The Tempest: Colonial Encounters and Gendered Readings (2)

by Amatoritsero (Godwin) Ede

Skura is rather defensive and apologetic. One wonders why. Is colonialism, demonisation of the Other and exploitation not an historical fact? If this is so, is history not one of the matrixes of any one culture at a particular time? And if this historical aspect of a particular culture is the most prominent in moulding the national psyche and if a text – such as The Tempest with its colonial atmosphere – is the product of that culture, cannot that text submit itself to a criticism with colonialism as its major discursive field? Skura answers these questions, as it were, by insisting that:

recent criticism 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 it is also – paradoxically – in danger of taking the play further from the particular historical situation in England in 1611 even as it brings it closer to what we mean by colonialism today.

This is a beautiful piece of liberal sophistry. It does not seem to occur to Skura that ‘the historical situation in England’ is not necessarily any one particular piece of individual historical fact (there is a long list) or series of facts but the total effect or “synthetic unity” of a series of renaissance cultural manifestations (myths, stereorypes, anecdotes, the Pocahontas story etc) revealing the Phenomenon of Colonialism – or say even witch hunting. He seems to confuse ‘history and colonialism today’ together in a kind of dualism, falling into that trap which has “embarrassed philosophy” and which modern thought has “tried to replace by the monism of the phenomenon” (Sartre, xlv). He goes on to make an inter-textual analysis of several of Shakespear’s plays vis-à-vis The Tempest in order to foreground “what is Shakespearean” in The Tempest. It does not occur to him that by that very inter-textual criticism he re-writes The Tempest on the ground of those other texts, even if there are points of convergence amongst them. The Tempest is still a text autonomous from say Measure for Measure or As You Like it. Moreover, there are recent suggestions for example – backed with arguments – that Shakespear had a ghost writer and was not responsible for some of the plays in his canon.

Yet Skura is right in pointing out Brown’s obsession with colonialism in The Tempest. According to Skura “while there are many literal differences between The Tempest and colonialist fiction and practice, the similarities are taken to be so compelling that the differences are ignored” (225). And further:

it is not easy to categorise the links between The Tempest and colonialist discourse. Take the deceptively simple example of Caliban’s name. Revisionist rightly emphasise the implications of the cannibal stereotype as automatic mark of the Other in Western ethnocentric colonialist discourse, and since Shakespears’ name for Caliban is widely accepted as an anagram of “cannibal,” many read the play as if he were a cannibal, with all that the term implies[…] Caliban is no cannibal – he barely touches meat, confining himself more delicately to roots, berries and an occasional fish[…] His name seems more like a mockery of stereotypes than a mark of monstrosity, and in our haste to confirm the link between “cannibal” and “Indian” outside the text, we lose track of the way in which Caliban severs the link within the text. While no one would deny some relation between Caliban and the New World natives to whom such terms as cannibal were applied, what relation that is remains unclear. (228)

Here it seems that Skura has missed the woods for the trees. The significant point should not be a quarrel with the possible misreading of certain details in authorial intention but the general and important ideological implications which are logically derived from the text. Deborah Willis’ quarrel with Brown’s essay is also one of method.

By representing the play’s “ambivalences” as unintended by-products of an attempt to endorse colonialism unequivocally, Brown makes it difficult to see the more qualified endorsement the play is really making; he also makes it difficult to distinguish the play from other texts that do deliver such endorsements. His argument, it seems to me, reproduces an error that has haunted criticism of The Tempest – that is, the conflation of Prospero with Shakespear. (279)

From Willis’ perspective such a conflation has led Brown to confuse a colonialism of the core (or the main plot of Prospero’s play) with a colonialism of the periphery, which we can then understand as its sub-plot. And the conflict arising from staging both on the same theatrical space becomes Shakespear’s play. In her words:

Prospero’s colonial project is, for Brown, embodied not only in his “regime” on the Island (periphery and semiperiphery) but also in his dukedom in Milan (core). […] Shakespear, in fact, plays core against periphery: The Tempest registers tensions between Prospero’s role as colonialist magician and his role as duke; it self-consciously explores problematic aspects of Prospero’s rule on the Island; and it raises questions about his [stereotypical] view of Caliban […] At the same time the play declares Prospero’s restoration of the Milanese political order as unequivocally legitimate. Prospero works to restore order by gaining back his dukedom, bringing Antonio under his control, engineering Alonso’s repentance, and marrying off Miranda to the son of his old enemy. (280)

Thus according to her The Tempest is “more significantly, engaged in arousing the desire for, and displaying the power of, a ruler at the core who can contain a tendency toward oligarchy and division.” And the colonialism of the periphery is only an instrument towards this larger aim and is given up when it has served its purpose, i.e. at the final scene in the play where Prospero forgives Caliban, offering him a symbolic independence thereby. Thus Antonio and not Caliban becomes the real threatening Other in this major concern with power at the core, and Caliban is only used to emphasise Antonio’s degenerate nature; the threat posed by the former’s rebellion only emphasises the latter’s earlier putsch, which is recounted to Miranda at the protasis of Prospero’s play.

