Friday, September 26, 2008

In Defence of the Bard

The powerful spirit Ariel (the imagination), no less than Caliban (the passions), is mastered by Prospero (the Self)

A book has been published recently by a well-respected Shakespeare 'scholar' claiming that the Bard was a racist. The argument hinges on the misconception that the character Caliban, in The Tempest, the slave of the magician Prospero, is black.
It's amazing that someone considered to be an expert on Shakespeare obviously hasn't read the play in depth. There is no evidence anywhere in the text that Caliban is black. To the contrary, he is described as 'freckled' - a trait that could indicate 'Celtic' origins. Caliban's mother Sycorax is from Algeria. Many Algerians are fair-skinned and blue-eyed, indeed Shakespeare describes Sycorax as 'blue-eyed'. Super-Saharan North Africans are not generally categorised as 'black' even in racist demographics.
At the End of the play European, 'white' Prospero virtually admits that Caliban is his son. Prospero earlier calls Caliban a "thing of darkness", but this is a reference to his moral state not his skin-colour. Caliban inhabits an island somewhere in the Mediterranean, and was himself a castaway there. To say that he is a black native of an island colonised by European Prospero is a bit of a stretch. European characters in the play are also described as 'slaves', so even if Caliban is black, which he almost certainly isn't, it can't be argued that the play characterises only black people as slaves.
Having said all this, the plays attributed to 'Shakespeare' were probably written by several different people; so who are we talking about here anyway?

The difference between intellectualism and scholarship is highlighted by this case. Scholars delve conscientiously into the truth behind texts; intellectuals hitch a ride on academic bandwagons by regurgitating other people's writing out of context.


Morning Angel said...

Was it the editor and not our Shakespeare exhibiting racism? Did the "role" perhaps suggest to the commentator that Caliban was black?

jeronimus said...

Hi morning Angel.
Some modern productions of The Tempest have reinterpreted it in terms of colonialism,and have therefore cast Caliban as a black colonised character. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as the text is changed enough to make it clear that it's not exactly the same play. The Sci Fi movie Forbidden Planet is loosely based on The Tempest but is a work in its own right, so no danger of blaming S. for denigrating - way back in Elizabethan times - alien technology run amok.
The academic was not referring to any specific production of the play, but seemed to want to identify S. as the single root source of colour-consciouness in Western society, based on this one character. He also sees the play Othello as a negative portrayal of black people, when most people have seen it as quite sympathetic. The only derogatory words about King Othello in that play are spoken by one of the characters. You would think that an academic of such high standing would avoid making the mistake of taking words uttered by a fictional character and attributing them to the character's creator.