Aime Cesaire’s A Tempest was written in 1969 during a time when there was an increased pressure for decolonization. Anti-colonial leaders saw an opportunity to make nations out of the colonies of people who wanted to recreate their futures after World War II. Shakespeare’s The Tempest was written in 1611, on the eve of European exploration of the New World. This paper compares these two plays, which are separated by over 150 years, and examines the conflict between the characters of Prospero and his slave, Caliban, who represent the colonizer and the colonized.
The most obvious change in Cesaire’s postcolonial adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest is that he sets the action of the play in a colonial context. By exploring this relationship, Cesaire promotes his idea of Negritude, or the struggle for freedom, and his suggestion for how to gain this freedom. Cesaire’s Caliban is different from Shakespeare’s Caliban in that the former embodies the image of a rebellious colonized people more dynamically and becomes a more sympathetic figure.
The changes that Cesaire makes in the portrayal of Caliban serves to underscore his belief that colonization is wrong and that all men are entitled to certain basic rights. The difference between the two Calibans in these plays reflects the playwrights’ different goals with respect to Caliban’s role in the play. Shakespeare depicts Caliban as a beast, dismissed by others as merely a savage slave. He is a minor character with fewer lines and less stage time than Cesaire’s Caliban. He is genetically inferior, so incapable of behaving in a civilized manner that he can only be controlled by threats and punishments.
Prospero views Caliban as “a devil, a born devil on whose nature/ Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains/ Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost…” (Shakespeare 62). Shakespeare’s Caliban does not have a specific definition of freedom; he merely wants to be freed from Prospero because of his hatred for him. His misbehavior makes him one of several villains in the play. On the other hand, Cesaire’s Caliban is a much more prominent character in the story. He is no longer just an ignorant savage. He is black, a native of the island where the story is set, and he has had his language and culture forcefully taken away from him by Prospero.
He is more vocal and expressive of his anger at having been conquered and enslaved. This Caliban is not a villain, but rather an oppressed slave, justified in fighting the evil Prospero, who abuses his power to strip Caliban of his freedom. Cesaire’s Caliban has a broader understanding of freedom. He believes he has a right to be free and should not have to serve anyone. Furthermore, he is a threat to Prospero’s tenuous grasp on power. These differences in the characteristics of Caliban set up the differences in the message that the plays deliver.
From the play’s opening, Cesaire’s Caliban displays a hatred for colonization and a yearning for freedom, a theme that runs throughout the play. His first word as he enters the stage is “Uhuru! ” which is Swahili for “freedom,” and he sings of an African god, Shango (Cesaire 18). These references to his native language and culture are used as ways to subtly reject Prospero as master. When Caliban skillfully uses similes and double meanings of the “civilized” language of Prospero, he is almost mocking Prospero with his own language.
Shakespeare’s Caliban, to the contrary, has not mastered the language to this level. He can only express his resentment of his powerlessness. “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! ” (Shakespeare 19). As for the rape charge against him, Cesaire’s Caliban claims that Prospero was the one “that put those dirty thoughts in my head” (Cesaire 17). Caliban shows foresight to blame Prospero, instead of helplessly accepting the role of a victim of unlawful sexual urges.
Shakespeare’s Caliban, on the other hand, lusts for Miranda and admits that had Prospero not stopped him, he would have completed the rape. This Caliban has malice in his heart and a lust and desire to populate the island with his offspring. In Shakespeare’s play, Caliban does not accurately represent colonized people because he is portrayed as animalistic and wicked, but the Caliban in A Tempest has been transformed into a more human and civilized character. Compared to Shakespeare’s Caliban, Cesaire’s Caliban is more proactive in his quest for freedom.
The character’s plot to overthrow Prospero is essentially the same in both plays, but Cesaire has changed the plot’s purpose in his adaptation. In The Tempest, Shakespeare’s Caliban conspires with Stephano and Trinculo to kill Prospero. If this plot succeeds, it would ultimately set him free from Prospero’s rule, but he thinks of this idea only after he encounters these two drunkards. The simple scheme also involves Caliban escaping from Prospero, but then becoming Stephano’s servant, so true freedom is not the ultimate goal for him.
The Caliban in A Tempest, however, has a clear end goal of this rebellion – to gain complete freedom. Unfortunately, he realizes too late that these two men are fools. “How could I ever have thought I could create the Revolution with swollen guts and fat faces! Oh well! History won’t blame me for not having been able to win my freedom all by myself” (Cesaire 55). He proceeds to challenge Prospero alone, charging at him with weapon in hand (although he is at a loss when he comes face-to-face with Prospero). Prospero paralyzes him with his words, first commanding him to charge and then refusing to fight.
Caliban fails in his rebellion, but in standing up to Prospero, he gains Prospero’s respect and regains his dignity and identity. Whereas Shakespeare’s Caliban is further humiliated by being dunked in horse-urine at the end of the play, still enslaved by Prospero’s authority, Cesaire’s play ends with Prospero, the colonizer, becoming weaker in power, suggesting that the colonizers are losing the power they once held over their colonies. By the end of A Tempest, the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized has drastically changed, although the struggle between the two is not over.
When asked what the goal of the revolt was, Caliban replies, “To get back my island and regain my freedom,” for if it were up to him, he would “spit [Prospero] out, all [his] works and pomps! [His] white magic! ” (Cesaire 60). This quote illustrates Caliban’s hatred towards his white colonizers and their language and culture. When Prospero offers to make peace with him, Caliban, symbolizing all colonized people, gives his final speech, which summarizes colonized peoples’ desire for freedom.
Caliban declares his awareness of Prospero’s true intentions and his objection to colonization and rejects the lies that Prospero has told him. This is a classic example of the colonized rejecting the colonizer. Through the changes he makes in the character of Caliban, Cesaire conveys his message that man’s rights are absolute and not to be withheld from anyone. Had Cesaire decided to keep Caliban the way he was originally written in Shakespeare’s play, there would not have been the opportunity for Caliban to display courage in facing his destiny.
By creating a powerful picture of Prospero as the colonizer and Caliban as the colonized, Cesaire successfully illustrates the colonized peoples and their struggle for freedom and equality. Works Cited Cesaire, Aime, Richard Miller, and William Shakespeare. A Tempest: Based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Adaptation for a Black Theatre. New York: TCG Translations, 2002. 17,18, 55, 60. Print. Shakespeare, William, Peter Hulme, and William H. Sherman. The Tempest: Sources and Contexts, Criticism, Rewritings and Appropriations. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004. 19, 62. Print.