Examine the ways in which Shakespeare and Morrison both use slavery as a means of voicing their perspectives on imperialism.

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Examine the ways in which Shakespeare and Morrison both use slavery as a means of voicing their perspectives on imperialism.

‘And neither world thought the other world’s thought, save with a vague unrest.’

- W. E. B. DuBois, “The Souls of Black Folk.”

In this essay, I hope to use the ideology of postcolonial criticism – focusing essentially upon the portrayal of the practice of slavery – in order to draw together two strikingly different texts.

I have chosen to look at Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Despite being contemporaneous, in that they conform to Ashcroft et al’s definition of a postcolonial text – ‘all the culture affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present day’, they are disparate in many senses. These divergences stem from the position of the respective writers in terms of their colonial experiences, to the date at which they were written and the very different contextual circumstances surrounding the two times.

On the surface, both texts explore the theme of slavery and much attention is paid to the brutalities of the practice. In Beloved in particular there are evocative images of violence and cruelty that can only serve to disgust and outrage the reader.

The disturbing representation of human suffering is a constant motif in Beloved and is epitomised, of course, through Sethe’s desperate act of infanticide. Patterson recognises this act of rebellion in his book on slavery:

‘If the master could subject the slave children in

bondage to a slow “social death,” the mother could

release them through physical death.’

The fact that a mother could be driven to such lengths, alone indicates the torture and horror of slavery but, furthermore, Patterson’s description of such repression being “social death” captures Morrison’s blatant philosophy on the effect of slavery stemming from imperialist practice. The violence narrated by Morrison is disturbing throughout the piece and is epitomised in the confirmation that schoolteacher roasted Sixo alive. Morrison admits to ‘[thinking] the unthinkable’ and this is obvious when schoolteacher’s nephews – the ‘two boys with mossy teeth’ – suck the milk from Sethe’s breasts and later beat her with cowhide until they ‘open up’ her back. (17)

Morrison uses other devices in order to express the coldness of the slave trade. As such she utilises the terminology of accountancy in order to highlight the fact that the colonisers saw other humans as merely property to be bought and sold. Dussere claims that through this careful use of language, Morrison is symbolising ‘the transformation of people into monetary value.’ One of the first times we encounter this language usage is when Sethe has her first rememory. She recalls how she had to sell her body in order to get the inscription “Beloved” on her daughter’s headstone:

‘Ten minutes for seven letters. With another ten could

she have gotten “Dearly” too?’   (pg. 5)

Although Sethe has escaped from the slave trade at this point, she is still haunted by its customs and is continuing to conform to its reduction of human life to monetary value. Further still, the most chilling example of Morrison’s use of such accountancy imagery concerns schoolteacher’s slave chart. When Sethe overheard him talking about her, saying:

‘ “No, no. That’s not the way. I told you to put her

human characteristics on the left; her animal ones

on the right.” ’  (pg. 193)

- the absolute disrespect that Morrison believed the colonisers had for human life becomes glaringly clear. The labelling of humans with animal characteristics also establishes the theme of bestiality in the novel. Morrison suggests through such examples the way in which the imperial gaze constructs the slaves as animals and the way in which this humiliation appears to incite bestiality in them. Morrison demonstrates this impact of imperial domination through references to Sethe being ‘down on all fours’ and more directly through Garner’s slaves copulating with calves.

From these disturbing illustrations, it is evident that Morrison is using the medium of the slave trade as a vehicle to express her anti-imperialistic views.

Similarly in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, there are scenes of cruelty aimed at Caliban:

‘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.’    (I,ii, 370-3)

Prospero, the icon of the coloniser and slave master, asserts absolute control over Caliban and threatens punishment for disobedience and when Caliban says ‘I must obey’ (375) as an aside, his imposed submissiveness and humiliation become clear. Also, when Caliban rightfully declares:

Join now!

‘This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,

Which thou tak’st from me.’   (I.ii.332-3)

 - his unfair mistreatment by Prospero becomes clear and it appears that Shakespeare is enforcing the idea that the imperial power is unjust and undeserved.

Interestingly, Delvin observes that through Prospero ‘Shakespeare depicts, with almost prophetic insight, the history of the white man’s attitude to indigenous populations in the colonies.’

However, after reading the two texts, I became increasingly aware of a perplexing disengagement between the two attitudes towards slavery. As we have seen already, on the surface both texts portray the practice of slavery as ...

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