Shakespeare in the Bush:
This is the title of a perfectly wonderful piece of writing that I reread recently.  It was by Laura Bohannan and published in the magazine Natural History published by the Washington museum of that name.  I have always enjoyed that museum enormously.  It was published August – September 1966 and describes an anthropologist reading “Hamlet” to people of the Tiv tribe of West Africa.  You can look it up at

If you have never read it, do so now.  Do come back, but the piece is so brilliant I do not want to spoil it for you.

You’re back?  Good.

I have said more than once that the prejudice against marrying cousins is so deep and so persistent that I suspect some dastardly mechanism on the part of Mother Nature guiding us toward destruction.  But maybe not. 

Many years ago I was chatting with a friend and as an example of something I was describing I mentioned “Hamlet.”  He said, “I have a problem with that play.  I don’t believe in ghosts.”

I said, “It’s just a story.  I don’t believe in Hamlet.”

He laughed to acknowledge that I was clever but then directed the conversation away from the play. 

Hamlet, of course, was a fictional prince of Denmark who was confronted by the ghost of his father screaming for revenge.

Most of my favorite Shakespeare plays bring in a ghost or a spirit or something rather supernatural for the sake of atmosphere.  But in “Hamlet,” the Bard outdid himself.  My friend found the whole idea so terrifying that he rejected it at the root.

Bohannan received much the same treatment from the Tiv.  But since the occasion was a rainy season when they were all cooped up for months with nothing to do but drink beer, the Tiv elders did not want to stop the story.  But they persisted in picking it apart, insisting that the story as told could not possibly have happened.  I think that like my friend found, it was just too horrible to contemplate.  In order for this to be true, I must assume that the article “Shakespeare in the Bush” is an edited version of a conversation or more than one conversation.  The challenges probably skipped back and forth.  But that is only my guess. 

It seems evident that they like her, and indeed the story is warm and tenderhearted throughout.  Humor is largely the perception of two interpretations of something at the same time, and since the Tiv and the anthropologist persistently interpret the play differently the result is some of the riches humor I know of.  And the humor seems not to be lost on the people involved.  Indeed the Tiv seem to be teasing her. 

Since the story has nothing at all to do with reproduction, I cannot suggest any reason why nature should have tampered with our minds in the matter.  It’s just that we reject certain things normally.  When I talk about the prejudice against cousin marriages I simply get an exaggerated version of a normal behavior. 

Of course there are differences between this and “Hamlet.”  “Hamlet” is fiction; this is not.  And this is far more horrible.

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