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Hamlet P’urhépecha (Arvide, 1990)

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Hamlet P’urhépecha

Lucas Gómez and Gilberto Gerónimo – Translators

Date: 1990

Type: stage

Director: Juan Carlos Arvide

Play: Hamlet

Language: P’urhepecha


The translation and performance of Hamlet in the P’urhepecha language—still used by the native pre-Columbian ethnic group of the same name from the mid-west of what is now Mexico—is a fascinating example of how Shakespeare’s works can find its place and meaning in a culture that is radically different from that which produced them. The works of William Shakespeare have been staged in Mexico since the early Nineteenth Century. For instance, Hamlet was first staged in 1821, the year Mexico finally became independent from Spain. However, even nowadays, Shakespearean productions in Mexico sometimes rely on translations made in Spain, forcing performers and audiences to deal with a specific variety of a shared language that is not entirely their own. This production, however, whose script was prepared from a Spanish translation of Shakespeare’s text, is not only perhaps the sole version of a Shakespeare play in a pre-Columbian native language from Latin America, but also a rare case where both European languages intervening can be described as fundamentally alien to the culture appropriating Shakespeare’s text.

The P’urhepecha people are the original inhabitants of the states of Michoacán and Guanajuato. In the pre-Columbian era, the P’urhepecha built a powerful empire that never fell under the Aztec rule. Even though there are only 200 000 speakers of the P’urhepecha language nowadays, its influence can be felt in the names of many towns and in some words used in these areas. The P’urhepecha heritage is strongly preserved in Michoacán not only by its native speakers in settlements throughout the region, but also in traditional cuisine, extraordinary arts and crafts, and celebrations such as the Day of the Dead.

Director Juan Carlos Arvide’s interest in staging a P’urhepecha version of the play began after listening to a native man called Tata Felipe (a Petamuti, a guardian of oral tradition) telling an ancient story about a young P’urhepecha prince who witnessed how his uncle murdered his father. The traitor then took over his brother’s wife and kingdom, but when the prince grew up, he killed his uncle and recovered his due of birth. Apart from the great similarities between the plot of Tata Felipe’s narrative and Hamlet, there are also remarkable differences: the P’urhepecha tale did not feature a ghost, and a P’urhepecha prince would have been expected to be level-headed and confident, not passionate and melancholic. Hence, ideological differences played a key role in the adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. Arvide and his team of translators, Gilberto Gerónimo and Lucas Gómez, decided to adapt Shakespeare’s play to the basics of the pre-Columbian narrative and its setting, including reproductions of costumes and weapons of the period. The characters were given P’urhepecha names: Hamlet became K’uiiusïnari, “the one with the eyes of the eagle”; Horatio was Kuamba, “the best friend”; Claudius was T’ipujpeti, “the traitor”; Gertrude became Ireri, “the great lady”; Polonius was Umbarpeti, “gossip”; Ophelia was Tsïpata, “blossoming flower”; and Laertes became Miotspentsti, “the vengeful one”. The group of players were transformed into Ch’anach’anandirecha, traditional P’urhepecha clowns, and the ghost was recast as a Pitsentsi, a restless, wandering spirit. The addition of a narrator, a Petamuti, the keeper of oral tradition, helped to frame the tale.

One of the most significant changes was to present Hamlet-K’uiiusïnari  not as a man who doubts, but as a man who must refrain his anger and wait for the right moment to act. The allusions to Hamlet’s death wishes were suppressed from certain monologues, because they were highly problematic in relation to the P’urhepecha view of Christian faith. Hamlet’s speech also became more concise. The play premiered in 1990, and Gómez and Gerónimo’s translation was published two years later. In the end, about 60% of the Shakespearean text was preserved in the printed play. Gómez and Gerónimo translated Hamlet from several Spanish versions. At present time, there doesn’t seem to be any P’urhepecha translators working from the English text.


Hamlet P’urhépecha

Hamlet P’urhépecha : Full Video

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  • Al Ell says:

    The language of the production is not Spanish—although the introduction is—but rather P’urhepecha, a native American language spoken in the neighborhood of Lake Pátzcuaro in the state of Michoacán, México.
    Anyone wishing more information may contact me ( I was part of the original crew.

    • Belinda Yung says:

      Thank you for the clarification. We hope to contact you directly to learn more about the details of this production.

  • Victor Manuel Lopez Ortega says:

    It would be amazing if this play had English subtitles.

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