Shakespeare in the Bush Introduces Anthropology

Originally published in 1966, Shakespeare in the Bush introduces anthropology to broader audiences. Laura Bohannan’s article is available from Natural History. This page began the Hartwick College Introduction to Anthropology 2016 course. For additional analysis, see Shakespeare in the Bush & Laura Bohannan.

Laura Bohannan’s Initial Beliefs

Before her anthropological fieldwork, Bohannan believed that Shakespeare was universal. She believed that with slight changes and translation, anyone should be able to understand Shakespeare. Bohannan began with a very familiar starting assumption about human nature: “Human nature is pretty much the same the whole world over.”

Interestingly, it was Bohannan’s English colleague who first challenged her interpretation. He insisted Shakespeare “was a very English poet, and one can easily misinterpret the universal by misunderstanding the particular.” Bohannan didn’t believe it (and read Shakespeare in a very American way). In Africa, Bohannan got a chance to prove her case.

Hamlet’s difficulties

Ghost <----> No individual personality after death
Marriage was too quick <----> You should marry brother’s wife on death, “he did well”
Royal monogamy <----> Kings should have many wives
I must avenge my father! <----> No right to avenge death–should be age mates

Their ethnocentrism

We believe you when you say your marriage customs are different, or your clothes and weapons. But people are the same everywhere.

Sometime you must tell us some more stories of your country. We, who are the elders, will instruct you in their true meaning.

For Bohannan, shows

Deeper difference than what she expected
Cultural relativism is harder than it seems!
Linguistic anthropology: Issues beyond terms and translation (Ghosts, Water, Madness)
Their belief in universality, or disbelief in the deep difference Bohannan discovers

Also about what we share

Stories and their interpretations
Humans as meaning-making creatures
but can be quite topsy-turvy!

Bohannan (1966) like Miner’s (1956) Body Ritual Among the Nacirema

Fighting ethnocentrism and racism–an “us” versus “them” which ranked, ordered, and hierarchized the world
Seek to describe an “us” and “them” that were different but not superior-inferior
Ruth Benedict: “The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human difference”
However. Does perpetuating the us/them–rather than seeing History, Interconnection, Power–also perpetuate ethnocentrism?

Next up in Anthropology

Multispecies ethnography
Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human
Ontological Turn
The Anthropocene

Anthropology at the Time of the Anthropocene” Bruno Latour, 2014

“Can the conversation really change? Imagine the cocktail conversation:

What is your field?
I am an anthropologist.
Meaning I am studying people who live in the Anthropocene.
Do you mean me?
Yes, you, in addition to many others…

See? This is a very different definition from the idea that anthropologists study specific people or specific aspects of being human.”

See also Hello Anthropocene: Climate Change and Anthropology and now the August 2016 official word: The Anthropocene epoch: scientists declare dawn of human-influenced age.

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