29 June, 2015Issue 28.5Film & TVThe Arts

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An Insubstantial Pageant: A Question of Perspective in The Tempest

Marco Alessi

The Tempest
Directed by Derek Jarman
92 minutes


The effectiveness of putting Shakespeare on film is a vexed question. There are certainly those who find that all those words hang heavy in such a visual medium as cinema. More plentiful, though, are those who think that adding pictures to the supple and ambiguous wordscapes of the plays is a violent reductiveness. In ‘Shakespeare and Film: A Question of Perspective’, Catherine Belsey argues that film versions of Shakespeare limit meaning in just this way. In fact, she claims that this loss of “interrogative plurality” began long before film, when the plays were first framed by a proscenium and the audience was repositioned in front of an illusionist mise-en-scène, rather than before, behind, above, and below a bare thrust stage. She argues that:

The Elizabethan stage is…the site of conflicting dramatic modes, one emblematic and the other illusionist, one challenging the audience to interpret a pattern of abstract meanings, the other specifying a fixed and ‘obvious’ relationship between the audience and the world simulated on stage. The gap between these contradictory modes decentralises the plays of the period and insists on the specific form of plurality which tends towards the interrogative text.

Film supposedly fails because “the camera shows the ‘truth’” and the emblematic is “inevitably specified on the screen.” Belsey makes one half-exception at the very end of her article. In Derek Jarman’s 1979 film of The Tempest she sees a “fragmentation of meaning which enhances plurality”, distinct however from the “interrogative” type of plurality that Belsey believes is only “produced by a specific moment in the history of the theatre.” However, Belsey’s argument relies upon unsatisfactory generalisations about the nature of film, and her throwaway reference to Jarman’s Tempest lacks engagement with a work that comes close to inspiring the interrogative multiplicity that she feels has been absent in Shakespeare production for some time. In fact, the film preserves much of the nuanced, emblematic plurality championed by Belsey. The historical moment has passed in which the repeat performance of a Shakespeare play was entirely dependent upon how loudly the Epilogue made the audience applaud. The uncountable number of productions and adaptations that are constantly available are a manifestation of precisely the plurality which the plays originally embodied.

When realising The Tempest, one notorious challenge is the portrayal of Caliban. He is both sinister and sympathetic. He unrepentantly “didst seek to violate | The honour” of Miranda, but is also the victimised rightful lord of the island as the son of Sycorax. Is he a monster “got by the devil himself” or a non-white victim of racist Europeans who view him as “a thing most brutish”?

Jack Birkett as Caliban

Although he is not black, the destabilising ambiguity of the text is not lost in the performance of Jack Birkett as Caliban in Jarman’s film. His dishevelled black suit and white shirt lend him the appearance of a shabby servant and, unlike the Received Pronunciation of every other character, he speaks with what Jarman describes as a “North Country brogue”. The race/slavery theme is refigured as an English class/region conflict, and changes the nature of Caliban’s disavowal of his acquired language:

You taught me language, and my profit on’t
Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language.

These lines are usually taken to criticise the colonial instinct to assimilate native cultures to an essentialist concept of superior Occidentalism. Colonialists saw the introduction of their own language and lifestyle as an improvement rather than an erasure of the native cultural identity. Caliban’s use of the word “learning” rather than “teaching” in the second sentence emphasises this imposition. To contemporary ears, the two words have distinctly different senses. To be taught successfully, a student must decide to reciprocate the action and learn. In a sentence where the active verb is “to teach”, the student is object. When the verb is “to learn”, the student is subject. However, in Shakespeare’s lifetime the two words were synonyms. “Learn” to mean “teach” survives today, as cited in the OED, only as a vulgar form. In this sense, “Learning me your language” maintains Caliban as object and cancels out the turning point when the student becomes subject through willing reciprocity. Birkett’s Caliban draws on this sense of oppression and marginalization due to a relative lack of education and class difference. This is emphasised by the RP mimicked in the quoted lines’ delivery, with a pronounced roll of the ‘r’ on the word “rid” as he angrily spits out the lines. Birkett adds a new dimension to our reading of Caliban, and to the frustration behind his ignored property claim over the island “which thou [Prospero] tak’st from me”. It speaks of the unfair advantage the wealthy have over those on the socio-economic rungs below, all the more poignant to a contemporary viewer in 1979, the first year of Thatcher’s regime.

