Shakespeare in the Bush

Laura Bohannan’s “Shakespeare in the Bush” has been in many anthropology readers, such as the Reader for a Global Age. It is also available from Natural History as a free “pick from the past.” [Image credit: “Revisiting Shakespeare in the Bush” at Bardfilm.]

“Shakespeare in the Bush” is one of the most anthologized anthropology articles of all time, vying with Horace Miner’s Body Ritual among the Nacirema. “Shakespeare in the Bush” is an extremely versatile article. I have used it as a general Introduction to Anthropology. My most recent lecture on it was in my Intro-to-Anthropology 2021 course:

“Shakespeare in the Bush” is 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

Readings of Shakespeare in the Bush

Bohannan tells this tale to illustrate deep cultural difference. The differences are much deeper than she anticipated as an anthropologist beginning fieldwork. 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, & 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 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. All societies may recognize “ethical behavior,” but the specific moral code may be very different in practice.

But even though 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.) Emphasizing these aspects of morality are important for countering narratives like the 2011 pseudo-evolutionary account of Why do we celebrate killing?

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 as well as the longer history that surrounds the emergency of anthropology in “the Savage Slot.”)

Kerim Friedman’s reflections on “Shakespeare in the Bush” at Savage Minds are quite intriguing. 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.

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2011. “Shakespeare in the Bush: Laura Bohannan, Hamlet, and the Tiv.” Living Anthropologically website, First posted 16 August 2011. Revised 9 October 2019.

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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