Tag Archives: Shakespeare

The Tempest and A Tempest

I’ve always been drawn to Caliban. From an early reading of The Tempest, I came away with the impression that he was wronged and misunderstood, more sinned against than singing. The impression was reinforced last year, when I watched a fabulous performance of the play at Shakespeare’s Globe. Caliban stole the show. “… that when I waked/ I cried to dream again…” was delivered with all the captive longing and pathos that I had always imagined. Caliban’s outrage at his treatment by Prospero seemed both genuine and justified, and his desire for revenge founded on good cause (if a trifle disproportionate). I began to wonder if it was possible to interpret the play (within the constraints of its text and structure) as an indictment of colonialism, even though Shakespeare himself might not have intended it to be so.

Recently, however, I read Aime Cesaire’s postcolonial retelling, titled A Tempest, before going back and re-reading the original. It is only when you read Cesaire’s version that the colonial tropes and prejudices in Shakespeare’s play actually begin to stand out. Cesaire takes almost every scene that is steeped in stereotypes about the colonial native, and then “writes back” to Shakespeare. The juxtaposition makes for some fascinating reading.

In The Tempest, Caliban features prominently in four scenes. He is first mentioned in the middle of Act I, Scene II, when Prospero refers to him (off-stage) to Ariel as “a freckled whelp hag-born–not honour’d with/ A human shape.” Prospero next speaks of him to Miranda, observing that  “we cannot miss him: he does make our fire,/ Fetch in our wood and serves in offices/ That profit us.” When Caliban does enter – unwillingly – and insults Prospero for calling him out, Prospero’s response is that of a petty and vindictive slave-master: For this, be sure, to-night thou shalt have cramps,/ Side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up; urchins/ Shall, for that vast of night that they may work,/ All exercise on thee; thou shalt be pinch’d/ As thick as honeycomb, each pinch more stinging/ Than bees that made ’em.” Caliban’s response is defiance. He insists that the island belonged to him, and that Prospero took it from him by deceit, before shutting him up in a rock, to be let out only to serve his masters.

At this point – in the mind of the reader – Prospero seems to be having the worse of the exchange, at least in moral terms. The prejudice seems to be in his mind, and he has more or less admitted to practicing extractive colonialism – exploiting the resources of the colonised land by making the native work it. Caliban himself has used the vocabulary of the coloniser to lay claim to the land by virtue of being its original inhabitant.

The moral tables are then turned very abruptly, through two exchanges. In response to Caliban, Prospero insists that he treated him well, until Caliban tried to rape Miranda. Caliban’s answer is a proud acknowledgment – “O ho, O ho! would’t had been done!/ Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else/ This isle with Calibans.” A disgusted Prospero then points to his attempts to teach Caliban language, to which the latter replies: “You taught me language; and my profit on’t/ Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you/ For learning me your language!

I am reminded here of Byron’s lines from The Isles of Greece: “You have the letters Cadmus gave/ Think you he meant them for a slave?” Language is ever the first marker of the transition from savagery to civilisation. Sex and language – the two most effective tools possible – have been used to dehumanise Caliban. He is the savage native who has no idea about sexual propriety – going so far as to attempt to rape the white man’s daughter – and nor can he be bothered to educate himself into civilisation, except under duress.

In A Tempest, Prospero makes precisely the same claims. That Caliban (who is a black slave) makes, however, a very different response: “In the first place, that”s not true. You didn’t teach me a thing! Except to jabber in your own language so that I could understand your orders: chop the wood, wash the dishes, fish for food, plant vegetables, all because you’re too lazy to do it yourself.” Here, language is no longer the universal market of civilisation, but an alien imposition upon a local inhabitants, who were fully able to communicate before the arrival of the coloniser – in their own language. The point is driven home by Caliban later in the scene, where he renounces his own name – “Caliban” – as a creation of Prospero’s.

“Call me X. That would be best. Like a man without a name. Or, to be more precise, a man whose name has been stolen. You talk about history… well that’s history, and everyone knows it! Everytime you summon me, it reminds me of a basic fact, the fact that you’ve stolen everything from me, even my identity! Uhuru!”

Only, of course, “everyone” doesn’t know it. The readers of Shakespeare’s The Tempest certainly don’t. Caliban’s lines go beyond simply rejecting Prospero’s claims to language, but are about reclamation: the reclamation of a history that the coloniser is determined to destroy in order to justify his rule, going so far as to assume the God-like prerogatives of (re-)naming his subjects – but which the colonised is equally determined to preserve.

