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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

Shakespeare in the Caribbean

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 35

Shakespeare and his plays are woven deeply into the culture of the Caribbean, both white and black. Even after centuries of British colonial rule came to an end, Shakespeare endured. 

There’s a long tradition in the British Caribbean of using Shakespeare quotations in competitions to demonstrate rhetorical skill, whether in the schoolyard or at rural village gatherings. After slavery was abolished in the British colonies, schools were established to steep the empire’s newest subjects in British literature, including Shakespeare.

But anti-colonialists have also claimed Shakespeare for their own, particularly The Tempest and the character of Caliban.

Our guests on this episode are Dr. Giselle Rampaul, a lecturer in literatures in English at the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine, Trinidad, and Dr. Barrymore A. Bogues, director of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University. They are interviewed by Neva Grant.  

Listen on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, or NPR One.


From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © November 4, 2015. Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. “A Vision Of This Island” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer.  It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Melissa Marquis at NPR in Washington, Courtney Coelho at Brown University, and Kerri Chandler at Wiluvbeats Studios in Barataria, Trinidad.

We also want to say a special “thank you” to Fabienne Viala, a professor in the school of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Warwick in the UK. Early on in our research on this topic, Dr. Viala was uncommonly generous in offering her time and her deep understanding of this history. She also introduced us to Giselle Rampaul.  

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MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.

This podcast is called “A Vision of This Island.” When Britain’s House of Commons abolished slavery in much of the British Empire on July 26, 1833, their action presented a considerable challenge in the British West Indies. Up until that day, hundreds of thousands of Africans enslaved on the islands of the Caribbean had been treated no better than cattle. Now, somehow, they were to be converted into loyal British subjects.

As you’ll hear, Shakespeare’s plays had been performed in the Caribbean for 200 years at the time of emancipation and were already woven deeply into the fabric of black and white culture on the islands. So it’s not surprising that he was used not only by the colonizers, but also later by the nationalists, who bent his characters and messages to their mission.

To talk about the deep but little known history of Shakespeare in the Caribbean, we’ve invited in two of the handful of people who know about it. Dr. Giselle Rampaul is a lecturer in literatures in English at the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine, Trinidad, and Dr. Barrymore A. Bogues is director of the Center for the Study of Slavery Injustice at Brown University. Giselle and Tony are interviewed by Neva Grant.

NEVA GRANT: In researching this segment, you told us so many fascinating ways that Shakespeare has sort of meandered his way into the life of the British Caribbean. So Giselle, how did Shakespeare even begin to make his way into the British Caribbean? I mean it happened fairly soon, even after his death, right, because the British were already there in that part of the world?

GISELLE RAMPAUL: Yes, I think that’s true. Shakespeare came with the British. The British, of course… A lot of the Caribbean Islands were colonized by the British in the 1600s, and they did bring a lot of their cultural practices. There were British theatrical groups touring through the West Indies on their way to America, so there were theatrical performances in the colonies. And I think the slaves would have been very much exposed to that. In fact, even in 1823, there are records of black bands performing condensed versions of Richard III. And even a little bit, just after that, in 1837, there was a famous Jamaican lithographer artist, Isaac Mendes Belisario, who also mentions that Richard III was a favorite among these black performers. And so Belisario, the same Belisario, also has a painting of what is called the Jamaican Koo Koo or actor boys.

GRANT: The Koo Koo, you say the Koo Koo?


GRANT: That was their nickname, Koo Koo?

RAMPAUL: Yes, it’s K-double-o K-double-o.

GRANT: Right, and that was their nickname. That was probably in the local patois.

RAMPAUL: They were called Jamaican Koo Koo or actor boys.

GRANT: Tell us about Christmastime?

RAMPAUL: Yes, okay, so Christmastime. Yes, the colonies celebrated the Christmas season with two or three days break. And during this time, the slaves were given a sort of license and the great houses on the plantations were opened, and the slaves actually were allowed to attend a banquet. And at these banquets, there were dances and other theatrical events, and in this time, they might have been exposed to Shakespeare.

