Shakespeare in the Bush – Laura Bohannan, Hamlet, and the Tiv

“Shakespeare in the Bush” by Laura Bohannan appears again in the 10th edition of the four-field Applying Anthropology: An Introductory Reader (2012). “Shakespeare in the Bush” is also available from Natural History as a free “pick from the past.”

“Shakespeare in the Bush” must be one of the most anthologized anthropology articles of all time, perhaps even edging out Horace Miner’s Body Ritual among the Nacirema. It is a very versatile article–I have used it as a general introduction to anthropology, or as a way to explain fieldwork, the idea of culture, or language. Since many students read Hamlet for senior year high school, the basic text is often fresh. I recently returned to use “Shakespeare in the Bush” as a way to introduce basic concepts of anthropology, corresponding to the material in the section on Human Nature and Anthropology and to my attempt at What is Anthropology?

Although Bohannan tells this tale to illustrate deep difference, a much deeper difference than she anticipated, other readings are possible–the tale could also show what we share, like story-telling, meaning-making, morality, and ethnocentrism. However, as Clifford Geertz elaborates, the idea of a shared morality is up-ended by the topsy-turvy moral contents:

What, after all, does it avail us to say, with Herskovits, that “morality is a universal, and so is enjoyment of beauty, and some standard for truth,” if we are forced in the very next sentence, as he is, to add that “the many forms these concepts take are but products of the particular historical experience of the societies that manifest them”? (The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man, 1973:41)

This has been a consensus position in anthropology–a universal capacity for morality with particulars filled in by culture. Recent years have seen challenges to that idea, such as Donald E. Brown’s Human Universals (1991) and Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate (2003; see also Science & Humanities Together). Nevertheless, a true cross-cultural and historical survey reveals the Geertz formulation is very much still pertinent, as Francisco Ayala demonstrates in a 2010 paper:

I propose that the capacity for ethics is a necessary attribute of human nature, whereas moral codes are products of cultural evolution. . . . Ethical behavior came about in evolution not because it is adaptive in itself but as a necessary consequence of man’s eminent intellectual abilities, which are an attribute directly promoted by natural selection. That is, morality evolved as an exaptation, not as an adaptation. Moral codes, however, are outcomes of cultural evolution, which accounts for the diversity of cultural norms among populations and for their evolution through time. (Ayala 2010:9015)

Although there are merits to the standard anthropological position, there may be a need to push beyond this, emphasizing how there is really no “capacity for morality” outside the particulars of specific moral codes. Even if there were some kind of human program for morality, it would also develop inside of particular history, environment, and culture. This is why we don’t just think something is right or wrong, we feel it–we have a “gut feeling.” Morality becomes biology. (A play on Race Becomes Biology.)

One of the biggest problems with the Bohannan article is how it relentlessly stresses an “us versus them.” This becomes even more pronounced in Bohannan’s Return to Laughter, which I use for my Cultural Anthropology courses. Return to Laughter seems to show how anthropological fieldwork leads to a hardening of the us/them boundaries, even though the evidence of colonial encounter and historical interconnection is everywhere–see Fieldwork and Kinshipology – Laura Bohannan, Return to Laughter.

I am also intrigued by Kerim Friedman’s reflections on “Shakespeare in the Bush” at Savage Minds. Friedman speculates on how different audiences within the Tiv might have reacted to Bohannan’s retelling. It’s another way to interrupt Bohannan’s us-versus-them motif, by concentrating on the in-group variation Bohannan herself documents–a lesson that also applies to Return to Laughter.