The response to the rape claim is considerably more ambiguous. Caliban does not deny it explicitly. He says, instead:

 “Rape! Rape! Listen, you old goat, you’re the one that put those dirty thoughts in my head. Let me tell you something: I couldn’t care less about your daughter, or about your cave, for that matter. If I gripe, it’s on principle, because I didn’t like living with you at all, as a matter of fact. Your feet stink!”

So, did or did not the Caliban of A Tempest attempt to rape Miranda? I think Cesaire deliberately leaves the question hanging, because he is concerned to address another colonial trope: the European woman as an object of uncontrollable fascination for the native (which is what leads to the attempted rape). Here, Cesaire makes Caliban assert the contrary: “I couldn’t care less about your daughter.” Whether it is false or true is besides the point: the fact that Caliban is able to say it at all is what is significant.

Let us return to Shakespeare’s Caliban. We next meet him in Act II, Scene 2, where he comes upon the clowns Trinculo and Stepano, and persuades them to supplant Prospero by force. He does so by cozening up to Trinculo: “I’ll kiss thy foot; I’ll swear myself thy subject”, while presumable intoxicated. The image of the sly, ingratiating oriental, too weak to fight honourably from the front, is in full display here. When Caliban ends the scene with “‘Ban, ‘Ban, Cacaliban/ Has a new master: get a new man./ Freedom, hey-day! hey-day, freedom! freedom,/ hey-day, freedom!“, it is the pathetic cry of a drunkard, more to be pitied than anything else.

In the same scene in A Tempest, the nakedly colonial ambitions of Trinculo and Stepano are clear from the outset. On first discovering Caliban (asleep), Trinculo says: “Ah, an Indian! Dead or alive? Yóu never know with these tricky races. Yukkk! Anyhow, this will do me fine. If he’s dead, I can use his clothes for shelter, for a coat, a tent, a covering. If he’s alive I’ll make him my prisoner and take him back to Europe and then, by golly, my fortune will be made! I’ll sell him to a carnival.” When Caliban does wake, like his namesake, he recruits Trinculo and Stepano to his cause by promising them the rule of the island after they have dispatched Prospero. This, however, is not a drunk Caliban, but a very sober one, strategising how best to take back his lost land. The difference is illustrated starkly by the song Cesaire’s Caliban sings: it is a song about the beauty of the island – about the quetzal, the hummingbird, the ringdove, and the white blossoms; so when he ends – like his Shakespearean namesake – with “Freedom hi-day! Freedom hi-day!”, it is not the meaningless gibberish of a drunk, but an actual call for reclaiming all the freedom that was sung of and lost.

 In Act III, Scene 2, we meet Caliban again, leading on Stepano and Trinculo, playing one against the other in his sly way. This scene, though, shows Caliban at his most human: his discomfiture when Ariel arrives to play tricks upon the party cannot but evoke sympathy; here too, are his most memorable lines of the play:
“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime 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…”
In a way, this reminded me of “Hath not a Jew eyes…?“, from The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare is never willing to dehumanise his characters entirely. Just like he allows Shylock a sliver of humanity by giving him that memorable speech, forged in white-hot anger, here he makes Caliban a poet. But ultimately, much like Shylock’s speech, this plays a scant role in the overall scheme of things. In Act IV, Caliban’s murderous plan is foiled by Ariel, and he, Trinculo and Stepano are discomfited. We see him for the last time in the final Act, in a position of abject surrender (another trope: the native, dangerous until defeated, and then begging for mercy). Prospero has a last crack at him, saying: “He is as disproportion’d in his manners/ As in his shape. Go, sirrah, to my cell;/ Take with you your companions; as you look/ To have my pardon, trim it handsomely.” Caliban’s response reflects his defeat, but goes beyond that: also an understanding that Prospero is his superior in every respect, and his resistance was futile to start with: “Ay, that I will; and I’ll be wise hereafter/ And seek for grace.”

In A Tempest, the confrontation takes an entirely different form. When Caliban comes to attack Prospero, the latter walks out unarmed, and dares him to strike. “Go on! You don’t dare! See, you’re nothing but an animal…you don’t know how to kill.” When Caliban refuses to do so, Prospero has him taken prisoner. Here, we have a fascinating reversal: it is precisely because Caliban is not “civilised” in the sense Prospero is (and there are references throughout the play to Caliban’s closeness with nature), he is unable to act like a “man” would, and kill an unarmed person – even if it means losing his one chance at freedom. There is almost a whiff of the “noble savage” here, and it’s something I’m not quite sure how to interpret. Is it an actual portrayal of the colonised as incapable of dissimulation? But surely, Cesaire is too sophisticated a writer to fall into that trap! Or is it a wry, ironical take on the concept of the noble savage itself – in tune with himself and with nature, and too gullible to resort to deceit or trickery? I think so.

