“Call Me X”: Post-Colonialism and Resistance in Aime Cesaire’s A Tempest

Academia

While Cesaire’s A Tempest is, in many ways, a re-working of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, it is quite obvious that there are some differences between the plays. For one, why does Cesaire choose to change “The” to “A”? While Shakespeare’s plays tend to tell the fantastic stories of important, singular, and “special” princes, queens, and dukes, Cesaire’s play is about the masses—more specifically, the colonized and downtrodden. The name plays off this difference between playwrights— while The Tempest is ultimately the story of Prospero’s own redemption and forgiveness, A Tempest’s focus is more on the relationships Prospero has with his two slaves, Caliban and Ariel. This focus on the relationship allows Cesaire to create a story about the themes of colonialism and power rather than the singular characters themselves. Prospero represents White European colonialism and Caliban and Ariel represent the colonized. Cesaire recognizes that the story he is telling happens, and is currently happening— it is merely A Tempest, one struggle, in a whole world full of them.

That is not to say Shakespeare does not engage with themes of civilization and colonialism at all. Throughout Shakespeare’s Tempest, Prospero calls Caliban a savage, “got by the devil himself” (Act I Scene II), all terms that have been historically used against Black bodies. However, there seems to be a slight mismatch between how Prospero sees Caliban and how Caliban is portrayed. Significantly, Shakespeare allows Caliban to speak out against Prospero, proving that Caliban is perfectly capable of speaking English eloquently— a “marker” of civilization. In fact, Caliban can speak beautifully and poetically, shown in the moments when he reminisces about his past life on the island before he was enslaved— “… And then I loved thee/And showed thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle,/ The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile” (Act I Scene II). However, rather than portraying Caliban as accepting or glad of learning the English language, Shakespeare complicates this picture by elaborating on Caliban’s attitude toward his oppressor’s language. Instead of looking up to Prospero’s knowledge, he clearly considers it to be a constant reminder and instrument of his oppression— “You taught me language, and my profit on’t/ Is, I know how to curse” (Act I Scene II). This is important because this gives the audience a chance to understand Caliban’s predicament while also questioning Prospero’s alleged “forgiveness” and benign qualities.

But, although Shakespeare touches upon the various themes of colonialism, he does not grapple with these critiques quite as explicitly as Cesaire. Cesaire brings this critique to the forefront in a number of ways. Firstly, this can be seen in Ariel’s character. Though Shakespeare’s Ariel also yearns for his freedom from Prospero, Cesaire interestingly changes two aspects of him. Firstly, in Shakespeare’s Tempest, Ariel, though unhappy under Prospero’s hand, feels excitement and a sense of power over his tasks. This is seen when Ariel recounts the story of him laying siege to Alonso’s ship: “Now on the beak,/ Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin,/ I flamed amazement” (Act I Scene II). Ariel’s excitement over the mastery of his own power is apparent, but he does not question the agency of his own actions. Shakespeare’s Ariel recognizes his own power and revels in it— but he does not necessarily question Prospero’s appropriation of his power.

This is quite different in Cesaire’s Tempest. In the same scene, Ariel recounts the story to Prospero by saying he was “disgusted” with what he was ordered to do, stating that he “did so most unwillingly”. While Shakespeare’s Ariel arrives from his task practically trembling from excitement, Cesaire’s Ariel comes in looking “tired.” (Act II, Scene II) Cesaire’s Ariel associates his slavery under Prospero as something that denies him not only his freedom but his humanity.

The relationship between Ariel and Caliban is also crucial in Cesaire’s Tempest. While Ariel and Caliban’s only interactions in Shakespeare’s Tempest are those of Ariel invisibly sabotaging Caliban through Propero’s bidding, Cesaire inserts one important scene between Caliban and Ariel and pointedly address their tactics of freedom and justice. Cesaire unpacks the differences in ideology between colonized groups by contrasting Caliban and Ariel’s tactics of resistance. While Caliban is militantly unrelenting and has no hope in Propero, Ariel, in contrast, represents a gentler approach, choosing to appeal to Prospero’s sense of humanity to achieve freedom. By doing so, Cesaire echoes the differences between Martin Luther King Jr.’s Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement headed by Malcolm X and groups like the Black Panthers in the U.S— but perhaps most poignantly, he ends their discussion by having the two characters understand and acknowledge their common struggle and solidarity (Act II, Scene I).

