Saturday, September 23, 2006

Prospero's Daughter

Channeling Shakespeare: Prospero's daughter turns a classic plot inside out to examine questions about colonization, race and rape

IMAGINE ME, A 14-YEAR-OLD BROWN-skinned girl, fixing on the island of Trinidad, a colony of England. I am lucky enough to have won a scholarship to one of the premier secondary schools that the British colonial government had helped to establish for the children of the plantation owners and the British colonial masters. Imagine I am sitting in Mother Perpetua's class (not her real name). We are reading The Tempest, a play by William Shakespeare. In that play, a European, Prospero, and his daughter, Miranda, have been set adrift on the ocean by Prospero's envious, evil brother. Prospero and Miranda end up on an isolated, tropical island. There are two creatures on the island, one a deformed, freckled male savage called Caliban, and the other an airy spirit, Ariel.

When the play begins, Prospero and Miranda have been on the island for 12 years. We learn that it is only recent that Prospero has imprisoned Caliban. Prospero tells us why. He says Caliban "didst seek to violate the honor of my child." In other words, Caliban had attempted to rape Miranda.

Mother Perpetua does not hide her revulsion. I think it is not our hot, tropical climate that makes her face turn beet red. I think it is this talk of sex, the picture she has formed in her head of a black man raping a young white woman. Her voice rises and perspiration pearls on her top lip as she reads lines from the play where Prospero calls Caliban a savage, a lying slave, a misshapen knave whose body grows uglier with age, "a born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick."

Mother Perpetua takes out her handkerchief and wipes her brow. Caliban is an ungrateful brute, she tells us, unappreciative of the kindness Prospero has extended to him. Her indignation is as righteous as Prospero's when Prospero lashes out at Caliban for his ingratitude: "I have us'd thee / (Filth as thou art) with humane care, and lodg'd thee / In mine own cell...."

On Being Colonized

I cringe in my seat because, even at 14, I cannot miss the parallels between my situation in a British colony and Caliban's. In both our cases, Europeans have come to our islands, and though surely they have laid claim to our land, they have given us much in return. I am proof of their beneficence, siring in a classroom, getting an education they have been kind enough to provide for me. Prospero, too, makes it clear that his stinging condemnation is directed not only at Caliban. Caliban is "a lying slave / Whom stripes may move, not kindness" He later says Caliban belongs to a "vile race."

But Caliban does not cringe. He strikes out at Prospero. He taunts him: "You taught me language; and my profit on't / Is, I know how to curse. / The red plague rid you / For learning me your language!"

Imagine me now an older teenager, giddy with the pride that has overtaken my island, now that Trinidad has gained its independence from England. The Barbadian writer George Lamming publishes The Pleasures of Exile. He proclaims Caliban a hero, a Caribbean man who defies the colonizer and claims his rightful ownership of his island. I reread The Tempest. I commit to memory Caliban's audacious assertion: "This island's mine by Sycorax my mother / Which thou tak'st from me."

Imagine me now in graduate school in the United States, working on a dissertation for a Ph.D. in English literature. I ask my professor to explain what Prospero means when he says Caliban's mother was "a blue-eyed hag." Was Caliban's mother a white woman? I ask. Oh surely not, my professor says. Caliban is meant to be a sort of savage, a colored man, his name a derivative of cannibal. Hag is the operative word. Caliban's mother was an old black woman whose eyes had turned blue because of cataracts, he explains. Tricky Shakespeare! Let's say Caliban's mother had Caliban at 20 (which is old, given that she slept around), she would have had to be at least 75 for the cataracts to thicken so her eyes would appear blue.

Which means Caliban was a dirty old man around age 55 when he attempted to rape a 15-year-old virgin. Must one add lecherous old man to the names Prospero calls Caliban? To what degree must one suspend logic to avoid identification with Caliban?

In Killens Class

Imagine me now a professor at Medgar Evers College. I am chairperson of the Humanities Division. The extraordinary African American writer John Oliver Killens joins our faculty as writer-in-residence. He asks me if I have ever been interested in becoming a writer. I have been waiting years for someone to ask me that question.

Encouraged by his genuine interest and his kindly manner, I dare to show him some scraps of paper on which I have scribbled the beginnings of a novel. The next week, I am in his Saturday writing workshop. In it are Terry McMillan, who is working on Mama; Doris Jean Austin, who is writing After the Garden; and Arthur Flowers, who has started De Mojo Blues.

Killens inspires us. He tells us that every time he picks up his pen or strikes a key on the keyboard, his intent is to change the world. He tells us that writers of color have a responsibility to use their talents to change the negative ways in which people of color see themselves, and the negative ways in which they are portrayed by others. He makes me think of the days I hung my head in shame as Mother Perpetua castigated Caliban. He makes me think of my outrage later on, after I read Lamming. He makes me try to examine my attitude toward the British, why in spite of my anger for their colonization of my island, I continue to admire them and find it impossible to summon up a rage similar to the rage that many of my African American friends have toward white America.

Killens dies too soon, four short years after I met him, one short year after he and I worked together to organize the first National Black Writers Conference at which the venerable Maya Angelou spoke, and which I continued to direct for 17 more years, drawing on the capital Killens left behind, which brought distinguished writers to our college who had not forgotten how generously he had shared his talent and knowledge with them. I write five novels, but I continue to be haunted by Killens's charge to writers of color; I continue to be haunted by my discomfort with scholarly interpretations of The Tempest. I ask myself questions I had not asked in my doctoral dissertation. I ask why, after 12 years of an apparently amicable relationship with Caliban, does Prospero turn on him? What actually happened between Miranda and Caliban? What connection is there in the coincidental timing of Prospero's desperation to find a husband for Miranda and his accusation that Caliban attempted to rape her?

I write a novel to find the answers. I write Prospero's Daughter. It is a contemporary novel about an English doctor, Philip Gardner, who, with his daughter, Virginia, is stranded on a former leper colony off the coast of Trinidad. Living on the island is a boy, Carlos, whose eyes, like his mother's, are blue, and a girl, Ariana. Twelve years later, Gardner accuses Carlos of attempting to rape Virginia. Why? What really happened on the island between Carlos and Virginia? What part does Gardner play in the events that lead up to this accusation? Is Ariana, as Caribbean scholars have said of Shakespeare's Ariel, a wilting lackey to Gardner? Is she, like Ariel, a spy for the European? What hold does Gardner have on her?

It takes me four years, writing and rewriting, destroying page after page--at one time, almost a hundred pages--to discover the answers to these questions. Prospero's Daughter, of course, was many more years in the making.

Elizabeth Nunez, City University of New York Distinguished Professor at Medgar Evers College, is the author of five other novel, including Bruised Hibiscus


Blogger AimerVoyage said...

The only thing that Africans have in common with Caliban was that they were oppressed. That's about as far as it goes. In the beginning Prospero did trust Caliban. He learned from him. If it hadn't been for Caliban, Prospero's survival on the island would have been a question. But Caliban betrayed that trust when he tried to rape Miranda. The author brings that into question, but either he did or he didn't try. Therefore, he deserved the punishment that he received, for his evil deeds, not because of who he was. However, Africans did not commit these evil deeds. They didn't wrong any englishmen. They were pretty content with being secluded from the world and we snatched them out as slaves.
I can't help but notice that MOST (not all) african americans will find representation of THEIR situation in any character that has been oppressed, as if they are the only people that have ever been seen as inferior.
Caliban says that the only benefit that he has had from learning Prospero's language was that he knew how to curse, and I can't help but wonder if african americans are so similar to Caliban, would they rather still be in Africa and being oppressed by their own government, or here in America where everyone is continually trying to make things up to them? I guess that they do actually have something in common there, no matter what we do to make things "right", they will never be satisfied.

6:31 AM  
Blogger pinkismyfavoritecolor said...

