Comparative Analysis of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ and Césaire’s ‘A Tempest’

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“The Tempest”, written by William Shakespeare, focuses on the journey that Prospero, the exiled Prince of Naples, has to take in order to be free from the deserted island that is his jail cell; Aimé Césaire’s in “A Tempest. Based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. An adaptation for a Black Theatre” follows the same structure and storyline but while Shakespeare focuses on Prospero, Césaire focuses on the servant’s plight for freedom. The play has the same characters as in Shakespeare with the following alterations: Ariel being a mulatto slave, Caliban is a black slave and the addition of the African god Eshu (black devil-god).

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These changes help us re-read Shakespeare’s play and the inter-textualization affirms that Shakespeare problematized the colonizer/colonized relationship due to his audience strictly being English while Césaire wrote for both audiences. However, both playwrights understood that the plight for freedom is only strong when the slave in the master/slave relationship resists. The resistance and pursuit of freedom are shown in Césaire’s play through the command of language, the renouncement of ties, and the regaining of the humanization the slave lost while in enslavement.

Language is used to communicate between people. However, without it, communication would be very basic and quite complicated. We are able to see the power that language has when people use it as a means to construct their power and as a way to maintain it. Language is the most subtle and complex tools of domination. They gradually shape thoughts and attitudes on an almost subconscious level. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, in her essay “The Burden of English,” writes that “[l]iterature 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 Césaire’s “A Tempest”, the diabolic and angelic functions of language and literature can be explored since language is the key to power on the island.

“The Tempest” is written in the Early Modern English language, a European form which is sometimes difficult for the modern reader to understand. Césaire mimics Shakespeare by writing his play in French to further affirm the representation of Shakespeare favoring the Europeans in their domination of the Americas. Therefore, “A Tempest” is written in a more modern language, leaning more towards “ebonics” (black English regarded as a language rather than as a dialect of standard English) than the traditional French. A Colonizer like Prospero imposes his native language upon his slaves to make his life easier. He teaches his slaves his own language in order for them to understand the commands he gives. Shakespeare’s Caliban understood this when he responded in defiance to Prospero: “[y]ou taught me language, and my profit on’t/ Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you/ For learning me your language” (Vaughan, 198). The language taught by Prospero to Caliban make him be able to understand the curses he says. Prospero will only listen to his native tongue. He has the mindset that before him, the island had no “culture”. Césaire’s Caliban responds in a similar manner that makes the reader make the interpretation that Prospero, the colonizer, only imposed “[his] own language so that [Caliban] could understand [his] orders,” not to educate or culturize Caliban (12). Césaire’s Caliban understood that he was able to fully communicate in his own language before the imposition of Prospero while Shakespeare’s Caliban makes it seem that Prospero is the one that taught him language because he previously did not have one. Prospero, like any other colonizer, imposed his language on the colonized because he was the one with power. Shakespeare, we can assume, used the knowledge he had about the New World to write about the imposition of the colonizers. He wrote under the assumption that Europeans were the ones that were bringing culture, religion, and language to the savage natives that they encounter.

However, it is the same language that Prospero uses to command his slaves that Césaire’s Caliban uses to defend himself from the accusations of rape that Prospero makes against him. Césaire’s Caliban denotes that it was actually Prospero that put those “dirty thoughts” in his head because Caliban “could n’t care less about [his] daughter” (13). Shakespeare’s Caliban, on the other hand, affirms the accusation of rape that supports this when he states that he would not have done so if “[he] had peopled else/This isle with Calibans” (196). This accusation of rape comes from the colonial trope that European women were an uncontrollable fascination for natives and that colonizers kill the native people if they do not fit in with their extractive colonialism, a practice in which exploit the resources by making the natives work for it. For Prospero, in this case, it was easier to dominate one slave than the whole island of them which is probably why he “disposed” of them. Joseph Khoury in “The Tempest Revisited in Martinique: Aimé Césaire’s Shakespeare,” explains that it is this mimicry of language that Caliban is using to resist his master that at its’ core is the “menace […] [that] its double vision which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority” ( Homi Bhabha qtd. In Khoury, 26). Caliban is using the language that Prospero taught him in order to resist the man that has him imprisoned.

Césaire’s Caliban goes beyond that of Shakespeare and simple mimicry when he denounces his name. His name was imposed on him by Prospero, which is an anagram for “cannibal”. In the Arden Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, Virginia Mason and Alden T. Vaughan explain that Shakespeare identified the native of the island as “savage” and it was probably due to the reports coming in from the New World “insisted that some natives consumed human flesh and partly because simultaneous reports from the sub-Saharan African, often drawing on ancient myths, [that] made similar claims” (31). The name that Prospero gives him does not actually denote that of a cannibal but that of a morally and socially deficient savage. Caliban’s name establishes his subservience to the white civilized man of cold reason that exemplifies the image of an “enlightened European”. The act of renouncing a name given by his colonizer is an acceptance and attempt at recuperating what Césaire calls “negritude […] [is defined as] the conscience of being black, the simple recognition of a fact which implies its acceptance, charged with its destiny of blackness, its history, and its culture” (Khoudry, 27). Negritude is a 1930’s framework of critique and literary theory, developed mainly by French intellectuals, writers, and politicians of the African diaspora. Their main goal was to fight against racism and resist assimilation by accepting and embracing their African roots; this is exactly what Caliban does.

