Who is Prospero? Is he a mostly noble man whose unchecked obsession with knowledge (or magic) leads others to take advantage of him? Or, is he an ambitious colonist, looking to impose his will on others? The answer to this question depends largely on one’s cultural perspective. As a twenty-first century American reader, it is difficult for me not to read Shakespeare’s The Tempest through a post-colonial lens. Prospero’s treatment of Caliban and Ariel echoes the treatment of indigenous populations in the “New World” colonies, particularly in the way Prospero attempts to cut Caliban off from the culture of his mother in order to inculcate a more European sensibility. Yet, my somewhat unfavorable interpretation of Prospero is invariably linked to my awareness of the impact that European imperialism has had on world. It is interpretation, then, born out of my own sense of history. However, history, like literature, is subject that is rich in different perspectives, all of which are meaningful to creating a sense of global history. I would argue that the continued popularity of Shakespeare’s play, including The Tempest, is due in part to their ability to communicate these different historical and cultural perspectives, i.e. their adaptability. An particularly intriguing example of the versatility of Shakespeare’s work comes from a 2011 production of The Tempest performed by the Korean Mokwha Repertory Company who blended aspects of Korean history into the Shakespearean narrative to form a story that is at once the same and intriguingly different.
Perhaps the most immediately noticeable changes to the play are the changes to Prospero and the other inhabitants of the island. In addition to integrating Korean costumes and music, the company’s director Tae-Suk Oh also blends in aspects of the Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms (a collection of stories that recount the early history of Korea and parts of neighboring China), transforming Prospero, Duke of Milan, into Zilzi, King of Garak. Like his Italian counterpart, Zilzi became obsessed with learning magic (although in this case it is Taoist magic), leaving the rule of his kingdom to his younger brother Soji. Zilzi is subsequently forced out of the kingdom by Soji and a king from a neighboring land. Ariel and Caliban have also transformed, taking on roles familiar with Korean audiences. Ariel is Zewoong, a mischievous shaman who protects against evil spirits. Meanwhile, Caliban becomes Ssangdua, a two-headed creature whose conflicted identity is reflected by the frequent arguments between its heads. Both Zewoong and Ssangdua are far cheekier than their Italian counterparts, creating a sense that Zilzi’s rule is, perhaps not embraced, but at least accepted. Furthermore, Zilzi is far more willing to show his flaws then Prospero, whose veneer of absolute authority protects him from taking responsibility for both the loss of his duchy and the rebellious behavior of his servants.
Although the rest of the narrative unfolds in much the same way as Shakespeare’s script, these changes encourage us to interpret the movement of the play slightly differently. Rather than an imperialist who would like nothing more than to recreate the European hierarchy he has lost, Zilzi is a man struggling with what it means to be a ruler. For most of the production this difference is subtle, and Zilzi orders/threatens Zewoong and Ssangdua just as much Prospero does Ariel and Caliban. However, at the conclusion of the production Zilzi takes responsibility both for the loss of his kingdom and for the treatment of his servants. He tells his former rivals, “I am the guilty party,” pointing to how his obsession with magic blinded him from his real responsibilities. This level of self-awareness is never quite reached in the original script (indeed, Prospero continues to maintain that he is “the wronged Duke of Milan” [5.1.109] while simultaneously forgiving his enemies),leaving Prospero’s accountability ambiguous. To further contrast the two figures, Zilzi then chooses to liberate not just Zewoong (the Ariel counterpart), but Ssangdua (Caliban) as well, magically separating the two heads so that they can each pursue their own fate. This move seems particularly significant, given the presently uneasy union between North Korea and South Korea. By freeing the two halves of Ssangdua, Zilzi offers them the chance to form a more compassionate union, suggesting that a good ruler does not hold together a nation by force alone.
It is important to note that while this production frequently revises and adapts Shakespeare’s original text, it by no means changes the play’s core questions: namely, how do we act when we are removed from society, how do we respond to betrayal, and how can we overcome our baser instincts and become better people. Perhaps even more importantly, is the reminder that the process of adaptation is not merely grafting new or different element on to something that already exists. Adaptation is about finding what was always there and showcasing it in way that everyone can appreciate it. Like all good directors, Tae-Suk Oh has asked us to see Shakespeare’s story slightly differently, to make ourselves aware of alternative perspectives.
For those interested in watching Tae-Suk Oh’s The Tempest, I have provided a link here