The Feast: an intimate Tempest

January 18

March 11, 2012

Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare

co-created and co-directed by
Jessica Thebus and Frank Maugeri
adaptation by Jessica Thebus

This Island's Mine: A Scholar's Perspective

by Ania Loomba

Shakespeare's last play was one of fourteen plays performed as part of royal festivities at the wedding of King James I's daughter, and until the 1980s The Tempest was routinely classified as a romance. But other histories pull the play in a very different direction. For The Tempest takes us to an unnamed island that could be in the Mediterranean or in the New World. What is crucial is that it evokes what we might call a "cross-cultural encounter." Shakespeare borrows directly from the French essayist Michel de Montaigne's essay "Of the Cannibals," which meditates upon difference between Europeans and the inhabitants of an "other world which has been discovered in our century." Montaigne suggests that the inhabitants of this "new" world are like the fruits of Nature,

among whom there is no sort of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name of a magistrate or for political superiority, no custom of servitude, no riches or poverty, no contracts, no successions, no partitions, no occupations but leisure ones, no care for any but common kinship, no clothes, no agriculture...

It was Europeans, Montaigne suggested, who were both unnatural and unwilling to recognize that fact, being confident in their own superiority. In Shakespeare's play, the island inspires the old courtier Gonzalo to the vision of a similar "commonwealth," where

Letters should not be known; riches, poverty
And use of service, none;...
No occupation, all men idle, all. (2.1.156–60)

But, as Gonzalo's companions point out, the old man paradoxically imagines himself as a ruler over this non-hierarchical Paradise. Indeed, so do most Europeans who come there. Not just Prospero and Miranda, or Alonzo, Antonio and their retinue, but also the oafish Stephano and Trinculo debate questions of freedom, servitude, authority, belonging and ownership, and above all, nature and culture. And the play has inspired, in its readers and audiences, debates about precisely these questions.

Prospero, ineffectively bookish when he was in Milan, has been transformed on the island into a dictatorial ruler, one who does not hesitate to use violence. While Ariel is submissive in the hope of gaining his freedom, Caliban is resistant, claiming that Prospero has seized a land that is "Mine, from Sycorax, my mother." Is Prospero's rule benign, or is it unjust? Performances that identified Prospero with Shakespeare himself were often explicitly colonialist in sentiment, portraying Caliban as literally sub-human. They showed Prospero's rule as natural, legitimate and benign—in other words, exactly as apologists for colonization depicted the enslavement of non-Europeans in a host of places.

Swept up by the urgencies of decolonization, a host of intellectuals, artists and activists contested, appropriated, celebrated and fought over the play as a parable of colonial relations. Prospero and Caliban became emblematic of the colonial master and colonized subject; they could not interpret Prospero as wisdom without cruelty, or Caliban as monstrosity without humanity. Aimé Césaire drew upon Caribbean anti-colonial struggles as well as the Black Power movement in the US in his 1969 play Une tempête (A Tempest), to picture a resistant and highly articulate Caliban who, unlike his Shakespearean counterpart, does not need Prospero's gift of language in order to curse.

Shakespeare's play also has inspired divergent opinions on the extent to which colonialism violates native languages and cultures, and on the possibility of colonized people recovering their earlier traditions in order to 'curse' colonial authorities and liberate themselves. Caliban, after all, is capable of beautiful poetry when he speaks about his island. Is Shakespeare hinting that we should not buy Prospero's version of the entire story? On the other hand, Caliban agrees that he had tried to rape Miranda, so that he could "people the isle with Calibans." That makes him a difficult character to idealize. But then perhaps Shakespeare wants us to see how colonialism distorted both sides, leaving no one free of blame.

However we interpret the precise stance of the play towards colonialism, it is remarkable that it indicates so many of the historical complexities that were to unfold for the next four hundred years—the importance of colonial territories for European power struggles (it is Prospero's island sojourn that allows him to win back his Dukedom); the conflict between Europeans with supposedly superior learning (Prospero's power, Caliban says, comes from his books) and brutalized native populations; the notion of the "white man's burden" (Prospero acknowledges Caliban as"mine"); and above all, the global connections inaugurated by colonialism.


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