Colonial Language in Shakespeare's The Tempest and Aime Cesaire's A Tempest
Language and literature are the most subtle and seductive tools of domination. They gradually shape thoughts and attitudes on an almost subconscious level. Perhaps Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak states this condition most succinctly in her essay "The Burden of English" when she writes, "Literature buys your assent in an almost clandestine way...for good or ill, as medicine or poison, perhaps always a bit of both"(137). By examining Shakespeare's "The Tempest" and Cesaire's "A Tempest", the diabolic and diagnostic functions of language and literature can be explored. Both plays place characters who are foreign to each other in equally unknown and foreign environments. Shakespeare allows Prospero the sorcerer to dominate his foreign environment and all who inhabit it, while Caliban in Cesaire's play uses the foreign language of his master, Prospero, to stage an open revolt. Placed within a post-colonial context, Cesaire ultimately expands upon the actions and characters created by Shakespeare in order to posit a plausible modern explanation for the role of language and literature in the progression from fictional to actual, all too real, colonies.
Slavery is a central issue in both plays, especially in defining the relationship between Prospero and Caliban. Prospero, a European of high social and intellectual stature, is placed within an unfamiliar and hostile environment. Caliban befriends Prospero and gives him the necessary skills to survive. In return, Prospero teaches Caliban an European language. Ironically, this knowledge of language provides the basis for both slavery and revolt. Though physically enslaved because of an attempted rape, Shakespeare's Caliban understands that language itself is a greater prison, a plague. Caliban resents Prospero's tyranny; he is only able to articulate his resentment, however, through his learned language. "You taught me language and my profit on't/ Is, I know how to curse" (363-4). Shakespeare's Caliban, though, is concerned as much with revenge as he is his own freedom. Through his ability to speak a European tongue, Caliban is able to persuade Stephano and Trinculo to attempt to overthrow Prospero. In the end, the attempt fails miserably. Caliban begs for forgiveness and Prospero's power is essentially unchallenged. Prospero as teacher, slave owner, father, and Duke dictates the outcome of the play.
Cesaire's Caliban uses the same tool, language given to him by Prospero, to subvert Prospero's power and to win his freedom. Like the original, the contemporary Caliban realizes that his education is a sinister form of slavery. Learning Prospero's language means learning to understand and obey orders. He even attributes his alleged attempted rape of Miranda to his education, claiming, "you're the one...