As much as it is helpful to point out other discourses in The Tempest, the fact of Prospero’s presence on the Island as a ruler-exile points towards power usurpation on that Island. Prospero is thus not much different from Antonio who had usurped power at the core. Besides Prospero, even if indirectly, behaves like a despot. Apart from usurpation, he defines reality for everybody on the Island by dint of that same magic which is supposed to reflect his masterfulness. This is something equivalent to an abuse of power. Thus “the ensemble of fictional and lived practices, which for convenience we will simply refer to here as ‘English colonialism’ provides The Tempest‘s dominant discursive con-texts [and] the figure of usurpation [becomes] the play’s nodal point of imbrication into this discourse of colonialism.” (Barker & Hulme, 198).

Willis’ argument is weak juxtaposed against Barker and Hulme’s thesis. According to them The Tempest‘s truly dramatic moment is Prospero’s strange disturbance at the insurrection of Caliban, which brings the masque scene to an abrupt halt. And this only underscores Prospero’s “disquiet at the irruption into consciousness of an unconscious anxiety concerning his legitimacy, both as Producer of his play, a fortiori, and as governor of the Island. The by now urgent need for action forces upon Prospero the hitherto repressed contradiction between his dual role as usurper and usurped.” (Barker & Hulme, 202).

One must admit that historical space is an irreplaceable constant in the cultural production of a text where the author is more and more a given nowadays, due to critical tendencies like source criticism or the various inscriptions working upon the site of a text, inter-textuality, structuralism and post structuralism. And as Barker and Hulme have suggested discourse analyses would be the most plausible way to approach a text. Discourse is a term more embracing than ‘text’ but narrower than language and it operates at the level of the enablement of texts, such that focus moves from the problem of meaning to that of ‘instrumentality and function’. A text would then not so much contain meaning as being ‘performative of meaning’. To quote as a conclusion from Barker and Hulme once more:

Through its very occlusion of Caliban’s version of proper beginnings, Prospero’s disavowal is itself performative of the discourse of colonialism, since this particular reticulation of denial of dispossession, with retrospective justification for it, is the characteristic trope by which European colonial regimes articulate their authority over land to which they could have no conceivable legitimate claim. (200).

Thus The Tempest should be read across an historical-ideological field, progressively – from the left to the right margin, not only at the centre page of meaning.

The Tempest as Political Act

As a text which reflects a colonialist ethos the dramatic actions in The Tempest could be opposed as dispossession, possession, repossession, and finally estrangement. Since Caliban’s Island is significantly nameless we should relocate it on the map of the action by referring to it as Kalibut. The palace coup in Milan by Antonio, which is reported at the protasis of ‘Prospero’s play’ to Miranda results in Prospero’s political dispossession by Antonio. In order for Prospero to repossess his dukedom he resorts to the same tactics of usurpation and possesses Kalibut as a vantage point from where he can plan a counter-coup against Antonio, thereby dispossessing Caliban of his kingship.

Conscious of the contradiction in his action Prospero is constantly at pains to justify his legitimacy on the Island. This desire to justify what is perhaps unjustifiable provides the real rather than apparent dramatic conflict in The Tempest as separate from Prospero’ own play. The possession of a powerful magic by Prospero imbues him with the character of a playwright such that the other characters becomes just that for him. Thus he colonises not only Kalibut but everybody who happens to be present there, including his daughter, Miranda. Prospero’s magic becomes a trope of a super-power, the larger than life imperialist.

Since Prospero is uncomfortable about his invasion of Kalibut, he tries from the first to present a picture of himself as a benevolent harmless man of high breeding. When Miranda says to him during storm:

“If by your Art, my dearest Father, you have
Put the wild waters in this roar, ally them” (Act i.2.1ff)

he replies with his usual untruthful diplomacy:

“No harm.
I have done nothing but in care of thee, who […]
Art ignorant of what thou art; nought knowing
Of whence I am, nor that I am more better
Than Prospero, master of a full poor cell” (Act 1.2.15-21)

Then follows Prospero’s relation of the events which forced him into exile, namely his brother’s, Antonio’s, treachery, conveniently avoiding to mention his own dereliction of duty; he abdicates his office to dedicate himself to ‘Art’. In this way he begins to order reality. As for his presence on the Island he only says elliptically, “here on this Island we arrived”, without the qualification that he has also dispossessed Caliban of his office. Caliban tries to relate his own version of true beginnings:

“This Island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother, / which thou tak’st from me. When thou cam’st first, / Thou strok’st me, and made much of me; wouldst / give me / Water with berries in ‘t” (Act 1.ii.333 ff). Prospero quickly silences Caliban with ” Thou lying slave, / Whom stripes may move, not kindness! […] thou didst seek to violate / The honour of my child. (Act 1.ii. 346ff). In this way Prospero’s narrative becomes dominant. As far as he is concerned taking possession of Kalibut was doing Caliban a favour, although his action is aimed at his own private interests.

