The Postcolonial Tempest:
Response to Peter Hulme's 'Stormy Weather'

Ania Loomba

 

     1. Peter Hulme's 'Stormy Weather' is, as the author remarks, one of four pieces in Early Modern Culture that contribute to a recent 'debate about quotation, paraphrase, and misreading'. This debate focuses on a particular aspect of a larger controversy about the politics of literary and cultural criticism, and the place of Shakespeare within it. In his essay, 'Selective Quotation', Alan Sinfield had complained that 'a reductive version of cultural materialism is manufactured' by some of its critics, supported by selective quotation, and then censured as insufficiently complex. It is as if any attempt to bring Shakespeare into contact with a wider political reality is so threatening that it must be positioned instantly as both crass and malign.' In a response to Sinfield, David Siar has pointed out that in fact some of Sinfield's critics display a lack of any serious or sustained engagement with the theoretical assumptions or working methods of materialist literary criticism. Hulme now makes many of the same points as Sinfield and Siar, even as he shifts the debate by considering how it is staged in relation to postcolonial criticism of The Tempest. He takes the misreadings of his own influential 1985 essay, 'Nymphs and Reapers' (written jointly with Francis Barker) as the test case.

     2. Hulme (like Sinfield) shows how attacks on post-colonial criticism depend upon the selective quotation, misreading, and flattening of arguments, positions and words. Postcolonialists, like cultural materialists, are accused of suggesting that Shakespeare's plays endorse the inequities of the social order around them. Sinfield protests that 'so far from presenting Shakespeare as "evilly in favor of such exploitation in Henry V," as [Graham] Bradshaw imagines, Dollimore and I chose to work on this play precisely because it seemed to offer an awkward test for the case we wanted to explore, namely that even a text that has been widely regarded as a celebration of monarchical ideology is implicated in ideological contradiction and available to dissident reading'. In similar vein, Hulme notes that his own work (and that of others) is widely misread and misquoted in order to suggest that postcolonial criticism of The Tempest believes (as Jonathan Bate's book The Genius of Shakespeare puts it) '"that the play is in fact a text reeking of the discourse of colonialism. The Tempest must bear the blame for the Atlantic slave trade."' Even Meredith Anne Skura's article "Discourse and the Individual: The Case of Colonialism in The Tempest" (1989), which Hulme regards as sophisticated and valuable, suggests that 'revisionists . . . emphasize the discursive strategies that the play shares with all colonial discourse, and the ways in which The Tempest itself not only displays prejudice but fosters and even "enacts" colonialism by mystifying or justifying Prospero's power over Caliban.' Hulme points out that it is Skura's formulation--'not only displays prejudice but fosters and even "enacts" colonialism'--which "introduces a language of morality which most postcolonial criticism has been scrupulous in avoiding."

     3. Postcolonial critics (again like cultural materialists) are accused of regarding Shakespeare's plays as ideologically retrograde, of 'attacking' Shakespeare, as well as of positing a reductive relationship between text and context. In actual fact, not only have postcolonial critics taken a range of positions regarding the ideological content of Shakespeare's plays, but, as Hulme reminds us, it is they who have offered some of the most nuanced and sophisticated discussions regarding the relation between The Tempest and its various historical contexts. Also, whereas postcolonial critics (like cultural materialists) have been routinely accused of addressing the play "solely in terms of social and political contexts" neglecting its formal properties, many of them, such as Hulme himself, have in fact often been both 'deeply formalist' and intensely historical, attending to the nuances of language and form of the plays, as well as to minute details of their historical contexts. In these attacks on postcolonial readings of The Tempest, Hulme shows, it is the genius of Shakespeare, or at least the all-encompassing nature of his vision (sometimes confused with the vision of Prospero) that is repeatedly at stake.