Cesaire continues this explicit comparison between Malcolm X and Caliban in Act I, Scene II where Caliban and Prospero confront each other. In Shakespeare’s Tempest, Caliban literally concedes defeat, saying “I must obey. His art is of such pow’r/ It would control my dam’s god… And make a vassal out of him” (Act I Scene II). However, in Cesaire’s Tempest, while Caliban recognizes Prospero’s destructive power and therefore does his bidding, ultimately Caliban has the last word by saying, “Call me X”,(Act I Scene II). Caliban attaches the meaning behind his new name, X, with his “stolen” identity, which again calls forth the post-colonial discourse that Cesaire is grappling with. Caliban rejects his given, “slave” name, calling it an “insult” every time it is said. For Caliban, “X” is his attempt to recreate himself in his own terms, that beyond an idea of freedom, is to create agency for himself— a concept that is lacking in Shakespeare’s Caliban.

Cesaire pays particular attention to Prospero in a number of different angles, each differing from the portrayal of Prospero in Shakespeare’s Tempest. While the Prospero in Shakespeare’s Tempest never truly gets his claim to the throne questioned, Cesaire purposefully creates language that leads the audience to question: “… I was making preparations to set forth to take possession of [these lands]…[Antonio and Alonso] hatched a scheme to steal my as-yet-unborn empire from me,” says Prospero in Act I Scene II. This wording immediately draws attention to the fact that Prospero only feels entitled to his “empire,” but in reality, had taken it and created an empire from it forcefully.

But perhaps the strongest link between Cesaire’s Tempest and his understanding of post-colonialism is represented in the master-slave relationship of Caliban and Prospero. Instead of just portraying Caliban as the oppressed, Cesaire also pays attention to Prospero’s weaknesses that spring forth as a result of him being a colonizer, and ultimately, his pathetic dependency on Caliban in legitimizing his own identity.

Cesaire exposes Prospero’s weaknesses in the scene where he summons Roman goddesses to Miranda and Ferdinand’s marriage, which starts off similarly to Shakespeare’s version— but quickly spirals out of control when the Yoruba messenger and trickster god interrupts the ceremony. Prospero has not summoned Eshu; Eshu defies Propero’s control; therefore, his appearance also symbolically represents the elusive nature of resistance that colonialism cannot crush. This interaction makes Prospero paranoid about losing his power, while simultaneously giving power to Caliban: “Power!… Alas, this will one day fade… And what is power, if I cannot calm my own fears?” (Act III, Scene III). Importantly, Prospero immediately attaches his percieved loss of power to Caliban— “By [Caliban’s] insubordination he’s calling into question the whole order of the world”, he states, inadvertently placing power in Caliban’s being.

This theme is echoed in the ending of the play— perhaps the most dramatic change between Shakespeare and Cesaire’s plays. While the Prospero in Shakespeare’s Tempest relinquishes his power and resolves to sail back to Naples, but Cesaire’s Prospero stays on the island, because he is, as Caliban accuses him, “an old addict” (Act III, Scene V). Cesaire reveals Prospero to be an addict to oppression; his whole life is consumed by his identity as an oppressor. Caliban recognizes this, and in this scene, Cesaire becomes one with Caliban, the “dialectician”. In a powerful speech to Prospero, Caliban states “…I’ll impale you! And on a stake that you’ve sharpened yourself! You’ll have impaled yourself!” (Act III, Scene V). Cesaire therefore flips the notion of the slave on its head— while Caliban is Prospero’s slave, Prospero ends up being a slave to his own delusions of power. Without Caliban, Prospero is nothing; Prospero cannot exist, and Caliban, though lacking in the active power that Prospero wields over him, shows just how resilient his resistance is.

Bibliography

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest

Cesaire, Aime. A Tempest

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