Accusing him of rape for a start, he further qualifies Caliban with all the negative attributes possible, finally stigmatising him as ‘natural’ against his own artful cultivation. This leads to one of those processes of occlusions (namely of Caliban’s political claims to Kalibut) in literary criticism which Barker and Hulme blame as mistaking of Prospero’s narrative for authorial intention. The fact that the Island has no name is perhaps the biggest occlusion of all. Prospero names everything and everybody, in a manner of speaking, by his very magical presence. He gives Caliban his name, but the Island has no name. Thus by a single stroke Prospero erases Caliban through this occlusion of the geographical space defining the latter’s ontological condition, while re-defining him through language.

Nevertheless Caliban proves a very stubborn presence. His insurrection is a test of prospero’s claim to legitimacy on Kalibut. Prospero is unusually upset by the revolt because it brings back memories of Antonio’s earlier putsch and could jeopardise Prospero political agenda for regaining control of Milan if the masque celebration is not concluded (as planned) by the foreseen promise of his dukedom by Alonso. Furthermore, his failure to repress the earlier putsch threatens to repeat itself and his ability as the all powerful, ‘artful’ statesman is questioned. Nevertheless the revolt was part of the plot of Prospero’s play and was doomed to fail according to his magical reckoning. Thus his irrationality only underscores his illegitimacy on Kalibut. Thus The Tempest stages Prospero’s anxiety over his claims to legitimacy. But according to Barker and Hulme:

this would be a recuperative move [,] preserving the text’s unity by the familiar strategy of introducing an ironic distance between author and protagonist. After all, although Prospero’s anxiety over his sub-plot may point up the crucial nature of that ‘sub’ plot a generic analysis would have no difficulty in showing that The Tempest is ultimately complicit with Prospero’s play in treating Caliban’s conspiracy in the fully comic mode. (203).

Thus the quelling of the revolt completes the colonialist narrative ( of Prospero) and Caliban’s attempt juxtaposed against Antonio’s apparent viciousness becomes the “final and irrevocable confirmation of the natural treachery of savages”. Prospero repossesses his dukedom, Caliban is forever dispossessed in the statement “this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine” (Act V.i.275) because while the differences amongst civil society is resolved and they prepare to return to Italy, Caliban is not expected to be returning with them or staying on Kalibut as king. He is already forced to promise allegiance to Prospero due to the failed insurrection. We can assume that Prospero’s claiming him is a complete and final one. Caliban becomes, even with the foreseen departure of Prospero, a truly political half-ling.

The discourse of Gender: The Tempest and The Charge of Incest

“The textualism of Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva defines “woman” as a purely social and linguistic value that radically opposes any positive “natural” value” . This is nowhere more true than in Kalibut. The relationships between the dramatis personae in The Tempest vis-à-vis male/female categorisation is at best an exploitative one. “Woman” redefined in The Tempest is an object of sex and power.

Miranda serves a purely social value as company for her father, Prospero; she is cancelled as a presence but re -embedded into the narrative as merely a linguistic description, whose referent is cancelled by a passive role. She is never responsible for moving the action forward in the play but serves only as a ground upon which the action moves forward. Moreover all other female figures share the same fate. Sycorax is faceless and voiceless. What gives her being is simply a linguistic signifier; a name, an empty name without a signified. She can never give her own account of the true beginnings of things and challenge Prospero’s claims. The same is true of Prospero’s wife, who is reported to be dead. As a matter of fact death becomes a symbolic ontological condition of women in The Tempest.

The social milieu is such that women are in a binary paring-off into positions of powerlessness and become sites for the further dis-empowerment of other women – and men, in the text. Racially Miranda and Prospero’s wife- whose name we do not even know – are paired off against Sycorax, a black woman. And these white women – Miranda more immediately, are further paired off against Caliban on the one hand and Stephano and Trinculo on the other in a power relationship.

The social distance between the white woman and the black woman only emphasises their estrangement from themselves and from the power spectrum such that even their possibility as ‘social value’ becomes negated and dislocates any meaningful possibility of countering male chauvinism. For example Sycorax’s presence within the time space of the dramatic enactment could have put some things straight for Miranda. She probably would have had another account of the true beginnings of things through Sycorax and would perhaps have been able to judge the real exploitative nature of her father’s magic against Sycorax’s. This could have awakened a sense of the dialogic in her and made her less gullible to Prospero’s definitions of ‘the truth’.

This vertical relationship in The Tempest has the men on one level in the main struggling against each other for power, with the ‘only woman’ – since Miranda is the only one physically present – on the other level acting as a ground for the legitimisation of each man’s claim. Accused of attempted rape by Prospero, Caliban duely regrets not having actually carried the act out. For him it would have been a way to people the Island with other Calibans and this would have resulted in a numerical strength against Prospero’s power-bid. Implored by Miranda to still his magic-induced storm, Prospero declares to Miranda that the storm is supposed to work to her good, prognosticating her future as princess of Naples, although he never asked her opinion on the matter and has already arranged everything magically. Besides, the storm’s chief design is only to bring Prospero’s old enemies onto the Island by way of a shipwreck, the better to negotiate his own political future on his own grounds.

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1 comment

Anonymous September 28, 2005 - 3:25 pm

a vision for those from the erstwhile colonies


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