GRANT: And they would compete. I mean they weren’t just exposed, but they were performing, and, in fact, competing, sort of reciting Shakespearean verse and demonstrating their skills in the Shakespearean language and memorization, and so forth.

RAMPAUL: Yes, yes, one of the cultural practices that showed exactly that rhetorical skill, and rhetorical authority as well, was the tea meeting that happened in Barbados and St. Kitts and Nevis and some other smaller islands in the Caribbean. And there are records that say that this was happening even as early as the 1600s. And these tea meetings were these rural village gatherings in which there was, as you said, there was a kind of competition that demonstrated rhetorical skill. And what these participants used to show off their rhetorical skills, and so on, were passages from the King James Version of the Bible and also some Shakespeare speeches.

GRANT: And there’s also kind of an unusual form of competition which grew up in one of the smaller islands. It was called the Shakespeare Mas’, right?

RAMPAUL: Yes, that’s right.

GRANT: Tell us about that.

RAMPAUL: Okay, so Shakespeare Mas’ is associated with Carriacou, which is the largest of the Grenadine Islands, just off the coast of Grenada. And Shakespeare Mas’ is a very interesting cultural practice, in that it is actually a verbal and physical duel. There are two opponents, who actually have a Shakespeare, what we can call a Shakespeare quote-off. And they compete by performing passages from Julius Caesar. So, if one of the opponents gets the lines wrong or they hesitate, they are whipped by their opponent.

GRANT: What do they whip them with?

RAMPAUL: They whip them… Well, it’s a whip, actually. It’s a whip, that is, nowadays it’s made of electrical cord.

GRANT: This may sound like a naïve question, but were they whipping to actually hurt their opponent? I mean was this all done in play?

RAMPAUL: Oh yes, there were very, very serious altercations between the opponents. And one group was from the North, one group was from the South. And it was serious business. I mean, sometimes they would sharpen the edges of the belts that they carried, so that when they fought, the belts would be used to cut the opponent.

GRANT: I think that we should mention that the practices that you’re talking about and the traditions you’re talking about happened during the time of slavery in the British Caribbean as well as afterwards, right, it went right up, as you mentioned?

RAMPAUL: Yes, the tea meetings certainly happened during slavery, the Koo Koo actor boys, I think they also were around the time of slavery as well.

GRANT: And they would have continued after slavery was abolished in 1834 or so?

RAMPAUL: And they would have continued, yes. Shakespeare Mas’ still happens. The tea meetings, I’m not too sure about the tea meetings and the actor boys of Jamaica.

GRANT: We’re going to bring Tony Bogues at Brown University into the conversation now. And, Tony, I want to sort of pull back a little bit and talk about the wider experience of what it was to be in the British Caribbean at the time that slavery was abolished, which was in about 1834. And at this point, the British are obviously going to have to pivot and bring the black Caribbeans into the government, because they’re going to eventually be controlling things, which means the educational system has to change. So what does that mean?

BARRYMORE ANTHONY BOGUES: Yeah, I mean I think that, a couple of things. One of them is that it becomes very important, I think you have to remember, it’s both colonialism and slavery. And that the key thing is how then do you make these ex-slaves into what some of us have called “respectable Christian blacks”? This is the period of Victorianism in England, as you would know.

And so the education system revolves around the following things. One, there are schools that are set up by missionaries that are sent into rural areas, and those tended to train the ex-slaves and their children into agricultural practices. Then there are these schools that have a longer tradition, particularly in the urban areas, places like Jamaica College, which are elite schools. And those schools tended to then train people and give them a classical British education: Queen Mary’s College in Trinidad, Codrington College in Barbados.

So what you have is not a homogeneous education system, you have a multi-tiered system, so much so that one figure, who is very important in Caribbean Intellectual history, C.L.R. James, who is born in 1901 and who goes to Queen Mary’s College in Trinidad, could write that, by 11 years old, “I was a British intellectual,” meaning that he would have read Thackeray, he would have read Shakespeare. He knew everything about English history, and so on. So that’s basically what you have. And then what becomes, I think, important, is that by the 20th century, the people who want to be writers and artists in the Caribbean essentially have to deal with Shakespeare, because they have to deal with the British literary tradition.

