Acknowledging Things of Darkness: Postcolonial Criticism of The Tempest

Aug 11, 2014 |  Duke Pesta

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Acknowledging Things of Darkness: Postcolonial Criticism of The Tempest

Aug 11, 2014 | 

Duke Pesta

This piece originally appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Academic Questions (Volume 27, Number 3).

Duke Pesta is associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. He is associate editor of Milton Quarterly
 

Over the last forty years, postcolonial criticism has become a dominant mode of critical discourse for the profession of literature and Renaissance studies in particular, with The Tempest serving as terminus a quo for many such discussions across historical periods and academic disciplines.[1] During this time—not counting courses in Shakespeare, Renaissance drama, or early modern literature—The Tempest has been taught in English departments at the undergraduate or graduate level in freshman seminars; surveys of Great Books; capstone courses; writing and composition courses; seminars on literary theory, Marxism, postcolonialism, and race, gender, queer theory; early American literature and transatlantic literature courses; surveys of American literature; and courses on Romanticism, modernism, modern drama, Third World literatures, postmodernism, Chicano/a literatures, Afro-Caribbean literatures, and diaspora literatures. Outside English departments, the play has been taught in such varied disciplines as African American studies, American studies, anthropology, comparative literature, cultural studies, education, environmental studies, film studies, history, linguistics, modern languages, Native American studies, oppression studies, peace studies, philosophy, political science, psychology, religious studies, sociology, theater, and women’s studies.

Surely no other work of literature has been as assigned, deconstructed, interdisciplinized, revisioned, trivialized, and ventriloquized as The Tempest. Overwhelmingly, those who have included a reading of The Tempest in their various courses in their various disciplines have no formal training in Shakespeare or understanding of Renaissance poetics, and the play is seldom contextualized in the broader Jacobean and Renaissance culture from which it emerged.[2] Shakespeare’s play has become a shibboleth and his Caliban an avatar, empty signifiers that represent the easiest, most recognizable, and least complicated example of all that Western colonialism aspired to or indeed became. Postcolonial assumptions about the play are so reflexive as to deracinate The Tempest, causing it to vanish into thin air, leaving not a rack behind. Once the initial argument evolved that The Tempest was primarily and consciously a play about colonialism, the premise was accepted with little or no reservation. And so all this begs the question, is The Tempest about colonialism or not?[3]

Tempest Agonistes

From the outset, it is clear the action takes place on an island somewhere in the Mediterranean, the most familiar body of water in Europe and a defining boundary for Western culture for over two thousand years by the time Shakespeare wrote The Tempest. Although events take place entirely on the island, the wedding of Alonso’s daughter in Carthage triggers the movement, the unjust banishment of Prospero from Milan fuels the plot, and the narrow sea route between Milan and Carthage delimits the scope of action. It is puzzling why so little postcolonial criticism focuses on the colonization of Africa, though non-Western critics of the early twentieth century suggest the link.[4] Even if we assume the island is North African rather than European, the suggestion of African colonization remains tenuous at best. After all, North Africa was annexed by Rome, supplied the West with emperors, produced no less a figure than Augustine, and was Christianized at an early date before being colonized by Islam. The weak insinuation of African colonization nevertheless makes more sense than to link the island to the New World, along with the corresponding insistence that Caliban is Native American.[5]

Two of Shakespeare’s primary sources—Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals” and accounts of the voyage of the Sea Venture—relate events that take place in the New World. Plausibly, this connection might insinuate a link between The Tempest and the Americas, though it is appropriate to ask why, given the New World material in his sources, Shakespeare so meticulously sets his play in the Mediterranean. This is not to say New World material plays no part in The Tempest, but merely that it is unlikely so adept a reader of source material would construct one of his few original plots in an entirely European context if New World colonialism was a driving issue. The second of these sources, the famous voyage, shipwreck, and reappearance of the Sea Venture, offers some interesting perspectives on Shakespeare’s possible intentions when adapting the story.[6]

In June 1609, nine vessels under command of George Somers left England for Virginia. The following month a storm separated the Sea Venture from the fleet, and three days later it was wrecked on an island in the Bermudas. During their nine months on the uninhabited island, the passengers experienced a number of seemingly miraculous happenings—providential circumstances transmuted in The Tempest—while they constructed two new pinnaces from the remains of the ship. The miracle of their subsequent reappearance at the colony caused a sensation in London, and various accounts of the ordeal were incorporated by Shakespeare, who was drawn to the providential aspects of the story, grasping the dramatic potential of a “devil’s” island turned unexpected paradise. 

