Back in college, I was reading an editorial of some sort that complained about the ideologues who have taken over the university. (I’m not sure why this subject surged forth, because by the time I was in college the great PC wars of the early nineties had largely flared out.) The editorial asked, in a mock-astonished tone, if we knew that The Tempest was really a work about colonialism. And I sat there and stared at it, just as I had stared at a George Will (I won’t tell you what I think the "F." stands for) editorial when he announced in a recap of the year’s leftist buffoonery that a coven of witches had gotten tax-exempt church status. Well, of course you have to give all religions, even ones you think are daffy, tax-exempt status. Well, of course a post-colonialist reading works on The Tempest!

The usual — and often perfectly valid — criticism about post-colonial criticism, feminist criticism, what have you, is that it reads back modern attitudes into a work of the past and critiques, say, Marlowe for not viewing Jews through our enlightened modern lens. But The Tempest wasn’t written in some misty prehistoric England where people couldn’t imagine but that the earth was flat; it was inspired by an account of the shipwreck of Sir Thomas Gates and Sir George Somers in Bermuda, where they were stranded for ten months. To assert that Shakespeare, by that time in his career a man of means and some political consequence, wrote with no awareness of the world around him is an act of revisionism greater than the most trendy of historicist readings.

V. jokingly suggested that I make my next entry all about Caliban. "You’ll only have to buy one new letter!" she said. Little did she know.

Back in college, I was reading an editorial of some sort that complained about the ideologues who have taken over the university. (I’m not sure why this subject surged forth, because by the time I was in college the great PC wars of the early nineties had largely flared out.) The editorial asked, in a mock-astonished tone, if we knew that The Tempest was really a work about colonialism. And I sat there and stared at it, just as I had stared at a George Will (I won’t tell you what I think the "F." stands for) editorial when he announced in a recap of the year’s leftist buffoonery that a coven of witches had gotten tax-exempt church status. Well, of course you have to give all religions, even ones you think are daffy, tax-exempt status. Well, of course a post-colonialist reading works on The Tempest!

The usual — and often perfectly valid — criticism about post-colonial criticism, feminist criticism, what have you, is that it reads back modern attitudes into a work of the past and critiques, say, Marlowe for not viewing Jews through our enlightened modern lens. But The Tempest wasn’t written in some misty prehistoric England where people couldn’t imagine but that the earth was flat; it was inspired by an account of the shipwreck of Sir Thomas Gates and Sir George Somers in Bermuda, where they were stranded for ten months. To assert that Shakespeare, by that time in his career a man of means and some political consequence, wrote with no awareness of the world around him is an act of revisionism greater than the most trendy of historicist readings. It seems doubly odd to me because The Tempest is explicitly about what we now call colonialization. Caliban’s complaint in Act I makes that clear:

This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou takest from me. When thou camest first,
Thou strokedst me and madest much of me, wouldst give me
Water with berries in’t, and teach me how
To name the bigger light, and how the less,
That burn by day and night: and then I loved thee
And show’d thee all the qualities o’ the isle,
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile:
Cursed be I that did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king: and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o’ the island.

This also sets up the struggle over language in the play; I’ve always thought Prospero’s magic boils down to his command over words (this also neatly sidesteps the question over whether Prospero’s magic is a sham; it’s not a sham, but like drama itself, it’s not what it purports to be — "hush, and be mute, / Or else our spell is marr’d.") Prospero says that prior to his arrival Caliban was "a thing most brutish, I endow’d thy purposes / With words that made them known." To say that Shakespeare had no intention of making a sophisticated argument about the relationship between langage and power — in the play that many people think was his farewell to the stage — just seems insulting somehow. I wish I could remember who wrote that editorial so that I could write them a nasty letter on ol’ William’s behalf.