Caliban embraces his heritage and this is shown when he affirms his mother when Prospero is degrading her by calling her “a ghoul! A witch from whom-and may God be praised-death has delivered us” (Césaire, 12). It is in the moment that Caliban is accepting his history and heritage that he frees himself from the ties to the relationship he has with Prospero. It is not justifiable that only Prospero’s version of history is known, that Prospero is so intent to destroy the history of his colonized slave, that he uses his God to justify his actions. “X” is a perfect name for Caliban. It is a name that can mean anything he wishes it to be, a name that will not remind him “of the fact that [Prospero has] stolen everything from [him], even [his] identity! Uhuru!” (Césaire, 15). It is in the last words that truly show the defiance in X, formerly known as Caliban because Uhuru is the South African word for freedom. This word has “gained a universal currency since it first shook European colonialism in the 1950’s” (James Arnold qtd. In Sarnecki). One word is all it takes for the spark of revolution to ignite. One word might be all the slaves have. One word is what they fight for.

One word is all Césaire’s Caliban needed to spark his revolution. One word for one man. Through the embracement of his one word that derived from his roots, Césaire’s Caliban is able to retain his freedom by reclaiming the humanity that Prospero denied him of or more accurately the one he was never given. Caliban is never seen as human in the eyes of Prospero and Miranda. In Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, he is seen as a “freckled whelp, hag-born ? not honored with a human shape” who is lucky to have a roof over his head due to the benevolence of Prospero (Vaughan, 191). Both Calibans are tired of being dehumanized, which is why they decide to take action against Prospero by using his own “enlightened Europeans” ? Stephano and Trinculo ?against him.

Caliban knew that in order to obtain freedom he must risk his life in combat with his master. Shakespeare’s Caliban is portrayed as a sly, ingrate of an animal that is too weak to attack from the front. This is confirmed by his pathetic drunk calls for freedom. Césaire’s Caliban’s cries for freedom, however, are that of a noble questor seeking the freedom that was taken from him. The difference between the Caliban in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and Césaire’s “A Tempest” is their ending. Shakespeare’s Caliban gets thwarted by Ariel and abjectly surrenders. Caliban realizes that Prospero will always be superior and that resistance is futile, which is why he “seeks for grace” (Vaughan, 305). Shakespeare problematizes the relationship between the master and the slave since he has Caliban submit to the will of Prospero; Caliban finally sees Prospero, his master, as his superior. Prospero, in the end, decides to release Caliban after his submission to him and decides to return to his Dukedom in Milan. Caliban is left as an unanswered question to the reader. We do not know if he is left behind or taken to Milan with the rest of the Europeans. Either way, he is like a forgotten tale or a story that Prospero will tell his subjects upon his return, but by keeping Caliban alive, Prospero admits that his own being is defined by the slave (the “other”). Prospero is defined as the master by his slave so if he does not own his slave anymore, he will lose that title.

Césaire’s Caliban, on the other hand, is confronted by an unarmed Prospero that entices him to “Go on!” since he does not dare to kill his master because he knows that “[he] is nothing but an animal […] [he doesn’t] know how to kill” (56) . It is due to the fact that Caliban does not kill Prospero that the reader sees the true extent of Caliban’s humanity. Caliban might not be “civilized” in the eyes of the Europeans on the island but he has more humanity than all of them put together. He is unable to act like a man if it means to kill another human for “fun” or “revenge” even if it meant losing his only chance at freedom. Caliban is described in this scene as “noble savage”. This “noble savage” is not able to escape the clutches of his colonizer even after all of the other English lords leave. Césaire’s ending is different from that of Shakespeare. Césaire decides to have Prospero stay behind on the island as an example that bond between the master and the slave are complex. Even after ten years, Prospero has the need to talk to Caliban and asks Caliban to “come here” and that he is in “good humor [and] in a forgiving mood” (Césaire, 62). This plea for Caliban tells the slave that his master is still waiting for him to come and ask for forgiveness for the crime he committed. Prospero is lead to insanity, after years of being alone, he finally realizes that Caliban and him are a part of each other. They have a “symbiotic relationship” (Khoury, 35). However, by the time he realizes this, it is too late; Caliban is no longer alongside him. He is out exploring the island seeking his freedom elsewhere without Prospero. The addition of Eshu to Césaire’s “A Tempest” is a reminder to the reader that there will always be freedom when you resist your oppressors. This is echoed by Caliban’s last lines in the play, which comprise of a war song that evokes the Yoruba god of thunder. Caliban is in charge of the ending, his ending, an ending that is up to future generations to continue to write.

Freedom is a concept that is as unwieldy as a tempest. A tempest is just a common occurrence in nature that does not get conjured up by the power of a vengeful magician. They are not the end of nature but rather bring about change in the form of destruction and renewal. It is words that enable Caliban to be free from his enslavement. Words have the power to change the world around us and even change who we are. Language is the weapon that is used to expose the racist and colonialist mentality that lie at the center of not only Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” but other western works. Aimé Césaire can be compared to Caliban because he is using his mastery of the English language and European culture to bring about change in his audience. It up to each of us to finish the stories that our ancestors began. We are their continuation. We are why they resisted oppression. We are their stories left open.

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Comparative Analysis of Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' and Césaire's 'A Tempest'. (2021, Apr 08). Retrieved from