It is also telling that Shakespeare’s island, like its Bermudan counterpart, is uninhabited and cannot be colonized in the sinister sense of cultural and linguistic dominance. There are no natives of this Bermuda island, no Bermudan culture or language for Europeans to exploit. This matters, for Caliban is not indigenous to the island like the natives encountered by colonists in Virginia are indigenous to the New World. Caliban’s mother is a North African from “Argier.” Accused of witchcraft by other Africans, she conceived Caliban in Algeria with a “devil.” Caliban has no “people” on the island, he is king of no one, and he seeks to rape Miranda to establish progeny in the first place. There is no “Calibanic culture” here: no history or civilization or language. In order for there to be language in any meaningful sense, someone would have had to teach it to Caliban and be there to speak it with him, passing it on as a cultural legacy binding him to his culture and people. Caliban admits the absence of these things to Prospero in a central passage: “you taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is I know how to curse.”[7] It is not Prospero’s language that Caliban acknowledges receiving, but language itself. Before Prospero, Caliban was without language, unlike Europeans, Algerians, or Native Americans.

In fact, the only actual “Indian” within a thousand miles of the island in The Tempest is the dead one alluded to in Trinculo’s satiric observation about the gawking curiosity of Europeans: “When they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian” (2.2.31–33). But this is clearly a lament on the inability of Europeans to live up to Christian ideals, not a colonialist wish for more dead Indians. Coming across the huddled Caliban obscured under his “gabardine,” Trinculo assumes it “an islander” struck down by a “thunderbolt” (2.2.36–37). But once he gets a look at the deformed, fish-like Caliban, he refers to him as “monster,” “mooncalf,” “puppy-headed monster,” “most scurvy monster,” “a very weak monster” (2.2). Stephano and Trinculo never refer to him as anything but monster, and when revealed to the assembled company at the play’s end, he is thought no more than “plain fish” (5.1.269).[8]

Not only are no indigenous people on the island, there is very little of the colonizing spirit in those Europeans who find themselves stranded there. Not one of them came to the island voluntarily. They did not storm it in search of conquest, as might have Greeks, Persians, Romans, Vikings, Turks, or Conquistadors. Every human character arrived by accident, and all are eager to return to Italy at the earliest opportunity. When the Europeans finally depart, they leave no colonists, settlements, or plantations behind. They appropriate no resources and take no prisoners. They rename no lands after themselves, plant no flags, and cede no territories to their heirs. Given the bitterly contested geography of Europe, one might think an island discovered in the Mediterranean after so many centuries would generate at least a spark of territorial interest, however barren. Yet none of these evils are manifested, though this reality is never acknowledged in postcolonial readings of the play.

What actual tendency toward colonialism appears in the play comes not from Prospero, nor the greedy Alonso, nor even those scheming climbers Sebastian and Antonio, but rather from Caliban himself, in league with the halfwit jester Trinculo and the drunken butler Stephano. Remarkably, Caliban conceives and orchestrates the hapless conspiracy to murder Prospero, couching his vengeful design in the desire to play kingmaker and establish Stephano as regent. From this perspective, Caliban is not victim of colonialism, but the island’s original and only colonist and would-be colonizer. Nor are our European buffoons interested in the plot until Caliban titillates Stephano by describing Miranda’s beauty—thus “native” Caliban’s ambition preys upon Stephano’s lust, making him confederate. What a reversal of stereotypes this postcolonial reading enables: the lusty, drunken, and slothful European corrupted by the ambitious and power-hungry Native American, as disenfranchised, lower-class Europeans are recruited to acts of colonization and rape by the putative representative of native cultures everywhere.

Neither racist example of native minstrelsy nor postmodern indictment of colonialism, the Caliban of this farcical subplot is one of the beauties of Shakespeare’s play, a tongue-in-cheek look at various sinful pretentions and comic relief from the serious issues of power, revenge, and forgiveness that are the dominant themes. One of the most damaging critical misrepresentations is this willful misreading of genre. The Tempest is a Shakespearean romance, a unique subclassification of classical and European Romance, infused with all expectations of the genre: stylized characters, fantastical locales, magic, miraculous happenings, strange creatures, and love-at-first-sight encounters. In their reduction of all manner of writing—from the mundanely prosaic to the rhapsodically poetic—to mere “text,” postcolonial critics liberate themselves from limitations that would restrain their wildest readings, ground them in the real context of the play, and perhaps restore their sense of humor and wonder. For these critics, it is as if the resolution of the comic subplot—foiling the mock-colonialist usurpation of the island by the three stooges and leaving them chin high in a pool of horse piss—bespeaks a cruel precursor of waterboarding rather than a benign and uproariously appropriate “punishment” for so laughable a folly.

