A Tempestuous Noise

I first became aware of William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest in Junior High. Our English class was reading Romeo and Juliet and each student was assigned to read another Shakespeare work of our own choosing. I chose King Lear, mostly because I felt an affinity with Lear’s youngest daughter Cordelia. Later in my life I would also find an affinity with Falstaff—at least his preference for certain beverages. A girl who sat next to me in English class chose The Tempest. The general perception in our class was that this play was a fairy tale complete with a king, a prince, a princess, a whimsical spirit and a bad guy. The year was 1967. Little did we know that in the world outside our suburban classroom all of those characters and the play itself were being reconsidered and radically redefined.

One of the last dramas written by Shakespeare, The Tempest came into being when the European world was undergoing one of its many metamorphoses. The economic system that would become capitalism was in its birth throes and the world of feudalism’s monarchies and bloodlines was receding. As part of these changes, the commons were being privatized and industrial labor was slowly intensifying and expanding its grip over the peasantry and lower urban classes. Science and rationalism was replacing the Church, its faith and its mysticism. A new class, which would become known as the bourgeoisie was on the not-too-distant horizon. A rapidly approaching future would herald the great bourgeois revolutions that would reorder the world in ways ultimately foretold in this drama of Shakespeare’s, but unforeseen at the time of its writing. As time moved forward into the twentieth and then the twenty-first century, this drama of Shakespeare’s would be reconsidered. In time, it would be considered one of his most important works.

This reevaluation reflected the changes wrought by capitalism, its advances and its intrusions. To put it simply (perhaps too simply), the African Caliban, whose origins as the illegitimate son of a Black witch had so often cast him as villain, was recast as a revolutionary representative of the colonized—the people sold into slavery, forced to work their stolen homeland and die like so many insects. Prospero, the banished king whose magic allowed him to regain his throne and ensure his daughter’s future was newly perceived as the colonizer and enslaver of not only Caliban, but of the spirit Ariel, too. All that was once right-side up was now upside down. In other interpretations more favorable to capitalism, it is Prospero—whose power is based in his book-learning and knowledge—that is the revolutionary.

It is these newer understandings of the drama on Prospero’s island (or is it Caliban’s?) that University of Vermont literature professor Helen Scott examines in her recent text Shakespeare’s Tempest and Capitalism: The Storm of History. Relying on Walter Benjamin’s remark in his Theses on the Concept of History that history is “a series of catastrophes” and informed by her socialism (Scott edited and wrote the introduction to a 2007 collection of Rosa Luxemburg’s essays and is one of the editors working on a complete collection of her works), Scott invites the reader on a journey that sails through the turbulent history of the capitalist era. She characterizes the play as being poly-dimensional and ripe with contradictions, like the world it was written in. This is but one reason, Scott argues, why its popularity in times of historical crisis exists.

Scott’s text examines The Tempest both as a dark study of power and as an illuminating discussion of the possibilities of resistance and ultimately liberation. It’s a drama full of dualities like the world it exists in. Consequently, so are the multiple interpretations. Scott’s critical journey incorporates poets, writers, critics and filmmakers from Edwin Markham to Sylvia Plath, WH Auden to John Fowles, HD to Derek Jarman, Aimé Cesaire and Silvia Federici, among others. Innumerable performances of the play are invoked in her contemplation of the changing meanings of The Tempest and the relationship between those meanings and the social conflicts of past, present and in the future. Likewise, the reader learns of creative works in other genres—novels, film, and poetry, even music—that add complexities to this drama my literature class once perceived as a playful bit of fun.

Ms. Scott has written a fascinating and lively take on a fascinating drama that involves history, revolution and reaction. An approachable text even for those not versed in Shakespeare, Scott’s argues that The Tempest is a work which both reveals and in retrospect critiques capitalism: its revolutionary changes to human existence and its counterrevolutionary actions against those who would move humanity beyond it. She truly knows her subject, having read, viewed, analyzed and considered multiple renditions of Shakespeare’s tale. As a result, Shakespeare’s Tempest and Capitalism is considerably more than a history of the play, as performed, rewritten, critiqued and referred to. It is also a history of British, and ultimately Western capitalism, colonialism and imperialism and the resistance to its predation and degradations.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.