Apparently The Tempest is too dangerous to be studied in the Arizona public school system.
The play was banned as part of a broader effort to remove works that ‘promote the overthrow of the United States government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.
If you haven’t read the play recently, you’ll be forgiven if your reaction is “HUH?”
Nonetheless, they’re yanking it off Arizona public high school curricula as we speak. But, bless their hearts, the censors have actually READ The Tempest, and their decision to ban it isn’t crazy, or, at least it’s not, given their assumptions, stupid. If your goal is to keep schools from talking about oppression, slavery, colonization and the misuse of power you absolutely MUST ban The Tempest. I mean you really don’t want young people reading passages like this:
This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou tak’st from me. When thou cam’st first,
Thou strok’st me and made much of me, wouldst give me
Water with berries in’t, and teach me how
To name the bigger light, and how the less,
That burn by day and night; and then I lov’d thee,
And show’d thee all the qualities o’ the isle,
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile.
Curs’d be I that did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king.
Of course you realize Shakespeare predates the British Empire by a good hundred years. The play was written decades before the first permanent English colonies in the New World were established. At the time colonization and slavery was a Spanish and Portuguese thing. He’s in this weird cultural space about it really. He’s aware of the phenomenon, but in a detached way. Its about England’s enemies. He critiques it freely and without guilt in a way that few English speakers ever will afterwards.
Ugh, I hear some of you saying. But its a fantasy! Do you have to make it all … political?
But that’s the beauty of fantasy. You don’t. I mean, you can. People do. Some fantasy writers are explicitly political and will discuss it whenever you get them on a panel. But you can read Orson Scott Card or Elizabeth Bear (to name two very different writers) and dive right past any tedious arguements about the present day. Fantasy is really good at that sort of thing. It uses the language of symbols to explore larger human truths.
And so Shakespeare sped right past the question of any specific controversy and used it as a platform to explore a larger question about power. Is power good for us? Does it cause us to lose our humanity? And is even justified cruelty worth the effort?
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick,
Yet, with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
Do I take part; the rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance.
Yes, yes, The Tempest is dangerous stuff. Luckily, the Arizona censors have unintentionally happened upon the best possibly way to get high school kids to actually read The Tempest.
Maybe there will be secret Tempest-reading clubs. Hipster kids in the back of the local Starbucks will drink seven cups of espresso while they debate the enslavement of Ariel and Caliban. Maybe there will be secret off-campus performances. Maybe they will sneak paperpack copies into school and hide them in the map room of the library. That’s what me and my friends used to do with dirty books. Good times!