An Analysis of Ania Loomba: Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama
In Ania Loomba’s selection from Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama, Loomba discusses the “gender-blindness” in most postcolonial criticism of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Loomba proposes as her thesis that, “The harshness of the colonial conflict cannot be stressed by ignoring the complexity of the adversaries” (399), and she explores this by looking at the portrayals of female and black characters within the play, such as Caliban, Sycorax, and Miranda. Her postcolonial and feminist lenses explore stereotypes in the play, but she also believes that some of the ambivalence in the play shows that Shakespeare was offering a critique—to at least some extent—rather than just perpetuating dominant ideas of the time, and, overall, Loomba makes this argument effectively.
Ania Loomba begins the selection by analyzing the portrayal of Caliban as a stereotypical “black rapist.” She points out that some critics viewing the play through a feminist lens want to sympathize with Caliban as the oppressed human that he is, but find it difficult to do so because it seems that he attempted to rape Miranda. However, Loomba points out that the idea of Caliban as a rapist is a racist stereotype. As Loomba states it, “This implies that sexual violence is part of the black man’s inferior nature, a view that amalgamates racist common-sense notions about black sexuality and animalism, and sexist assumptions about rape as an inevitable expression of frustrated male desire” (390). In addition, implicit in such stereotypes is the idea that white women could have no desires of their own, which is an equally sexist notion.
In terms of Sycorax, Loomba points out how she serves as a foil to both Prospero and Miranda and how many “anti-colonial intellectuals” missed her gender dynamics within the play. Loomba points to the lines, “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother, /Which though tak’st from me” (1.2.334-35), and says that “These lines had elicited the first recorded anti-imperialist response to the play” (393). Two things are noteworthy here, one being the matrilinear descent of island possession, and the second being that this is one of the “tensions” in the play that makes a postcolonial reading feasible. From the feminist angle, Loomba says, “…[A]lthough some of these indicated the matrilinear nature of many pre-colonial societies, gender was hardly ever seized upon by anti-colonial intellectuals as a significant dimension of racial oppression” (393). In this sense, “Prospero’s takeover is both racial plunder and a transfer to patriarchy” (394). The colonists, as Loomba points out, were a male dominated society, as well as ethnocentric, and it is through these lenses that Prospero delegitimizes Sycorax. Loomba says, “[Prospero] draws upon the language of misogyny as well as racism to construct her as a ‘foul witch’” (393). According to Loomba, Prospero feels the need to delegitimize Sycorax because both are magicians, and as a result Prospero feels threatened by Sycorax’s power.
The feminist angle also applies to Miranda, as she is directly subjugated by the male hegemony. Just as Sycorax is a foil to Prospero, she is also a foil to Miranda, as Sycorax’s “black feminity” contrasts with Miranda’s “passive purity” (392). Miranda is under the complete control of her father, Prospero, throughout the play. Loomba talks about how, “In the colonial situation, patriarchalism makes specific, and often apparently contradictory demands of its ‘own’ women” (395). On one hand, Prospero tries to control Miranda’s every move, telling her when to sleep, wake, talk, be quiet, and so on, while simultaneously wanting Miranda to be an active participant in the colonial cause. As Loomba points out, “Editors of The Tempest have often sought to transfer Miranda’s verbal assault on Caliban beginning ‘Abhorred slave’ (1.2.354-65) to Prospero on the grounds that Miranda is too delicate and not philosophical enough to speak so harshly … On the contrary, these lines underline Miranda’s implication in the colonialist project. She has been taught to be revolted by Caliban” (396). In this sense, Miranda is unable to exercise her will at any point in the play—not that it is entirely apparent that she has any will, since the only thing she seems to express her will towards is Ferdinand, but that is also her father’s will, making the situation ambiguous. As Loomba puts it, “Miranda thus conforms to the dual requirements of femininity within the master-culture; by taking on aspects of the white man’s burden the white woman only confirmed her own subordination” (396). Miranda is both the oppressor and the oppressed.
