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The Tempest: Pastoral Romance or Colonial Critique?

By Margaret Roper

In the last decades of the twentieth century adaptations and critical responses to The Tempest can be broadly divided into two basic themes. Lanier describes these as one that emphasises the charming qualities of the play, “its fantasy and romantic elements and benevolent tone,” and one that “focuses on the troubling legacies of colonial and patriarchal politics” (33). Adaptations in the romantic mode focus on the relationship between Ferdinand and Miranda and the issues of reconciliation, repentance and forgiveness. In this paradigm Prospero is portrayed as a benevolent father figure, protective of his only child. It is through Miranda’s relationship with the shipwrecked prince that the exiled Duke is reconciled with the Milanese court. Adaptations which emphasise the colonial politics of The Tempest shift the focus to the cross-cultural relationship of Prospero as the coloniser of the island and Caliban as the indigenous inhabitant who is dispossessed and subjugated. In graphic novel adaptations of The Tempest the text and the illustrations are used by adapters to invoke their interpretative stance. The way this is achieved can be seen in two very different editions published by Classical Comics (CC) and SelfMadeHero (SMH).

Colonial Shakespeare: Classical Comics’s The Tempest

In 2009 the UK publishing company Classical Comics (CC) produced a full text edition of The Tempest.1 The play-text of The Tempest does not specify a particular historic period. In the CC edition the illustrator Jon Haward has used the costuming of the characters to locate the action in the Jacobean period with the male characters dressed in doublet and hose. The use of period costume positions the story in an era of expansion of the British Empire in the early seventeenth century, a time of discovery and settlement of new lands. This link is also noted in the paratextual material which cites the 1610 pamphlet A Discovery of the Bermudas, other wise Called the Ile of Divels as a source for Shakespeare’s inspiration for the story (Haward 137). Invoking this period in the paratext and the illustrations draws attention to the colonist ideology inherent in the play.

The illustrations of the CC edition of The Tempest are realistic, visually rich and detailed with vibrant colours and dark outlines that give solidity and force to the images. As McCloud notes, realism not only shows the reader detail but gives an awareness of the object as something with “weight, texture and physical complexity”(44). The use of color rather than black and white also makes them seem more ‘real’ and the bold outlines imply serious and adult themes (McCloud 66, 192). Realistic images limit the reader’s imaginative engagement with the graphic novel and provide a more fixed reading, so the CC illustration design works to further anchor the reading of the text in this historical period.

The island itself is depicted as a lush and fertile place with forest groves, waterfalls and abundant wild life. Haward’s design of the island as an Arcadian landscape of natural wilderness, unspoilt by civilisation, is reflected in Gonzalo’s view of the island as a Utopian land where “nature should bring forth / Of its own kind all foison, all abundance” (2.1.163-164).2 Prospero’s intervention into this stereotypical exotic island paradise is marked by the imposition of his own cultural norms. The text tells us of Prospero teaching the indigenous Caliban his language and imposing his morals. The illustrations show that Prospero’s ‘cell’ is transformed from a natural environment to a recreation of his homeland with curtained windows, furniture and books (figure 1) (Haward 15). This is a colonialist regime which seeks to impose its culture on the alien landscape and to control this new environment.

Figure 1: Classical Comics, Prospero’s Cell, p. 15.

The illustrator’s decision to depict Caliban as recognisably human or as bestial affects the interpretation of the character as either a monster which must be controlled or a deposed native of the island who is a victim of colonisation. The illustration of Caliban as humanlike or as a ‘monster’ has altered over time. In the late seventeenth century he was ‘a pure monster’ in keeping with the era’s concern of the distinction between savagery and civility. However, the Romantics saw Caliban as ‘natural’ and he was often portrayed as the missing link following Darwin’s theory of evolution (Vaughan and Vaughan xxii). More recently Caliban has also been played as a human figure in theatrical productions of the play which present The Tempest as a critique of European imperialism and colonisation.3 The description of Caliban in the dramatis personae of the Folio as “a savage and deformed slave” does not specify his physical form as either human or bestial. It is in the text of the play that adapters have found the basis of their visual representation of Caliban using references such as “monster”, “moon-calf’, “fish”, “deformed”, and “disproportioned”.

