In the recent performance history of Shakespeare’s comedy, The Tempest, adaptations from the play have generally outnumbered more traditional productions of the Bard’s work. The result of this in modern times has led to a number of adaptations assuming the centrality of colonization in Shakespeare’s intent. Here we will briefly examine a case study of this approach and then posit an alternative method and the resulting impact on Shakespearean performance.
The surface meaning of Shakespeare’s play is fairly clear to the modern reader: injustice has a way of righting itself in favor of those unjustly treated, and rightfully so. The Tempest, however, is not without other influences, one of which is the European colonization of both Africa and the New World. Postcolonial readers, however (especially those outside of the English-speaking community), tend to overemphasize this ‘colonizing’ aspect of the play at the expense of other possibilities. Because of this, race (as opposed to natural justice) becomes “the central issue in Cesaire’s adaptation of The Tempest for a black theater” (McNee). Thus, as McNee notes, Cesaire assumes the primacy of colonization and rebuilds the play from the ground up:
Shakespeare’s play – at least on the surface – promotes Prospero as the legitimate ruler of Milan, rather than attacking the aristocratic hierarchy that legitimates him. Cesaire, on the other hand, presents Prospero as an usurper not only on the island, but also in Milan. Stephano and Trinculo become representatives of the down-trodden people, who view Prospero and other nobles as dictators, rather than as legitimate rulers.
Cesaire therefore turns Shakespeare on his head, and for political reasons at that; a cause such revisionists are proud of:
If literature courses are to change even a few students’ opinions about the current world order, instructors must first show students that postcolonial literatures are relevant to their lives. Cesaire’s text is ideal in this sense, for students clearly see racial tension as a significant factor in their lives. (McNee)
Cesaire’s adaptation, then, “reads into” Shakespeare’s work the reviser’s (and the professor’s) contemporary view of politics.
But Cesaire and McNee are also at least half right: Shakespeare does intentionally use imagery connected with colonization contemporary to his own time. Okamura demonstrates this well by reviewing Shakespeare’s use of William Stachey’s personal account of the colony at Jamestown as well as Virgil’s Aeneid (the latter via Marlowe’s Dido Queen of Carthage). He goes on to note, though, that such an influence – both in Shakespeare specifically and among Renaissance writers in general – is far less about cultural and political imperialism and far more about the virtues needed to succeed in a new world. So while the effect of colonization on The Tempest is undeniable, it is hardly worth rewriting the play for:
On the one hand, it is now almost impossible to dissociate The Tempest from the discourse of colonization: this may not be . . . a play about the New World, but without the New World, The Tempest would be a different play. On the other hand, The Tempest is also Shakespeare’s most Virgilian play. (Okamura)
Rather than “reading back” into Shakespeare, then, Okamura listens to the Bard to determine the influence on Shakespeare achieved by other writers.
The direction of future Tempest performances is, of course, yet to be determined. Those involved in such productions, however, have a clear choice to make. On the one hand, there are performances of the play that conform to the expectations of the viewer, and on the other, there are those that reflect the form, and therefore the function, of the original. History has thus far preferred the former; but the more thoughtful viewer will always prefer the latter.
McNee, Lisa. “Teaching in the Multicultural Tempest.” College Literature 19/20 Issue 3/1: 195. EBSCO. 15 Nov. 2009.
Wilson-Okamura, D.S. “Virgilian Models of Colonization in Shakespeare’s Tempest.” ELH 70.3(2003):709. ProQuest. 15 Nov. 2009.