     4. These are, of course, not new debates. Feminist Shakespeareans, not mentioned in these essays, have also had a long history of being accused of seeing only a 'patriarchal bard', of being shrill and strident and dogmatic, of distorting both text and context, of missing poetry for ideology, language and form for politics. Feminist scholarship, and especially feminist editing of Shakespeare's plays, has contributed significantly towards dismantling the supposed opposition between 'reading' and 'politics', 'love of Shakespeare' and ideological critique, although within feminist criticism there was a tendency to assess the politics of the critic by the degree of radicalism she could find in the plays themselves-thus, there was the pressure on feminist critics to find evidence of female agency, or of potential subversion of patriarchy in the plays they read. However, Hulme's point here is not only to 'defend' postcolonial approaches to Shakespeare but to reverse the accusations-he shows that it is those suspicious of postcolonial criticism who are guilty of ideological bias and insufficient attention to the specific words on the page as well as to historical detail. As he writes: '"Reading" is the ground on which the traditionalists stand: all you really need to be able to do is to read Shakespeare. This argument is usually severely weakened by the impoverished notion of reading which underpins it, but it is devastated when its supporters demonstrate that they can't read even in the least complex sense of the term.'

     5. The other important point Hulme makes is that postcolonial critiques are routinely appropriated in order to suggest a 'more balanced' third position, one which seemingly accommodates what postcolonialists say but also wants to hang onto the ideologies and methods they criticize. Again, feminists have had this experience-I recall that in the 1980's, when the women's movement had become influential in India, the state as well private media and institutions frequently felt the need to both demonize as well as appropriate it. A widely circulated advertisement for a new cigarette called 'Ms' screamed 'Who says a woman wants to be like a man?' It displayed the figure of a woman with 'an independent mind and a liberated lifestyle', a woman who worked out, but was not a 'glamour girl' and would 'compete in a man's world.' The advertisement reassured its viewers, however, that the smoker of Ms cigarettes was not going to usurp male privilege-she was, reassuringly, into 'floral scents' and 'ruffles and frills', she was 'feminine' and intended 'staying that way'. As one of my students in Delhi then put it, the advertisement 'took the eggs out of the feminists' basket and then made its own omelette.'

     6. Appropriations of postcolonial criticism, Hulme shows, betray similar anxiety about its fundamental premises. Thus, postcolonialists are seen to have a point or two, but to overstate their case. In restoring the 'balance', the whole point is undercut or negated. Hulme is really interested here in questioning the politics of pluralism and accommodation, showing how it props up a 'balanced' and superior critical position by positing an infinitely capacious Shakespeare who contains, assimilates but ultimately stands above the viewpoints of Prospero as well as Caliban. Of course just as often Shakespeare continues to be equated with Prospero, who is himself seen as capable of recognising the humanity as well as the bestiality of Caliban. Thus post-colonial critiques are equated with Caliban-deserving of some sympathy but limited, flawed, one-sided and far too loud.

     7. In this process, rather reductive understandings of colonial history and discourse are circulated. Hulme discusses the work of William Hamlin who wants to make a distinction between 'Renaissance ethnography' on the one hand, which he sees as 'primarily a descriptive rather than a manipulative or hegemonic discourse' and colonial discourse on the other. Hamlin wants to suggest that many Renaissance writers were 'genuinely' curious about outsiders as opposed to being either bigoted or committed to conquering them, but both ethnography and colonial discourse are caricatured in being thus opposed. Hulme rightly points out that just because all ethnographers and travellers in the Renaissance were not writing for a colonial administration it does not mean that there was no connection between 'observation' and 'politics', and further that 'colonial discourse' is itself far from monolithic, being capable of multiple techniques, methods, and tones. This confusion regarding the relationship of 'observation' with ideology or social structures, or indeed the nature of the latter, is not confined to studies of the early modern period but is common also with respect to later periods when many more writers were in direct colonial service. From Edward Said's Orientalism on, postcolonial examinations of imperial culture have been routinely accused of overlooking the 'genuine' intellectual contributions of Orientalists or of ignoring the real 'love' and 'curiosity' they had for the lands they studied or visited. As it happens, postcolonial scholars are not in agreement with each other about the relationship between knowledge production and colonial power, individual presence and social structure, but to oppose impartial observation to colonial discourse is to miss the point of postcolonial debates about these issues entirely.