In the CC edition of The Tempest the colonial reading is emphasised by the characterisation of Prospero and Caliban and their relationship. Prospero is depicted as a bearded man with long flowing hair who is dressed in colourful cape and an elaborate Jacobean period costume of breeches and stockings. He is introduced in the first image of the graphic novel conjuring the storm which tosses the ship on the waves (figure 2) (Haward 1). Prospero is in the foreground of the illustration and points his staff with a glowing crystal tip towards the sea in a pose of energy directed towards the ship. From this illustration the supernatural powers of Prospero are highlighted and the staff is shown as the conduit for that power. Prospero’s dark hair, heavy features and broad physical build typify him as powerful and aggressive rather than as a benign elder figure.

Figure 2: Classical Comics, Introduction of Prospero, p. 1.

Haward has chosen to depict Caliban as a crouched, scaled creature with glowing red eyes, bearing little resemblance to the human form. Caliban is clearly “other”. He is shown as a hunched creature with barnacles on his scaled muscular arms and he has long sharp talons. Caliban’s back is covered by a shell, a visual translation of Prospero’s reference to him as a “tortoise” (1.2.317). Rather than being a criticism of Caliban’s slowness to respond to Prospero’s command, by the adapter’s choice in illustration, it now becomes an insult of his physical form. This, Vaughan and Vaughan argue, is a misreading of the text which became a popular way of illustrating Caliban in the nineteenth century (13). Haward also elects to show Caliban prior to his introduction in the play-text itself (figure 3) (21). The illustration is of a view from inside Prospero’s cave with Prospero and Miranda at the entrance of the cave standing in light; their backs are to the reader. In the foreground Caliban is watching the exchange from the shadows of the cave. The placement of him as an unobserved viewer of the scene hidden within Prospero’s home implies that he is a threat, an outsider and intruder in the family unit.

Figure 3: Classical Comics, Introduction of Caliban, p. 21.

The bestial nature of Caliban is emphasised by the illustrations in the CC edition which highlight his animal behaviour. The text “I must eat my dinner” (1.2.332) is illustrated by a frame which shows Caliban laying on the ground, reaching out for a tortoise that is walking past him (figure 4) (Haward 33). The background shows the hem of Prospero’s cloak, so Caliban is on the ground before him, which reinforces the power relationship and the dominant position of Prospero. The next panel is a wordless close up of Caliban clasping the tortoise in his taloned hand and biting the head off it, with blood spraying from his mouth. The onomatopoeia “CRUNCH!” in the panel adds to the brutality of the action. Caliban has been illustrated with the features of a tortoise so this action implies cannibalism, as his name also suggests. This further emphasises the divide between human and animal, civilisation and barbarism.

Figure 4: Classical Comics, Caliban feeding, p. 33.

The language of oppression in the text is mirrored in the illustration of oppression in the CC edition. The status of Caliban as a “slave” controlled by threats of supernatural curses is explicit in the text, and in the illustrations he is also subject to physical violence. The first interaction between Prospero and Caliban in the CC edition makes clear this master/slave relationship (figure 5) (Haward 35). When Caliban emerges from his cave at Prospero’s command he stands upright, defiantly cursing Prospero and voicing his resistance to the rule of the coloniser. Prospero is shown striking Caliban on the chin with his staff, and the large onomatopoeia in the frame and the broad motion marks convey the strong force of the blow as Caliban’s head is thrown back. The illustrator shows the view from behind Caliban so the focal point of the image is the furrowed brow and eyes of Prospero. This serves to focus on the aggression of the action and places the reader with Caliban in front of the blow of the staff.

Figure 5: Classical Comics, Prospero and Caliban, p. 35.

This graphic novel depicts “Prospero’s unravelling” where he is “no longer all-wise and benevolent, the modern Prospero is troubled by anxiety and anger […] and he shows little patience or sensitivity with Ariel, Miranda or Caliban” (Vaughan and Vaughan 118). These illustrations are in sharp contrast to the description of Prospero in the paratext in the CC edition as “a caring, brilliant and learned father with magical powers” (Haward 137). The intensity and aggression inherent in the images is also reflected in the typography in the CC edition which is entirely capitalised hand lettering, creating what Viguers described as “visually insistent” speech (221). The text in the CC edition is also heavily punctuated with exclamation marks which give the text a verbally as well as visually heightened emotional tone and complement the bold illustrations and the violence depicted in the images of the graphic novel.

However, just as the text of The Tempest allows Caliban a voice of protest at his condition, Haward also offers a more complex reading of Caliban through the illustrations. The simplistic characterisation of Caliban as monster is disrupted by the attribution of human qualities to him. For example, as Prospero recalls his release of Ariel from the tree where Ariel was imprisoned by Sycorax (1.2.277-84) images of the narrated story are shown. Caliban is illustrated in one frame looking at the skeleton of his dead mother as tears roll from his eyes. In the next frame he is shown walking away from the skeleton, the use of the overhead long-shot highlighting his isolation until he meets Prospero in the next frame of the sequence (figure 6) (Haward 31). This display of the recognisably human emotions of grief, loss and isolation invites the reader to empathise with Caliban and so experience the illustrated events from his point of view. Caliban is no longer simply an animal but a creature endowed with thoughts and feelings.

Figure 6: Classical Comics, The death of Sycorax, p. 31.

Caliban’s status as the native inhabitant of the island is also privileged by Haward. The illustrations show faces in the landscape of the island, a visual representation of the spirits of the land and the source of the “sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt us not” (3.2.136) which Caliban hears (figure 7) (Haward 86). For Semenza the use of this motif is to suggest a clear link between these spirits and nature and “that nature is the true source of life” on the island (59). This acts to convey “a comparison between Prospero’s violent and unnatural artistry and the landscape itself, whose animating spirits are understood by and actually seem protective of Caliban, the island’s true native” (Semenza 60). These benign island spirits imply the naturalness of Caliban and position Prospero as the alien presence on the island.

Figure 7: Classical Comics, Island spirits in the landscape, p. 86.

Haward’s colonial interpretation of The Tempest in the CC edition is also shown in the first splash page of the Epilogue where there is a significant change in the depiction of Caliban. This illustration stands in contrast to the silence of the text on the fate of Caliban and Haward gives us a Caliban who “sheds his current servitude and physical disfigurements in the process of his essential pre-colonial self” (Said 258). Prospero has broken his staff indicating that his power over Caliban and the island is at an end. Caliban stands on the rock where Prospero stood in the first image of the graphic novel, which had been the site of display of his power in creating the tempest (figure 8) (Haward 128). Caliban is illustrated in the stereotypical pose of the conqueror, standing completely upright and erect, looking out over the island with a spear in hand. It is a dignified image of power and self-determination and the archetypical depiction of the noble savage. The coloniser is leaving the island, and its sovereignty is reclaimed by its indigenous inhabitant.

Figure 8: Classical Comics, Caliban after the exit of Prospero, p. 128.

Romantic Shakespeare: SelfMadeHero’s The Tempest

The SMH edition of The Tempest was published in May 2007 as part of the “Manga Shakespeare” series. The text in the SMH edition is truncated with over sixty percent of the play’s dialogue removed. Though the text has been shortened the editor has not removed any characters or scenes of the play. Instead the metaphoric and descriptive language has been excised, leading to a more direct communication of the plot and the action.

The SMH edition uses the illustration style commonly associated with manga, in which the human characters are stylised, and the background of the images is not detailed so it is the characters rather than the scenery that dominate the frames. The less realistic illustration and simplification of the characters create what McCloud suggests is an amplification of meaning because attention is focussed on the idea rather than the detail as is the case with intricate illustrations (27).

