In 1969 Aimé Césaire published his spinoff of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Césaire’s version, A Tempest, exaggerates and modifies characters in order to illuminate certain of their traits, and to deal directly with questions of colonization raised by Shakespeare’s original work. Specifically, Césaire demonstrates the several types of mindsets common to colonization, and offers insight into the factors which first made imperialism possible despite the suspicion or hostility of native people. This essay will focus on three of Césaire’s primary characters and their relations to one another, and their roles in the narrative of colonialism. It will first be seen that Prospero, the colonizer, lacks any true power: despite the westerner’s repeated assertions of supremacy, he is toying with forces outside of his control, and poses very little actual threat. This granted, the colonizer must establish his rule through illusion, which is accomplished in great part through Ariel, the second noteworthy character: Ariel believes Prospero to possess great magic, and assists his oppressor by strengthening to others the false notion that here is a man to be feared. Finally there is Caliban, Césaire’s ideal colonized subject: though not unaffected by Prospero’s influence, Caliban clings to the remnants of his identity and eventually stands up to the tyrant, breaking Prospero’s hold at last. In A Tempest Césaire has created not only a psychological history of colonialism but also a blueprint on how to break the oppressor’s chains: cultural pride and fearless defiance. True power lies not with Prospero, but with Caliban.
Readers familiar with Shakespeare’s play will come into A Tempest with the preconception of Prospero as a mighty sorcerer, this being the way in which Shakespeare and his audiences likely viewed the banished Duke of Milan. In reading Césaire’s text however it becomes evident that this Prospero is weak, grasping and cruel: a pathetic shell of a man. Both Shakespeare’s and Césaire’s texts are concerned with colonization, Prospero being recognized as the invading force; but while Shakespeare’s work is ambiguous in many respects and serves in great part only to raise questions, A Tempest readily condemns the colonizer as a mentally unstable villain. Césaire’s Prospero is obsessed with control: on the island, he works to recreate his surroundings in his own likeness, enslaving the natives and imagining a hierarchy with himself at the top. After tempting the lords with a feast and then removing it, Prospero replaces it again and complains, “My mood has changed! They insult me by not eating. They must be made to eat out of my hand like chicks” (31). If Shakespeare’s character is a symbol for God, then Césaire’s is a man who believes he is God, forcing others to do his bidding and becoming angry when crossed. In an article about Shakespeare’s protagonist, Pamela Powesland writes of what she calls the Prospero complex, in which a man is drawn to uninhabited lands which can then be “filled with the creatures of our own imagination: Calypso, Ariel, Friday” (101). The problem with such a complex is that no such lands exist. But, writes Powesland, they can be almost experienced through colonization:
Colonial countries are still the nearest approach to the archetype of the desert island, and the native still best represents the archetype of the socius and the enemy, Friday and the cannibals. So, then, colonial life is simply a substitute for those who are still obscurely drawn to a world without men-to those, that is, who have failed to make the effort necessary to adapt infantile images to adult reality. (105)
In light of these assertions it becomes easy to view the colonizer as stubborn, desperate, an overgrown child. Prospero fits this description perfectly. Césaire’s Caliban is not a savage, but Prospero insists on treating him like one: “Beating is the only language you really understand” (19). When Ariel questions his master, Prospero reacts with wrath: “Oh, so you’re upset, are you! It’s always like that with you intellectuals! Who cares! What interests me is not your moods, but your deeds!” (16). Caliban and Ariel are both good people, but Prospero refuses to see them as such. In his desperation to achieve order, Prospero disregards fact in favor of black and white thinking. These examples show that the colonizer is hungry for power and has no patience for those who oppose his desire. He is villainous, possibly insane, and admirable in nothing.
This portrayal of Prospero would be disconcerting indeed, if he possessed any real power; but Césaire has adapted Shakespeare’s protagonist in order to portray a helpless colonizer, one whose magic is weak and who depends on lies. It is significant that Césaire has chosen this path, criticizing not only the mentality of the colonist but his abilities as well. Where Prospero’s insatiable greed for control made him deplorable, the extreme limitations of his power make him laughable: he is not to be taken seriously. When Prospero holds a pageant for Ferdinand and Miranda the festivities are crudely and comically interrupted by the trickster Eshu; “What are you doing here?” demands the flustered Prospero, “Who invited you?” (48). The colonizer’s position is shaky; he grasps for control, but it evades him. A Tempest asks readers to recognize that such men deserve no authority. Prior even to the events on the isle Prospero’s weakness had been proven in his own land: “They bribed my people, they stole my charts and documents and, to get rid of me, they denounced me to the Inquisition as a magician and sorcerer” (13). This flashback does little to build confidence in Prospero’s leadership qualities: his very subjects rose against him, and he lacked the ability to subdue them. Near the end of the play this narrative threatens to repeat itself, and Prospero is determined not to lose another realm: “henceforth,” he tells the rebellious Caliban, “I will answer your violence / with violence!” (65); the remainder of the confrontation is not shown, but the outcome is clearly not the one Prospero had envisioned. The final lines of A Tempest show the tyrant to be an old and doddering man; (ellipses do not indicate a break in text): “Cold on this island… Have to think about making a fire… Well, Caliban, old fellow, it’s just us two now, here on the island… only you and me. You and me. You-me… me-you!” (65-66). This is the colonizer, this is the force which longs to rule the isle. Foolish and weak, cruel and unstable, Prospero is to be scorned, not feared.
Acknowledging Prospero’s mind and magic as feeble begs the question of how he is able to maintain apparent control for so long. Ariel, while less interesting than Prospero or Caliban, is an essential character in the plot of colonialism; Prospero’s slave, Ariel grants power to the colonizer and reinforces notions of that power to others. It is noteworthy that in Césaire’s text Ariel does many of these works unwillingly: “Master,” he says after conjuring the tempest, “I must beg you to spare me this kind of labor” (16). Later he is forced to taunt the lords, and objects to Prospero: “It’s evil to play with their hunger as you do with their anxieties and their hopes” (32). Such instances, paired with his desire for freedom, show that Ariel is not a malicious or willing agent of Prospero’s deeds. He has grudgingly but genuinely accepted his master’s supremacy: his might and his ability to rule. Some writers have condemned the Ariels of the world as traitors to their culture, but Césaire draws a more sympathetic picture. His Ariel is not one-dimensional, he is merely following what he believes to be a necessary course; his sin therefore is not in siding with the colonizer, but in lacking the courage to challenge him. This is not to say however that Césaire’s Ariel is ideal, for he empowers the tyrant both through knowing acts as aforementioned and through well-meaning speeches to others. “It’s no use trying to resist, young man,” he tells Ferdinand; “My master is a sorcerer: neither your passion nor your youth can prevail against him. Your best course would be to follow and obey him” (23). In the next scene he speaks to Caliban of his master’s dark plans: “I came to warn you. Prospero is planning horrible acts of revenge against you… he’s stronger than you are” (26). By keeping others in fear of the oppressor, Ariel only strengthens the tyrant’s grip on the isle. Essentially, Ariel does Prospero’s job for him. This is what Chinweizu refers to in “Calibans vs. Ariels” when he writes that “as long as Ariel leads in the Third World, Prospero’s old world order-whether economic, cultural, political or informational-will be safe” (2). Unlike some colonized subjects Ariel does not bear the yoke willingly; he is neither proud nor happy with his position, but he believes in the strength of Prospero’s magic and he accepts a life of degraded submission. Césaire illustrates how such men only reaffirm the authority of their masters, and while he would not have us despise Ariel outright, he does give another, nobler servant in the person of Caliban.
The hero of Césaire’s play and easily the most honorable character, Caliban is an example to colonized people in that he refuses to accept his master’s authority. His fight is not one for victory but for integrity: he never expects to beat Prospero, who has humiliated and alienated him, but he holds fast to his belief in Prospero as a usurper, and mourns the loss of his past identity. John McLeod sums up Frantz Fanon’s argument that “the colonised subject… is forced into the internilisation of the self as an ‘other'” (23); that is, an outsider. Through the repeated insults and arrogant manner of the colonizer, Caliban has come to view himself, against his will, as inferior. He was once free, but is now nothing more than a slave to Prospero, a slave to the civilized man who will never accept him. “Call me X,” Caliban tells his master; “That would be best. Like a man without a name. Or, to be more precise, a man whose name has been stolen… you’ve stolen everything from me, even my identity!” (20). But in spite of despair Caliban remembers that he was once something more than what Prospero has made him. Unlike Ariel who accepts servitude, Caliban clings to his last scraps of honor: “Prospero,” he says,
you’re a great magician:
you’re an old hand at deception.
And you lied to me so much,
about the world, about myself,
that you ended up by imposing on me
an image of myself:
underdeveloped, in your words, undercompetent
that’s how you made me see myself!
And I hate that image, and it’s false! (61-62)
Ariel is content to bow, but Caliban is the subject who never ceases to stand up for himself. He trades insult for insult with Prospero, and marches against him while singing of a god who will destroy the colonist’s ways:
Shango carries a big stick,
he strikes and money expires!
He strikes and lies expire!
He strikes and larceny expires!
Shango, Shango ho! (52).
Caliban is humiliated, but never converted. He retains the songs and beliefs of his old life. He is a thorn in Prospero’s side, and the force which will eventually break the tyrant’s power. Césaire, in choosing Caliban as his protagonist, illustrates a twofold defense against oppression: memory, and defiance.
Césaire shows his readers, through Caliban, that the determined slave can overthrow his master. It has been demonstrated that Prospero is weak, and gleans most of his power from Ariel. Although Caliban believes in his master’s strength he never willingly compromises himself, making him an honorable character if a tragic one. “The day when I begin to feel that everything’s lost,” he tells Ariel, “just let me get hold of a few barrels of your infernal powder and as you fly around up there in your blue skies you’ll see this island, my inheretence, my work, all blown to smithereens” (28). He knows the deck is stacked against him and he fully believes his story will end in disaster; he lives to cross Prospero, and he will die to spite him. But Caliban’s story does not end unhappily. Quite against the expectations of the reader, of Prospero, and of Caliban himself, the play ends with the colonizer’s power broken, and the slave rejoicing in newfound freedom. Césaire would prove that the rebel’s task is not a hopeless one: that in spite of all apparent odds, the colonized subject may overcome.
Aimé Césaire amends Shakespeare’s original characters of Prospero, Ariel and Caliban in order to show the mindsets behind colonialism and to make an argument on how to fight against it. He portrays an obsessive tyrant who grasps for power, a grudging servant who fears his master, and a rebellious slave whose conviction is strong enough to break the oppressor’s hold. A Tempest encourages readers to follow the noble example of this last character, and assures them that the wretched colonizer will fall at last.
Césaire, Aimé. A Tempest. Trans. Richard Miller. NY: TGC Translations, 1985.
Chinweizu, Ibekwe. “Calibans vs. Ariels” in Decolonizing the African Mind. Lagos, Nigeria:
McLeod, John. Beginning Postcolonialism. 2nd edition. NY: Manchester University Press, 2010.
Powesland, Pamela. “Crusoe and Prospero” in Octave Mannoni, Prospero and Caliban: The
Psychology of Colonization. Trans. Anne Arbor. MI: University of Michigan Press, 1990.