But The Tempest is also a Christian romance, resonant with images of perdition and paradise, sin and redemption, grace and resurrection. Rather than ignore this context, which is woven into the fabric of the play’s language and imagery, postcolonial critics actively undermine the Christian ontologies of Renaissance theology and philosophy. Denying Renaissance culture the unique expression of its fears, dreams, and mythologies, they simultaneously reinscribe it with postmodern, neurotic, skeptical, and politically-driven cultural attitudes and assumptions. Many in Shakespeare’s culture believed individuals could evolve or devolve on the Great Chain of Being, rising to the level of angels or wallowing in the brutishness of beasts through exemplary virtue or excessive vice. The postcolonial critic, denying ontological mobility and eschewing hierarchy as repressive, collapses this understanding, methodically plotting along a hermeneutical line that levels distinction. Caliban, Ariel, Setebos, and the spirits under Prospero’s sway are entirely human and their reality is as temporally bound as our own. Meredith Anne Skura describes the process: “The recent criticism [of The Tempest] not only flattens the text into the mould of colonialist discourse and eliminates what is characteristically ‘Shakespearean’ in order to foreground what is ‘colonialist,’ but is also—paradoxically—in danger of taking the play further from the particular historical situation of England in 1611.”[9]

In the anachronistic postcolonial readings  then, Caliban can only be viewed in the context of human history and material identity, despite a lineage and physical reality that reveals him ontologically part human and part something else. Little wonder critics such as Stephen Greenblatt are perplexed and dissatisfied with the ending of The Tempest, for there is no way outside of Christian ontology to make sense of the fairytale ending that is Caliban’s epiphany, his decision to “be wise hereafter / And seek for grace” (5.1.298–99).[10]

What information we have from the culture reinforces that Caliban was not viewed as postcolonial critics represent him. Meredith Anne Skura explains:

Evidence for the play’s original reception is of course extraordinarily difficult to find, but in the two nearly contemporaneous responses to Caliban that we do know about, the evidence for a colonialist response is at best ambiguous. In Bartholomew Fair (1614) Jonson refers scornfully to a “servant-monster,” and the Folio identifies Caliban as a “salvage and deformed slave” in the cast list. Both “monster” and “salvage” are firmly rooted in the discourse of Old World wild men….In other words, these two seventeenth-century responses tend to invoke the universal and not the particular implications of Caliban’s condition.[11]

In assessing these examples as “at best ambiguous,” Skura is needlessly generous to the postcolonial argument. Not only are Shakespeare’s  references traceable to medieval notions of the Wild Man, there is no reason whatsoever to associate the words “monster,” “savage,” or even “slave” specifically with the colonial aspirations of Jacobean England. To the best of our knowledge, Shakespeare’s audience viewed Caliban as an archetype representing a host of mythic ideas about the primordial, monstrous, and sinful, not as colonized Native American. As Alden T. Vaughan remarks: “If Shakespeare, however obliquely, meant Caliban to personify America’s natives, his intention apparently miscarried almost completely.”[12]

The postmodern, antimetaphysical bias that razes the levels of being available to Renaissance culture seldom extends to Ariel, a much more logical choice to play the superimposed role of colonized victim: his presence on the island predates Caliban’s arrival, making him the earliest known inhabitant. Ariel is also intelligent, loyal, innocent, and capable of the best attributes of human sympathy and the desire for justice. It is Ariel who actually awakens mercy in Prospero toward the sinful characters, and when Prospero’s rage against the conspirators storms most intently, Ariel soothes it: “Your charm so strongly works ’em / That if you now beheld them your affections / Would become tender” (5.1.16–18).