The play ends with a dialectical exchange between Prospero and Caliban, Prospero insisting that he has civilised the island, while Caliban responds with the words of the dispossessed: “you ended up by imposing on me/ an image of myself:/ underdeveloped, in your words, undercompetent/ that’s how You made me see myself!/ And I hate that image…and it’s false! But now I know you, you old cancer/ And I also know myself!” What happens between them at the end is left unsaid.

There are many other scenes and references in Cesaire’s play (including a fascinating discussion between Caliban and Ariel – who appears as a mulatto slave – on the uses of violence), but in sum: the Caliban of The Tempest can at best be an object of sympathy and pity, mingled with shock and disgust at his fallen state. The Caliban of A Tempest commands our respect, and makes a claim upon our conscience as an equal human being. That is Cesaire’s enduring contribution in this retelling.



Filed under Aime Cesaire, Postcolonial Writing

Some Thoughts on Shakespeare and Inter-textuality

I’ve just returned from watching a stupendous Globe Theatre production of Twelfth Night at West End. I haven’t read Twelfth Night for a while, and watching the play tonight, at a couple of points, I caught myself thinking of a few issues of inter-textuality.

It’s interesting how the intertwined themes of youth, time, aging, love, death and immortality occur and recur throughout the corpus of Shakespeare’s work – obsessively, almost. Sonnets 1 – 17 are collectively known as “the procreation sonnets“, and follow a common theme: Shakespeare accuses the youth of wanton cruelty, both to himself and to the world, for refusing to marry and bear children; because time will, eventually, erase and deface his beauty, and the only way in which it is possible to defeat time’s work is by begetting a son who will bear the youth’s image in the world, once he himself has become old and decrepit. So, Sonnet II:

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a totter’d weed of small worth held: 
Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days; 
To say, within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

The very famous Sonnet XII:

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silvered o’er with white; 
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
   And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

And one of my personal favourites, Sonnet XVI:

But wherefore do not you a mightier way
Make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time?
And fortify your self in your decay
With means more blessed than my barren rhyme?
Now stand you on the top of happy hours,
And many maiden gardens, yet unset,
With virtuous wish would bear you living flowers,
Much liker than your painted counterfeit:
So should the lines of life that life repair,
Which this, Time’s pencil, or my pupil pen,
Neither in inward worth nor outward fair,
Can make you live your self in eyes of men.
To give away yourself, keeps yourself still,
And you must live, drawn by your own sweet skill.

Shakespeare’s brooding, melancholic preoccupation with time and mortality and their destruction of all beauty, has been familiar to me through his sonnets, where these themes form a very self-contained whole. But tonight, I started when I heard the identical sentiment voiced in Twelfth Nigh, this cry of anguish from Viola as she attempts to persuade the hard-hearted Olivia to accept the Duke Orsino’s suit:

‘Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white
Nature’s own sweet and cunning hand laid on:
Lady, you are the cruell’st she alive,
If you will lead these graces to the grave
And leave the world no copy(Twelfth Night, Act I Sc V)

Here again, you have the language of the sonnets: praise of beauty, anger at the beauteous one’s unwillingness to marry and procreate, and an affirmation that the only way to defeat time is through producing the likeness of your beauty in your children. I now wonder how often this theme recurs in this way throughout Shakespeare’s plays.

The second issue, even more interesting. Consider this famous wooing scene from Webster’s Duchess of Malfi:

DUCHESS: Sir, this goodly roof of yours, is too low built;
I cannot stand upright in’t nor discourse,
Without I raise it higher. Raise yourself,
Or, if you please, my hand to help you: so.

ANTONIO: Ambition, madam, is a great man’s madness,
That is not kept in chains and close-pent rooms
But in fair lightsome lodgings and is girt
With the wild noise of prattling visitants
Which makes it lunatic beyond all cure.
Conceive not I am so stupid but I aim
Whereto your favors tend: but he’s a fool,
That being a-cold, would thrust his hands i’th’ fire
To warm them.

DUCHESS: So now the ground’s broke,
You may discover what a wealthy mine
I make you lord of.

ANTONIO: O, my unworthiness!

DUCHESS: You were ill to sell yourself.
This darkening of your worth is not like that
Which tradesmen use i’th’ city; their false lights
Are to rid bad wares off. And I must tell you,
If you will know where breathes a complete man
(I speak it without flattery) turn your eyes,
And progress through yourself.

ANTONIO: Were there nor heaven nor hell,
I should be honest: I have long serv’d virtue,
And ne’er ta’en wages of her.

DUCHESS: Now she pays it.
The misery of us that are born great!
We are forc’d to woo, because none dare woo us.