     8. In early modern studies, there is also an analogous tendency to suggest that positive images of non-Europeans (especially Muslims and Africans) in European writings prove that colonialism and racism are terms not really appropriate to analysis of this period, especially because at this time trade rather than colonial possession characterized Europe's relation with many part of the world. But in fact in order to be understood as the enormously complex phenomenon it was, European colonialism needs to be seen in terms of a long and varied history that includes its webbed relations with earlier histories of inter-religious and cross-cultural relations, as well as its equally complicated links with the emergence of capitalism and European control of international trade. Postcolonial scholars are certainly not all equally sophisticated (and for that matter many scholars devoted to analyzing colonialism and its aftermath would not want to be labelled 'postcolonial') but as a whole they can hardly be understood as being devoted to locating a binary opposition between oppressor and oppressed, and celebrating the latter. Yet this is the image of postcolonial criticism that is often evoked within Renaissance studies, which is ironic given that in the last two decades, some early modern scholars have made important contributions to postcolonial debates about power relations.

     9. As a 'postcolonial' critic in more senses than one, I am in agreement with Hulme, but also want to offer some comments to further the conversation about postcolonial readings of Shakespeare. Hulme takes issue with Meredith Anne Skura's remark that 'revisionist' critics take Caliban 'to "be" a Native American despite the fact that a multitude of details differentiate Caliban from the Indian as he appeared in travelers' reports from the New World.' Skura refers to an essay of Hulme's which makes no such suggestion, and Hulme goes on to conclude: 'It's obviously useful to have a revisionist take Caliban to "be" a Native American, but none appears to have been rash enough to make the identification that Skura has little difficulty in refuting.' While its true that most postcolonial critics have not identified Caliban 'as' a Native American, some have done so. Moreover, many postcolonial writers have identified disenfranchised populations with Caliban-of course this tendency has been less obvious within postcolonial Shakespeareans writing out of the Western academy and is a strategy more often adopted by postcolonial writers who are not primarily Shakespeareans. Such identification was a political position that was adopted without apology. I do not mention this to justify any misreading of Hulme's work, but it seems to me that by taking seriously the reasons why some anticolonial theorists found in Caliban a kindred soul we might further understand the antipathy of conservative critics to postcolonial readings of Shakespeare.

     10. At the end of his essay Hulme professes to be really 'puzzled' about two recurrent misreadings of postcolonial criticism--one, that postcolonialists attend to politics at the expense of textual and formal aspects of the plays, and two, that they are somehow devaluing or 'attacking' Shakespeare. Hulme rightly protests that he and many others can hardly be accused of these sins. For him, in the last few years 'the most interesting postcolonial readings have been those which have illuminated The Tempest's "Mediterranean" discourse, enriching our sense of the play's contemporary contexts and deepening our understanding of the complexities of sixteenth-century colonial and cross-cultural relationships' (para 49). I would agree that the critics who have, via The Tempest, Othello and other Shakespearean plays, examined the complex interlocking of discourses emerging from different early modern histories of contact with Africa, Ireland, Asia, the Mediterranean and the Americas, have been exemplary in combining rigorous historical research, fine tuned textual analysis, and a supple understanding of the relationship of text and context, the past and present. But again, it may be useful to recall that other critics and writers have focussed on the institutional and cultural politics of the Shakespearean text rather its formal properties or historical contexts, not because they are incapable of analyzing the latter, or reductive in their understanding of history and culture, but because they have a different investment in, and relationship to, Shakespeare as well as postcolonial culture.

