Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Images of Indigenous People in Shakespeare and Children's Literature

Last week I was in Stratford, Ontario at the Shakespeare Festival. We saw The Tempest. I can't recall seeing it before, but I had a vague idea of Caliban and who he is in the play...

When he came onstage, however, I couldn't help but notice his resemblance (in this production) to the ways that American Indians are depicted in the Newbery award winner, The Matchlock Gun by Walter D. Edmonds, published in 1941.

Here's the page from the book. The illustrations are by Paul Lantz.

And here's Caliban, Stratford, 2010. (Photo from Robyn's Review)


This moment is important to my study of the ways that indigenous peoples have been portrayed in children's books, both in the present day (as in The Matchlock Gun) and in the past.... (Elsewhere, I've written about the ways that John Amos Comenius depicted American Indians as devil-worshippers in his Orbis Pictus, published in 1657.) 

Shakespeare wrote The Tempest in the early 1600s. Caliban is written as a monster. Shakespeare describes his mother as a witch and as a "blue-ey'd hag" who gave birth to Caliban, "a freckled whelp" who was "not honour'd with a human shape." My cursory research indicates there's been a wide range of interpretation of the character. What was Shakespeare thinking of when he created that character?

Was his Caliban informative to Paul Lantz when he created the Indians in The Matchlock Gun? On the other hand, did the costume person for The Tempest we saw see Luntz's Indians?! Course, neither is likely, but the similarities between the two is striking. Indigenous peoples, less than human... Sadly, infuriatingly, outrageously persistent. 


Erica Hateley said...

Debbie, thanks for this post--I was interested to read your thoughts and to see the images you shared!

I have undertaken work on "Shakespeare and Children's Literature", and on intersections between The Tempest and children's literature (with a focus on gendered relations), and thought I'd recommend Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan's Shakespeare's Caliban: A Cultural History. It has quite a broad scope, but discusses a range of critical and creative responses to Caliban.

In the specifically Australian context, you may also be interested in the following piece, where a 2001 Melbourne Theatre Company production of The Tempest which explicitly focused on the politics of and around Indigeneity is discussed, and a brief overview of attempts to negotiate Australian (post)colonial politics and Shakespeare on the stage is offered:

Tweg, Sue. "Dream On: A 'Reconciliation' Tempest in 2001." Contemporary Theatre Review 14.3 (2004): 45-52.

Thanks again for your post!

Laura Bolf-Beliveau said...


Thank you for your comment. The resources will be helpful.

I saw the recent Stratford production of The Tempest. My perceptions of Caliban were affected by this comment in the Playbill (written by Robert Blacker):

**In recent decades, The Tempest has often been used to illustrate the evils of such colonialism, with Caliban as the chief victim. That view, however, diminishes the complexity of Shakespeare's play. We feel sympathy for Caliban, but Shakespeare describes a creature who is eager to trade one master for another. The uncomfortable sight of him eagerly licking Stephano's foot is a reminder of the complicity frequently contained in master/servant relationships. (p. 3)**

No doubt the play is complex, but this production's lack of political interrogation left me angry that the "complicity" was not challenged. Yes, it was uncomfortable, and at that moment an opportunity was missed to hold a mirror up to the audience, something that Edward Albee mentions as the purpose of theatre.

Debbie Reese said...

Erica---I noted Vaughan's book yesterday while doing a search of scholarship on Caliban, and I'm really glad for your pointer to the Australian production. As I write this comment, I'm working on a blog post about a children's picture book, written by an aboriginal woman, that was removed from a school library.

Laura---We just got back from Stratford on Sunday afternoon, and I spent a few minutes trying to find my playbill. We, too, noted what Blacker said. Thanks for posting is remarks.

I was unsettled by more than just the physical portrayal of Caliban. That part where he clutches that white shirt and dark trousers to his chest as he clambers across the stage... and the scenes with alcohol...

We generally see several plays at Stratford because we enroll in the Stratford Seminar. We spend each morning in discussion of the plays we will see that afternoon and evening. We (Reese family) participated by pointing to Caliban, who (up to that point) had not been discussed at all. I recommend the seminar, Laura...

Attending this year was a librarian from Wisconsin who reads my blog. That was cool, I gotta say!

sanguinity said...

In the opening chapter of A Different Mirror, Ronald Takaki uses The Tempest (and Caliban specifically) to illustrate English views of the peoples of the Americas, and then uses that as an overall frame for the chapter. His discussion might be useful to you.