Shakespeare in the Bush

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

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2011. “Shakespeare in the Bush: Laura Bohannan, Hamlet, and the Tiv.” Living Anthropologically website, First posted 16 August 2011. Revised 21 September 2017.

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  • Helga Vierich

    The thing is, when I read Hamlet, it all seemed odd to me. I did not believe in ghosts, although I sort of accepted them as plot device, but it still bothered me that hamlet was so gullible. Either he was fooled by someone who pretended to be his dead father’s ghost, or he had an hallucination. Either way, he really ought to have given himself and shake and simply assumed he was was either being manipulated or was too tired to think clearly. All of Hamlet’s subsequent actions never did make any sense to me at all. The man was like a six year old in a man’s body and I was glad he died in the end. I was just sorry he had caused so many other people to die unnecessarily.

    So, the interperation of Hamlet is not universal, even in “our” culture. I bet there would be variations among the Tiv too. Meanwhile I now regret never telling the Kua this story. I have a feeling they would have been aghast at the idea of anyone even having the hubris to make himself into a king, let alone the premise that everyone else would take it seriously. Mind you some of them DID believe in ghosts, and that ghosts merely cause trouble, so this story might have seemed to justify their point of view.

    • Hi Helga, very interesting. The last time I really read Hamlet was for a first-year college course. The professor took it in a completely different direction than most–we spent the first day talking about the first words: “Who’s there?” For this professor, Hamlet was an exercise in naive epistemology, a how-do-we-know-what-we-know, and he’s really going about it all wrong. As you say, he “was like a six year old in a man’s body” because he was trying to somehow prove, using pseudo-experiments, that what he thought he needed to do was what was correct and must be done.

      In any case, one of my favorite lines from “Shakespeare in the Bush” is the professor in England, who says who says Shakespeare “was a very English poet, and one can easily misinterpret the universal by misunderstanding the particular.”

  • What about the possibility that something like actual morality, as opposed to a capacity for morality, is built into the linguistic, *group* nature of human being and our constructions of reality. For instance, children have to believe what they’re told in order to learn language and become a member of a group, their society. (Maybe the sociolinguistic ‘disengagement’ we call autism is a kind of ‘social skepticism’ taking over hypermodern humans from early childhood!?) Does the way we learn language and grow into co-creators of the sociocultural worlds of our groups suggest that a kind of basic honesty/trust necessarily lies at the heart of “being-societal,” that a fundamental willingness to work with others is required for a “society” to endure? (Which begs the question what counts as endurance of a society…) And would such a “fundamental willingness to work with others” necessarily implicate something like a “treat others as you want to be treated” morality, or is that a step too far? (Or several steps around the bend?)

  • SEF

    There is a fabulous This American Life (ACT V) which explores intracultural interpretation of Hamlet. My class listens to that when we read the Bohannon. See: