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When We Were Capital, or Lessons in Language: Finding Caliban's Roots.

Do you know why people like me are shy about being capitalists? Well, it's because we, for as long as we have known you, were capital.

--Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place

IN HIS COSMOGRAPHY IN FOUR BOOKS, Containing the Chorography and History of the Whole World (1674), Peter Heylyn makes the following pronouncement on blacks in Africa, particularly those inhabiting the region known as "Terra Nigritarum" or the "Land of Negroes": "The Inhabitants, till the coming of the Portugals thither, were for the most part so rude and barbarous, that they seem to want that use of Reason which is peculiar unto Man."(1) African barbarism connotes the nonhuman, a state of nature bordering on the bestial, and implies complete ignorance of "all Arts and Sciences" that are here set apart as the peculiar province of European literacy and civilization.(2) Critiques of Africans' speech recur, speech serving as the performance by which one's membership in the intellectual production of a community is validated. From John Lok's travels beyond Guinea to eastern Africa in 1555, we come upon the curious Troglodytica who "have no speech, but rather a grinning and chattering."(3) Thomas Herbert presses the animal metaphor that is implicit in Heylyn's appraisal to the limit when he makes the literal connection between the apish speech of Ethiopians and their supposed practices of bestiality: "Their language is apishly sounded (with whom tis thought they mixe unnaturally)."(4) As a living antithesis to a spectrum of European values, Africans seemed to embody a concept of barbarism whose capacious contours included fundamental differences that could be gauged in language. The "barbarous," debased speech of Africans has, notably, an inverse relationship to the category of rhetoric and eloquence that constituted a central discipline in the English humanist educational program in the sixteenth century and stood as an important feature of an evolving English identity.(5)

Surprised to learn that Caliban, the "monster of the isle" in Shakespeare's The Tempest (1611), can speak, Stephano asks, "Where the devil should he learn our language?" (2.2.66-68). In addition to extending the network of intertexts among Heylyn, Herbert and Lok, the drunken butler's question invokes the trope of barbarism whose venerable classical roots had pervaded English and European intellectual, humanist traditions.(6) However, The Tempest's figuration of the "barbarous" Caliban includes the accusation of subhuman potential while bringing together the otherwise separate fields of rhetoric and geography in significant ways. Recent criticism has tended to write Caliban in an American colonial context, but as the son of Sycorax, though he was born on the island that Prospero now rules, Caliban is African or, even more precisely, a Barbarian.(7) In his own narrative account of competing ownership of the island and its surviving inhabitants--specifically Caliban and Ariel--Prospero retells the story of Sycorax's banishment from her native Algiers in North Africa, one of the four kingdoms, as they were sometimes called (the others being Morocco, Tunis, and Tripoli), that Europeans had known collectively as "Barbary" ever since business contacts were first forged by medieval Christian merchants. Both Prospero and Miranda's treatment of Caliban recalls Heylyn's supposedly providential history of the intervention of Europeans in African affairs; that is, until their "coming ... thither" Caliban was and continues to be no more than a barbarous brute who must "want that use of Reason which is peculiar unto Man." Consistent with the early modern European deployment of this polyvalent identity, Shakespeare has the Italians specify language as the area in which their superiority entitles them to raise the barbarous Caliban to the level of competent slave. Hence Miranda's outburst at a resistant Caliban upon his first appearance in the play: "Abhorred slave,/.../I pitied thee, / Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour / One thing or other" (1.2.353-57).(8) But Caliban knows that in reality he had little "profit on't" (1.2.365) and that language training was designed to indoctrinate and inculcate as well as provide a ready medium for the issuing of orders concerning the various domestic duties that as slave laborer he must carry out on pain of torture.(9) Prospero's books, which Caliban recognizes as the ultimate source of the magus's power, are situated along the continuum of language, literacy skills, and study that becomes identified with Europeans. In assuring themselves of Caliban's innate barbarism and of his cultural heritage as a Barbarian, Prospero and Miranda set out to provide language training as a crucial disciplinary measure in what is, after all, a colonial culture in epitome and, thereby, confirm the important racial nexus of geography and language in the early modern period that is fully implied in the negative descriptor "barbarous" as it relates to Africa.

The Tempest evokes the important distinction between "barbarian" and Barbarian--the Greco-Roman influenced rhetorical traditions and the geographic awareness of North Africa and its perceived role of Mediterranean cultural antagonist in sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century European history.(10) Writing in 1589, Puttenham reminds us, however, that in common English usage "barbarism" and its cognates had effectively erased the Arabic roots of the terms' applications to Africa and its people, generally, in favor of superimposing an unbroken but false etymological link with the Greek barbaros and its subsequent Roman inscription.(11) With greater philological acumen, then, Heylyn observes that the name that became synonymous with Africa itself, "Barbary," denotes linguistic defect, being derived "from Barbar, signifying in their Language an uncertain murmur."(12) Still, Puttenham's remarks underscore the degree to which Englishmen in the late sixteenth century were prone to hear the cultural echoes of Greece and Rome when they used the terms "barbarism" and "barbarian" in relation to Africa. Thus the label "barbarian" functions as a rhetorico-geographic pun whose phonological materiality masks a linguistic "colonialism" at work in English and European usage as a preferred Greco-Roman system becomes the model for citing the contemporary African.

Shakespeare, with a pointed reanimation of the specificity of North Africa in the etymological geography that links Rome, Africa, and Renaissance England, invites us to fill out the historical intertext of Algiers which in his own time had become synonymous with an array of commercial activity and slavery.(13) For his own part, Trinculo, the jester, coming upon the cowering and partially hidden Caliban, sees there economic opportunity writ large and dreams of transporting him to England where "this monster makes a man" (2.2.30-31). Indeed, the "monsters" of Africa had already contributed to the making of Englishmen as early as Hawkins's slave raids in the 1560s.(14) With increasing degrees of success over the following century, Englishmen carried off Africans to other shores where their labor in the fields of English overseas enterprises materialized historically the paradigmatic versions of labor, financial interest and slavery that, respectively, Prospero demands, Trinculo in grim comic imitation fantasizes, and Algiers connotes. Shakespeare throws into sharp relief the colonial implications of Prospero's island regime and the pervasive exploitative vision of Africa that has trickled clown through the social ranks even to the level of the jester Trinculo. Caliban's violent curse at Prospero and Miranda already signals an awareness of the barbarous, material fate that lay behind seemingly innocuous lessons in language.


(1.) Peter Heylyn, Cosmography in Four Books, Containing the Chorography and History oft he Whole World. (London: Philip Chetwind, 1674), 4.1: 44.

(2.) Ibid.

(3.) Richard Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations, Voyages & Discoveries of the English Nation, 12 vols. (Glasgow: James MacLehose, 1904), 6:169.

(4.) Thomas Herbert, Some Years Travels Into Divers Parts of Asia and Afrique. Describing especially the two famous Empires, the Persian, and the Great Mogull: weaved with the History of these later Times. (London: Richard Bishop, 1638), 18.

(5.) On the importance of rhetoric in the school curriculum as well as literary achievements in English and their relation to national identity, see Richard Helgerson, Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992) and T. W. Baldwin, William Shakespere's Small Latine and Lesse Greeke, 2 vols. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1944).

(6.) For a discussion of the relation of classical barbarism to English Renaissance constructions of Africans, see my "Barbarian Errors: Performing Race in Early Modern England," Shakespeare Quarterly 49 (1998): 168-86.

(7.) The "colonial" readings of The Tempest have often assumed and American context and assign Caliban a native "Indian" identity. I have argued here for an African Caliban, and by implication, a so-called Mediterranean or Old World reading of the play that must complement the American echoes; Jerry Brotton also calls attention to the Mediterranean reading in" `This Tunis, sir, was Carthage': Contesting colonialism in The Tempest," in Post-Colonial Shakespeares, ed. Ania Loomba and Martin Orkin (London: Routledge, 1998). The "colonial" approach has itself generated heated debate. For a convenient summary of the important sources and relevant arguments, see Russ McDonald, "Reading The Tempest," Shakespeare Survey, 43 (1990): 15-28; we should also add R. Knapp, An Empire Nowhere: England, America and Literature from "Utopia" to "The Tempest" (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992). For a more recent objection to the "colonial" approach, see Leo Salingar, "The New World in The Tempest," in Travel and Drama in Shakespeare's Time, ed. Jean-Pierre Maquerlot and Michele Willems (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

(8.) William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. Frank Kermode (London: Methuen, 1954). All citations are taken from this edition.

(9.) Prospero commands:
 Fetch us in fuel; and be quick, thou'rt best,
 To answer other business. Shrug'st thou, malice?
 If thou neglect'st, or dost unwillingly
 What I command, I'll rack thee with old cramps,
 Fill all thy bones with aches, make thee roar
 That beasts shall tremble at thy din.


(10.) Among the several references on North Africa, I will cite only Fernand Braudel's The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, vol II, trans. Sian Reynolds (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

(11.) See George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, ed. Edward Arber (London: Alexander Murray, 1869), 257-58. The Oxford English Dictionary, second ed. (1989) notes also that "Barbary" is etymologically related to the Arabic "barbara `to talk noisily and confusedly' (which is not derived from Greek [barbaros])."

(12.) Heylyn also notes that according to one hypothesis, "bar" in "Barbary" could also mean "a Desart, which doubled, made up first Barbar, and after Barbary" (4.1:21).

(13.) See John B. Wolf, The Barbary Coast: Algiers Under the Turks 1500 to 1830 (New York: Norton, 1979); Andrew C. Hess, "The Battle of Lepanto and its Place in Mediterranean History," Past and Present 57 (1972): 53-73.

(14.) See Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations, 10: 8, 65-66.

IAN SMITH is Assistant Professor of English at Lafayette College. He is currently completing a book on race, rhetoric, and national identity in early modern England.
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Author:Smith, Ian
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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