Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism

By Ania Loomba | Go to book overview

Conclusion
Playing with Shakespeare

Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest (1611), is the one most widely and most controversially linked to issues of colonialism and race. Until the 1980s, critics routinely classified the play as a romance, as Shakespeare's valedictory tribute to the power of art and theatre. But outside the Western (and colonial) academy, the events on the remote island where the exiled Duke of Milan, Prospero, brings up his daughter Miranda, and re-establishes sovereignty by mastering the airy spirit Ariel, the savage native Caliban, and eventually his shipwrecked brother and his companions, had been interpreted quite differently. Swept up by the urgencies of decolonization, a host of intellectuals, novelists, playwrights, performers, and activists contested, appropriated, celebrated, and fought over the play as a parable of colonial relations. For them Prospero and Caliban became emblematic of the colonial master and colonized subject; they could not, as most literary critics of their time tended to do, read Prospero as wisdom without cruelty, or Caliban as monstrosity without humanity.

Ironically, these anti-colonial appropriations did not ponder over the nature of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century contact between Europeans and non-Europeans, or the specific histories and geographies with which the play conversed. On the other hand, even those critics who were reluctant to read the play in purely colonial terms admitted that it drew upon materials pertaining to European contact with the Americas, especially reports of an English shipwreck off the Bermuda islands and the French humanist Montaigne's essay 'Of Cannibals'. The 'Bermuda pamphlets' discussed how the hardships they endured, as well as natural abundance of the New World, had an impact upon the surviving crew, who became both lazy and

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