Friday (non)Film Focus: a question of postcolonialism

Allrightythen… it’s time. Today, I put my toe in a pool of trouble from The Tempest: trouble that starts with “T” which rhymes with “P” which stands for Post-colonialism.

This is a play that’s become, to a certain extent, the poster child for postcolonial literary theory, or as Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin write in their seminal work on post-colonial studies, The Empire Writes Back:

The Tempest has been perhaps the most important text used to establish a paradigm for post-colonial readings of canonical works. So established are these readings that in contemporary productions ‘some emphasis on colonialism is now expected’ (Griffiths 1983).
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Well, OK. Prospero is the big bad colonialist, the white European who comes to the island and enslaves both Ariel and Caliban. That’s straightforward enough.

And I can buy it.

Can. But don’t.

There are elements of the play that never felt to fit that interpretation for me. Most of my discomfort was at a pretty gut-instinct level. But now that I’m taking a Post/Colonial Studies class for my Masters, I’ve been exposed to a counter-argumentative essay that puts mental words to my gut instinct. In an article titled “Acknowledging Things of Darkness: Postcolonial Criticism of The Tempest” for the journal Academic Questions in 2014, Duke Pesta, professor of English at the University of Wisconsin writes that the island “is uninhabited and cannot be colonized in the sinister sense of cultural and linguistic dominance.” Caliban is not truly indigenous as his mother moves there when she is pregnant with him. In fact, Pesta argues that not only is Caliban not the victim of colonialism, but he’s actually “the island’s original and only colonist and would-be colonizer” as it is he who wants to use Trinculo and Stephano to kill Prospero and take the island from him. And I can actually see this.

And yet Pesta isn’t completely convincing for me, either. He also argues that the play is deeply Christian and that any cruelty Prospero exhibits is in the guise of attempting to “improving [the inhabitants] through restraint, abnegation,and redemptive suffering.” Well, then isn’t that an quasi-colonial imposition of religion? Yes. But Prospero never states this as his intention. Pesta’s Christian reading, like the postcolonial interpretations, is laid upon the text rather than generating from it.

I see this as a play filled with forgiveness, which–though I’m not religious scholar–spans belief systems.

Prospero frees both Ariel and Caliban at the end of the play. And that, I’m afraid, can be read both pro- and anti-postcolonially. Frees them: good…decolonizing the island (if he had colonized it at all). But to free them, they had to be his slaves… slavery = colonialism.

And yet slavery was a given in Shakespeare’s day and his plays…I mean, just look at the only other Shakespeare play that conforms to the Aristotelian unities: The Comedy of Errors. The Dromios aren’t there because they’re the buddies of the Antipholi. They are slaves.

Are we to accept slavery as Shakespeare’s audience did? Is this slavery acceptable in The Tempest beyond the usual cognitive discomfort because neither Ariel nor Caliban are human? But is this human superiority thing just another guise for colonial imperialism? Maybe.

But is it Prospero’s humanity that gives him the “advantage” over the two “others”? I would argue no. Instead, I would say that it’s magic that gives Prospero the unfair superhuman superiority over Ariel and Caliban. Remember, Prospero is not Ariel’s first “master.” Sycorax, Caliban’s mother–and a witch with magical powers–ruled over Ariel, and imprisoned it in a tree. I think the argument could be made that when Prospero retires, breaks his staff, and throws his magic book to the bottom of the sea, he consciously abandons his unfair advantage over all–the humans he’s brought to the island, Ariel the sprite, and Caliban the whatever-he-is–and all are freed…Prospero included.

Could that still be read as colonialism? I guess. But it doesn’t feel like it to me.

What’s your take?

2 Replies to “Friday (non)Film Focus: a question of postcolonialism”

  1. I’d suggest that Prospero acts INhumanely for most of the play: obsessed by power, control, and vengeance. There is an irony in the fact that it is Ariel, a non-human figure, who reminds him of his humanity in Act V: ‘That if you now beheld them, your affections / Would become tender. […]. Mine would, sir, were I human.’ I think Alexander Pope’s reflection that ‘to err is human; to forgive, divine’ fits nicely with your ideas about forgiveness and Prospero’s response to the wake-up call by Ariel.

    1. Thanks for the feedback!

      While I agree totally that many of Prospero’s actions are inhumane, I would argue they are (to use your Pope reference) sadly very human (the obsession for power, control, and vengeance–for me, at least–is found only in the human animal. That Act Five moment is one that sticks with me. I agree with you that Ariel’s statement seems to me to remind Prospero of the truly redemptive end-game–redemption–rather than his initial raison d’etre–revenge.

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