In order to understand where Caliban falls into place when one is considering social status or values of human beings, you first need to look at Prospero. No matter what you're views on Caliban's status are, one cannot argue that his place in the Tempest has been severely affected by Prospero's wealthy, power-driven persona. Would we really have the same feelings about Caliban if Prospero had been a poor man who had not come from a position of power? We would certainly not understand why Caliban was enslaved, nor would we understand why Prospero had any right to be in charge. However, on an island when money doesn't matter, and an ex-duke has no population to control, the social status sterotype still holds true. Caliban is a slave to Prospero because this is how things seem to fall into place in our world. The same example can be used with slavery of Africans by the Americans...If Americans would have never considered themselves well to do or powerful beyond belief, they would have never pulled off the slavery of a population who had no money nor education. So maybe this isn't about the poor, oppressed, or enslaved. Maybe this has everything to do with the people in power and the criteria for power which has obviously not changed much over the years. Today, a poor average person is going to ultimately be controlled by someone wealthy and most likely educated (in a workplace). How would we have expected our slaves, such as Caliban, to honor their master when all we are is flesh and blood when it comes down to whats important. Caliban could have been a perfect person and no one would have ever known it because of his position in life. The "rape incident" could have been a completely innocent misunderstanding and could have still gotten turned around. (consider the number of Americans falsely accused of crimes in American each year just because of their social status) It is quite unfortunate though, that some people are born into the lives that they will continue until they die, and nothing they can do can ever change that. Thinking about things in this way makes me have a lot of compassion for Caliban no matter how rotten Shakespeare tries to make him appear to be. Sometimes, there more than meets the eye.

9:19 PM  
Blogger elle_ecrit87 said...

I don't know if Shakespeare was meaning to allude to colinization when he first wrote The Tempest, but literature is meant to affect people in different ways. THere are a lot of plays and books that were written centuries ago that are affecting people today in a completely different way than they were originally intended. I can see where she is coming from, however i think sometimes she takes Shakespeare to literally. He was a writer, not a doctor or a historian. For example, he probably just new that old people got cateracts and their eyes turned blue, he didn't know how old you had to be for the cateracts to get so bad they turned your eyes blue. Most writers don't dismiss logic for the sake of their argument or writing. And yes, Caliban was talked about as being a savage and probably dark skinned, however I feel that anyone who is oppressed could relate to that. What I do agree with her on though, is how does a 12 year relationship go completely down the tubes in a matter of a few lines. And, what exactly did happen?
Also, I agree with aimervoyage in that, Caliban deserved a punishment after attempting rape. Africans did nothing to deserve their being overtaken and enslaved, so the parallel again isn't there.
I feel for the author of thos article in that in her classes her teachers and peers seemed to focus too much on the fact that Caliban was "dark" and therefore she took it more personally. I don't think Shakespeare meant his color to have THAT much to do with it... although it did have something to do with it because africans were seen as uncivilized. However, there are many groups that could identify with Caliban in today's day and age, such as the native americans. Also, Africans were oppressed before the Englishmen got to Africa. African tribes have been enslaving each other and treating each other worse than Americans/Europeans treated them during slavery for centuries. Many times, the African tribes would cell the white people the people they had enslaved from rival tribes. Yes, many Africans could see themselves in Caliban, but they are not the only group that could do so.

9:32 AM  
Blogger elle_ecrit87 said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:32 AM  
Blogger daltonRussell said...

I really like pinkismyfavoritecolor's idea. I did not think about this when I first read the article. It seems though that after reading these comments, that I agree with pink's the most. I would personally look at Caliban completely differently if Prospero were of a different social status. I think that focusing on Prospero's social status can show us why Caliban was "suddenly" enslaved. I think that it also had to do with the fact that Prospero was close to setting is daughter up for marriage anyways. I personally never really thought of Caliban as a different race. I just thought of him as someone who happened to be on the wrong deserted island. Even if Caliban were not dark-skinned, I think the same things would have happened. He still would have been savage. He still in my mind, would have tried to rape Prospero's daughter. So again, I think it has to do more with the Power-hungry than with the oppressed. If we focused on what the power hungry would have done, we would see that they would want power, whether or not the slave on the island was dark-skinned or white. So I am basically saying that this writer's whole life work of identifying a connection between race and the Tempest should kind of be thrown out the window because I don't think it has anything to do with race, I think it has to do with power.

1:53 PM  
Blogger wishlahaylagon said...

I think it's interesting to look at how a learned habit of social status haunts people even when they are completely removed fromteh place where it is a part of everyday life. It's really scary actually that the beleifs that we are better or subordinate to another "class" of people. IN the case of Claiban and Prospero both are bound by th echains of society on a place where Prospero's society had never graced before. That gives a bit of insight on how colonialism went about. I have to laugh because I know that I could do the same thing around here. If I dressed in an expensive business suit, was well-groomed with a luxurious car and acted like I knew I was better than everyone else around here most people would defer to me. They'd hate it every second perhaps, but that's what we've been conditioned to do.