     11. Hulme mentions the neglect as well as appropriation of figures such as George Lamming, Edward Kamau Braithwaite, Aimé Césaire and Roberto Fernández Retamar within traditional Shakespearean scholarship. These writers, and many others like them in other parts of the colonized world, did not always offer close readings of the plays, although that is not to suggest that they did not offer brilliant insights into them. Elsewhere, Hulme himself points to the fact that Caribbean scholars raised questions about the text (such as the legitimacy of equating Prospero with Shakespeare) that were subsequently picked up by Western scholars of Shakespeare. But they, like other postcolonial writers, intellectuals and activists, were interested in Shakespeare's plays as well as Shakespeare's cultural capital primarily as a means of highlighting the inequities of the colonial encounter and addressing its contemporary effects. (Again, this did not make them deaf to the poetry of Shakespeare's language; on the contrary, because they were so sensitive to it they could use it to amplify their own feelings and thoughts as well as understand the rhetorical and emotional power of the plays themselves).

     12. Some contemporary critics have gone back to this political legacy, using Shakespeare and Shakespeare studies to critique the contemporary educational system (especially literary studies), racism as well as continuing postcolonial inequities. Perhaps such critiques heighten anxieties about any attempt to bring Shakespeare and issues of colonialism together. Here my intention is not to suggest any absolute distance between such writing and more formalist/ historical postcolonial criticism Hulme mentions. Not only do the same scholars sometimes engage in both, but they overlap in many crucial ways, much in the same way as certain key developments in Western thought (such as the debates on ideology and on representation) resonated strongly with issues raised by movements for decolonization and gender equality. Both kinds of postcolonial critique interrogate the relationship of text and society, question the idea of Shakespeare as a transcendental genius, as well as the ideological effects of traditional interpretations of Shakespeare, and both (although in very different ways) highlight the dynamics of the colonial encounter. In fact, as I have suggested, their affinity is most visible precisely in the misrepresentations Hulme analyses.

     13. Of course Hulme isn't simply overlooking this other body of work; he deliberately wants 'the discussion to take place on the grounds of reading and scholarship chosen by those who have opposed the postcolonial approach to The Tempest.' But while this tactic is extremely effective in turning the tables on those who misread him, perhaps we cannot fully address what is at stake in these polemical misreadings by confining ourselves to this terrain. Hulme touches upon the assumption that postcolonial critics are white Europeans, as when he quotes Jonathan Bate: 'Montaigne and Shakespeare have thus come to the assistance of post-colonial critics who for good reasons need to work through their own guilt about these matters' or 'Fashionable criticism is interested in assuaging the guilt of empire by making the author of The Tempest a scapegoat.' As I started to write this response in New Delhi, India, it seemed to me even more important that we not conflate the many different geographical and intellectual territories that are inhabited by postcolonial critics of Shakespeare.

     14. Hulme also suggests that the arguments between postcolonialists and their critics cannot be mapped onto the opposition between 'left and right'-in this he differs from both Sinfield and Siar. He is 'happy to concede that traditional defences of Shakespeare, and the more nuanced critiques of postcolonial readings . . . are situated in some general sense "on the left."' Hulme invokes the left critique of theory in Britain to make his point, but we could also note that, in Britain as well as in India, South Africa, the US and elsewhere, some of the most heated criticism of the politics of postcolonial criticism and its location within the Western academy has come from Marxists or leftists. According to some of these critics, postcolonial criticism of a certain kind (because of its affinity with post-structuralist theory) is in danger of slipping into rightwing nostalgia about community and identity. But the attacks on postcolonial readings of Shakespeare analyzed by Hulme seem to be of quite a different tone and temper (even though it is important to remember that the various critics discussed in 'Stormy Weather' are far from identical). If, for instance, the following description is accurate, how can it be taken to be produced by someone 'on the Left', even 'in some general sense'?

