The action in the play closely follows that of Shakespeare's play, though Césaire emphasizes the importance of the people who inhabited the island before the arrival of Prospero and his daughter Miranda: Caliban and Ariel. Both have been enslaved by Prospero, though Caliban was the ruler of the island before Prospero's arrival.
Caliban and Ariel react differently to their situation. Caliban favors revolution over Ariel's non-violence, and rejects his name as the imposition of Prospero's colonizing language, desiring to be called X. He complains stridently about his enslavement and regrets not being powerful enough to challenge the reign of Prospero. Ariel, meanwhile, contents himself with asking Prospero to consider giving him independence.
At the end of the play, Prospero grants Ariel his freedom, but retains control of the island and of Caliban. This is a notable departure from Shakespeare's version, in which Prospero leaves the island with his daughter and the men who were shipwrecked there at the beginning of the play.
A Summary of Shakespeare's Tempest
Close to a Mediterranean island, a storm overcomes a ship that carries King Alonso of Naples, his son Ferdinand, and his brother Sebastian. They were on their way home home from Tunis to Italy when the storm hit and demolished their ship. Shipwrecked with them are the courtier, Gonzalo, and the Duke of Milan, Antonio.
From the island, Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, and his fifteen year-old daughter, Miranda, watch the storm and shipwreck. Miranda fears for the ship's crew, but Prospero assures her that everything is fine. He decides to open up about his past, telling her how twelve years previously, his brother Antonio had deposed him in a coup. With the aid of Gonzalo, Prospero had escaped in a boat with the infant Miranda and his books of magic. They travelled to the island, made it their home, and enslaved the only native islander, Caliban. The only other inhabitants of the island are the spirits including Ariel, whom Prospero had rescued from imprisonment in a tree. Since Antonio was on the boat that is now shipwrecked, Prospero hopes finally to rectify his past. As Miranda sleeps, Prospero discusses his role in the shipwreck with Ariel. They plot about what to do with the men now that they are on the shore.
The courtiers from the ship are cast ashore unharmed. But the King is near despair, believing that Ferdinand, his son, drowned. Ferdinand has actually arrived safely on a different part of the island where he meets Miranda and they instantly fall in love. Prospero, fearing for his daughter, captures Ferdinand and forces him to carry wood. In the meantime, Ariel seeks his freedom. Prospero promises that he will liberate Ariel from servitude following the completion of just a few more tasks (typical).
Ariel uses music to lead the courtiers astray, while Sebastian and Antonio plot to kill the King while he is asleep. Their attempt is foiled by Ariel. All the people from the ship become ever more confused as they wander around. In another part of the island, the timid court fool, Trinculo, has come ashore and discovered Caliban. Trinculo hides beside Caliban from an approaching storm, and the ship's butler, Stephano finds them.
Stephano, Caliban, and Trinculo, at Caliban's suggestion, intend to kill Prospero and make Stephano lord of the island. They get very drunk before setting off to the cell to kill Prospero. Ariel, who saw the whole thing in his invisible state, reports this wicked plot to his master. Meanwhile, Prospero has relented and gives his blessing for Ferdinand and Miranda's marriage. Then he entertains them with a masque of goddesses and dancing reapers before he remembers Caliban's plots.
Prospero and Ariel then set a trap for the three plotters. Stephano and Trinculo fall for the plot and become distracted by gaudy clothes hung out for them. After they touch the clothing, they are chased away by spirits disguised as dogs.
Ariel brings all the courtiers to the cell where Prospero, renouncing his magic, reveals himself. Instead of enacting his revenge, he forgives them and accepts the return of his dukedom. Ferdinand and Miranda are betrothed. Sailors come to announce that the ship is safe. Prospero fulfils his promise and frees Ariel while Caliban and the drunken servants are rebuked. The play ends as all go to celebrate their reunions, and Prospero asks the audience to release him from the play.