GRANT: Of course we’ve been talking this whole time about the British Caribbean, but I know in the past you’ve made a really important distinction between what was happening in the British Caribbean at this time and the French Caribbean, because there when they abolished slavery and then began to educate the local populations, there was a very different emphasis in school than in the British Caribbean, right?

BOGUES: Yeah, there’s a different emphasis and I think this is really important, because there is a very important Caribbean writer, George Lamming, a novelist, who makes the point that if French colonialism meant that the French colonized had to think around questions of French philosophy, for those of us in the unreformed Caribbean, philosophy was replaced by literature. And since it was replaced by literature, then Shakespeare becomes critical.

GRANT: So, Giselle, with regard to teaching English literature in the British Caribbean, this is really done quite assertively, isn’t it?

RAMPAUL: Yes, that’s true. Yes, okay, after emancipation, as Professor Bogues was saying, there was a lot of funding to promote education. And one of the ways in which education served as a colonial tool, as a very, very important colonial tool, was through the readers that they introduced, early on in the education system, but also early on in the education of these newly freed colonial subjects.

And these readers were called the Royal Readers. And the Royal Readers were really used as a way of cultivating British values. So, they were littered with poems by canonical writers and historical passages as well, about British and European battles and victories. And, of course, they were littered by Shakespearean passages and so on. So as early as the Royal Reader 3, there was a story entitled “The Prince and The Judge,” which was about Prince Hal’s misadventures in Henry IV. And this continued in Royal Reader 5, there was a reading passage entitled “Choice Quotations,” and there were all of these quotations from these British canonical poets: Tennyson, Byron, Scott, Milton, and so on, and there were 33. And of these 33 quotations, 12 of them, almost one third of them, were by Shakespeare. And the lessons continue as well in a later reader, Royal Reader 6. There was also the speech of Henry V at the siege of Harfleur and the “All the world’s a stage” speech. And there was also an abridged version of King John. So Shakespeare was very much fed to the colonial subjects very early on, and it was because Shakespeare was being touted as a symbol of British literary cultural and intellectual superiority.

GRANT: So you, Tony, you were raised in Jamaica. Was this your experience?

BOGUES: That was, yeah, that was my experience, and I think for all of us who went to high school in the late ’60s and early ’70s and universities in the early ’70s, we were still doing Shakespeare, even though Jamaica got independence in ’62.

GRANT: 1962.

BOGUES: 1962, Shakespeare and English literature were still very important. In fact, I recall at the University of the West Indies, where I began studying English literature, that that was one of the compulsory courses in the early ’70s that one had to do. And then there was a switch to West Indian literature, but the English literature and Caribbean… And literature taught in high school was really around English literature. I mean the poets I studied, Yeats, the Irish poet, William Blake, the English poet, and, of course, had to do Shakespeare.

GRANT: And do you actually remember teachers saying things to you like, “Look, if you want to be a cultured human being, you know, you have to have a handle on these great, you know, sort of touchstones of British literature?”

BOGUES: Not only do I remember teachers saying that, but I recall in high school was that we would spend time on our lunch period and our break period seeing who could recite which Shakespeare play or portions of Shakespeare plays better than who, as competition.

GRANT: So the spirit of competition has worked its way all the way up from you know, hundreds of years ago, into your schoolyard traditions. That’s amazing.

BOGUES: Mmhm, right, yeah, yeah.

GRANT: And Giselle what about your own upbringing there in Trinidad, was it similar?

RAMPAUL: Yes, I was first exposed to Shakespeare in high school. The play that we did was Twelfth Night, and I think that’s actually what made me really interested in Shakespeare. But even before I started that class, there was the understanding that Shakespeare was the great Bard.

GRANT: What do you think explains the kind of permanence or the apparent permanence of Shakespeare in the curriculum like this? I mean is it just about the fact that, of course, he’s a brilliant playwright, but is there some legacy of colonialism that is important as well?

BOGUES: Well, I don’t know if… I mean, I think partly, obviously, there’s a lingering legacy of colonialism around this. But I think there is also the ways in which, in fact, anti-colonial literary figures and anti-colonial thinkers use Shakespeare, so that perhaps the most important play for the anti-colonial thinkers and literary figures was The Tempest and the figure of Caliban, and that continues.

