Oppressed fairies on a dictator's isle

The Tempest and Its Travels

April 12, 2001

That "space" is the new paradigm is apparently axiomatic on screen and at publishing houses. Simon Schama on landscape, Iain Sinclair on London, Patrick Wright on the river and Dava Sobel on longitude have all been "reading" geographical spaces. The Tempest and Its Travels , a collection of essays broadly aligned with prevailing colonialist and post-colonialist interpretation, is also about space; it happily (more or less) resists the tendency to surrender, like some neohistoricist writing, to intellectual hipness for its own sake.

Work of the past two decades on The Tempest has emphasised power relationships: Prospero's tyranny figures imperial oppression of native peoples; his absolute control over his daughter's understanding speaks to patriarchal aggression against womankind; he is the boss from hell, a curmudgeonly clock-watcher, as John Berryman once observed, who toys with the expectations of his helpless servants and slaves, the emblem of governing-class domination of labour (if indeed there is an oppressed fairy class with whom Ariel might claim solidarity); and of course his usurpation of and physical brutality to Caliban is the central feature of post-imperial critical perception, signalling all appropriations of aboriginal land-title, all obliterations of native cultures, and all savageries committed by white Europeans against other-coloured others. Stephen Orgel, the play's Oxford editor, observes that The Tempest "tempts us to fill in its blanks, to create a history that will account for its action"; and these essays wonder about those blanks, those imagined spaces, cultural and psycho-geography - Italy, the New World, the Mediterranean, North Africa, and islands in general - that are blended in the play, as well as the space it has afforded to colonisers and to colonised indigenes. The volume's imaginative variety of approach wonderfully acknowledges that the play is an isle full of noises, that the themes of The Tempest , like its teasing geography, are open and spacious.

Its landscapes have very often been read as thematically, if not literally, American, in accord with the apparent echoes of William Strachey's account of the wreck of the Sea Venture off Bermuda in 1609, a reading that has sometimes tangled the quasi-historical features of a Jacobean fiction with the modernity of late 20th-century experience. This collection insists that we make something of the ostensible setting of the play (an island somewhere in the Mediterranean), a task we cannot perform without first considering what a home-based English perception of such an exotic place would have been, the perception from which Shakespeare and his audience would have understood ideas such as "Mediterranean", "Africa", "America" and "island".

Within such spatio-cultural concepts, the section entitled "Local Knowledge" discusses among other things the presence of Native Americans in Elizabethan England (Alden Vaughan), the received classical tradition about exotic old-world places (Barbara Mowat) and London as an Elizabethan "world city" whose commercial and diplomatic practices familiarised or reconstructed the exotic (Crystal Bartolovich). "European and Mediterranean Crossroads" includes two of the most luminous essays, by Marina Warner (on the Circe myth) and Robin Kirkpatrick (on England's Italy). Sturdy, lively scholarship from other contributors makes account of certain tapestry subjects, vast art-objects that take exploration, discovery and conquest as their subjects (Jerry Brotton); and of how national interpretations of international law inflect Caliban's claim to the island (Patricia Seed).

With the veracity of Prospero's account of his own and the island's history so often called into question by critics and directors who regard his control of the facts as a kind of totalitarian practice, a distinguished crop of Tempest-inspired works of the past two centuries - Latin American, Carib, Cuban and Martinican productions and rewritings of the play by Aimé Césaire, George Lamming and others - provide a Calibanical riposte, a history written by the losers. Here, however, there is also a rare weakness in this otherwise impressive and interesting collection. Several contributions are descriptive accounts (or justifications) of recent performances of these post-Shakespearean rewritings, whose precision of thought and expression sometimes leave much to be desired. Moreover, at least one (concerned with "discourse around [ sic ] power structures, immigration, etc. (sic)") is a lesson in the dreariest and most narrowing academic political correctness.

Another happier kind of Shakespearean "overwriting" comes from Hogarth's painting of a scene from the play, from which David Dabydeen argues by implication that Hogarth was as brilliant a reader as he was a painter. And Hilda Doolittle's Tempest section in By Avon River (1949) is a meditation on Claribel, one of the play's several absent women, herself a victim of the space between Italy and Tunis; Martha Nell Smith and Marina Warner echo H.D.'s question: why are Sycorax, Miranda's mother and Claribel all banished from this play? H.D.'s contribution is, however, an oddity in its own terms: the chosen setting ought to have been archipelagic Greece, the space of her spare, salt-washed poems of ancient magic and tragedy. In the neater landscape of Warwickshire she seems to lose the pith of her other late long poems. It is a rare moment when The Tempest does not summon a poet's best.

The most moving overwriting of the play is the Cherokee artist Jimmie Durham's Untitled (Caliban's Mask), 1992 (glass eyes, button, PVC, glue). Although - disappointingly - only this single instalment is reproduced, it is part of a series of multimedia works "by" Caliban the student of "Dr Prospero", whom he fawningly addresses in a neatly handwritten letter accompanying the mask. It is the mask itself that utterly disarms, with its heart-breaking, complex glance gravely illuminating the paltry bits and pieces of which it is made. This child-like self-portrait with its adult eye is the defeated Caliban who has been kept tame and been presented (perhaps by Stephano) to the western powers as a trophy of conquest, the furious-eager Caliban who has learned to curse (and has now forsworn cursing), who cringes before masterful outsiders, who understands the politics, as well as the procreativity, of "peopling", the Caliban who reminds Prospero that he is, like these multiple readings of The Tempest , "all the subjects that you have".

Claire Preston is a fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.

The Tempest and Its Travels

Editor - Peter Hulme and William H. Sherman
ISBN - 1 86189 066 4
Publisher - Reaktion
Price - £14.95
Pages - 319

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