Source: Rich, Sara, "A Tempest by Aimé Césaire: Curriculum Guide for Postcolonial Educators" (2019). Course Materials. 7. https://digitalcommons.coastal.edu/oer-course/7
Aimé Césaire was a major modern poet from the French Antilles and Francophone background, who became known as the founding father of Negritude and a major critic of colonialism (Davies 1). Césaire was born in the Caribbean Island of Martinique, and although born into the lower class, he still pursued reading and writing at the Lycée Schoelcher. His parents were Fernand and Elénore, whom were very passionate about education (Davies 4). Martinique was a small island near the Caribbean that was deeply involved in the enslavement of Africans and the spread of imperialism in Europe. Later on, Césaire attend the prestigious Lycée Louis le Grand in Paris, specifically on a scholarship. At this school, Césaire found inspiration from the Harlem Renaissance's efforts to dive deeper into the richness of African cultural identity, which then encouraged him to resist French assimilationist policies. Césaire was one of six children and learned to read at the age of four by his grandmother. Not only was Césaire taught to read so early, but his father would wake up all his siblings at six am to teach them more French language and culture (Davies 5).
As mentioned before, his family remained in the lower class, so low that his mother was just a cut above being a field worker (Hale 135). In 1937, Césaire married another Martinican, Suzanne Roussy, who he worked with to create “Tropiques,” a piece of work that helped further the Negritude movement. Following his parents tradition, he had six children with Suzanne. Both Cèsaire and Suzanne became teachers at Lycée Louis le Grand. As he was returning home for this job, his first poem “Cahier d’un retour au pays natal” (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land or Journal of a Homecoming), was published in November 2017 by Georges Pelorson, but was ignored by most. Along with his strive to be a poet, he became drawn into politics. Césaire was elected numerous times as deputy in the French parliament and mayor of Fort-de-France. As Césaire started to work towards the Negritude movement, he had adapted into the communist party. Nonetheless, the communist party lost influence quickly, so Césaire lost his political point of view, but continued on with his Negritude beliefs.
The word “Negritude” is said to have first appeared in Césaire’s book-length poem, “Cahier d'un retou r au pays natal” in the 1930s (Edmonson 92). This led Césaire to obtain the title as the founding father of the movement. Later, Césaire would define this movement as “the simple recognition of the fact that one is black, the acceptance of this fact and of our destiny as blacks, of our history and culture” (Achebe 152). However, Césaire did not establish this movement alone, as Léopold Sédar Senghor and Léon Damas should be recognized for playing significant roles to restore Black cultural identity as well. Césaire exclaims, “I would like to say that everyone has his own Negritude” (Salaam 1). With that being said, Césaire is claiming that Negritude is that of what you make of it or see it as.
The whole concept of Negritude developed from the revolt against French colonialism and racism. Soon after World War I, the Africans who were in the French army stayed there, which brought out the ideas of colonialism and political assimilation. These French citizens met with blacks in the United States to discuss the troubles within African culture. Césaire and his partners, Senghor and Damas, all belonged to the group that was considered uncivilized and different. Therefore, as these men worked toward furthering the movement, it also had its detractors. Others accused the movement as another form of racism or the idea of black exoticism. Some felt that it was just setting up blacks for a hostile environment, but instead it was a cry for help against assimilation. Even though the goal was to work towards equality, it was still looked at as European culture over powering Africa. All in all, the Negritude movement gave a poetic voice to black identity and allowed black people to see their qualities with a better perspective (Sprauge 244).
Because of Césaire’s complex background in African culture, he went on to adapt The Tempest into a work that was intended to be more relevant for a black audience, titled A Tempest. In this theatrical production, the character Caliban replaced the Shakespearean, dominant, and controlling Prospero as the new protagonist. He emphasizes a new theme of a master/slave relationship as he took on a more critical perspective of western humanism. Césaire also differs from Shakespeare in the way he highlights the social roles of characters. In this version, Caliban can be perceived as a Malcom X figure, and Ariel is viewed as a parallel for Martin Luther King Jr. Caliban is characterized by his “affirmation of indigenous cultural values and most particularly by his insistence on the necessity of seizing his freedom” (Arnold 240).
