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The Tempest. Third lecture: a “postcolonial” Tempest?. “The first work of American literature”. This is how Leo Marx, a scholar of American lit., described The Tempest over 40 years ago ( The Machine in the Garden , 1964).

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the tempest

The Tempest

Third lecture: a “postcolonial” Tempest?

the first work of american literature
“The first work of American literature”
  • This is how Leo Marx, a scholar of American lit., described The Tempest over 40 years ago (The Machine in the Garden, 1964).
  • What he had in mind is the way the play seems to meditate on the discovery of a new world.
  • And in the past 20 years, some critics have found a colonizing theme in the play.
  • Prospero has wrested the island from Caliban.
  • “This island’s mine by Sycorax, my mother/ Which thou tak’st from me” (I.2.351-53), C. says.
  • “For I am all the subjects that you have,/ That first was my own king.”
  • And Prospero has enslaved him.
  • Prospero thus seems a colonizing European master, or despot, who has taken the isle from its aboriginal inhabitant, whom he has made to serve him.
  • And Caliban’s account of how Prospero originally “made much of me” becomes a narrative of the colonizing process.
  • Naming “the bigger light” and “the less/ That burn by day and night” (echoing Genesis) seems almost archetypal in its bringing of European knowledge to native peoples.
the island s location
The island’s location
  • Officially the island must be in the Mediterranean: The ship is on the way back from Tunis to Naples.
  • And Prospero was presumably set adrift in the Tyrrean sea.
  • But then we recall that Shakespeare had been reading accounts of shipwreck in Bermuda – of a ship in a fleet bound for Virginia.
  • And Ariel says he’s moored the ship in “the deep nook where once/ Thou call’dst me up at midnight to fetch dew/ From the still-vext Bermudas” (I.2.227-29).
  • So the island has imaginatively some New World associations.
  • (Bermuda was originally uninhabited.)
  • The island’s imaginary character makes it a kind of virtual space, to be filled by whatever we imagine.
  • The name seems related to Carib, the latter name coming from the Spanish caribe, the indigenous people of the West Indies.
  • Whom Columbus called cannibales.
  • Is he human?
  • Prospero seems to think so: “Then was this island/ (Save for the son that she [Sycorax] did litter here,/ A freckled whelp, hag-born) not honored with a human shape” (I.2.281-83).
  • Prospero calls him simply “my slave” and, in his anger, “the beast Caliban.”
  • Stephano and Trinculo call him a “monster” and remark on his fishy smell.
  • But is this, the question of his humanity, very point of Caliban?
  • Early sixteenth-century Europeans immediately wondered whether the inhabitants of the New World were human.
  • Just as they doubted the humanity of the black inhabitants of West Africa, whom they enslaved.
  • Miranda says he originally “wouldst gabble like/ A thing most brutish” until she “endowed thy purposes/ With words that made them known” (I.2.356ff).
  • A colonial reading would see this as imposing a European language on the “brutish” native tongue.
the horror of miscegenation
The horror of miscegenation?
  • The breaking point of Prospero’s colonial endeavor: Caliban tries to rape (in Prospero’s understanding) Miranda.
  • He used Caliban “with humane care, and lodged thee/ In mine own cell till thou didst seek to violate/ The honor of my child.”
  • “O ho, O ho! Would’t have been done!/ Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else/ This isle with Calibans.”
  • Can we imagine Caliban’s understanding of this?
  • Can he be understood simply to have misinterpreted Miranda’s pity and kind intentions?
  • (In asking these questions, of course, we’re moving outside the play.)
  • The bitterness between the master and slave derives from this attempted sexual encounter.
  • And justifies, for Prospero, the enslavement of Caliban.
the indigenous caliban
The indigenous Caliban
  • Caliban says that in the beginning he loved Prospero “And showed thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle,/ The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile” (I.2.357f).
  • And his offer to transfer his knowledge to Stephano and Triculo, confirms this sense of his being at one with island’s natural phenomena: II.2.156ff.
  • Some of the most lyrical poetry of the play is associated with Caliban.
  • In response to Ariel’s “tune on a tabor and pipe” Caliban says, “Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises,/ Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not . . .” (III.3.134ff).
  • It’s the one moment when Caliban responds to Ariel.
  • In the end Caliban repents his folly in taking up with S & T.
  • “And I’ll be wise hereafter,/ And seek for grace.”
  • “What a thrice-double ass/ Was I to take this drunkard for a god/ And worship this dull fool!”
  • And the island is returned to him with the withdrawal of Prospero and the ship.
  • The play becomes then literally “post-colonial”?
the status of this reading
The status of this reading
  • How much of this reading of the play could have been intended by Shakespeare?
  • Or available to his first audiences?
  • We notice how it tends to subvert other readings of the play.
  • Moving the focus from Prospero and his transformation to Caliban.
  • The “Caliban problem” perhaps analogous to the “Shylock problem” in Merchant.
  • Which raises the question of the mutability of interpretation of classic texts, plays.
  • What exactly does “classic” mean?
  • Are there texts that “transcend” their own time and culture?
  • But can human art really evade the culture of which it’s a part, and through which expresses its meanings?
  • Or does “classic” mean an excess of meaning, a sort of spilling over of meanings, in such a way that other periods, other cultures, can reinterpret?
  • Caliban is imagined at the very beginning of English imperialism.
  • And because he was made not only a figure of threat and danger, but also of fascinating connection with new worlds, he continues to seem interesting.
  • And as attitudes toward imperialism, colonialism alter over the subsequent 400 years, our attitudes toward Caliban, Prospero can alter.
  • Do we have to choose definitive interpretation?
  • Or can we hold alternative interpretations and meanings in our minds?