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Aime Cesaire’s The Tempest as a Critique of Colonialism

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Aime Cesaire’s play A Tempest, written in 1969, was written in a time of increasing pressure for decolonization and black civil and national rights. Following, World War II colonial peoples set about to reinvent their futures as all the great nations were in some way disconcerted by the war. Anti-colonial leaders saw an opportunity to make nations of their colonies. Cesaire promoted decolonization throughout his life being one of the key figures for the anti-colonial movement. A Tempest is Cesaire’s final expression of his political goals for the overthrow of colonialism and the establishment of unique civilizations.

As India and much of Africa became free of their titles of colony, charismatic and strong national leaders rose to lead the people. Many of these received a Western education, but remained committed to creating a new Africa for the people. Among these, notably was Leopold Sedar Senghor who became Senegal’s first president when the country gained independence in 1960. Senghor was one of the founders of the Negritude movement which aimed to embrace the traditions and roots which had made Africa unique. The main idea of negritude was a black civilization of cultural, economic, social and political values distinct from those of the Western world – different but not inferior.

These ideas of the Negritude movement resound strongly in A Tempest. Cesaire retells his own version of The Tempest by William Shakespeare in reaction to European colonialism. Cesaire transforms Shakespeare’s Caliban from an ignorant savage to one who is well-spoken and able to express his mind. His drive for freedom is impeded by nothing and derived from his absolute hate of his enslavement and Prospero. His brother Ariel assumes the position of appealing to Prospero’s morality, and attempts to weather his conscience with his patience and obedience. He believes negotiation and partnership are the ways for freedom. The contrasting personalities reflect the different attitudes of self-determination ranging from non-violent protests for integration to the more radical ideas of separatism advocated by Malcolm X.

Caliban is clearly portrayed to be the latter, constantly arguing with Prospero and openly rebelling against him. In their arguments, Prospero is blatantly characterized with a sense of superiority and as a usurper of Caliban’s right to self-determination and freedom. From the very start of their clash, Prospero calls Caliban an “ugly ape” and threatens him with “Beating is the only language you really understand. So much the worse for you: I’ll speak it loud and clear,” as Caliban claims he has only taught him his language to give him orders, while Prospero views it as an act of generosity of which he should be grateful. Reflective of Malcolm X, Caliban ends their discourse with, “Call me X. That would be best. Like a man without a name. Or, to be more precise, a man whose name has been stolen. Every time you summon me it reminds me of a basic fact, the fact that you’ve stolen everything from me, even my identity!”Cesaire depicts Prospero as a man hungry for power and attempting to maintain his control over Caliban and his slaves.

He uses magic and an imposed sense of superiority to exploit Caliban and force him to submit to his will. Power and control is his only objective. When toying with the shipwrecked crew that conspired against him, he is pleased when they are unable to eat the illusion of food before them, but when they refuse to eat Prospero, he is angered: “They insult me by not eating. They must be made to eat out of my hand like chicks. That is a sign of submission I insist they give me.” Ariel replies with, “It’s evil to play with their hunger as you do with their anxieties and their hopes.” Prospero: “That is how power is measured. I am Power.” This is the ultimate struggle, the never-ending resistance of Caliban against being enslaved and Prospero’s commitment to power paralleling the rebellion of colonies and the empires which control them. Neither will ever yield, as Prospero feels it is his vocation, his responsibility to rule the island, while Caliban will always want his freedom so long as Prospero endures.

Likewise, the discussion between Caliban and Ariel serves to truly represent the characters embodied by each. Caliban views Ariel’s obedience as cowardly with his “Uncle Tom patience” and his “sucking up to him” while Ariel believes that Caliban to be doomed as his struggle futile as Prospero is invincible in war. Both believe their way to be the answer and are set in their ways. “I’ve often had this inspiring, uplifting dream that one day Prospero, you, me would all three set out, like brothers, to build a wonderful world, each one contributing his own special thing.” Caliban sees Ariel as naïve and believing in an impossible dream. He refuses to endure the humiliation and justice of Prospero any longer, preferring death to his life of servitude.

Caliban is driven by the aspirations of negritude. The death of Prospero as the only solution for his freedom represents the desire of a new world and a return to his former self. He will not integrate himself with Prospero, but separate and become free. “You have lied so much to me that you have ended by imposing on me an image of myself. Underdeveloped, you brand me, inferior, that’s the way you have forced me to see myself. I detest that image! What’s more, it’s a lie!” In his final struggle with Prospero, Caliban comes to realize that he is not inferior, but only made to believe so through his will.

Cesaire’s Caliban is far from perfect and there are faults in his understanding of the world, but it is one of Cesaire’s ideals that universal human rights apply to all. That means the right to life, liberty, and happiness still must be conferred, even if his character is flawed. While it may not have been the objective of Cesaire to speak his political objectives directly through Caliban, the dynamic contrast between Caliban and Ariel along with the relationship between slave and master play a crucial role in understanding the positions each placed in.

Works Cited

Cesaire, Aime. The Tempest. Theatre Communications Group/TGC Translations; 1 edition

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