If, as so much postcolonial criticism suggests, Shakespeare intended to romanticize a native, why is Ariel never seriously considered? Despite his invisibility to the critics, he is all too real to the characters he alternately goads and chastens. Ariel’s high ontological status is overt and irreducible. He is unequivocally not human, yet working sympathetically toward the same ends as Prospero. When Prospero questions Ariel about the admonition that he should become tender in his affections toward his enemies, Ariel adds, “Mine would, sir, were I human” (5.1.20). Like Caliban, Ariel is never referred to as human, not by himself or by any character he encounters. And unlike Caliban, Ariel clearly possessed language, culture, and associate spirits before Prospero freed him from the torment of the tree. As a result of this ontological inevitability, Ariel cannot be coopted, reduced, or reassigned as colonized by any but the most vigorously anachronistic postcolonial arguments.

However easy it might be to refute the argument that Ariel is a victim of colonial cruelty, such a reading is infinitely more plausible than one that seeks to establish Caliban as anticolonialist hero. In postcolonial readings, Prospero is undisputedly the primary villain of the play, and yet very little is made of the relationship between Prospero and Ariel along colonial lines. It is true that once Prospero liberated Ariel from the tree, he required Ariel’s services for a determined length of time as consequence of that liberation. But then he freed Ariel to the winds ahead of schedule, without subsequent entanglements. And yes, Ariel grumbled initially about the length of his service, but quickly recanted when reminded of the torment endured at the hands of Sycorax. Further, Ariel seems genuinely attached to Prospero, shares his vision of justice, and in expectation of freedom is correspondent to command while doing his spriting gently. Take the play’s ontological parameters seriously, and the premise that Ariel is native islander holds no validity: he is clearly a spirit, a creature of wind not bound by body or location, and has no material interest in the island.             

To entertain a postcolonial reading that replaces Caliban with Ariel, affording him privileged subaltern status, poses another conundrum of which postcolonial critics want no part. If Ariel is human native and not ethereal spirit, then it is not Prospero but the Algerian Sycorax and her African confederates—by default Setebos and the other malevolent spirits must be human, too—who colonize, torture, and enslave Ariel:

And, for thou wast a spirit too delicate
To act her earthy and abhorred commands,
Refusing her grand hests, she did confine thee,
By help of her more potent ministers
And in her most unmitigable rage,
Into a cloven pine, within which rift
Imprisoned thou didst painfully remain
A dozen years… (1.2.274–81)

This is as concise and graphic a description of colonization as appears in Renaissance drama, replete with cultural arrogance, extortion, torture, and unjust imprisonment. From this perspective, the colonization is a work of North African infamy, requiring perhaps a supplemental poetics of Occidentalism, not Orientalism. And it is the European Prospero who redresses colonial evil, freeing Ariel, abandoning the island, and unconditionally renouncing all claims over its inhabitants. Of course, such an extended reading strategy is unappealing to our postcolonial critics, whose ideological imperatives inhibit them from exploring colonialism outside Western culture.

Prospero and Posterity

This brings us to Prospero, for his unjust demotion must follow the unwarranted elevation of Caliban as night follows day. Far from abetting colonialism, Prospero—himself a victim of usurpation, dispossession, and banishment, cast upon the island as a refugee—frees Ariel from colonialist torment inflicted by Sycorax, then thwarts the mock-colonialist conspiracy of Caliban. In many respects, Prospero is the ultimate colonialist stereotype: the wizened, gray-bearded autocrat—domineering, crafty, prudish and priggish, more taciturn and British than genial and Italian—a cross between Colonel Mustard and Gandalf in short pants and pith helmet examining the troops before the battle of Plassey. For all the wishful thinking invested in the romantic reimagining of Caliban, recasting Prospero as villain is as important for postcolonial approaches to The Tempest, since Prospero fits the negative stereotypes of colonizer more easily than Caliban can be reclaimed as sympathetic native. 

However, although brusque, Prospero is benevolent, his considerable power cloaked in mercy and restraint. Caliban does not deny the humane care he first received from Prospero and Miranda, and concedes his attempted rape brought about the change in relations. We must remember that Prospero restricts the freedoms of Caliban only after he seeks to ravish Miranda: 

Thou most lying slave,

Whom stripes may move, not kindness! I have used thee,

Filth as thou art, with humane care, and lodged thee

In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate

The honor of my child. (1.2.347–51)

Harsh words, but hardly surprising, given Caliban’s unrepentance. Quick to concoct elaborate backstory and ahistorical justifications indemnifying Caliban from the assault, postcolonial critics are remarkably unimaginative when it comes to the unmentioned specifics of the attempted rape. Assuming Prospero foiled the attack, is it not worthwhile to pause and imagine the scene? A father comes upon his daughter under assault, the perpetrator that strange, demi-human creature he brought to live in the cell alongside her. This is the recompense for the care lavished on the brute?

