When William Shakespeare completed The Tempest, probably sometime around 1611, he was approaching 50 years of age, a man on the tail end of a brilliant career as a playwright that had extended for the best part of two decades. Though not quite retired, Shakespeare had, by then, moved out of London, as insalubrious a city as there was in Europe at the time, spending most of his time in his natal Stratford-upon-Avon and focusing on managing his business enterprises—the Globe theater among them—rather than on writing. While impossible to ascertain whether this really was his last play —and, more importantly, whether he intended it to be—critics through the ages have suggested that these lines, spoken by Prospero in act four, scene one, amount to the Bard’s farewell from the stage:
You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismay’d: be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep…
The metaphor is, of course, tantalizingly fitting: Prospero is a sorcerer of sorts, a rational and hugely driven character whose power comes not from a natural disposition but from his careful study of the books which hold the key to control and overcome nature. Like Shakespeare, Prospero can conjure up images, beings and situations, molding the world in accordance to his will and happily untangling the most intricate of conflicts with a simple sleigh of hand. So when Prospero declares in the closing sequence of The Tempest that the whole purpose of his project—the very storm which unravels the plot of the play—”was to please,” it might seem perfectly plausible to assume that Shakespeare is in fact hijacking the epilogue to record for posterity the motivation behind his life in the theater.
A charming image of an ageing giant gently laying himself bare before his audience one last time. Perfectly plausible, indeed—though not for this reason any more (or less) accurate. The simple fact is we cannot know what the author’s intention was—not in The Tempest, nor in any other piece of writing by any author. All we are left with is theories and interpretations—at times even appropriations—that with care and cogency might lead us to illuminating new worlds. In this respect, The Tempest constitutes enormously fertile ground for precisely this sort of exercises because of the far-fetched intricacies of its plot—undoubtedly the most extravagant among Shakespeare’s plays, together perhaps with A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
In a nutshell, The Tempest tells the story of a shipwreck orchestrated by Prospero, the magician, who seizes his chance to cast his vengeance upon his brother Antonio, the Duke of Milan. For twelve years Prospero and his daughter Miranda have lived on a desert island, where they were marooned after Antonio unlawfully deposed Prospero as Duke of Milan. Aboard the King of Naples’ ship on their way back from Tunis—where the king, Alonso, has married off his daughter—Antonio and the rest of the expedition get caught in a powerful storm that delivers them to Prospero’s island. Here Prospero is master over Ariel, a gentle spirit, and Caliban, a rebellious soul from Algiers, who together torment the newly arrived outcasts until Prospero is satisfied with the punishment, bringing an end to the entire scheme by arranging the marriage of his daughter with Alonso’s son.
If this brief summary overlooks almost completely the part played by Caliban, the prodigal son of all of Shakespeare’s characters when it comes to Caribbean literature, that is because his role in The Tempest is circumstantial and eminently secondary. Like so many of Shakespeare’s secondary characters, though—Puck, Falstaff, Mercutio, the list is endless—Caliban is so powerful and so rich that he has acquired a life of his own. The roster of Caribbean writers who have gone back to The Tempest in search of inspiration is remarkable—especially considering that back in 1611 no English settlements existed in the Caribbean, the English had only landed in North America a few years earlier, and the Atlantic slave trade, though established since over a century, was still being conducted at a modest scale.
In the original Tempest, Prospero arrives in an island inhabited only by two people, Sycorax, a sorcerer arrived from Algiers, and her son Caliban. The island’s indigenous inhabitants, however, are not human: they are spirits, imprisoned by Sycorax in the trunks of the trees. Only one “native” manages to escape Sycorax’s spell: Ariel, saved by Prospero once the latter has gathered all the information he needs from the African witch and resolves to take over the island. Thus, despite the fact that Shakespeare’s location is likely in the Mediterranean, somewhere between Naples, Tunis and Algiers; despite the fact that Sycorax and Caliban are likely Moors, or maybe Berbers; and notwithstanding the reverse order of arrival, as it were, in the dynamics of colonization present in The Tempest, Shakespeare’s capacity to understand human nature is such that he successfully plays out on the stage the conflict that inevitably would unfold, in much greater scale and with infinitely more nuances, in real life.
