The Cultural Influence on the “Universal” Message of Hamlet

Article: Shakespeare in the Bush | Natural History Magazine
In the article, “Shakespeare in the Bush,” Laura Bohannan describes her experience of describing the story of Hamlet to a West African tribe. She departed from Oxford, England fully expecting to share her take on the “universal” message of the classic Shakespearean tragedy. However, it is evident that the tribesmen’s views on the tale contain stark contrasts with those of Bohannan’s, but this does not signify that they had the incorrect interpretations of Hamlet. On the contrary, it is because of their unique culture that their version of Hamlet’s message can be considered valid.

Cultural family traditions played a significant role in the shaping of the tribal interpretation of Hamlet. One of the primary focuses of Hamlet is Claudius’ betrayal of his brother and incestuous marriage with Gertrude. In Bohannan’s European society, this would be considered as a horrendous trespass of all social and filial norms. However, in the eyes of the tribesmen this deed is viewed as a proper course of action. ” ‘In our country also,’ he added to me, ‘the younger brother marries the elder brother’s widow and becomes the father of his children’” (Bohannan, 4). This provides an excellent demonstration of the effects of family culture on the tribesmen’s interpretation of messages within Hamlet. This element of the story evidently represents a different role for the Africans because it portrays Claudius in a different, more positive light.

Superstitions present in the tribal culture also contributed to the validity of the tribesmen’s stance on the message of Hamlet. Throughout the article, Bohannan describes her difficulties translating the actual lines of the play into the language of the Africans. In addition to this communication barrier, the lines that Bohannan manages to get across are taken apart by the tribesmen as they insert their own superstitious beliefs into the story. For example, the ghost of Hamlet’s father is a subject under immense scrutiny by the tribesmen. The ghost, a foreign concept to the Tiv, is transformed into “an omen” and “a zombi,” terms that the tribe is familiar with. As witchcraft was a recognized happening within their society, many elements of this subject entered the tribal interpretation of Hamlet. Another excellent example of this is displayed in their opinions on the cause of Hamlet’s madness. To the Tiv people, madness is a phenomenon instilled in a person by a witch, not something that happens due to psychological problems. This interpretation greatly influences the plotline of the story and shows how the unique culture provides a basis for a different view on the actual message of Hamlet.

Through examination of Bohannan’s experiences with the Tiv people, it can be concluded that despite her previous misconception, a “universal” message from Hamlet is not present. The interpretation of the story greatly depends on the context of the culture it is being presented to, as shown in the case of the tribesmen. Although only receiving the tale for the first time, the tribesmen believe that they have identified the correct message of Hamlet: “‘You must tell us some more stories of your country. We, who are elders, will instruct you in their true meaning’” (Bohannan, 12). Therefore it can ultimately be determined that it is the culture that validates the Tiv tribesmen’s interpretation of Hamlet.

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