According to Vickers, postcolonial readings of The Tempest are guilty of reducing the play to "an allegory about colonialism" with Prospero seen as "an exploitative protocapitalist" and Caliban "an innocent savage, deprived of his legitimate heritage". The postcolonial revisionists have leftish pretentions and therefore tend to see capitalists or protocapitalists in any figure that wields authority, and they are incurably romantic about the Third World and will therefore sentimentalize all natives.

I agree that there is no mechanical correspondence between radical theory and politics, and indeed perhaps 'left' and 'right' are themselves rather unwieldy terms, especially when it comes to analysing the politics of either gender or colonialism. But I cannot see how a 'traditional' defence of Shakespeare sits easily with a 'left' position, although in view of the increasing right-wing emphasis on an exclusionary 'Hindu culture' in India, I myself defended the teaching of Shakespeare in Indian universities.

     15. Despite the left critiques of postcolonial criticism mentioned above, isn't it the case that most 'defences' of a traditional Shakespeare and critiques of 'postcolonial criticism' that circulate within the academy (as well as in attacks on what is wrong with the academy) are virulently right-wing? A few random examples--the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, in a report of December 1996 called 'The Shakespeare File: What English Majors Are Really Studying' lamented that in the US academy Shakespeare has been sacrificed at the altar of cultural studies, to topics such as 'advertising imagery', 'AIDS activism', 'alehouses', 'people of color', 'insurgent nationalism', 'homophobia', 'sites of conflict and struggle', 'third world liberation struggles', 'urban poor' and 'vagrancy'. Even worse, when Shakespeare was taught, such focus did not go away, and issues of class conflict or sex were brought in while teaching the hallowed Age of Shakespeare. The report posits an organic link between a traditional way of teaching Shakespeare and US national culture:

This country cannot expect a generation raised on gangster films and sex studies to maintain its leadership in the world, or even its unity as a nation. Shakespeare's works provide a common frame of reference that helps unite us into a single community of discourse. (10)

Such fears were realized after September 11. In another report called 'Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It', the Council lamented that the 'academe is the only sector of American society that is distinctly divided in response' to the war in Afghanistan, and suggested that this division was the direct result of 'an educational system that has increasingly suggested that Western civilization is the primary source of the world's ills even though it gave us the ideals of democracy, human rights, individual liberty, and mutual tolerance.' Only a step away is Dinesh D'Souza's 'Two Cheers for Colonialism' which claims that 'apologists for terrorism' such as Osama Bin Laden and other 'justifications of violence' 'rely on a large body of scholarship 'which goes by the names of "anti-colonial studies," "postcolonial studies," or "subaltern studies."'

     16. Within the US academy, the historian Antonette Burton suggests, there is a renewed nostalgia for merrie England, cleaned up of any racial strife. She cites a 1999 report published by the North American Conference of British Studies (NACBS)--sometimes referred to as the Stansky Report--which claims that 'no group has been more vocal in its condemnation of British Studies than those historians whose work focuses on the impact of imperialism on colonial subjects and who have had the most contact with colleagues in non-Western areas'. Burton writes that British imperial history is being repackaged and circulated, after being erased of any discussions of race, 'thereby helping to guarantee that empire will remain user-friendly and unthreatening to the American fetish of Britain-as-whiteness.' And a recent article in The New York Times reports that academics and policy makers across Britain and the US are advocating that after September 11, there is the need for establishing a Western, particularly US empire--the earlier wave of decolonization has left a 'power vacuum' and chaos all over the world. Caliban still needs Prospero, or is it that Prospero desperately needs Caliban?

     17. I have moved away from Hulme's attempts to map a very specific debate about The Tempest, but I have done so just to remind us of the larger context within which all of us, teachers and students, read and debate Shakespeare's play, and quote and misquote each other.

 

 

 Send EMC your comments on this essay.

 Go to The Electronic Seminar.

 Go to this issue's index.

Go to the current issue's index.

 

 

References

Ahmed, Aijaz (1992) In Theory, Classes, Nations, Literatures , London, Verso.