In the final section of this selection, Loomba discusses the “doomed dialectic” and Caliban’s linguistics. Caliban uses words to curse his colonizers, but he can only do so in the colonizer’s own language. Yet, Loomba still says this is a form of rebellion. Loomba offers a criticism of George Lamming’s The Pleasure of Exile, saying, “Although the connection between Caliban’s linguistic and sexual rebellion is hinted at by Lamming, it is not fully developed; this omission is typical of the gender-blindness of many anti-colonial appropriations and criticism” (398). Loomba argues that Caliban’s use of language shows his rebellion towards Prospero in the same way as his attempted rape. Caliban thinks himself worthy of populating the island, hence why he feels justified in both cursing his colonizers, and why he attempts to rape Miranda.
Overall, Loomba’s argument is compelling and effective. The strength of her claims rests in her idea that the “tensions and ambivalence which [Paul] Brown points to” are, in fact, present (399). A non-colonial reading of The Tempest would deny such things, but things like Caliban’s acknowledgement that the island belongs to him show that Shakespeare was most likely not entirely unaware of the wrongs of colonialism. What makes Loomba’s argument unique from other postcolonial interpretations, however, is her focus on gender within the play. It does seem Shakespeare was most likely less aware of the gender dynamics of his play, but they are certainly present and therefore worthy of analysis. Loomba rightfully points out the tension in the text without outright calling Shakespeare an anti-colonialist or a feminist.
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Loomba’s argument is only strengthened by further evidence throughout the play. An example of this is when Caliban states, “As I told thee before, I am subject to a tyrant,/ A sorcerer, that by his cunning hath/ Cheated me of the island” (3.2.40-42). This exemplifies Caliban’s point of view, similarly to Caliban’s other quote, which Loomba did address, about the island belonging to him through his mother. That Shakespeare included this quote creates some of the tension that allows for a postcolonial reading.
If one can find any grounds to disagree with Loomba, it could only be on the basis that Prospero treats Caliban and Miranda poorly because he treats everyone poorly. For example, Prospero forces Ariel to work for him despite Ariel asking for his freedom. Ariel points out that he has “done thee worthy service,/Told thee no lies, made thee no mistakings, served/Without or grudge or grumblings,” and also reminds Prospero that, “Thou did promise/To bate me a full year” (1.2.247-49). Yet, despite this, Prospero refuses to release Ariel at this point, and continues giving him duties up until the very end, when he finally promises him his freedom. Prospero also plots against the other white, male characters in the play, such as when he tricks Stephano and Trinculo, among other examples. In fact, Prospero is kind to almost no character in the play with the possible exception of Ferdinand. Prospero does allow him to marry his daughter, but only after first espousing otherwise to Ferdinand, which could be considered a form of psychological abuse because of the degree to which Prospero takes it, even threatening to fight Ferdinand at one point, saying “Put thy sword up, traitor” (1.2.472). However, this line of argument is lacking, since Propero’s attitude to these other characters does not involve the racial and misogynist language that Prospero directs towards the black and female characters. Prospero still uses racial language to refer to Caliban and Sycorax, and still forwards female gender roles for his daughter, regardless of how he treats anyone else.
Ania Loomba crafts a strong argument pointing out the way in which The Tempest may be read from a Post-colonial and a feminist lens. By pointing out Shakespeare’s treatment of the female and black characters in the play, as well as some of the tensions and ambivalences towards colonialism, Loomba is able to make her case. Complexities in the characters reveal deeper meaning in The Tempest, which Loomba skillfully analyzes. The article is important because although it does not provide any new information about the text, it makes the reader aware of stereotypes within the play. Even if the play only exists as an artifact of colonial presumptions, Loomba still helps the reader to see some of those assumptions. However, if Loomba is correct, then being able to see these stereotypes only further helps one to see the tensions within the play. Even if there can be no absolute answer in the debate over how to read The Tempest, Loomba certainly crafts a compelling case.
Loomba, Ania. The Tempest: A Case Study in Critical Controversy. By William Shakespeare. Ed. Gerald Graff and James Phelan. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000. 389-401. Print.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest: A Case Study in Critical Controversy. Ed. Gerald Graff and James Phelan. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000. Print.