            Given Prospero’s powers, manifested through the host of potent spirit ministers, the question is not Prospero’s intemperate language, but rather why he did not at once dispatch the creature. To Miranda’s remark that Caliban is “a villain…I do not love to look on,” Prospero responds,

But, as ’tis,

We cannot miss him. He does make our fire,

Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices

That profit us. (1.2.313–16)

Considering the tasks undertaken for Prospero by spirits—not least of which are to “flame amazement” and tote a wooden banquet table across the island—it strains credulity to think Caliban’s meager skills as fire-starter and menial woodman require keeping such a dangerous entity so close. As Caliban concedes, Prospero has mastered the island’s secrets, and his alliance with Ariel ensures his comfort and protection. So why keep Caliban alive? As with all the sinful characters, Prospero keeps them close with the Christian objective of improving them through restraint, abnegation, and redemptive suffering—a motive he is not at liberty to divulge even to Miranda, who, although virtuous, must also undergo moral refinement.

What does Caliban suffer that comes close to torture or genuine slavery? When Prospero first summons Caliban, he grumbles, curses, and delays. For a slave, he is poorly trained, not at all cowed before his master. The exasperated Prospero can only spur Caliban with threats:

 

For this, be sure, thou shalt have cramps,

Side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up. Urchins

Shall forth at vast of night that they may work

All exercise on thee. Thou shalt be pinched

As thick as honeycomb, each pinch more stinging

Than bees that made ’em. (1.2.328–33)

 

In addition to such threats there are others delineated by Caliban: cramps and aches, spirits disguised as apes and hedgehogs that “mow and chatter,” then “bite” and “lie tumbling in [his] barefoot way” (2.2.10–12). Sometimes Caliban is “wound with adders, who with cloven tongues / Do hiss [him] into madness” (2.2.9–14). And yet, these spirits at other times serenade Caliban with “Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not” (3.2.138), followed with voices,

 

That, if I then had waked after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open and show riches

Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked

I cried to dream again. (3.2.141–45)

 

The spirits that tweak and chasten him are those that elevate his senses and “wind him about” with music and poetry in an effort to develop his more human attributes, the better part of his legacy from his maternal line (3.2.136–44). As a result of Prospero’s ongoing compassion and tutelage, Caliban learns more than mere cursing: he speaks some of the play’s most poignant poetry.

Prospero does not treat Caliban with the viciousness expected of a brutal colonizer, nor does he react to the attempted rape with anything like the violence one would anticipate, given his portrayal in postcolonial criticism. Caliban is kept close not because as slave labor he is invaluable to some never-mentioned colonialist project, but because Prospero recognizes a Christian obligation to the creature, that thing of darkness he acknowledges his. This is most obvious at the play’s end, when Caliban the would-be rapist adds attempted murder to his rap sheet. When brought before the company and exposed as unequivocally guilty of attempting two heinous capital crimes, Prospero’s rough justice extends no further than ordering Caliban to clean his room. This is the stuff of vexed yet tender-hearted fathers—not remorseless colonizers.

Postcolonial critics are also uninterested in Prospero’s treatment of Ferdinand, the foil to Caliban’s grumbling excesses. Ferdinand has no acquaintance with hard labor, nor as prince does he know subservience, hunger, or privation. Eager to have Ferdinand as son-in-law, Prospero nevertheless exposes him to the same drudgery that signifies Caliban’s “slavery”:  bringing in wood. Caliban’s first contentious words in the play—“There’s wood enough within” (1.2.318)—foreshadow Ferdinand’s humble acceptance of his ordeal as “patient log-man” (3.1.67). Along the way, Ferdinand—who never sought to rape or murder anyone—is like Caliban led astray by spirits, controlled, berated harshly, accused of treason, manacled, and overpowered by Prospero. This parallel treatment serves to expose differences not among nations and cultures, but in individual hearts and human natures. 

The Tempest and Intercultural Exchange

Despite The Tempest’s fairytale ending, Shakespeare understands that such utopian visions cannot be for sinful creatures of flesh and blood living in a fallen world. This is why the play takes place on a mythical island in the Mediterranean, and not in the Bermudas. Shakespeare is not writing about New World wonders, marvelous possessions, or greener Edenic pastures overseas, however much postcolonial critics force such readings. Rather, the miraculous reconciliation the play provides can exist only on an enchanted island: one that will vanish like an insubstantial pageant when the company returns to human civilization.