The visual narrative is constructed by using “analytical montage” with illustrations of aspects of the characters shown from constantly shifting points of view, in a variety of panel shapes and sizes, creating the visual energy of the graphic novel (Rommens 4). The SMH The Tempest depicts many close-up images of the characters or portions of their bodies such as the hands or eyes. The effect of this is that the character and emotion of the play is highlighted by drawing the reader’s attention to expressions and gestures rather than the physical action of the play.

The focus of the SMH edition is on the romantic relationship between Miranda and Ferdinand rather than a colonial reading of the play and it achieves this through both the editing of the text and the selection of illustrations. The illustrator, Paul Duffield, did not consider the play from a postcolonial perspective and his illustration choices reflect this. For Duffield the key aspect was the repair of the damaged relationships between the characters of Prospero and the Milanese court (Duffield “Email Interview”). This healing was primarily signified by the romantic relationship between Miranda and Ferdinand.

The location of the action in the SMH Manga Shakespeare edition of The Tempest is described as being in the twenty-first century after an energy crisis “has plunged mankind into a second Dark Age” (back cover). The illustration of the island shows derelict buildings, rusted pipe work, and broken overhead cables indicating that in the past it was a place of industry, but its human inhabitants have now abandoned it. Duffield stated that the general idea behind the setting of the play was that “humanity has reduced itself to a more feudal system […] in this setting, technology can be seen as a kind of sorcery, kept alive by a few knowledgeable people seen as sorcerers” (Duffield “Email Interview”). Derelict oil pumps and felled forests feature in the background of several illustrations throughout the text as the remnants of a failed society. Rather than the rich island paradise of the CC edition, the SMH Manga Shakespeare locates the action in a place damaged by man and uses this to highlight the failings of civilization. The costuming of the characters is a mixture of styles and periods that the illustrator used “to give the idea that this could be anywhere and anytime to add to the mystical feel of the play” (Duffield “Email Interview”). For Duffield the costumes were intended to produce an eclectic production design and the paratext and setting work to direct the reader to approach the text through this imagined future rather than a specific historical period of British Imperialism.

The first image of Prospero in the SMH edition is of him standing with Miranda watching the ship tossed in the tempest in a mirror (figure 9) (Duffield 17). Prospero is illustrated with grey receding hair neatly tied back in a long plait; he has a trimmed beard and wears a hooded robe. The image is that of calm control and paternal compassion as he looks at Miranda who is upset by the vision of the ship in the storm that she sees in the mirror. This introduction of Prospero is therefore very different to that shown in the CC edition where he is illustrated as a magician welding his power. Prospero is introduced as a father; his magical powers are not on display, which immediately signals that the familial relationship is central to this interpretation.

Figure 9: SelfMadeHero, Introduction of Prospero, p. 17.

Caliban in the SMH edition more closely resembles human form than he does in the CC representation. He is introduced in the Dramatis Personae not as the “salvage and deformed slave” as in the Folio, but as “a witch’s son and Prospero’s slave” emphasising the supernatural and his subjugated status rather than his physical form (Duffield 6). He is depicted more in the Darwinian school of Caliban illustrations and is of human form but with pointed ears and fangs and a body covered in fur (figure 10) (Duffield 110). Caliban is introduced firstly as an immature creature with large innocent eyes crouched at the tree where Ariel is imprisoned with a look of confused concern. Throughout the text he is never illustrated feeding, enacting violence or being subject to physical aggression.

Figure 10: SelfMadeHero, Caliban, p. 110.

As the romantic aspects of the play are emphasised in this edition the focus on the relationship between Prospero and Caliban is reduced. Caliban’s dialogue is heavily abridged, as are the scenes in which he appears, and so his voice and actions are limited to those which serve to further the plot. Though his protest that “this island’s mine” is included, the editing of much of his speech allows Caliban only a functional voice and does not fully explore his relationship with Prospero. Such editing diminishes the colonial reading in favour of the romantic aspects of the play by reducing the focus on the subjugation and dispossession of Caliban.

