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The Tempest and Cultural Exchange

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Jean-Marie Maguin

Looking at commercial exchange may prove a convenient way of approaching the problem of cultural exchange in general, for commerce is steeped in all sorts of constraints and traditions and, pragmatic though it appears, still measures desire as much as reason, and reflects an estimated balance of power between seller and buyer. The proverb 'exchange is no robbery' (Heywood, 1542) is significant of a conceptual impediment. No less significant is the adjectival crutch it often uses in order to reassure itself and us that 'a fair exchange is no robbery'. Yet what is a 'fair' exchange? At one end of the scale, exchanging or bartering one necessity for another—so long as the need for the things exchanged is similarly pressing for both parties—may in all likelihood be accounted fair. At the other end of the scale, trading one luxury for another may be found fair as long as it suits the whims and plans of the exchanging parties. The trickster king, Richard III, exclaims 'A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse' (5.7.7). It is Shakespeare who adds the exchange suggestion. All that the source (Hall) says is that when they see that the battle is lost, the king's party 'brought to hym a swyfte and a lyght horse to convey hym awaie'. Are we to understand that Shakespeare's Richard is pinning a low price on his kingdom and a high price on a horse? As we laugh at Richard's desperate offer, are we to ponder also over the well-known fact that 'necessity's sharp pinch', according to Lear's phrase (King Lear 2.2.384), works a strange arithmetic or that need, as Lear puts it more generally some time later (438), is simply not to be reasoned at all? The truth here is more simple. Richard is trying to barter what is no longer his for what may still save his life. Here is the disproportion that goads the audience into smiling or laughing. In this battle scene, poles apart from epic or tragic grandeur, the cheekiness of the character, drawing close to his last gasp, is still in the spirit of farce, but his ultimate deceitful offer, though repeated (5.7.13), will not save him from death.

Less pragmatic, though hardly less artful in its desire to move the listener, is Richard II's exchange programme, carefully built on the rhetorical pattern of gradatio:

I'll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
My gay apparel for an almsman's gown,
My figured goblets for a dish of wood,
My sceptre for a palmer's walking staff,
My subjects for a pair of carvèd saints,
And my large kingdom for a little grave.
                                  (3.3.146-52)

Apart from the revealing—nay, poignant—symbolism of each proposition, the general truth applies to the beginning of the wars of the Roses as it did to the end of them at Bosworth: lost kingdoms go cheap enough.

All exchanges are marked by a triple uncertainty. They bow to circumstances that may suddenly transform a needle into the most precious thing on earth. They defer to subjective preferences whatever those may be. They reflect cultural traits. No two cultures rate their values according to the same scale. The scarcity of a particular product is a local factor and unless it proves a common denominator between the exchanging parties—which virtually precludes exchange of that product—it will lead to mutual misapprehension. To exchange a handful of glass-beads for an ingot of gold arguably sets up each party of that exchange as the other's laughing-stock, if the respective cultural backgrounds are not thoroughly known and mastered. In this respect, all exchanges, commercial bargains included, are coloured by culture.

As a story of visitors setting foot successively on an inhabited island, albeit singly, The Tempest addresess very plainly the problems that arise from cultural difference, and influence exchanges between men, and also, as it turns out, exchanges with supernatural entities. Although the story line adopted by Shakespeare does not...

(The entire section is 5,119 words.)