American Council of Trustees and Alumni (1996),The Shakespeare File, What American Majors are Really Studying (December 1996), available on http://www.goacta.org/Reports/Shakespeare.pdf

Barker, Francis and Peter Hulme (1985), "'Nymphs and reapers heavily vanish': The Discursive Con-texts of The Tempest", in John Drakakis, ed., Alternative Shakespeares, London: Methuen, pp. 191-205.

Bartels, Bartels (1997), 'Othello and Africa: Postcolonialism Reconsidered', The William and Mary Quarterly, 3d series, Vol. LIV, NO. 1 January 1997, pp. 45-64.

Bate, Jonathan (1997), The Genius of Shakespeare, London: Picador.

Burton, Antoinette (forthcoming), "When was Britain? Nostalgia for the Nation at the End of the 'American Century,'" Journal of Modern History (June 2003).

Dirlik, Arif (1994), 'The Postcolonial Aura, Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism,' Critical Inquiry 20: 2 (Winter 1994), pp. 328-356.

D'Souza, Dinesh (2002). 'Two Cheers for Colonialism', Chronicle of Higher Education, May 10.

Hamlin, William M. (1994), "Men of Inde: Renaissance Ethnography and The Tempest", Shakespeare Studies, XXII, pp. 15-44.

Hulme Peter (2000), 'Reading from Elsewhere: George Lamming and the Paradox of Exile' in Hulme and Sherman eds., 'The Tempest' and its Travels' (London: Reaktion Books, pp. 220-35.

Levin, Richard (2001), "Selective Quotations and Selective Marxisms: A Response to Alan Sinfield and David Siar", Early Modern Culture

Loomba, Ania (1999), "Turning point: Fundamentalism and English Studies", Textual Practice 13: 2 (1999), pp. 221-25.

---(1998), Colonialism, Postcolonialism. Londoan and New York, Routledge.

---(1997). "The Long and Saggy Sari" in Women, A Cultural Review (Special issue on Independent India) 8: 3 (Autumn 1997), pp. 278-292.

--- (1994), "The Colour of Patriarchy: Cultural Difference, Critical Differences and Renaissance Drama," in Patricia Parker and Margo Hendricks, eds. Women, Race and Writing in the Early Modern Period, London: Routledge, pp. 17-34.

---(1989) Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Loomba, Ania and Martin Orkin (1998) eds., Postcolonial Shakespeares, London and New York, Routledge.

Matar, Nabil (1999), Turks, Moors and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery , New York, Columbia University Press.

McDonald, Russ (1991), "Reading The Tempest", Shakespeare Survey, 43, pp. 15-28.

O'Hanlon, Rosalind and David Washbrook (1992) 'After Orientalism, Culture, Criticism, and Politics in the Third World', Comparative Studies in Society and History 34: 1 (January 1992) pp. 141-167.

Siar, David (2001), "'Talking about Pennies' and the Dialectical Challenge: A Response to Alan Sinfield's 'Selective Quotation'", Early Modern Culture, 2, 0-0.

Sinfield, Alan (2001), "Selective Quotation", Early Modern Culture, 2, pp. 1-7.

Skura, Meredith Anne (1989), "Discourse and the Individual: The Case of Colonialism in The Tempest", Shakespeare Quarterly, 40, pp. 42-69.

Sole, Kelwyn (1994), 'Democratising Culture and Literature in a "New South Africa": Organization and Theory', Current Writing 6(2), pp. 1-37.

Stille, Alexander (2002) 'What is America's Place in the World Now?', The New York Times, Saturday, January 12, 2002, pp. A 17, 19.

Takaki, Ronald (2000), 'The "Tempest" in the Wilderness' in from James Phelan and Gerald Graff eds., The Tempest: A Case Study in Critical Controversy, Bedford/ St. Martin's Press, pp. 140-172.

 

 

Form copyright © 2003 Early Modern Culture.

Content copyright © 2003 Ania Loomba.