Claire Davenport as Sycorax with her hookah.

At this point, Belsey might slap her hand on the desk and cry: “Aha! A partial and limiting interpretation!” However, the race issue is not entirely effaced in the film in favour of a purely socio-economic agenda. In Jim Ellis’ reading of the movie he argues, “Geographic origins […] rather than being signalled by skin tone […] are signified by European signs of oriental depravity.” This applies to Sycorax in the brief flashback sequence accompanying Prospero’s threat towards Ariel. Her sexual monstrosity, unconventional make-up palette and, most significantly, the Hookah she smokes might amount to a racist parody of a North African. But rather than racism on Jarman’s part, this calls into question our own assumptions about racial difference, including the tendency to conflate all gradations of racial difference problematically into a single generic identity, and how apparent racial difference needs to be before it is recognized. Instead, as Ellis suggests, we should be made aware of more elaborate racial differentiation and be willing to “consider whether there are other ways of playing Caliban’s Otherness that could unveil in less expected ways the origins and dimensions of British racialist thinking.” By reorganizing the text and placing this moment just before Act V, rather than at the beginning of Act I, Scene 2, we forge an impression of Jack Birkett’s Caliban as uncomplicatedly white before his Algerian heritage is revealed. Although, as Belsey might say, this ostensibly amounts to “specified truth” regarding Caliban’s racial identity, the Jarman destabilises likely racial assumptions. The film actively challenges a problematically generalised notion of race in the original text. Jarman’s unconventional use of a non-black actor highlights a generic assumption latent in viewers who simplistically base racial difference on skin colour. The brilliant twist is that Birkett, who one might think fails to provide a racially complicating quality to the character without the help of signalling props such as his Sycorax’s hookah, is of Romany heritage through his mother. If the name Caliban does derive from caulibon, the Romany word for black or dark things, then this casting is perfect.


Caliban gropes his plate.

Miranda sneaking.

Again Belsey would probably bring her hands down on the table and say: “Fine. But how is it interrogative?” Well… By the time Jack Birkett played Caliban for Jarman in 1979 he had been blind for seventeen years. The film almost entirely conceals this fact. We first encounter Caliban through a shot of his hand indecisively groping the contents of a food bowl. His hand hesitates as he picks up an apple, puts it back down and then slides across the surface of the food in search of an egg. Although this action could signify indecision, the way his hand searches feelingly also brings to mind Birkett’s blindness: it is a very subtle clue. At one point during this sequence Miranda (Toyah Wilcox) tries to tiptoe past Caliban in spite of the fact she is directly in his line of sight. She goes unnoticed (or Caliban lets her think she has gone unnoticed) for a few seconds before spitting raw egg at her. A viewer, aware of Birkett’s blindness or not, might briefly believe Caliban is being played blind. Although this is absent from the text, emblematically it resonates with his self-deception with regard to Stephano and Trinculo. But this is not foregrounded by the film. Although, Jack Birkett fakes eye-lines and affects normal vision throughout, the film flirts with our possible awareness of Birkett’s condition and our perspective is inevitably changed. The “The isle is full of noises” speech, delighting in the aural and imaginative wealth of the isle, is doubly powerful when delivered by an actor whose other senses are heightened by the loss of sight. An audience’s perspective, to use Belsey’s term, is “decentralised” by its awareness of the actor. In a similar way, the experience of Miranda is changed because she is played by Toyah Willcox, a countercultural punk rock icon. The film inoffensively inserts details that only become prominent depending on the viewer’s cultural awareness, knowledge, and taste. And so we come close to the perspectival dynamic which Belsey claims has been absent since the Proscenium Arch first reared its ugly head. Ultimately, determining the film’s significance—from a riot of plurality—is entirely in the court of the interrogative interpreter.

Marco Alessi has graduated from Lincoln College, Oxford with a B.A. in English language and literature. He will begin an M.Aa in Film Studies at King’s College, London in September.