And Maria’s imitated letter, in the hand of Olivia, to Malvolio in Twelfth Night:

If this fall into thy hand, revolve. In my stars I
am above thee; but be not afraid of greatness: some
are born great, some achieve greatness, and some
have greatness thrust upon ’em. Thy Fates open
their hands; let thy blood and spirit embrace them;
and, to inure thyself to what thou art like to be,
cast thy humble slough and appear fresh. Be
opposite with a kinsman, surly with servants; let
thy tongue tang arguments of state; put thyself into
the trick of singularity: she thus advises thee
that sighs for thee. Remember who commended thy
yellow stockings, and wished to see thee ever
cross-gartered: I say, remember. Go to, thou art
made, if thou desirest to be so; if not, let me see
thee a steward still, the fellow of servants, and
not worthy to touch Fortune’s fingers. Farewell.
She that would alter services with thee,

Ignoring for a moment that one is a dialogue, and the other a letter, there are some striking similarities in content (in Shakespeare’s case, let us suspend our knowledge of the farce for a moment). Both are instances of high-born women taking the (rare) initiative to initiate proceedings through a declaration of love, since they know that the difference in social hierarchy between themselves and the men they love will always prevent him from making the first move. Both contain very similar imagery, and the exhortation to the man that “his life is made“, if only he will overcome his inhibitions and take what is offered. And indeed, the two even use similar vocabulary, albeit in different contexts: “born great” is a striking phrase present in both.

Twelfth Night was performed in 1602, and The Duchess of Malfi ten years later. I suppose it is probable that Webster was well-aware of Twelfth Night, and consciously or sub-consciously modeled the essence of his scene on Shakespeare’s prototype. Of course, there is one crucial difference: in Twelfth Night, the fake letter is a device of the comic form, and is the starting point for some of the most farcical and hilarious incidents in the play. On the other hand, the parallel scene in Malfi is the foundation of all the tragic events that follow – you couldn’t possibly have a more serious scene, more gravitas, than when the Duchess decides to woo Antonio. So, same motifs – but in entirely different contexts.

This, I think, lets us reflect upon fascinating issues of inter-textuality and allusive reference within literary traditions. Allusion was the stock-in-trade of the classic scholars, and from what I’ve read, it served broadly two purposes: it allowed the poet to place himself within the tradition – and thus, in a sense, define himself (in a relatively stable way) to his readers; by referencing known and established authors of a canon, the poet defined his genre, placed at least approximate limits upon the scope of his creative exercise, and generated certain specific expectations of form and content within his readers. But in changing the context of the allusion, and thus making it mean or signify something different, the poet also established his own individuality and unique voice for the reader.

Here, as in most things classical, Virgil leads the way. Right from the opening line, “Arms and the man, I sing…“, which, in a dual reference to The Iliad (“arms”) and The Odyssey (“the man”) establishes that The Aeneid is going to be both a war-epic and a quest-epic, Virgil’s epic is full of allusions to Homer, to Ennius, and to all the other epic poets of note. And Virgil, as I’ve noted on a few occasions before, is master of subversion and defamiliarisation. It would be the subject of a full, separate post to go into the complexity of the allusions in The Aeneid (and I am only just about competent to skim the surface), but I think that even this much is enough for us to think seriously about our ideas of authorship, of originality, and of where the point lies in literature. Is it that when one writer has come up with a motif, or a theme, or a particular treatment of it, that we ought to recognise it as his, and to castigate others who incorporate it into their own works as lacking in originality? Or ought we to regard those motifs and everything else as part of the tradition, and simply judge a writer on the basis of how well he uses them? In his essay, What Is An Author?, Foucault points out that the idea of single, individual authorship in the strong sense as we know it is an invention of the modern world. Perhaps that explains the allusion-heavy, intertextual nature many classic writings; and also explains why, in responses to allegations of plagiarism, Virgil was able to reply, blandly, “It is as easy to steal the club from Hercules as a line from Homer” – because it didn’t really matter whether he had used the same words or images, or motifs, or even themes as Homer – what mattered was how well The Aeneid read, how good an epic it was. Perhaps, then, there is no given, a priori, in-the-nature-of-things reason for our convictions about individuality, authorship and originality to be as they are (they certainly weren’t this way in the genre of oral epics, for instance). Perhaps we ought to think about them as deeply and as carefully as we think about, say, the ethical dimensions of writing literature; and perhaps, if we find that there is no basis or warrant for them, we ought to modify, or even discard, these basic notions with which we, now, approach all our texts.

The Duchess of Malfihttp://larryavisbrown.homestead.com/files/malfi/malfi_home.htm

Twelfth Night: http://shakespeare.mit.edu/twelfth_night/full.html


Filed under Allusion and Inter-textuality, Epic, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory, Shakespeare, Virgil