Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Taotaomo'na in the Tempest

“Shakespeare gi Guinaiya yan Chinatli’e’”
Michael Lujan Bevacqua
Marianas Variety

Shakespeare’s Hamlet asks, “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, / And by opposing end them?”  Hamlet is paralyzed by the fear of death or suffering, but ultimately moves toward decisive political rebellion.   

Similarly, the African-American lesbian poet, scholar, and activist Audre Lorde speaks of the radicalizing crisis in her life when she faced a diagnosis of breast cancer: “I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself.  My silences had not protected me.  Your silence will not protect you.” 

Most might assume that it is ridiculous to compare a “great” writer such as Shakespeare to an activist like Lorde. One of them so many seem to accept as the height of human achievement whereas the other is generally read only within feminist and ethnic studies circles. There is something problematic about this, something that we on Guam should be very familiar with by now.

A study by Yale professor Harold Bloom is literally titled Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. It is a provocative thesis if one thinks about it, but most people simply do not. You have to read Shakespeare in high school, just like the way you have to learn about Magellan or Columbus. It is easier to accept their importance because an authority tells you so, rather than question is there is any substance to the pedestal upon which it is placed.

It is just as silly to call Magellan the man who “discovered” Guam as it is to say that Shakespeare is the man who invented the “human.” Both were things that clearly existed prior to European intervention. The problem with making these types of assertions is that they strip power away from so many and place it in the hands of a select few, who not surprisingly happen to be male and European. To give Shakespeare that type of credit is to reinvent the colonial game: it is to not just give over land and history, but give over the creativity of people and the sovereignty of imagination and chain themselves to a hierarchy upon which a long dead, white European man sits atop.  

In order to create a cult of greatness of Shakespeare, you have to obscure so much. The perceived authority becomes the excuse for not acknowledging the limits of problems that are also present.

For example, in the plays of Shakespeare there is a clear ingenuity in terms of the language he uses. His “birthday” passed recently and my Facebook timeline was filled with people sharing images of all the phrases and sayings that we owe to the inventiveness of Shakespeare. But when you look at the plays themselves of Shakespeare they are actually quite tame and conservative and seem hardly appropriate for being someone who we should look to as the universal height of human creative achievement. Shakespeare’s protagonists are generally the same: white, privileged men. The stories were not considered very radical in their time and that conservatism is hard to shake. Women and non-whites fare very poorly in Shakespeare’s plays, unlike in those of some contemporaries such as John Webster, which a clear problem if you are trying to establish someone as the epitome of human creativity. Taking on strong, controversial, mold-breaking characters is one of the ways that artists define themselves in a timeless fashion, by defying instead of milking the conventions that surrounded them. 

Shakespeare did feature some interesting characters, such as Shylock the Jew, Rosalind as a heroine, and Othello the African general. In postcolonial studies the comedic and degraded African-Mediterranean slave Caliban of The Tempest is often re-imagined as a figure of radical anti-colonial resistance.

UOG Theater Professor Michelle Blas (currently directing the play Pågat) took such considerations into account when she directed The Tempest at UOG in the Fall of 2012. She made a radical choice of casting female Chamorro actors in the roles of Caliban and Ariel, who are both supposed to be male according to the text.

Ariel is an interesting character. He, or she in Ms. Blas’s production, is the original inhabitant of the island and although she is portrayed as the servant of Prospero, a white male colonizer on the island, Ariel is actually far more powerful than he. It is she who conjures up the typhoon in the play’s title. She is oppressed by Caliban’s family and later manipulated by Prospero through her sense of honor. Throughout the play, Ariel constantly pushes for freedom and the right to self-determination, and in fact finally wins freedom from Prospero, who gives up his claim to rule over the island and returns to Italy. 

No complete study of Ariel as a colonized figure of resistance has yet been done. Today at 2 pm the Chamorro Studies Program at UOG is pleased to present a colloquium that will feature such an analysis. Professor Blas with her colleague Dr. Elizabeth Kelley Bowman have studying the figure of Ariel within the context of Chamorro values. They will be using a Chamorro-centered and islander-focused critique in order to draw out aspects of Shakespeare’s play that many who are focused on his supposed greatness may miss. This presentation is free and open to the public and will take place in the CLASS Dean’s Professional Development Room on the 3rd floor of the Humanities and Social Sciences Building at UOG.

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