Shakespeare’s roles in the Caribbean

Roxi Victorian as Hero (center) with the cast of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Timothy Douglas, Folger Theatre, 2009, inspired by the DC Caribbean Carnival. Photo by Carol Pratt.

Shakespeare is deeply woven into the culture of the British Caribbean, where interest in his work persisted long after colonial rule ended. But is he a reflection of the British colonial past; the source of Caliban, often seen as a figure of anti-colonialism; or both of the above, and more?

Scholars Giselle Rampaul, a lecturer in Literatures in English at the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine, Trinidad, and Barrymore A. Bogues, the Director of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University, explored Shakespeare’s roles in the British Caribbean in a classic interview on the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Neva Grant spoke with Rampaul and Bogues.

These excerpts from the conversation take us from the fascinating role of Shakespeare in the Royal Reader primers used in schools after the end of enslavement, when education was a key colonial tool, to how Caliban in The Tempest became a key figure to many 20th and 21st century anti-colonial writers—with a look at Rampaul and Bogues’s encounters with Shakespeare in their own schooldays, too.

To learn more about the role of Shakespeare in different countries, check out our list of podcast episodes The Bard Around the World.

BARRYMORE ANTHONY BOGUES: I think you have to remember it’s both colonialism and slavery, and that the key thing is, how then do you make these ex-slaves into what some of us have called “respectable Christian Blacks”? This is the period of Victorianism in England, as you would know. And so the education system revolves around the following things. One, there are schools that are set up by missionaries that are sent into rural areas, and those tended to train the ex-slaves and their children into agricultural practices. Then there are these schools that have a longer tradition, particularly in the urban areas, places like Jamaica College, which are elite schools. And those schools tended to then train people and give them a classical British education: Queen Mary’s College in Trinidad, Codrington College in Barbados.

So what you have is not a homogeneous education system, you have a multi-tiered system, so much so that one figure, who is very important in Caribbean Intellectual history, C.L.R. James, who is born in 1901 and who goes to Queen’s Royal College in Trinidad, could write that, by eleven years old, “I was a British intellectual,” meaning that he would have read Thackeray, he would have read Shakespeare, he knew everything about English history, and so on. So that’s basically what you have. And then what becomes, I think, important is that by the 20th century, the people who want to be writers and artists in the Caribbean essentially have to deal with Shakespeare, because they have to deal with the British literary tradition.

NEVA GRANT (HOST): Giselle, with regard to teaching English literature in the British Caribbean, this is really done quite assertively, isn’t it?

Royal Readers No. 3, 1935. Royal School Series readers collection, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Digital Archives Initiative.

GISELLE RAMPAUL: Yes, that’s true. After emancipation, as Professor Bogues was saying, there was a lot of funding to promote education. And one of the ways in which education served as a colonial tool, as a very, very important colonial tool, was through the readers that they introduced, early on in the education system, but also early on in the education of these newly freed colonial subjects. And these readers were called the Royal Readers. And the Royal Readers were really used as a way of cultivating British values. So, they were littered with poems by canonical writers and historical passages as well, about British and European battles and victories. And, of course, they were littered by Shakespearean passages and so on.

So as early as the Royal Reader 3, there was a story entitled “The Prince and The Judge,” which was about Prince Hal’s misadventures in Henry IV. And this continued in Royal Reader 5, there was a reading passage entitled “Choice Quotations,” and there were all of these quotations from these British canonical poets: Tennyson, Byron, Scott, Milton, and so on, and there were 33. And of these 33 quotations, 12 of them, about one third of them, were by Shakespeare. And the lessons continue as well in a later reader, Royal Reader 6. There was also the speech of Henry V at the siege of Harfleur and the “All the world’s a stage” speech. And there was also an abridged version of King John. So Shakespeare was very much fed to the colonial subjects very early on, and it was because Shakespeare was being touted as a symbol of British literary cultural, intellectual superiority.

GRANT:  Tony, you were raised in Jamaica. Was this your experience?

