Storm brews over Shakespeare’s ‘colonial’ Tempest

A report by Cameron Charters for The Times of London.

William Shakespeare’s portrayal of violent colonial ideas in The Tempest could be harmful to modern audiences, a writer has claimed in a project to examine alleged racism within his plays.

The 17th-century play, thought to be the last one Shakespeare wrote alone, tells a tale of magic and romance but is rooted in a “system of settler colonialism”, according to academics involved in the Anti-Racist Shakespeare programme hosted by the Globe Theatre in London, now called Shakespeare’s Globe.

Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, takes refuge with his daughter Miranda on an enchanted island after his boat is shipwrecked. He immediately subjugates Caliban, the only human inhabitant. Prospero brands him a “lying slave”, which academics describe as having “violent colonial implications”.

The colonial themes in The Tempest, written in about 1611, are among those that make Shakespeare’s work “capable of harm” for audiences, it was claimed.

Madeline Sayet, a director and academic, said: “There is a lot of unwillingness to accept that those plays aren’t neutral, that they do have politics attached to them, that they do have these violent colonial implications.

“The fundamental system of settler colonialism cannot be erased from that play. That play is operating in that system.”

Sayet, of Arizona State University, suggested that productions should be aware of the themes and address them in their stagings. She said that “there are things in the plays that are really harmful to audiences”.

She added: “If you’re reading Shakespeare’s plays and you’re not seeing any sexism or racism, then there’s a lot of education that I think, as a human being, you need to be looking at.”

Sayet spoke during a Globe discussion of The Tempest’s “colonialist context”. The talks, sponsored by Cambridge University Press, aim to “liberate Shakespeare from the shackles of idolatry and subservience and put him to work for all people”.

The Globe’s website states: “There are harmful, challenging and uncomfortable moments in Shakespeare.”

Sayet suggested that producers should ask questions including “where does the power live?” and “how do we dismantle oppression in this scene?”

Scott Manning Stevens, an associate professor and director of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Program at Syracuse University, said the “insistence” on the “monstrosity” of Caliban was a problem in the play, which could be addressed by casting a “beautiful” actor in the role of the enslaved islander.

The fate of Caliban in the play, written during a period of British expansion, has been seen by some as mirroring 17th-century colonialism.

The Globe’s latest discussion follows a session on “problematic” language in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Michelle Terry, artistic director at Shakespeare’s Globe, said: “The anti-racist webinars are an exploration of the plays rather than an analysis of our productions.”

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