Hamlet in Nigeria

Just before I left Oxford for West Africa [to the Tiv tribe of southeastern Nigeria], 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 easily misinterpret the universal by misunderstanding the particular.”

That’s the opening of an piece called “Miching Mallecho, That Means Witchcraft,” by Laura Bohannan. It is in my musty old anthropology anthology, the one that inspired yesterday’s post. Fortunately it (or a very close 1961 version of it) is also available online under its better known name “Shakespeare in the Bush.” I’ll tell you about it, because it’s wonderful, but for the full effect, you also ought to read the original for yourself.

Bohannan takes offense at the idea that she might not get Shakespeare. After all, the plots and motivations of Shakespeare’s plays are universal. Oh, some of the cultural details might need explanation, or present subtle difficulties in translation, but the ideas should be clear, she argues. In the end, she and her friend agree to disagree, and he gives her a copy of Hamlet to take with her.

NewImageHamlet and his Father’s Ghost. Henry Fuseli (1798)
Image: Wikipedia

Bohannan goes out to live with the Tiv (her second trip) in a more remote area than her last visit. She stays at the homestead of a clan whose head I will call The Old Man. Her visit is in the three month period just after the harvest, from when the swamps rise, until the swamps recede again, and planting season begins. There isn’t a lot to do during this time, except brew beer — so they brew, and they drink. The drinking begins at dawn, and the people spend the entire day singing, dancing, and drumming. They also tell each other stories, which was apparently considered a high art form.

One day Bohannan sits to drink with the Old Man and the other tribal elders, and the Old Man invites her to tell them a story from her people. She decides that this is the perfect time to prove the universality of Hamlet.

And then the fun begins.

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.”

But why was he no longer the chief, the elders ask. Because he was dead. Now this is a problem, because the Tiv have no notion of “ghost.” In fact, as Bohannan puts it, they don’t believe “in the survival after death of any individuating part of the personality,” nor in an individual afterlife. They decide that the apparition of Hamlet’s father must be an omen, sent by a witch.

Except how can an omen speak to Hamlet? The elders decide it must be a zombie.

“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.

The next stumbling block in this cross-cultural experiment is that Hamlet‘s main inciting incident (well, besides the murder) is that Hamlet’s uncle Claudius married Hamlet’s mother Gertrude so soon – suspiciously soon — after the death of Hamlet’s father. This is a big no-no in Western society. It’s the only acceptable course of action in Tiv society; as in Old Testament Jewish society, a Tiv man is expected to marry the widow of his elder brother and take his brother’s family as his own. This puts a spanner in Hamlet’s motivation. But of course the Tiv don’t approve of fratricide, so Bohannan still has hope that the story will come across.

But the elders don’t understand Hamlet’s madness ploy, either. Only two things make a person go mad: bewitchment, or “seeing the beings that lurk in the forest.” At this point Bohannan gets sidetracked, because she wants to know about this folk psychology. And I was interested too, because doesn’t it sound like the stories my parents told me of the taong lipod, or the ingkanto? I suppose similar notions exist in many cultures.

Anyway, the bewitchment angle doesn’t derail the story too much; one can only be bewitched by a male relative. Hamlet hasn’t seen any forest people, and his only male relative in the play is Claudius. Ergo, Claudius bewitched Hamlet and drove him mad. That’s not too far from the truth.

More controversy erupts when Hamlet kills Polonius in Gertrude’s chamber, believing that he is killing his stepfather/uncle. Such an act of filial impiety!

This time I had shocked my audience seriously. “For a man to raise his hand against his father’s brother and the one who has become his father—that is a terrible thing. The elders ought to let such a man be bewitched.”

I nibbled at my kola nut in some perplexity, then pointed out that after all the man had killed Hamlet’s father.

“No,” pronounced the old man, speaking less to me than to the young men sitting behind the elders. “If your father’s brother has killed your father, you must appeal to your father’s age mates: they may avenge him. No man may use violence against his senior relatives.” Another thought struck him. “But if his father’s brother had indeed been wicked enough to bewitch Hamlet and make him mad that would be a good story indeed, for it would be his fault that Hamlet, being mad, no longer had any sense and thus was ready to kill his father’s brother.”

There was a murmur of applause. Hamlet was again a good story to them, but it no longer seemed quite the same story to me…

Not Shakespeare’s story perhaps, but a story I wouldn’t mind hearing! Bohannan gets a bit cross at all of the “corrections” that that Old Man and the other elders keep making to her story.

The old man made soothing noises and himself poured me some more beer. “You tell the story well, and we are listening. But it is clear that the elders of your country have never told you what the story really means. No, don’t interrupt! We believe you when you say your marriage customs are different, or your clothes and weapons. But people are the same everywhere; therefore, there are always witches and it is we, the elders, who know how witches work…”

That is essentially the same argument that Bohannan made to her friend back at Oxford, isn’t it? Bohannan soldiers on, and the elders debate the motivations of these strange people from another land. The final solution they come up with explains all the actors’ motivations in a very plausible way (and Laertes comes off as a very bad man in the process). It isn’t Shakespeare’s story, but it’s a good one.

In the end the Old Man tells Bohannan that she must tell them more stories from her country. And he and the other elders will tell her the stories’ true meaning, so that the elders of her country will know that she has come back from the bush with wisdom.

The piece is a great lesson in cross-cultural encounter, amusingly told, and not at all academic. Recommended.

12 thoughts on “Hamlet in Nigeria

  1. I LOVE this post! I graduated with an Anthropology degree this year and have a secret love for Shakespeare. It’s wonderful to hear how the story of Hamlet got altered. Tell me more! 🙂

    • Thanks! Bohannan’s article was a lot of fun to read, and it did draw out all the hidden assumptions in a culture’s literature in a humorous and dramatic way. I really enjoyed it.

  2. I really enjoyed this post. What a great example of interpretations made based on cultural influences. It is neat to see how much a story can change based on views of a group/culture.

    • Thanks! It was interesting to notice how things we take for granted in hearing a story are not at all obvious to listeners from different cultures. And vice-versa, when we hear their stories…

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