Among the works that is taught in this curriculum is Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Though the Tucson administration denies the book has been banned, high school teacher Curtis Acosta was told not to teach the play using the “nexus of race, class and oppression” or “issues of critical race theory.”
“What is very clear is that ’The Tempest’ is problematic for our administrators due to the content of the play and the pedagogical choices I have made,” Acosta said in an interview. “In other words, Shakespeare wrote a play that is clearly about colonization of the new world and there are strong themes of race, colonization, oppression, class and power that permeate the play, along with themes of love and redemption.”
This stunning violation of academic freedom and crude imposition of ideological control over public school curriculum spurred me to reread Shakespeare’s mysterious final play and review some of the history of its critical reception and interpretation.
Since its first production in 1611 (just four years after Jamestown was founded) The Tempest has been read theologically, mythically, aesthetically, biographically, psychologically, as well as politically. One of the earliest political interpretations of the play is found in Leslie Fiedler’s 1973 essay “Caliban as the American Indian.” However, the connections of the play to its historical context would have been recognized by its contemporaries.
Its allusions to contemporary travel narratives of a Virginia Company expedition to Jamestown in 1608 are well established in scholarship. The flagship of this fleet was separated from the rest and, having failed to arrive in Jamestown, was presumed to be lost. Nearly a year later the admiral and sailors of the flagship arrived in two small boats, having run aground on the island of Bermuda, where they found food, shelter, and wood to build their boats, despite the site’s reputation as an “Isle of Devils.” This adventure became sensational news in England, and in Act I, scene ii, of The Tempest, Ariel makes explicit reference to “the still-vexed Bermoothes” (always-stormy Bermudas).
It would have also been widely recognized among educated contemporaries that “Caliban” is an anagram of “cannibal” (not necessarily meaning eater of human flesh in this context), and that this sub-human character constitutes a refutation of Montaigne’s well-known essay “Of Cannibals,” translated into English in 1603. This essay is now widely understood as a source of the “noble savage” image of American Indians and the utopian view of the “New World,” in which American Indian society is represented as a kind of ideal state. Gonzalo’s description of his ideal commonwealth in Act II, scene I, of The Tempest echoes the very same language of Montaigne’s description.
In addition, at a time when the transatlantic slave trade is at its height, Shakespeare presents both Ariel and Caliban as slaves to Prospero. It is difficult to deny the connection between Shakespeare’s play and the larger historical context. In order to avoid “the nexus of race, class, and oppression” must teachers in Tucson avoid teaching The Tempest, ignore history entirely while teaching it, or distort history by treating the “New World” metaphor strictly in positive terms and Prospero as a benevolent slave owner so as to avoid creating resentment against white Europeans? Presumably, the malevolent, revengeful characteristics of Caliban, an indigenous creature enslaved by Prospero, would have to be ignored in order to avoid creating resentment against racial groups that have been historically enslaved. In other words some of the most obvious features of the text would have to be distorted.
Like most European literature of Shakespeare’s time, The Tempest is Eurocentric, aristocratic and patriarchal in its world view. Under the Arizona law, that world view could presumably not be critiqued for fear of creating resentment toward Europeans, European-Americans, aristocrats, and men. On the other hand, that world view could not be approved for fear of creating resentment toward non-Europeans, non-European-Americans, commoners, and women. Pity the poor teacher trying to navigate those shoals! Better to avoid the text entirely than create one’s own pedagogical shipwreck in the classroom.
Not surprisingly, The Tempest is a far more complex and ambiguous text than any crude political ideology, and it offers a study in power that Arizona legislators, Tucson administrators, and teachers could learn from.
First, it accurately reflects two competing European visions of the “New World.” On the one hand, it is a Utopia, as Montaigne described—a new Eden, a Promised Land, a “land flowing with milk and honey.” On the other, it is a “hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men,” as William Bradford described Plymouth upon the Pilgrims’ first landing—“a wild and savage” place, primitive, barbaric. If the magic island where Prospero and Miranda are exiled represents the new world, then the sub-human creature Caliban represents the savage view, while the airy spirit Ariel represents the idyllic view. Ariel had been left imprisoned by Caliban’s witch-mother until Prospero arrived after her death, freed him, and then enslaved both Ariel and Caliban. If Prospero represents the Europeans, then, allegorically, does this mean that Europeans have power over both the worst and best of the New World? When Prospero frees Ariel at the end of the play, having used him to achieve a redemptive resolution to the injustice done him by his enemies, does that mean that Europeans will bring out the best in the New World? By keeping Caliban enslaved at the end, does that mean that Europeans will keep the worst of the New World under control? If so, then the play reinforces the contemporary European idea that western conquest had the providential purpose of improving the conquered lands.