It is the relationship between Ferdinand and Miranda that is central to this edition of The Tempest. The cover of the SMH Manga Shakespeare edition features Prospero holding his staff as he looks down upon Ferdinand and Miranda who are clasping hands. Here the young couple is highlighted immediately and their defensive pose implies that there is some danger they must overcome together. In the first scene of the graphic novel illustrations of close ups of Miranda dominate the pages, signaling her centrality to the interpretation of the play. Duffield’s characterisation of Miranda is childlike and demure and she is not sexualised through physical exaggeration or by her costume. The text retains the references to her virgin status and the threat of rape by Caliban and the illustrations emphasise her innocence and the patriarchal protectiveness of Prospero.

The illustrations of the SMH edition include the tropes of romantic love and the conventions of courtship. The romantic aspect of the play is also emphasised by the inclusion of most of the dialogue between Ferdinand and Miranda in the play-text, particularly in Act 3, Scene 1. This scene is illustrated over eleven pages and the images are predominantly of Miranda and Ferdinand embracing. These also include close ups of their faces as they look at one another and a full-page image of the young couple gazing into each other’s eyes. (figure 11) (Duffield 120). The use of the close ups focuses on the emotion of the scene rather than the text and by extending the text over so many pages the importance of the relationship in this representation of the play is emphasised. Kastan argues that The Tempest is obviously about European dynastic concerns and European colonial activities and that Prospero’s engineering of this relationship is driven by a desire to secure power in Milan (231). However, Duffield’s illustrations imply Prospero’s motivation is not dynastic control but paternal concern for the future and happiness of his daughter.

Figure 11: SelfMadeHero, Ferdinand and Miranda, p. 120.

Similarly the blessing of Miranda and Ferdinand’s union by Ceres, Iris and Juno in Act 4, Scene 1, though abridged, is illustrated over four pages. This does not move the plot forward but instead it focuses on the romantic love of the young couple with Juno’s blessing of “Honour, riches, long continuance, hourly joys be still upon you” (4.1.106-7). The landscape of derelict buildings is replaced by grass and trees, and flowers bloom around the feet of Ceres as she approaches. The bounty of nature is aligned with the young couple and through their love there is hope for healing of the past and the creation of a new future.

The text and images are also used to emphasise the healing of the land itself, which has been scarred by man’s disregard for nature, through benevolent and paternal care. Act 2, Scene 1 has over 200 of the 330 lines of the full text expunged and the dialogue that remains conveys the key plot points of the scene. The King and his party have landed safely on the island, they are separated from the Prince, they are subject to the magical spells of Ariel and Antonio and Sebastian plot to kill the King. However, in this heavily edited scene the adapter has chosen to include all sixteen lines of Gonzalo’s speech describing how he would rule the island as natural paradise where “nature should bring forth all abundance to feed my innocent people” ( 2.1.148-57, 2.1.160-65). This speech of an imagined Utopia, which is seemingly inconsequential in communicating the plot of the play, is laid out in illustrations over three pages. The illustrations feature a splash page with the idealised scenes of men and women and children at play with images of Gonzalo’s face, peaceful and placid, in the corners of the frame (figure 12) (Duffield 80-1).

Figure 12: SelfMadeHero: Gonzalo’s speech, p.80 and 81.

These pages provide a respite from the forward movement of the plot and so carry significance. Set in context with the location of the play in a post-industrial world this emphasises the possibility of a peaceful and bountiful society through compassionate rule. Here, how Duffield handles the scene adds to the romantic reading of the play by inviting the reader “to recognise and play experimentally with imaginable alternatives, which strengthen our conviction that a different kind of world could actually be realised” (Ryan 31). The images recall the pastoral romance tropes of innocence and harmony in nature in contrast to the corruption and decay caused by civilisation. In Duffield’s adaptation of The Tempest not only can Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, be restored through the union of Ferdinand and Miranda but there is also hope for the renewal of the land itself.

