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Lahey Lecture delivers post-colonial Shakespeare

Goldberg variations on an Afro-Caribbean theme

by Paul Serralheiro

William Shakespeare's relevance was confirmed on October 8, when Jonathan Goldberg, an English professor from Johns Hopkins University, delivered the 1998 Lahey Lecture.

Goldberg, an authority on Renaissance studies, called his lecture "The Generation of Caliban," and described it as "a discussion of 20th-century Afro-Caribbean readings, rewritings and appropriations of Shakespeare's The Tempest and the character of Caliban."

Its starting point was Barbadian writer George Lamming's postcolonial reading of The Tempest as elaborated in The Pleasures of Exile and developed in works such as Seasons of Adventure and In the Castle of My Skin.

In The Tempest, Prospero is master of an island on which Ariel is a ministering spirit and Caliban the demonized, deformed son of the witch Sycorax. At the end of the play, Prospero releases Ariel, and the island is returned to Caliban.

Lamming saw in the Shakespeare classic a depiction of the colonial situation and the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. The allegorical features of the play thus provided a powerful means for the complex psychological emancipation from the colonial situation that was required after the relatively more straightforward process of political independence.

Goldberg explored the colonizer-colonized paradigm and "couplings," both heterosexual and "non-heterosexual," particularly as displayed in the relationships among Caliban, Miranda, and Prospero. In developing his argument, Goldberg drew on a wealth of ideas borrowed from several writers, weaving a dense fabric of analysis of issues of colonial politics, race and gender.

The intertextuality contained, aside from Lamming's words, bits of such works as Stephen Jay Greenblatt's Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture, which deals with 16th-century "linguistic colonization," Martinique writer Aimé Césaire's Une tempête (in which Caliban questions history, urges the awareness of origins and finds another name, ergo, another identity for himself.)

Another important work cited was Black Skin, White Masks, by psychiatrist, political activist and author Franz Fanon. Fanon, a pioneer in post-colonial criticism, dedicated much of his life to the study of (in his words) "the psychology of colonial domination," in which attempts are made "to decerebralize a people."

The Generation of Caliban showed that, as Goldberg put it, "Caribbean and Afro-American appropriations of The Tempest" are a means of understanding and dismantling the colonizer-colonized dynamic. This is achieved by a close reading of the "discourses of colonialism," which served in the assimilation of the colonized and the validation of the colonizer.

Issues of gender were also worked into Goldberg's argument. In this, Goldberg is pursuing interests present in his previous works, Voice Terminal Echo: Postmodernism and English Renaissance Texts (1986), Desiring Women Writing: English Renaissance Examples (1997), Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities (1992), Queering the Renaissance (1994) and Reclaiming Sodom (1994).

At the end of the evening, Goldberg said that what he finds most interesting in his work is the political and historical context of literature, which literary studies help to address and understand. His current project is to continue looking at writers of the African diaspora who have taken The Tempest along trails blazed by Lamming.

Copyright 1998 Concordia's Thursday Report.