9:42 AM  
Blogger Beatrice Baudelaire said...

Successful colonization of an island community by outsiders, in general, warps the pre-existing psychology and attitude of the native people. The inhabitants go from being independent moral entities to being the oppressed who have been imprinted with the goals, ideals, and motives of their captors. The author of this text experienced the "good side" of the imprint through formalized education (a Western value) while Calliban experienced the angry wrath of the oppressor.
In the case of both Calliban's island and Trinidad, property of non-western cultures has been colonized by western thinkers. On a side note, it has generally appeared to me that invasion of non-Westerners by Westerners has been viewed as natural imperialism or manifest destiny while the invasion of Westerners by Westerners has been considered a war crime (think Poland and Germany.) In "Prospero's Daughter," we read descriptions of Calliban from both the colonist's and the native point of view. Mother Perpetua, a colonist, describes Calliban with both fear and contempt. Denial that Calliban is not meant to parallel Africans is neither credible nor founded in either Shakespeare's text or his reputation as a writer. Shakespeare meant to play on the insecurity of white Europeans, and the fear and contempt they felt for their African slaves. It was not Shakespeare's intention or purpose to be PC, and the detail that he attributes to his descriptions of Calliban confirms this.

2:10 PM  
Blogger Esrever said...

First off, to say that twelve years passing before Caliban attempts to rape Miranda makes Shakespeare less credible is ridiculous. I’m not a sex crime expert, but I’m pretty sure there isn’t a sex offender law saying that rape must be committed before the first twelve years of knowing someone. Anyway, like daltonrussel says, power is the main focus of Shakespeare, not race. I’ve read about half a dozen of Shakespeare’s works, and this is the only one that I’ve read that even mentions skin color. Wouldn’t he have written more works delving into race if that’s what he intended to be the main focus of his plays? It makes no sense to focus on Shakespeare’s treatment of race, but refuse to acknowledge his representation of women in his plays. Caliban is one example of “racism” within Shakespeare, but I can name off multiple female characters who are portrayed as being mentally weak and helpless compared to their male counterparts. For example, the Shakespearian characters of Lady Macbeth, Juliet, and Ophelia—all of whom are originally portrayed as being mentally strong characters—ultimately take their own lives by the end of their respective plays. Now I’m not saying that Shakespeare’s views toward womankind are unfair because I personally couldn’t care less about how he portrays different sexes and races (there’s much more importance behind his works, which is why they are still taught today), but I do think that the race card is being played far too much in modern times. If a black man raped my friend and I told people of this instance, there would be many people who would see me as a racist. Don’t make Prospero’s treatment of Caliban into a racial issue; Prospero is portrayed as being practically all-knowing, so I think it’s fair to say that Caliban isn’t being falsely accused of rape. There were only three people who could have tried to rape Miranda, and I highly doubt that Prospero nor his obedient servant Ariel were the ones who attempted to sexually assault her. Face it, there is far more emphasis put on Prospero’s absolute power than on Caliban’s skin color. Call me racist, but it’s ignorant to degrade Shakespeare by pointing out examples of “racial hatred” in his works. Munez is horrible at analyzing Shakespeare’s works, but she’s absolutely phenomenal at twisting around his words...

6:22 PM  
Blogger AubergineClementine said...

Aimervoyage, your white privilege is showing. Africans, and African Americans for that matter, have endured centuries of oppression and your dismissal of their "situation" and so-called dissatisfaction is interesting.
Although you're correct that African Americans are not the only people that have ever been oppressed, it's not fair to say that "we" (and by that I assume you mean the white population, the white dominated government, etc.)are the ones that are making their lives better. I don't know many white people that are fighting for the rights of the black population, I'm pretty positive that African Americans are fighting for themselves. I mean, we can't even make Band-aids that match the skin of anyone but a white person, much less create any more social benefits.

7:30 PM  
Blogger swiffer_mop1234 said...