Shakespeare seems immune to idealistic utopian daydreaming that fueled destructive colonial excursions, voyages seeking desired for but never discovered cities of gold and fountains of youth in the pristine New World. Shakespeare’s pragmatic rejection of utopianism can be viewed in the mockery of Gonzalo’s self-contradicting commune, in the antiromantic characterization of Caliban, and in Prospero’s cynical response to Miranda’s exclamation at seeing a mass of humanity assembled for the first time at the play’s end: “Oh, brave new world / That has such people in’t!” (5.1.185–86). Prospero’s jarring reply—“’Tis new to thee” (5.1.187)—undercuts the idea that humanity can remain in a state of grace, and reminds us that any colonizing vision that seeks heaven on earth is ultimately doomed to disillusion.

 

Image: public domain


[1]The tradition viewing The Tempest through colonialist lenses has a long history outside the West, dating to the nineteenth century. Writers from the Caribbean, Africa, and Central and South America have associated the play with the gamut of evils linked to colonialism. For a sampling of this criticism, see Emir Rodríguez Monegal, “The Metamorphoses of Caliban,” Diacritics 7, no. 3 (Fall 1977): 78–83; Richard Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez: An Autobiography (Boston: David R. Godine, 1982); Roberto Fernández Retamar, Caliban and Other Essays, trans. Edward Baker (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989); Roberta Fernández, “(Re)vision of an American Journey,” in In Other Words: Literature by Latinas of the United States, ed. Roberta Fernández (Houston, TX: Arte Publico Press, 1994), 282–98; and Antonio C. Márquez, “Voices of Caliban: From Curse to Discourse,” Confluencia: Revista Hispánica de Cultura y Literatura 13, no. 1 (1997): 158–69.

[2]Most of these courses have nothing to do with Renaissance culture or Shakespeare, and make no effort to be careful or fair in appropriating The Tempest to their particular subject matter. Typically, other academic disciplines—and literary subspecialties within English departments—cherry pick The Tempest to make tendentious points about colonialism today.

[3]Postcolonial interpretations of The Tempest are almost always compulsively literalist, although they do not read the play literally on its terms, allowing it to mean what it says or establish its own poetic and cultural hermeneutics. Rather, they project upon the Renaissance a series of materialist assumptions, ways of seeing the world that ultimately reveal more about the interpreters than they do The Tempest.

[4]For a rare exception, see Thomas Cartelli, “Prospero in Africa: The Tempest as Colonial Text and Pretext,” in Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, ed. Jean Howard and Marion O’Conner (New York: Methuen, 1987), 99–115.

[5]Postcolonial critics generally agree about the subaltern status of Caliban and his American origins. For the evolution of this thinking among Western scholars, see Leo Marx, “Shakespeare’s American Fable,” in The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 34–72; Leslie A. Fiedler, The Stranger in Shakespeare (New York: Stein and Day, 1972); Terence Hawkes, Shakespeare’s Talking Animals: Language and Drama in Society (London: Edward Arnold, 1973); Ronald T. Takaki, Iron Cages: Race and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), 11–13; Francis Barker and Peter Hulme, “Nymphs and Reapers Heavily Vanish: The Discursive Con-Texts of The Tempest,” in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (London: Methuen, 1985), 191–205; Peter Hulme, Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492–1797 (London: Methuen, 1986), 89–134; Stephen Orgel, “Shakespeare and the Cannibals,” in Cannibals, Witches, and Divorce: Estranging the Renaissance, ed. Marjorie Garber (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 40–66; and Fredric Jameson, “Modernism and Imperialism,” in Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, and Edward W. Said, Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature, intro. Seamus Deane (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), 43–66, reprinted from Field Day Pamphlet, 14 (Lawrence Hill Derry, Northern Ireland: Field Day Theater Company, 1988).

Fiedler’s Stranger in Shakespeare is among the first to suggest the imposition of Western stereotypes on “Native Americans” like Caliban. Fiedler labels Caliban’s drunken ditty (2.2.179–82) as the “first American poem” (236). In “Modernism and Imperialism,” Jameson marshals this newly-resymbolized, postcolonial Caliban to speak on behalf of marginalized groups within the United States: “It is significant that in the United States itself, we have come to think and to speak of the emergence of an internal Third World and of the internal Third World voices, as in black women’s literature or Chicano literature for example” (49). Ronald Takaki asserts in Iron Cages: “As Englishmen made their ‘errand into the wilderness of America,’ they took lands from Red Calibans and made Black Calibans work for them,” suggesting that Caliban in reality “could be African, American Indian, or even Asian” (11, 13).