BOGUES: That was my experience, and I think for all of us who went to high school in the late ’60s and early ’70s and universities in the early ’70s, we were still doing Shakespeare, even though Jamaica got independence in 1962. Shakespeare and English literature were still very important. In fact, I recall at the University of the West Indies, where I began studying English literature, that that was one of the compulsory courses in the early ’70s that one had to do. And then there was a switch to West Indian literature, but literature as taught in high school was really around English literature. I mean the poets I studied, Yeats, the Irish poet, William Blake, the English poet, and, of course, had to do Shakespeare.

GRANT: And do you actually remember teachers saying things to you like, “Look, if you want to be a cultured human being, you have to have a handle on these great, sort of touchstones of British literature?”

BOGUES: Not only do I remember teachers saying that, but I recall in high school that we would spend time on our lunch period and our break period seeing who could recite which Shakespeare play or portions of Shakespeare plays better than who, as competition.

GRANT: Giselle, what about your own upbringing there in Trinidad, was it similar?

RAMPAUL: Yes, I was first exposed to Shakespeare in high school. The play that we did was Twelfth Night, and I think that’s actually what made me really interested in Shakespeare. But even before I started that class, there was the understanding that Shakespeare was the great Bard.

GRANT: What do you think explains the kind of permanence or the apparent permanence of Shakespeare in the curriculum like this? I mean is it just about the fact that, of course, he’s a brilliant playwright, but is there some legacy of colonialism that is important as well?

BOGUES: I think partly, obviously, there’s a lingering legacy of colonialism around this. But I think there is also the ways in which, in fact, anti-colonial literary figures and anti-colonial thinkers used Shakespeare, so that perhaps the most important play for the anti-colonial thinkers and literary figures was The Tempest and the figure of Caliban, and that continues. You know, there is C.L.R. James’s epigraph to Beyond a Boundary: Caliban will go “into regions Caesar never knew.” Caesar, you know, obviously, Julius Caesar, Shakespeare; Caliban, Tempest. Lamming’s Pleasures of Exile is about an explicit use of the Caliban figure. Sylvia Wynter’s work… I mean you can go right up until, quite frankly, so much so that Césaire, Aimé Césaire, who is French from Martinique, the late Aimé Césaire, had to write a play called A Tempest, in which he now attempted to rethink the questions of colonialism and of the figure of Caliban. So it’s central to all of this.

GRANT: Right, and remind us who Caliban is—I mean, he is a slave, he is a monster, and he is also many, many things, depending on how he is viewed, and in what time he is viewed.

BOGUES: Yeah, he is all of that. But I think that what is important is being first seen as Caliban the savage. And you know that the play Tempest is based on a shipwreck off Bermuda. And so that there is a way in which the relationship between Caliban and Prospero is seen as the relationship between the colonial and the colonized. And all of that is really about Caliban, a savage, and then Caliban taking charge of his own self.

GRANT: Right, and Prospero and Caliban have sort of taken care of each other, but they’ve also betrayed each other in different ways.

BOGUES: Betrayed, yeah, betrayed each other. But what is interesting is, I think, is… There are two things. One is the way in which, for example, the Cuban literary critic Roberto Retamar uses Caliban as a figure for anti-colonialism. And then there’s a response from Lamming, and there’s a response from, even people like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, who is a Kenyan writer. And then in the 1990s, there is a whole set of books that appear by Caribbean authors that uses Caliban again, going back to that figure as a figure that can be used for anti-colonial purposes. So it’s the influence of Shakespeare in many ways, is the point I’m making.

RAMPAUL: Yes, and just to agree that it has continued even in the 21st century, Elizabeth Nunez, for example, in 2006, published a novel called Prospero’s Daughter, which again is very much anti-colonial. And even more recently, there is a Caribbean-born writer, Nalo Hopkinson, who wrote a very interesting short story called “Shift.” And again, it is figuring the Caliban figure, but what I find really interesting about her short story is that it is not primarily about the struggle between Prospero and Caliban, but it’s more about the importance of this sort of Caliban figure, or, let’s say, the descendants of the colonized people, to shift their perspective and begin the process of self-definition.

Visit Shakespeare in the Caribbean for the entire podcast episode.