You know, there is C.L.R. James’s epigraph to Beyond a Boundary: Caliban will go “into regions Caesar never knew.” Caesar, you know, obviously, Julius Caesar, Shakespeare, Caliban, Tempest. Lamming’s Pleasures of Exile is about an explicit use of the Caliban figure. Sylvia Wynter’s work… I mean you can go right up until, quite frankly, so much so that Césaire, Aimé Césaire, who is French from Martinique, the late Aimé Césaire, had to write a play called A Tempest, in which he was… he now attempted to rethink the questions of colonialism and of the figure of Caliban. So it’s central to all of this.

GRANT: Right, and remind us who Caliban is. I mean, he is a slave, he is a monster, and he is also many, many things, depending on how he is viewed, and in what time he is viewed.

BOGUES: Yeah, he is all of that. But I think that what is as important is being first seen as Caliban the savage. And you know that the play Tempest, you know, is based on a shipwreck off Bermuda.

GRANT: Right.

BOGUES: And so that there is a way the relationship between Caliban and Prospero is seen as the relationship between the colonial and the colonized. And all of that is really about Caliban, a savage, and then Caliban taking charge of his ownself.

GRANT: Right, and Prospero and Caliban have, they have sort of taken care of each other, but they’ve also betrayed each other in different ways.

BOGUES: Betrayed, yeah, betrayed each other. But what is interesting is, I think, is… There are two things. One is the way in which, say, for example, the Cuban literary critic Roberto Retamar, you know, using Caliban as a figure for anti-colonialism. And then there’s a response from Lamming, and there’s a response from, you know, even people like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, who is a Kenyan writer. And then in the 1990s, there is a whole set of books that appear by Caribbean authors that uses Caliban, again, going back to that figure as a figure that can be used for anti-colonial purposes. So that it’s the influence of Shakespeare in many ways, is the point I’m making.

GRANT: Giselle, did you have something to add?

RAMPAUL: Yes, just to agree that it has continued even in the 21st century. Elizabeth Nunez, for example, in 2006, published a novel called Prospero’s Daughter, which again is very much anti-colonial. And, even more recently, there is a Caribbean-born writer, Nalo Hopkinson, who wrote a very interesting short story called “Shift.” And again, it is figuring the Caliban figure, but, what I find really interesting about her short story, is that it is not primarily about the struggle between Prospero and Caliban, but it’s more about the importance of this sort of Caliban figure, or let’s say, the descendants of the colonized people, to shift their perspective and begin the process of self-definition.

GRANT: Both of you have referred to the anti-colonial sentiment in the British Caribbean after independence in the 1960s. And I’m wondering if that went over to Shakespeare as well; I mean was there a pushback against performing Shakespeare?

BOGUES: I mean I think this is the… well please go ahead.

RAMPAUL: Are you sure? Okay.


RAMPAUL: I was just going to say that I think that even after independence, Shakespeare was still seen as this great literary figure. There were elocution contests, which I suppose is what Professor Bogues was referring to earlier, in those sort of schoolyard competitions. But I think there were also more structured elocution contests, in which students would use Shakespearean passages to show off their lovely ways of speaking and so on. I mean I can remember, even in my primary school education, having to write, “If music be the food of love, play on,” as penmanship exercises.

BOGUES: You, too?

RAMPAUL: Yes, and we’re actually in different generations, and yet still we have both had that same experience. And the secondary schools also did put on Shakespeare plays, these sort of amateur Shakespeare performances. And there was also in 1957, in Trinidad, the establishment of a theater group called the Strolling Players, which was established by a man called Freddie Kissoon. And he actually wanted this group to perform Trinidadian plays, but I can remember as well that the Strolling Players did perform Shakespeare plays, especially the plays that were on the school syllabus. So I don’t think there was really a pushback, I think it continued even in the calypso in Trinidad.

GRANT: Calypso music?

RAMPAUL: Calypso music in Trinidad.

BOGUES: Yes, mm-hmm.

