Aime Cesaire’s ‘A Tempest’ is the classic text to demonstrate the truism that much of Caribbean drama is concerned with the act of “writing back” to the Empire. Much like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre was answered by Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, Aime Cesaire re-writes another crutch of England literary canon thereby undermining what the empire has built itself on (the entire epistemology of what it means to be British). Cesaire writes back the Empire because he wants the British colonial system to confront what it has done to the colonials; to take account of its atrocities. Here, Cesaire takes the well-known Shakespearian play and re-writes it addressing the concerns a colonial subject of the Caribbean had back then, and whose post-Independent are still concerned with today.
Still, this begs the question: Why did Cesaire choose this particular play of Shakespeare’s to re-write? Well, The name ‘the Tempest’ already suggests a certain volatility which can be argued to be likened to the ontological malaise a Caribbean person constantly finds himself immersed in. To explain, this malaise is due to the fact that the Caribbean contains multitudes; a plethora of different peoples who all have mixed backgrounds and mixed blood from numerous different tribal groups in Africa, from Europe, from the Indian subcontinent, from the now decimated native groups that once populated the Caribbean, from Syria … we can go on and on.
The benefit of this play by Shakespeare is that it is already multicultural like the Caribbean. We have the European side represented by Prospero, Miranda and the other shipwrecked Europeans, the black slave represented by Caliban, and Ariel, the mulatto slave, who all collide on the tiny island which could easily be, and might have been meant to represent a Caribbean island. And what ensues is a very typical colonial struggle between the coloniser Prospero and the colonised Caliban reminiscent of what is in many Caribbean history books.
The benefit of writing this play in the twentieth century is that it can call on political and cultural icons who can easily make the characters relatable. For example, in the play Caliban shares clear parallels with Malcolm X while the “house slave” Ariel bears a striking resemblance to Martin Luther King Jr.
Caliban is the spokesman through which Cesaire can vent his anticolonial anger on Prospero, who here as we have said, is a representative of all the colonial empires of Europe. In the end Caliban holds Prospero accountable for all the psychological damage he has suffered:
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! …
This may as well be the official letter all postcolonial subjects post to the former Empires for it speaks of the mental slavery other iconic figures such as Bob Marley, Marcus Garvey etc, preached about. The following classic statement from the Tempest about language has been adopted and re-advanced several times by postcolonial critics as the crucial quote which sums up all that postcolonial literature seeks to do:
You taught me language, and my profit on’t
Is I know how to curse
This shows the heart of all postcolonial literature which is the tormented relationship the colonized has with his colonizer, and his determination to use the language of the colonizer in order to expose the colonizer as the debilitating force it was on the subjects who have to go through the long process of decolonisation in order to reverse the psychological effects of centuries of colonisation.
Cesaire, Aimé. A Tempest.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest.