I find nothing on any number of searches. My mind, it boggles.

(Also, it's an awesome story.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:39 PM on June 12, 2006

Therefore Laertes had to take the second way: he killed his sister by witchcraft, drowning her so he could secretly sell her body to the witches

Pure fucking gold. I think I will never again be able to watch Hamlet without cracking up over that.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:46 PM on June 12, 2006

There's a great bit in the recent Vonnegut memoir, where he's going through the old "plot chart" thing. You know, rising action, climax, falling action in the form of a line graph? He does a bunch of fairy tails and then he brings up Hamlet, and works through each plot twist basically saying that there's no obvious way to judge whether anything that happens in the story is good or bad.

Like all really good art, it asks a lot of questions and presents a lot of relationships but the meaning is in the eye of the beholder.
posted by es_de_bah at 6:30 PM on June 12, 2006

Never read this one before.

But the fact it's a USA high school Eng. Lit. chestnut is strangely adorable.

It gave me lots of first time corny pleasure anyway. Thanks very much.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 8:19 PM on June 12, 2006

« Older Math Porn!   |   Tres' chic! Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments