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Book Review: Chantal Zabus, Tempests After Shakespeare

La république des lettres —

Chantal Zabus, Tempests After Shakespeare (ISBN 0-312-29342-9), hardback, New York, Palgrave, 2002, 332 pp.

Chantal Zabus needs no introduction in the closely-knit community of post-colonial studies. Every postcolonial reader is at least aware of her “relexification” concept (defined elsewhere as “the making of a new register of communication out of an alien lexicon”) to which she humbly gives a first passing mention in Tempests After Shakespeare on page 40. Her seminal article “A Calibanic tempest in Anglophone and Francophone new world writing” published a decade earlier in Canadian Literature (1985) flushed her with success. In their landmark publication, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-colonial Literatures (1989), the Australian post-colonial theorists (Ashcroft, Griffith and Tiffin) argue that Chantal Zabus “extends Lamming’s reading of The Tempest to show how writers throughout the post-colonial world, particularly writers of the Anglophone and Francophone white and Black diasporas, have written answers to The Tempest from the perspectives of Caliban, Miranda and Ariel.”(p.191). Obviously enough, Professor Chantal Zabus – a French scholar teaching at Paris XIII – has had the wise intuition to flesh out her well-informed article into an engrossing and all-embracing comparative study unsurprisingly titled Tempests After Shakespeare. Shakespeare buffs are here invited to skip a few lines. For those who need to brush up on the Bard’s mystery play, The Tempest (1611) is the story of an usurper (Antonio) – usurpation being the classic springboard for Shakespearean action – who gets caught in a tempest at sea on his way back from Tunis. Sharing the plight of a party of shipwrecked noblemen, Antonio ends up stranded on an island occupied by his marooned brother Prospero (the usurped Duke) and Miranda (Prospero’s daughter). Aided by his helpful spirit Ariel who must serve his way to freedom and his slave Caliban (Sycorax’s son), Prospero can scheme at leisure. Ferdinand (Alonso’s son) is made to meet Prospero and falls in love with Miranda. Sadly enough, it turns out that even on a remote island, power struggle is at the forefront of greedy go-getters. There is evil underhand plotting to slay King Alonso and Prospero but both planned murders meet obstacles. Not unaided by supernatural spirits, Prospero succeeds in proving his point: it has been acknowledged that he has been wronged and so retrieves his dukedom from his usurping brother. The estranged brothers finally reconcile over the union of their respective child and Prospero sets Ariel free. A more elaborate version of this sketchy outline may have been usefully included into Zabus’s monograph so that readers will not find themselves at sea.

From the very outset of her engrossing theory book, Chantal Zabus contends that “in its nearly four centuries of existence, The Tempest has most endured of any texts and, through its rewritings, has helped shape three contemporaneous movements – postcoloniality, postfeminism or postpatriarchy, and postmodernism – from the 1960s to the present.”(p.1). Fittingly, her power play takes the form of a tripartite division, the contents of which disrupt the long-established and widespread patterns of power relations worldwide by subverting the patriarchal order (postcolonialism being considered on a symbolical level as a parricide of sorts while postpatriarchy endeavours to expose phallocracy) and the hierarchy of deep-seated values (as postmodernism primarily aims at rejecting standards of truth). The opening chapter dwells on the act of “rewriting” with a discussion embracing Edward Said’s essay “On Originality”(1983), Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence (1973), and Mikael Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination (1981), to which Gérard Genette’s Palimpsestes (1982) could have been added. For one can construe Tempests After Shakespeare as Chantal Zabus’s explanation of how a Shakesperean canonical hypotext has begotten an impressive range of hypertexts over four decades throughout the world. Within the scope of this discussion, Salman Rushdie’s Step Across This Line (2003) could come in handy to interact fruitfully with Tempests After Shakespeare. In his last-published collection of essays, the godfather of postcolonialism reminds readers that the term influence etymologically denotes “something ‘flowing in’”, something which suffuses – so to speak – the text. Indeed, a text can be influential on several levels, a phenomenon which is mirrored in themes (with allusions and echoes), structure (whereby the text becomes a palimpsest involving a Genettan hypertext derived from a hypotext), and style (when critics shrewdly posit that the text is written “in the manner of…”).

But after taking the reader on an encyclopaedic sailing trip through many geographies, genres (novels, novellas, poetry, drama) and forms of expression (literary and filmic) with critical microanalyses informed with an eclectic mix of theories (literary, postcolonial, psychoanalytic, queer theories and women’s studies), Chantal Zabus comes up with an illuminating macroanalytical conclusion in the wake of Salman Rushdie’s fluid metaphor which so aptly characterises literature. Feeding on Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene (1976), she astutely incorporates scientific theories in zoology and appropriates them to build up a literary theory of replication which could account for the process of rewriting: “[The tempestuous meme] leaps and swirls in fertile seafroth and, in its capacity for self-duplication through rewriting, The Tempest acquires a higher survival value and infective power.” (p.266). In this merciless power struggle between “the original replicator” i.e. “The Tempest as master-text” and the “new replicators” (p.266), there is only one rule: “Qualities that make high survival value are longevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity.” (p.266). Given these standards, Shakespeare’s farewell play is destined to become “a replicator of high longevity” (p.266) by spawning so many variations on a same theme. Like a proficient sea captain, Chantal Zabus warns against Charybdis or Scylla by concluding that “The only ‘danger’ is one of overflow, of fluid exceeding the containers. At the passing of the twentieth century, this excessive pouring may signal the need for wreaders and subversive scribes to either stop replicating the Tempest-meme or find other vessels to contain the selfish memes.” (p.268). In other words, hypertext writers are well-advised to stop going with the flow.

Tempests After Shakespeare is an erudite comparative study which skilfully articulates antonymic notions of sameness and difference, originality and duplication, ex-nihilo creation and elaboration. Save for a missing bibliography which could have conveniently summed up the primary and secondary sources selected for this massive study and the odd typo (for instance, one should read “psychopomp” on page 83), one can hardly find Tempests After Shakespeare exceptionable, but rather exceptional. Chantal Zabus’s delightful wise-cracking prose (by punning with portmanteau words along with other coinage of her own – I discovered myself to be an unwitting “wreader”), and her insightful analyses would encourage me to say in a very Shakespearean fashion that her writings demonstrate “a pretty wit”. A comment in which a specialist in women’s studies is bound to read a potent compliment, and rightly so.

Jean-François Vernay.

Source: Vernay, Jean-François. “Chantal Zabus, Tempests After Shakespeare”, AUMLA : Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association 107, (May 2007), 159-61.

Book cover

Book cover

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