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Redeeming The Tempest: Romance and Politics

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Jonathan Hart, University of Alberta

Since the Romantics the criticism of Shakespeare's The Tempest has been allegorical. Perhaps taking their cue from Coleridge, who said that the appeal of the play was to the imagination, subsequent critics appealed to the fantastic and to aesthetic allegories. Schlegel identified Ariel with air and Caliban with earth; Campbell saw The Tempest as the Shakespeare's fare-well to his art; Lowell equated Caliban with brute understanding, Ariel with fancy and Prospero with imagination. When I was an undergraduate the Romantic reading of this play as the playwright's fare-well to his art was still going strong. But for some time another kind of allegory was going on, that is the political allegory. Once a minority position, the political allegory has, in the last decade, overtaken the aesthetic allegory. My task is to find a version of The Tempest that acknowledges the political and aesthetic dimensions of the play but that discovers a middle ground between them. Although allegorical interpretation may be unavoidable in regard to The Tempest, I want to minimize it, as others have mined this vein, and to try to point up its stresses and intricacies as a means of moving along to a different type of critique. This attempt, then, is to redeem The Tempest from too much redemption.1

As the traditional aesthetic allegory of this play has been synthesized into the history of Shakespearean criticism, I want briefly to outline the shift to political allegory, particularly in light of post colonialism, before proceeding to my own analysis. Between about ninety and a hundred and twenty years ago, a shift seems to have happened in interpretations of The Tempest. Whereas in 1873 Daniel Wilson thought that The Tempest was a social Darwinist work, in 1904 W. T. Stead objected to the imperialism and sided with indigenous cultures. In this century a central debate over the use of canons as a means of promoting tradition and empire has occurred in English-speaking countries. Shakespeare has been at the heart of that debate as in those countries he occupies the centre of literature and education in the humanities. In traditional criticism, Prospero's art and power were sometimes identified with Shakespeare's and Europe's while Caliban was sometimes associated with the physical, moral and political dependency of non-European peoples. As an understandable reaction to this European position, some writers in Africa and the Caribbean set out to use The Tempest for their own literary and political purposes. Between 1957 and 1973, most African and large Caribbean colonies won their independence. Dissenting intellectuals and writers from these regions decided to appropriate The Tempest as a means of supporting decolonization and creating an alternative literary tradition.2 In The Tempest African and Caribbean writers saw hints of pre-European traditions and European colonization. These 'proleptic' signs suggested raw material for retrieving repressed traditions and inventing new ones. In Europe itself, as I have suggested, there was already opposition to the imperial view, so that, as usual, there were not two monolithic sides to this debate, Europe on the one hand and Africa and the Caribbean on the other. For forty years or more—in Spanish, French and English—African and Caribbean writers and critics have, directly and indirectly, appropriated or discussed the appropriation of Shakespeare's play. For instance, in 1961 Aimé Césaire's 'Une Tempête ': d'après ' La Tempête ' de ShakespeareAdaption pour un théâtre nègre is published in Paris.3 During the 1970s, The Tempest is not used as much as a tool of opposition in decolonizing cultures. From the mid-1970s, the interest in colonization in the Renaissance, and in The Tempest, begins among scholars later known as new historicists. This tradition of dissent from within continues among scholars of European descent and seems to have culminated with the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus'...

(The entire section is 9,265 words.)