[6]The accounts in question include Strachey’s True Reportory (July 15, 1610), addressed by Strachey to an “excellent lady” in England.

[7]The Tempest, in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington, 7th ed. (New York: Longman, 2013), 1.2.366–67. References are to act, scene, and line. All further references to this work will be cited parenthetically within the text.

[8]For a discussion of Caliban’s origins, see Julia Reinhard Lupton, “Creature Caliban,” Shakespeare Quarterly 51, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 1–23.

[9]Meredith Anne Skura, “Discourse and the Individual: The Case of Colonialism

in The Tempest,” in Critical Essays on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, ed. Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan (New York: G.K. Hall, 1998), 50.

[10]Stephen Greenblatt, Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture (New

York: Routledge, 1990). That the play ends with some manner of accord between Prospero and Caliban makes Greenblatt uneasy, though he never addresses how Prospero could do more without crossing that vexing line back into colonial control.

[11]Skura, “Discourse and the Individual,” 64.

[12]Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan, Shakespeare’s Caliban: A Cultural History (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 138.

wpreston

| August 14, 2014 - 12:09 PM


“And yes, Ariel grumbled initially about the length of his service, but quickly recanted when reminded of the torment endured at the hands of Sycorax.”

That’s a truncated reading of the scene. Ariel only seeks pardon after Prospero further threatens to “peg” him into a tree for another dozen years. (One of Prospero’s flaws, which the play seeks to redeem, is his lack of sympathy for the sufferings of others. When he sees Ariel demonstrate compassion for another type of being, he recognizes his own inability to empathize—even with his fellow humans.)

Additionally, you misrepresent Prospero’s role with regard to Caliban—in several ways, I think, but I’ll address one that seems inarguable. You credit the good things that happen to Caliban to Prospero sending pleasant spirits and sounds his way—a kind of moral education. But the play repeatedly suggests that those aren’t Prospero’s doing. They are “spirits of the island,” mystical elements that seem to bubble up naturally. Prospero may make charms to control such things, and he sits in attendance when they entertain him later, but those are natural beauties which comfort Caliban.

Lewis King

| August 19, 2014 - 9:53 AM


well done

Duke Pesta

| September 06, 2014 - 6:14 PM


To Wpreston:

Your point is taken, although I think it in no way changes or undercuts the argument. My essay underscores the idea that Prospero and Ariel act in league, and not merely because of Prospero’s power. The fact that Ariel goads Prospero to greater mercy signifies his higher ontological status, perhaps, but does not change the argument that across the board Prospero does not behave like a colonialist towards Caliban, either by early 17th century standards or our own. Your second, inarguable point is undercut by the fact that CALIBAN HIMSELF ACKNOWLEDGES PROSPERO’S HUMANE CARE BEFORE THE ATTEMPTED RAPE. Whether it is Prospero or Ariel who uses the charms of the spirits to improve Caliban is utterly indeterminate, and as my above point seeks to show, is a distinction without a difference in this case.

Duke Pesta

| September 06, 2014 - 7:44 PM


To Wpreston (con’t):

To expand a bit: You refer to the passage as truncated, but as I make clear in the essay, I am attempting to re-insert those parts of the passage absolutely redacted in postcolonial readings. The passages or sections of passages I select—ones that qualify completely if not obliterate the postcolonial argument—need to be isolated to show how unbalanced postcolonial dialectic has become. If what I’m doing is selective reading, then what the post-colonialists have done is downright dishonest.

Further, it is very clear in the play that Prospero sees all that transpires on the island, or that Ariel informs him of all. The idea that somehow these spirits, so completely under his sway, are nurturing Caliban in defiance of Prospero just doesn’t hold water. He may not have encouraged them to develop the brute, but he certainly could prohibit them from doing so. And the very fact that prior to the attempted rape, Prospero was teaching Caliban language IS an attempted act of benevolence and improvement, one that is correspondent to his actions at the end of the play, when his punishment for attempted murder is as lenient has his punishment for attempted rape.

Latelatino

| September 16, 2014 - 2:42 PM


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<a >Late Latino</a>