I will only touch briefly here on one Caribbean ramifications of Shakespeare’s play: Aimé Césaire’s A Tempest, a streamlined recreation of the original which, in Richard Miller’s translation, suffers from excessively blunt language. First written in 1969, A Tempest is predictably political, displacing the personal intrigues of the seventeenth century original for a discourse of class struggle and social activism that these days—or perhaps just to these ears—tends to sound rather vacuous. Parallel to Cesaire’s confrontation of proletarian unity versus upper class privileges, though, remains the original clash between civilization and barbarism, between Prospero’s learned trickery and Sycorax’s natural talent, between reason and instinct. In Cesaire’s version Caliban, a Yoruba, is prepared to rebel against Prospero for as long as it takes. And while Shakespeare’s solution to all evils is to make the European settlers head back to Italy, Cesaire, with the benefit of hindsight, makes Prospero stay on the island until he is defeated by time, by circumstance and by Caliban’s tireless perseverance.
Cesaire’s departure from the original not only sheds light on his intentions, it also bears witness to one of the greatest problems present in the colonial mentality of the years immediately after Shakespeare’s death. For if Cesaire’s Caliban is grounded on his island to the point where he is convinced he’ll be able to outdo Prospero over time, Shakespeare’s Prospero proves disregardful of the place that has served him so well for twelve years. Indeed, given Prospero’s predicament, marooned on a desolate and remote island with no means to return to the civilized world, it seems surprising that his one and only goal in life is to exact revenge and go back to Milan, instead of developing a new, better, society in the only place where a clean start is actually possible, The only way this could be achieved, however, would be pairing Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, with Caliban—a prospect that Prospero will not even entertain. Unfortunately this sort of attitude proved prevalent in the British colonies many many years after Shakespeare’s time.
But where Shakespeare provides a blueprint of the prejudices that would determine colonial behavior throughout the British Empire for centuries, Cesaire gives away the most glaring inconsistency with his own theory of Caribbean identity: “Negritude”. Cesaire’s Caliban reproaches Prospero for “imposing on me an image of myself: underdeveloped, in your words, undercompetent—that’s how you made me see myself!” Such is Caliban’s aversion against Prospero’s language that he tells his master he will never again answer to the name Caliban, “the name given me by your hatred, and every time it’s spoken it’s an insult… Call me X instead. That would be best. Like a man without a name.” The problem for Caliban is that without Prospero’s language he lacks not only a name, he lacks the means of verbal communication altogether as becomes obvious moments later when he confesses to Ariel his plan to blow up the whole island if he doesn’t gain his freedom. “I hope you like the fireworks display” he says, “it’ll be signed Caliban.” Cesaire’s Negritude postulates a return to the African roots of the African diaspora, rejecting the influence of the white man. The problem with that, of course, is that rejecting the influence of four centuries of interaction inevitably leads to a rejection of a part of yourself—and that can’t be healthy.
Shakespeare’s “farewell to the stage” continues to this day to be the source of a tremendous amount of novel and interesting spin offs. Elizabeth Nunez’s Prospero’s Daughter placed the plot in a leper colony in Trinidad; Julie Taymor’s 2010 film adaptation turned Prospero into Prospera, with Helen Mirren miraculously saving what would otherwise have been a terrible film; and so on, and so forth. There is one thing, however, I am yet to come across: Ariel, the single native of the island in The Tempest, seems to have been neglected for ever and ever—it’s true that his character in Shakespeare’s original is rather pusillanimous, and Cesaire conveniently turns him into Caliban’s brother, but wouldn’t it be great to include the perspective of the aboriginal settlers in this conversation? (Mental note for future projects).
Published in the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday 3 September 2016.