Perhaps, but Caliban’s grievances against Prospero are sympathetic, given Prospero’s harsh treatment of him.
This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou takst from me. When thou cam’st first,
Thou strok’st me, and made much of me; would’st give me
Water with berries in’t; and teach me how
To name the bigger light, and how the less,
That burn by day and night. And then I loved thee
And showed thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle,
The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile.
Cursed be I that did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax—toads, beetles, bats, light on you!
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king; and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o’ th’ island. (Act I, scene ii)
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again. (Act III, scene iii)
Thus, if Caliban represents the indigenous people of the new world, then the play does not entirely represent them in an unsympathetic light.
Still, Ariel earns his freedom at the end of the play by obeying Prospero’s orders, while Caliban must do penance for his plot against Prospero, and, perhaps if he reforms himself, can earn his freedom as well. Liberty, it seems, is not a natural right but a privilege to be conferred by one of greater power.
Prospero, himself, had lost his freedom, when his brother, Antonio, usurped his throne as King of Milan and cast him, with his daughter, Miranda, away on the sea to die. Even royalty cannot rest secure in either their liberty or their power. Prospero and Miranda survive, however, having been shipwrecked on the magic island, where Prospero continues with his studies of the magical arts, educating Miranda, and using Caliban and Ariel as slave labor. When Prospero uses his powers to cause the shipwreck of his brother and his co-conspirator, the Duke of Naples, and bring them under the control of his magic on the island, he does not seek revenge. On the contrary, he arranges for the Duke’s son, Ferdinand, and Miranda to fall in love, and then, after allowing the others to believe Ferdinand has drowned, arranges for a reunion and for the redemption of his enemies through the power of his forgiveness. In the end the impending marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda symbolizes the restoration of both family and political harmony, as Prospero resumes his “proper” place on the throne. Of course, Shakespeare’s version of family and political harmony is based on what in his day was considered the natural order of gender and class, a patriarchal and aristocratic “great chain of being,” with men ruling women, and aristocracy, with its own ranking order, ruling commoners.
The treatment of power in the play relies on this hierarchical world view. Order in the world depends upon each level in the great chain of being keeping its place. When a lower level seeks to dominate a higher level, disorder and destruction break out. Thus when Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo allow themselves to be ruled by their physical craving for wine, they become foolish, greedy, vengeful, and violent. It was selfish ambition that led Antonio and Alonso to overthrow Prospero from his rightful throne and establish an alliance that maintained their political rule. On the other hand, it was Prospero’s neglect of his political responsibilities that contributed to his downfall. Prospero’s restoration to his rightful place partly depends upon his recognition of having neglected “worldly ends, all dedicated/To closeness [seclusion] and the bettering of (his) mind….” (Act I, scene ii) Each place in the great chain of being has a responsibility appropriate to that place and failure to execute that responsibility likewise results in disorder. Prospero’s pursuit of knowledge, however, leads to the development of his intellectual and magical powers, which in turn enable him to regain his political power. In addition to physical, social, and intellectual power, the play demonstrates the power of romantic love as Miranda and Ferdinand fall under each other’s spell, the power of filial devotion as Alonso refuses to give up Ferdinand for dead and insists that his compatriots help search for him, the supernatural power represented by Ariel and the island’s barely heard music that even Caliban responds to, and finally the power of compassion, forgiveness, and redemption, as Prospero, once he has his enemies in his power, pardons them rather than taking revenge.
Today, democratic notions of equality and freedom have replaced the Shakespearean aristocratic world view, but we do expect individuals to earn their place in the world, as Ariel had to earn his freedom and Propero had to earn back his throne, and we distinguish between the kind of freedom that causes harm to others and the responsible exercise of freedom that contributes to the well-being of all. Similarly, though we still live in a social hierarchy, we value power-sharing and the appropriate use of social control such that it benefits the general welfare, not the individual wielder of power.
Do teachers of The Tempest appropriately use their power in the classroom to convey the full complexity and ambiguity of the play or do they use the play to advance a narrow ideological agenda? Do Tucson administrators respect the work that teachers have done to earn their positions and their academic freedom? Do they have the right to dictate a teacher’s pedagogy and curricular choices in order to advance their own narrow ideological agenda? Do Arizona lawmakers have the right to deny an ethnic group the opportunity to learn its history and cultural traditions, again, to advance the interests of another ethnic group that happens to have more social power? If their goal is social cohesion among ethnic groups, do they promote that cohesion by the raw exercise of social control?
There are lessons in The Tempest for all parties involved and for all who would read, learn, and act with wisdom and compassion rather than with ignorant authoritarianism.