Placing Prospero’s Island: (Post)Colonial Practices of Comparing in the Academic Reception of Shakespeare’s The Tempest

Marcus Hartner, Bielefeld University:

One of the most important developments in the recent scholarly investigation of (academic) practices of comparing has been the emergence of a profound criticism of comparative methods. Postcolonial scholars have drawn attention to the political and moral dimensions of comparing which frequently hides behind the seemingly neutral nature of comparative research. In the context of this discussion, this article presents a case study that traces the history of academic approaches to Shakespeare’s The Tempest and discusses the function of (geographical) comparisons in the underlying conceptual and ideological matrix of different readings of the play by various schools of literary criticism. The article’s particular focus is on scholarly interpretations that explicitly and/or implicitly engage with the text’s embeddedness in colonial discourse and the corresponding practice of placing Prospero’s fictional island in the Caribbean. In this context, I will show that colonial, postcolonial, and so-called ‘Old World readings’ of the play either locate or refuse to locate the island and its key protagonists literally and/or discursively in the specific geographical and/or historical context of the Americas. By analyzing the historical trajectory of this practice, this entry attempts to illustrate that postcolonial criticism itself looks back on a long history of engaging in ideologically charged practices of comparing. It also discusses potential consequences of these findings for the study of early modern literature.

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