I agree with elle_crit87. I do think that the author is looking too deep into this. I can see where she would get offended with the association with Caliban having dark skin. I think African Americans are always on the edge of their seat thinking someone is judging them, especially someone like the author who has worked so hard to get where they are today. However, I do not think that Shakespeare's intent was to offend anyone. I don't know if that was the thought of the times that dark skinned people were savages or not. But since the play was about Englishmen, he may have simply wanted to bring out a difference in appearance between the Englishmen and Caliban. I mean none of us can ask Shakespeare, so who knows?

7:32 PM  
Blogger Larogoth said...

Through reading the article and the current entries, I find that I mostly agree with pinkismyfavoritecolor. According to pinkismyfavoritecolor we feel the way that we do towards Caliban is mainly due to the social standing of Prospero and that had Prospero been poor we would not have been able to understand any reason for Caliban for being enslaved. I agree with this because, given that Prospero had been a duke he was used to controlling. Once he was removed from dukedom he still contained the need for controlling. Had Prospero never experienced control in such a strong way, I don't think that he would have gone to such an extent to have enslaved Caliban.

10:36 PM  
Blogger Magic Chicken said...

I'm really not sure what to think about this. Part of me is screaming “the author has missed the point!” I doubt that Shakespeare was attempting to go into the issues of slavery and similar oppression all that much. Many of his plays focused on the collapse of the feudal system and the thought processes that characters went through following it. Racial oppression and slavery, while they probably did happen in Shakespeare's time, were not major issues that he wrote about. The only reason that this shows up in The Tempest tends to be to setup the situation that leads to Prospero winning back his title. I can't really understand the parallels being drawn to the British colonies because of this, regardless of the small passages that the author quotes. What the author has attempted to do here reminds me a lot of book to movie transitions (I suppose this is a play to book transition): details get twisted at times just to fit in pretty special effects or to make the source material into what the director wants. In this case, the author seems to have completely skipped over Prospero's intentions for building power on the island in favor of going into detail about what Mother Perpetua thinks of a single moment in the play or what the author thinks at various stages of life of that same moment. I'm basically saying what some other people have already said: the author is looking too deep for something that isn't really there all that much.

11:16 PM  
Blogger bob_barker_is_my_hero said...

I find it interesting how the author makes the connection of There being a more underlying reason to Prospero turning on Calliban and treating him worse. The thought that there could have been something more going on between Miranda and Calliban deserves some attention. Its logical that Miranda could have had some infatuation with Calliban because he was the only other male on the island other than her father. Her father was pretty desperate to get Miranda married to the prince. He may have been desperate to get her to marry the prince, as part of his plan, before she messed things up by going to Calliban.

8:35 AM  
Blogger Morsmordre said...

I agree with several of the earlier comments. I don't think that the subjugation of Caliban is a racial slam against black people. Prospero subjugates him for two reasons: 1. Prospero is obsessed with power and he already has control over Miranda and Ariel so naturally he decides to control Caliban. 2. Caliban attempted to rape his daughter so he deserves what he gets. I've also heard people say that Shakespeare makes Caliban black so as to attribute evil to the race. This is simply modern society imposing our views and social customs on a different time and society. Many people today associate black people with crimes such as murder, rape, and gang violence but that is simply because they fear what is different, the media portrays crime as this, and black people tend to fight back ferociously when lashed out against (completely understandable given our country's history) which simply spurs more violence.

7:43 AM  
Blogger The Filthy Titan said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4:37 PM  
Blogger The Filthy Titan said...

I have but this to say- what brilliance.

This woman is brilliant- the concept of Caliban's mother being white would change history! And it's not like Caliban doesn't deserve a break after years of being condemned.

And I like how she makes this her history- showing just *why* it's so personal to her.

Hearing about race issues from Jolly Old White England (and White Europe, in general) is fascinating, because I've always believed we look at Europe through (if you'll forgive a very-much-intended pun) white lenses, and that colors our beliefs. It was African Muslims, after all, who rioted in France- yet you don't really hear about that.

Or that they rioted due to lack of work because so few French would hire anyone of African descent.

Rough times.

Anyway, this leaves me but with one thought- I'd rather like to read Prospero's Daughter now.

Think I'll do that, in fact.

4:41 PM  

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