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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds Hamlet has been performed all over the world. Tonderai describes his experience of taking a production of Hamlet round southern Africa. He talks about the Shona people. They’re the largest ethnic group in Zimbabwe, but there are also Shona people in Mozambique and some other countries of southern Africa. Tonderai makes parallels between Shona culture and the story of Hamlet. Hamlet’s father didn’t die naturally but was murdered. this could be considered a bad death. In Shona culture, it’s believed that a person who has died a bad death cannot truly rest in peace. And so for Shona people, it makes perfect sense for Hamlet’s father to come back as it ghost to tell his son to avenge his death.

Skip to 1 minute and 2 seconds Watch Tonderai talking about this and listen now for another parallel he makes between Zimbabwean culture and the play. So there are many different tribes in Zimbabwe, and the Shona people are the largest. And their beliefs about death are very, very specific. A bad death is described as something that has happened to the deceased that someone else with evil intent or other intent, well, evil intent, has done to cause that death. And in Hamlet, you have a King who has been killed by his brother so that the brother can take over the kingdom. And that is a bad death, because no one has a right in Shona culture to take another person’s life.

Skip to 1 minute and 53 seconds And it’s particularly a bad death, because until that has been set right, until this person has actually been punished for what he has done, the other person cannot rest well. And actually in Hamlet, the ghost does say he cannot rest in peace until his death has been revenged. In Shona culture, it’s just the same. So that the dead person cannot become an ancestor if there’s unfinished business, which is that the person who’s made him die has to be punished. And one of the things I find fascinating about Hamlet is how he’s viewed as someone who takes too long to do what he does. Because I think he takes just the right amount of time.

Skip to 2 minutes and 40 seconds Because about a third of us, a third of Zimbabweans, live outside of Zimbabwe because of many different reasons. And so we often find young men coming back home at the death of a parent at the death of a grandmother, because they study elsewhere. We work elsewhere. We rely on being outside of Zimbabwe to make a living and to contribute to our families. So when you come back, it is highly inappropriate to do anything too quickly. Because you need to know what has been happening when you were not there. And certainly, that’s my experience– going back to Zimbabwe and having to find out exactly how my father died. And this has happened to me.

Skip to 3 minutes and 28 seconds What happened– hearing the story of what happened. And who was there, and what then happened? And how can I, as a son, start to put things together so to pay off those people, perhaps, who looked after him or to do the work around his death. So I think when Hamlet comes back to Denmark and sees the ghost of the Father and then has to really think– I mean, he has to be methodical– about what happened, what exactly happened. He has to try and understand it before he does anything else. And so the fact that in the Western world, his taking off the time is viewed as a problem.

Skip to 4 minutes and 10 seconds In fact, I’ve had many actors say, why doesn’t Hamlet just kill his uncle? And my thought as a Zimbabwean person, as a person, is to say he has to find out what happened. And in Hamlet, of course, the way he finds out, and how he finds out, and when he finds out, and then how you then goes about setting things right is what makes the play so beautiful, I think. And I think I have that particular view of it because of my background and where I come from.

Hamlet and Shona culture

Anthony and Tonderai talk about how the Shona people of southern Africa interpret Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet.

  • “Why doesnʼt Hamlet just kill his uncle?” Do you think Hamlet acts too slowly?
  • What do you learn about the Shona idea of a ‘bad death’ that Tonderai describes?
  • How do you think Hamlet’s actions would be seen in your culture?

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Exploring English: Shakespeare

British Council