It is through the combination of images and text that the adapters of the CC and SMH graphic novels can interpret The Tempest as either a critique of colonialism or as a pastoral romance. In the CC edition the colonial politics is emphasised by the bold, realistic illustrations which locate the action in the seventeenth century at the time of colonial expansion. The CC edition also encourages a colonial reading by focusing on the power relationship between Caliban and Prospero. Haward depicts an aggressive Prospero who imposes his will on the island and dominates the native Caliban through supernatural powers and physical violence. Though Caliban is illustrated as obviously bestial he is also shown expressing human emotions and so invites the reader to empathise with his oppressed status. When he is finally released from the subjugation of the coloniser Caliban is illustrated as the proud and free native ruler of the island. In contrast the SMH edition downplays this reading by heavily editing Caliban’s dialogue and presenting a calm and paternal Prospero rather than an aggressive magician. Duffield highlights the romantic aspects of the play through the illustrations and the text accentuating the relationship between Miranda and Ferdinand as a symbol of renewed hope in the future. Images of the young innocent couple dominate the graphic novel and the graphic novel is free of illustrations of aggression or violence. Duffield’s setting of the play in a land that has been damaged by industrialisation is juxtaposed with his illustrations of an imagined island paradise which could be achieved by man working in harmony with nature. In this edition of The Tempest the focus of the play is on healing the relationships between Prospero and the Milanese court, and man and nature, which is symbolised through the union of Ferdinand and Miranda. The CC and SMH editions of The Tempest demonstrate that the adapters of Shakespeare’s plays in graphic novels do not merely repeat the works but using the combination of images and text produce radically different and unique interpretations.


[1] The term “full text” is of course problematic given the bibliographical history of the reproduction of Shakespeare’s plays. As no authorial manuscripts exist, all texts of Shakespeare’s plays are mediated and subject to editorial interventions such as modernisation of spelling and grammar. The term “full text” here is used by the publishers to indicate that the text is based on the First Folio, which is the only existing Early Modern text.

[2] All line references in this chapter refer to Arden Shakespeare edition of The Tempest, edited by Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T. Vaughan. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2000. Print.

[3] For example, the 2009 production directed by Janice Honeyman and coproduced by the RSC and the Baxter Theatre company of South Africa represented Caliban as the indigenous human inhabitant of the land subjugated by the coloniser Prospero. For further examples and detailed summaries of theatrical productions of the play see Dymkowski and Lindley.

Works Cited

Dufflield, Paul. “E-mail Interview: Manga Shakespeare.” Email Interview. 01 January 2009.

Dymkowski, Christine. The Tempest. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000; repr. 2005. Print.

Kastan, David Scott. “The duke of Milan /and his brave son.” Shakespeare’s Romances. Ed. Alison Thorne. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. 226-45. Print.

Lanier, Douglas. “The Tempest in Popular Culture.” The Tempest: Shakespeare in Performance. Ed. David Bevington and Peter Holland. London: Methuen, 2008. 33–48. Print.

Lindley. David. The Tempest. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994. Print.

Rommens, Aarnoud. “Manga and Storytelling.” Image and Narrative 1 (2000). Web. 12 December 2011.

Ryan, Kieran “Shakespearean Comedy and Romance.” Shakespeare’s Romances. Ed. Alison Thorne. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. 27-53. Print.

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. London: Chatto & Windus, 1993. Print.

Semenza, Gregory M. Colón, “Teens Shakespeare and the Dumbing Down Cliché: The Case of the Animated Tales.” Shakespeare Bulletin, 26:2 (2008): 37-68. Print.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Illustrated by Paul Duffield. Adapted by Richard Appignanesi. Designed by Andy Huckle. London: SelfMadeHero, 2007. Print. Manga Shakespeare.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Illustrated by Jon Haward. Adapted by John McDonald. Inking by Gary Erskine. Colouring and lettering by Nigel Dobbyn. London: Classical Comics, 2009. Print.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Ed.Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T. Vaughan. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2000. Print.

Vaughan, Alden T., and Virginia Mason Vaughan. Shakespeare’s Caliban, A Cultural History. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991. Print.

Viguers, Susan. “King Lear as a Book: A Visual/Verbal Production.” The Shakespearean International Yearbook 4 (2004), 215-31. Print.

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