Shakespeare in the Bush

     There is more than what meets the eye. Things are not always what they seem. Perception is not always reality. These are a few examples of sayings that all illustrate the same idea. This same idea is also expressed in Laura Bohannan’s essay, “Shakespeare in the Bush.” Ms. Bohannan tells of her experiences while visiting an African tribe, called the Tiv. While she was there, the natives asked her to tell a story. She decided to tell them the story of Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. The Tiv people interpreted seven specific aspects of the story much differently than the modern Western culture. The seven aspects are the appearance of Hamlet’s father’s ghost, Claudius’ marriage to Gertrude, the fact that Hamlet couldn’t marry Ophelia, Hamlet’s madness, Polonius’ death, Ophelia’s drowning death, and the poison for after the final duel.

     The ghost of Hamlet’s father appeared in the castle to inform Hamlet of the truth about his death. Modern Western cultures believe that it actually was a ghost. The Tiv thought otherwise. They felt that since the image spoke, then it couldn’t be a ghost because ghosts cannot talk. Since their culture believes in witches and witchcraft, then the image must have been a zombie sent by witches as an omen.

     In the story of Hamlet, Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, marries Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. This marriage was only two months after Claudius’ brother, King Hamlet, was killed. The modern Western culture feels that this marriage was incestuous. It also took place too soon after the death of the King. The Tiv, however, found no problem with it. It was a custom for the natives for the brother of a deceased man to marry his wife. This way, the fields could be taken care of and the farms could be managed.

     In the play, Hamlet could not marry his true love, Ophelia, because he was royalty and she a commoner. The Tiv disagreed with this also. They felt that the marriage should be permitted because since Hamlet was royalty, then he could shower Ophelia’s father, Polonius, with gifts and money. This seemed very rational to the Tiv, although it seems odd to the modern Western culture.

     Since Hamlet was not permitted to marry Ophelia, he went mad. This is the reason that the modern Western culture attributes to his madness. The Tiv felt that Hamlet’s madness was attributed to witchcraft. They feel that witches cause madness, and that this was the only rational reason as to why Hamlet went mad.

     When Hamlet discovered that Claudius killed his father, he attempted to kill him while in his mother’s quarters. He thought that Claudius was hiding behind a curtain, and so he plunged his sword into the curtain. It was not Claudius, but rather Ophelia’s father, Polonius, behind the curtain. The Tiv believe that one cannot kill or attempt to kill his elders. They felt that Hamlet should have contacted his father’s friends to avenge the murder of King Hamlet. The Tiv thought that Hamlet was wrong to try and avenge the murder himself.

     Ophelia, Hamlet’s love, was so distraught after hearing about how Hamlet killed her father, she committed suicide by drowning herself. The Tiv were strongly opposed to this. They felt that only witches can make someone drown because water alone cannot hurt someone. They felt that Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, killed her to sell her to the witches because he ran out of money. Also, at Ophelia’s funeral, Laertes jumped into her grave to say his last goodbye. Hamlet then jumped into the grave to say his last goodbye, also. The Tiv thought that Laertes was trying to steal the body so he could sell it to the witches. Since Hamlet jumped in, then he saved Ophelia’s body from being sold. They felt that Laertes wanted to kill Hamlet because he prevented him from selling Ophelia’s body.

     In the final scene of the play, there was a duel between Hamlet and Laertes. King Claudius gave Laertes a poisoned rapier so that Hamlet would die even if he was just scratched by the sword. Claudius wanted Hamlet dead because he knew the truth about his father’s death. Just in case Hamlet survived the battle, a glass of poisoned wine was waiting for the victor. The wine unfortunately fell into the wrong hands, and Hamlet’s mother drank it and died. The modern Western culture believes that the wine was intended for Hamlet in case he survived the duel. The Tiv believe otherwise. They felt that the wine was intended for the victor of the match, either Hamlet or Laertes. They thought that it would be used to kill Hamlet because he knew about the murder of King Hamlet, or it would be used to kill Laertes so no one would know about the conspiracy between him and Claudius to kill Hamlet.

     The main point of Bohannan’s essay was to illustrate that different cultures interpret things differently. What we accept is influenced by our own cultural values. Both interpretations of Hamlet are correct according to the cultural values of the two different cultures. I feel that it is what we take from a book or story, our own interpretation of it, is what really matters. It doesn’t matter what the author intends. If your interpretation is different than that of the author, but the story still influenced your life, then that is all that matters.

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