Image credit: “Revisiting Shakespeare in the Bush” at Bardfilm.
Shakespeare in the Bush
Laura Bohannan’s “Shakespeare in the Bush” made another appearance 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 an extremely versatile article. I have used it as a general Introduction to Anthropology. It is also helpful for explaining fieldwork, the idea of culture, or language. Traditionally many students read Hamlet for senior year high school, so the basic text is often fresh. “Shakespeare in the Bush” introduces basic concepts of anthropology, corresponding to the material in the section on Human Nature and Anthropology and to my attempt at What is Anthropology?
Readings of Shakespeare in the Bush
Bohannan tells this tale to illustrate deep difference, a much deeper difference than she anticipated. But other readings are possible. The tale also shows what we share: 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)
Morality, Culture, and Human Nature
Geertz’s interpretation became a consensus position in anthropology. Humans exhibit a universal capacity for morality, with all the particulars filled in by culture. This position came under attack in the 1990s as Donald Brown put out Human Universals (1991) and then especially with Steven Pinker’s ideologically-charged The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2003).
Nevertheless, a true cross-cultural and historical survey reveals the Geertz formulation is very much still pertinent. Francisco Ayala’s 2010 demonstrates the claim in updated language:
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 it. We may also emphasize that there is really no “capacity for ethics” outside the particulars of specific moral codes. Even if there were some kind of human program for morality, it always develops as part of a 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.)
Beyond Us versus Them
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 Cultural Anthropology. By the end of Return to Laughter, anthropological fieldwork seems to sharpen and harden the us/them boundaries. The fieldworker forgets and denies the abundant evidence of colonial encounter and historical interconnection. (See Fieldwork and Kinshipology.)
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. This provides another way to interrupt Bohannan’s us-versus-them motif. Concentrating on the in-group variation Bohannan herself documents is a lesson that also applies to Return to Laughter.
Updates and Resources for Shakespeare in the Bush
- For class notes on Shakespeare in the Bush in Introduction to Anthropology, see teaching Shakespeare as Anthropology (2016)
- For class notes on the final chapters of Return to Laughter see The Rituals of Finishing Fieldwork.