Just before I left Oxford for the Tiv in West Africa, conversation turned to the season at Stratford. “You Americans,” said a friend, “often have difficulty with Shakespeare. He was, after all, a very English poet, and one can easily misinterpret the universal by misunderstanding the particular.”
I protested that human nature is pretty much the same the whole world over; at least the general plot and motivation of the greater tragedies would always be clear—everywhere—although some details of custom might have to be explained and difficulties of translation might produce other slight changes. (...)
It was my second field trip to that African tribe, and I thought myself ready to live in one of its remote sections—an area difficult to cross even on foot. I eventually settled on the hillock of a very knowledgeable old man, the head of a homestead of some hundred and forty people, all of whom were either his close relatives or their wives and children. Like the other elders of the vicinity, the old man spent most of his time performing ceremonies seldom seen these days in the more accessible parts of the tribe.(...)
This morning they wanted to hear a story while they drank. They threatened to tell me no more stories until I told them one of mine. Finally, the old man promised that no one would criticize my style, “for we know you are struggling with our language.” “But,” put in one of the elders, “you must explain what we do not understand, as we do when we tell you our stories.” Realizing that here was my chance to prove Hamlet universally intelligible, I agreed.
The old man handed me some more beer to help me on with my storytelling. Men filled their long wooden pipes and knocked coals from the fire to place in the pipe bowls; then, puffing contentedly, they sat back to listen. I began in the proper style, “Not yesterday, not yesterday, but long ago, a thing occurred. One night three men were keeping watch outside the homestead of the great chief, when suddenly they saw the former chief approach them.”
“Why was he no longer their chief?”
“He was dead,” I explained. “That is why they were troubled and afraid when they saw him.”
“Impossible,” began one of the elders, handing his pipe on to his neighbor, who interrupted, “Of course it wasn’t the dead chief. It was an omen sent by a witch. Go on.” (...)
Determined to save what I could of the mother motif, I took a deep breath and began again. “The son Hamlet was very sad because his mother had married again so quickly. There was no need for her to do so, and it is our custom for a widow not to go to her next husband until she has mourned for two years.”
“Two years is too long,” objected the wife, who had appeared with the old man’s battered goatskin bag. “Who will hoe your farms for you while you have no husband?”
“Hamlet,” I retorted, without thinking, “was old enough to hoe his mother’s farms himself. There was no need for her to remarry.” No one looked convinced. I gave up. “His mother and the great chief told Hamlet not to be sad, for the great chief himself would be a father to Hamlet. Furthermore, Hamlet would be the next chief: therefore he must stay to learn the things of a chief. Hamlet agreed to remain, and all the rest went off to drink beer.”
While I paused, perplexed at how to render Hamlet’s disgusted soliloquy to an audience convinced that Claudius and Gertrude had behaved in the best possible manner, one of the younger men asked me who had married the other wives of the dead chief.
“He had no other wives,” I told him. (...)
“Before Hamlet could return, Laertes came back for his father’s funeral. The great chief told him Hamlet had killed Polonius. Laertes swore to kill Hamlet because of this, and because his sister Ophelia, hearing her father had been killed by the man she loved, went mad and drowned in the river.”
“Have you already forgotten what we told you?” The old man was reproachful. “One cannot take vengeance on a madman; Hamlet killed Polonius in his madness. As for the girl, she not only went mad, she was drowned. Only witches can make people drown. Water itself can’t hurt anything. It is merely something one drinks and bathes in.”
I began to get cross. “If you don’t like the story, I’ll stop.”
The old man made soothing noises and himself poured me some more beer. “You tell the story well, and we are listening. But it is clear that the elders of your country have never told you what the story really means. No, don’t interrupt! We believe you when you say your marriage customs are different, or your clothes and weapons. But people are the same everywhere; therefore, there are always witches and it is we, the elders, who know how witches work. We told you it was the great chief who wished to kill Hamlet, and now your own words have proved us right. Who were Ophelia’s male relatives?”
“There were only her father and her brother.” Hamlet was clearly out of my hands.
“There must have been many more; this also you must ask of your elders when you get back to your country. From what you tell us, since Polonius was dead, it must have been Laertes who killed Ophelia, although I do not see the reason for it.”
We had emptied one pot of beer, and the old men argued the point with slightly tipsy interest. Finally one of them demanded of me, “What did the servant of Polonius say on his return?”
With difficulty I recollected Reynaldo and his mission. “I don’t think he did return before Polonius was killed.”
“Listen,” said the elder, “and I will tell you how it was and how your story will go, then you may tell me if I am right. Polonius knew his son would get into trouble, and so he did. He had many fines to pay for fighting, and debts from gambling. But he had only two ways of getting money quickly. One was to marry off his sister at once, but it is difficult to find a man who will marry a woman desired by the son of a chief. For if the chief’s heir commits adultery with your wife, what can you do? Only a fool calls a case against a man who will someday be his judge. Therefore Laertes had to take the second way: he killed his sister by witchcraft, drowning her so he could secretly sell her body to the witches.”
I raised an objection. “They found her body and buried it. Indeed Laertes jumped into the grave to see his sister once more—so, you see, the body was truly there. Hamlet, who had just come back, jumped in after him.”
“What did I tell you?” The elder appealed to the others. “Laertes was up to no good with his sister’s body. Hamlet prevented him, because the chief’s heir, like a chief, does not wish any other man to grow rich and powerful. Laertes would be angry, because he would have killed his sister without benefit to himself. In our country he would try to kill Hamlet for that reason. Is this not what happened?”
“More or less,” I admitted. “When the great chief found Hamlet was still alive, he encouraged Laertes to try to kill Hamlet and arranged a fight with machetes between them. In the fight both the young men were wounded to death. Hamlet’s mother drank the poisoned beer that the chief meant for Hamlet in case he won the fight. When he saw his mother die of poison, Hamlet, dying, managed to kill his father’s brother with his machete.”
“You see, I was right!” exclaimed the elder.
“That was a very good story,” added the old man, “and you told it with very few mistakes.” There was just one more error, at the very end. The poison Hamlet’s mother drank was obviously meant for the survivor of the fight, whichever it was. If Laertes had won, the great chief would have poisoned him, for no one would know that he arranged Hamlet’s death. Then, too, he need not fear Laertes’ witchcraft; it takes a strong heart to kill one’s only sister by witchcraft.
“Sometime,” concluded the old man, gathering his ragged toga about him, “you must tell us some more stories of your country. 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.”
Friday, May 15, 2015
Publicada por Miguel Madeira em 15:04