I recently read a very interesting article about Shakespeare’s outsized influence on Western culture. Author Stephen Marche goes so far as to argue that Shakespeare was the most influential man in history. He’s overstating his case, it seems to me, but it’s a fascinating piece nevertheless. Among other interesting tidbits is the fact that Shakespeare is responsible for there being starlings in North America. In 1890, a Shakespeare enthusiast with an ornithological bent had a plan to introduce to America every species of bird mentioned in Shakespeare. The sixty starlings he released in Central Park liked America so well that they have now multiplied to 200 million. I’m not sure that really counts as evidence that Shakespeare was the most influential man who ever lived, but it’s mighty interesting.
And here’s a choice anecdote from the article:

There’s a famous anecdote, beloved by Shakespeare professors, about an anthropologist named Laura Bohannan who went to study the Tiv tribe in a remote corner of the Nigerian interior during the early Sixties. It was the rainy season in Benue, when the Tiv can’t work and can’t perform the rituals that anthropologists like Professor Bohannan study. Instead, the Tiv start drinking in the morning and they tell stories all day. Eventually they asked Bohannan for a story, and it just so happened that she had a copy of Hamlet with her. She decided to give it a try.

The questions began immediately, from the first scene. The Tiv could not understand why the ghost would come for Hamlet. It wouldn’t be the duty of a son to revenge his father, but the duty of his father’s brothers. They also heartily approved of Claudius’s marriage to Gertrude, which is a problem if you want the play to make sense. An old man commented to his companions: “I told you that if we knew more about Europeans, we would find they were really very like us. In our country also, the younger brother marries the elder brother’s widow and becomes the father of his children.” It took the anthropologist several attempts to untangle this knot of contention, but the whole play required a separate Tiv explanation. When Hamlet confronts his mother, the audience erupted in “shocked murmurs.” How could a son scold his mother? Hamlet, as written, was all too unbelievable. So the Tiv insisted on straightening it out for the anthropologist. Once they had corrected the play, though–explaining the chains of magic and revenge that fit the Tiv worldview–they enjoyed it. “Sometime you must tell us some more stories of your country,” one of the old men told Bohannan. “We, who are elders, will instruct you in their true meaning, so that when you return to your own land your elders will see that you have not been sitting in the bush, but among those who know things and who have taught you wisdom.”

There’s more where that came from in Stephen Marche’s article in The National Post. I commend it to you.

  • Guest
    7:46 PM, 23 May 2011

    I’m trying to figure out if I can use this principle to justify the hours I’ve spent with MST3K.

    • Anonymous
      11:58 AM, 24 May 2011

      Becca, you can just say you were sitting among robots who know things and have taught you wisdom.

  • Loren Warnemuende
    1:33 AM, 24 May 2011

    Fascinating. I couldn’t help but think about how this compares/contrasts to the impact of the Bible, particularly in relation to phrases and idioms we use (such as those so neatly put together in the KJV homage poem you posted last week). Shakespeare’s influence is monumental, but even he continually used biblical allusions in his works, and if one wants to understand Shakespeare better, one should really know one’s Bible. I wonder what the Tiv tribe would have done with biblical narratives!

  • Melinda Speece
    11:57 AM, 24 May 2011

    NPR’s This American Life did an episode about a group of prison inmates who performed Act V of Hamlet. One of them suggests that if Hamlet was set in prison it would all make a lot more sense. It is a great episode:http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/218/act-v

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