And Then Some Fool Banned The Tempest

And Then Some Fool Banned The Tempest

bgarielcalabanApparently 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.

bgtempest-folio-shotAnd 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!

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Matthew David Surridge

Minor point, but it’s quite wrong to say Shakespeare predates the British Empire; the term itself was coined in his time, by Doctor John Dee. And colonization was definitely something the English of his time had a hand in — in Ireland. Actually, abortive attempts to settle various parts of the Americas were made under Elizabeth and James I, too. So it may well have been on Shakespeare’s mind. I gather most stagings of The Tempest these days tend to approach the play as being about colonialism.

Otherwise … all I can say about that law is I don’t understand what perceived need called it into existence, and have yet to hear of any good that outweighs something like this.

Jackson Kuhl

The play was written decades before the first permanent English colonies in the New World were established.

It’s widely agreed The Tempest was based on the wreck of Sea Venture on the reefs of Bermuda in 1609. The ship was part of a mission to resupply Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in the Americas (founded 1607). The story was very popular once news of it reached London, so certainly the Globe audience would have understood the references. Before the shipwreck survivors proved otherwise, Bermuda was believed to be haunted by ghosts and devils…

I recommend The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown by Lorri Glover and Daniel Blake Smith if you want to learn more.

I’ve read several criticisms of The Tempest stating that it is not Shakespeare’s best work. I actually think it’s his strongest and it’s my favorite of his plays. It very much deals with colonialism: Shakespeare was certainly well aware of the failures of previous settlement attempts, and there’s no doubt he incorporated an indigene POV, whether Irish, Native American, or what-have-you. The Tempest is also a rejection of vengeance, which has become a very American characteristic. So for these reasons, I believe it’s a very *American* play, which is why I enjoy it and probably why others want to ban it.



I mean, Ultra Moralists (long as it’s other’s morality) screaming “Think of the Chillldreennnn….!” trying to get Romeo and Juliet banned – Technically they were “underage” and they had sex… But talk about the Bible and -to begin with- Lot and his daughters…runs…

Or, “The Merchant of Venice” can get the Jews/Jewish militant groups screaming since there is a negative Jewish character in it…

But this re-defines “Nucking Futz”…


I seem to be railing against an internet snowball here but I don’t think it’s correct to say that “The Tenpest” has been banned.

As I understand it (though it’s very hard to get to the bottom of the whole thing), what’s actually happened is that a series of classes (mostly on Chicano studies) has been cancelled by the Tucson school board – a decision apparently taken because they feared central state funding would be withdrawn if they continued those classes.

Among the works studied in those classes? “The Tempest”.

While I find the class withdrawal iniquitous, there is abig difference between “withdrawing a class” and “banning a book”.


Yeah…..I think what’s forgotten is that the very fabric of America is Multi-Ethnic and Multi-Cultural. Withdrawing funds or banning books just teaches that prejudice is ok. It’s ok to not teach something or educate our people about literature because someone thinks it gives the wrong idea. Wasn’t there some big to do over the Harry Potter books? When we silence history or literatue we do a disservice to the people we teach – how else to give them a better understanding of the world in which they live? That perhaps will draw us to repeat that history when it could instead be learned from. Give them the tools to learn positive problem solving and perhaps appreciation for beauty and vocabulary. In my honest opinion such withdrawls of funds or literature promotes ignorance, though I do have to say *guiltyduck* I don’t ever remember reading the Tempest. 😀 I do however like “The Taming of the Shrew” 😛


On the other hand, not a lot of High School students appreciate reading Shakespear (well ok maybe us bookworms, but not many) it might be more up to date to read more current litreature – unless they’ve come up with a historical literature class since Shakespear is writing from his time frame and there’s lots of more up to date literature whose language isn’t as difficult to undertand? *lol* Hmm…wait, difficult just means challenge which excercises the brain….*lol* Guess I must have been more of a lazy student growing up than I thought 😉

Sarah Avery

It looks like it’s more than just withdrawing a course. Over here there’s a letter from one Curtis Acosta, a teacher in the school district in question. If true, his description sounds like censorship to me:

I asked [an administrator] if I could start teaching Shakespeare’s The Tempest and was told no, due to the themes that are present and the likelihood of avoiding discussions of colonization, enslavement, and racism were remote. Adding more uneasiness and first amendment chill to our lives, we are still unclear if we will be found out of compliance with the law if our students discuss themes of race, ethnicity or oppression. …Lastly, we are to be frequently monitored, student work is to be collected and books were seized from our classrooms on Friday.

The same judge who found that the school district’s curriculum was violating the state law also decided to allow a countersuit to proceed, with students as plaintiffs, arguing that the law violated the First Amendment. The state asked the judge to throw that suit out. He decided the students had standing to sue, but that the teachers who had joined them as plaintiffs did not. So that’ll be one to watch.


Bah, this is Much Ado About Nothing…



One of my good friends who used to work as a discussion leader at the Utah Shakespearean Festival likes to describe certain Shakespeare plays as “difficult.” By this, he means that they challenge our notions of what broad-minded thinking ought to be like. These are the plays that try men’s (and women’s) souls. My friend includes “Merchant of Venice” and “Measure For Measure” (my favorite) in this list, and “The Tempest,” too.

The difference between how Utah Shakes and the Arizona school system treat these plays is singular: Utah Shakes not only performs the plays, but then schedules specific discussion panels in which all those thorny flashpoints (Shylock, racism, etc.) are openly, fluidly and intentionally discussed, both as a priori issues and within their historical, Elizabethan context. What Arizona does is play ostrich: “Stick your heads in the sand, kids! Ain’t nothing worth thinking about here!” Personally, I hope Ariel puts a curse on the school board and maybe the whole state legislature, a curse that renames them all Bottom and sticks asses’ heads where their supposed brains used to be.


Hm, did they use the original English they were written in when they put on the play or modernized the dialogue?

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