This same description could be applied to Malcom X himself. Meanwhile, Ariel’s character “articulates coherently the position of moderation, conciliation, and nonviolence” (Arnold 240). This definition is much closer to Martin Luther King Jr., as he chose more peaceful ways of protest when compared to Malcolm X. Along with these two central figures, Césaire added the African God, Eshu, in his version of A Tempest. His role is to “counterbalance the divinities of classical antiquity in the masque of Shakespeare’s Act IV” (Arnold 239). The difference and depth of these characters create a new and refreshing take on Shakespeare’s original
In regards to Césaire’s stance on colonialism, his opinion is clearly stated in another one of his works. Entitled Discourse on Colonialism, this book was published in 1955 and has sold more than 75,000 copies to date. When published for the first time in English, this piece inspired a new generation that held Civil Rights, Black Power, and anti-war movements. Readers of this piece most likely assumed that colonialism offers mutual benefits for the European colonized and the colonizers, but Césaire states a different perspective. In this piece, he often mentions that it is a good idea for civilizations to join in order to “redistribute energy” and “blend different worlds.”
Although Césaire admitted that is a good idea to connect civilizations together, he still contemplates the idea of if it actually helped to develop a relationship. Césaire claims there is still too much distance between the colonizer and the colonized, with not a single value in common. Colonization is a process of decivilizing the colonizer, basically stripping one of their instincts. Throughout Césaire’s argument, there is a continuous drive towards the idea that no one colonizes innocently or correctly. There is only forced labor, taxation, rape, pressure, selfishness, etc. This is a cause of an imbalance of power within civilizations that eventually also leads to violence (Césaire 173). The year before Césaire died, he stated “I remain faithful to my beliefs and remain inflexibly anticolonialist” (Edmondson 97).
The legacy that Césaire has created through his beliefs on colonialism and African American culture lives on today through the Black Lives Matter Movement. This is a contemporary movement, and shows how Césaire’s beliefs from the past are still alive in present day culture. This movement is a result of the Negritude movement that Césaire started, due to both movements encouraging the history, culture, and individual identity of Blacks. Afroamerican and African Studies professor at the University of Michigan, Frieda Ekotto, says that “to read Césaire's work in light of recent events is to bear witness to the ongoing struggles of Black people. His work is rooted in the history of Blackness” (Sprague 244). During the African Studies Center Speaker Series at the UCLA International Institute, Ekotto talks about the difficult matter of racial politics and the violent issues that were present in the past and still remain today.
However, Ekotto is a big supporter in the role social media can play in society and argues that “social media has allowed Black activists to rebel against dominant discourses, much like Césaire rejected white narratives in his poetry, which spurred the Negritude literary movement that embraced the writer's African identity” (Sprague 243). Racialized violence through Césaire’stime never had a true ending, therefore violence against the black population sometimes goes ignored due to the chaos that always remains. The Negritude movement and Black Lives Matter movement can both be seen as one long ongoing battle for equality. Rather than looking at this movement as a struggle in the past, it is embraced as the celebration of Black people and the values of African culture. Overall, this movement was the motivation to stand up to the inequality within the justice system and to reach out for public support. Not only does it apply to the people of Africa, but to all people who should embrace their culture with pride. As Césairesays, “Black I am and Black I will remain” (Sprague 245).
Articles, Links, and more further reading!
Tiffany Gilly (she/her) is doing what she can to be an advocate and ally to Black People and People of Color through her art. She is an actor who seeks to support theatre and stories by Black Playwrights and Playwrights of Color, so she started this play-reading group to increase the knowledge of plays by non-White Playwrights as a starting point or a stepping stone for further exploration as artists.