RAMPAUL: Yes, there was after independence… Well before independence, calypso music, calypso songs were sung in patois, because Trinidad was very much French dominated. But after independence, when the British really put a lot of funding and so on in education, the shift was from patois to English, and the calypsonians could show off their skills by actually singing songs that used these very long polysyllabic words and Latinate phrases and so on. And not only that, they also were very particular about insulting their opponents by telling them that they needed to learn Shakespeare if they wanted to be a great calypsonian, and this continued way up to the time of independence, the 1960s.

And what is really interesting, too, is that in 1958 and 1961, very close to the time of independence, there were two particular calypsos that dealt with Shakespeare. One was Lord Christo’s “Shakespearean Quotations” and the other one Nap Hep Burn’s “Shakespeare the Mad Man.” And both of the calypsos, in terms of content, are very similar. And what they did was basically say that Shakespeare didn’t know what he was talking about at all, that all of these quotations that people you know throw around don’t actually make any sense. So that was a really interesting, anti-colonial, subversive gesture as well by the calypsonians, which was a change from the previous ones.

GRANT: Tony, I hear you wanting to jump in there?

BOGUES: Yeah, because I think that… I think you know, what is important with reference to the question, how does it continue after independence, is that there is somehow… Shakespeare is not, did not get himself, or the root of Shakespeare plays and work of Shakespeare did not get itself, caught into a maelstrom that it was colonial. It is a very strange thing.

So that, in other words, the University of West Indies can teach Caribbean literature, and has to teach Caribbean literature, but also as well has to, you know, finds that it has to teach Shakespeare as a compulsory literary course, course in literature. There is something else going on, where he is introduced, obviously, because of the colonial relationship. He is taken up, his plays are taken up, as an anti-colonial figure. There is a reading of Shakespeare, which not many critics know about, again by C.L.R. James, about Shakespeare being, in fact, a writer who was writing against the monarchy. And James has a whole set of lectures that he gave, particularly in the United States, around that. And that somehow therefore, this exceptional figure then becomes not just part of an anti-colonial repertoire, but also is seen as a part of a universal figure, and whose work therefore can be used in different ways.

And that, I think, is interesting, because what it tells us, I think, is that exceptional literature has this particular capacity, this capacity, even if it is tethered in a set of power relationships that have to do with colonialism and so on, that simultaneously, it speaks to sorts of issues that other people can speak to. And that’s the sort of complexities that I think we need to look at.

GRANT: Giselle, what about today in the British Caribbean. Is the performance of Shakespeare, is it still seen as part of a legacy, or are you seeing interesting Caribbean takes on Shakespeare that are sort of taking it off in different directions?

RAMPAUL: Yes, there are. Actually, in 2009, the Bahamas started their Shakespeare in Paradise Festival. What they have done is, they have produced a play every year that each play has a Bahamian, sort of Bahamian, interpretation, let’s say. So, for example, their production of The Merchant of Venice had, instead of Shylock the Jew, they had Shylock the Haitian, which really spoke to the particular situation of the Haitian immigrants in the Bahamas, who are seen as… who are marginalized. So that is one example.

And two years ago in Trinidad, as well, the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, which was actually established by Derek Walcott, they put on a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And instead of the fairies, the beautiful fairies that you usually see in productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they actually used traditional Carnival characters, the blue devils or jab jabs. So, yes, the Shakespeare plays do continue to be produced, but I think that current Caribbean theater practitioners are making it their own. It isn’t, as Professor Bogues said, just about this anti-colonial stance or this subversive stance, it’s also taking Shakespeare as Shakespeare, but also making it their own, making it a Caribbean Shakespeare.

GRANT: Yeah, I mean, of course, and what you’re speaking of has taken place in countries around the world, right, of people appropriating, you know, other people’s culture, and particularly Shakespeare, and making it their own?


BOGUES: Yeah, I mean, there is just one thing I should say in relationship to that. I mean I’m in the United States, you know, and there’s a student who has just finished a PhD thesis in Africana studies, and he was thinking about the Toussaint Louverture figure in the Haitian Revolution. But what’s central to that thesis was Othello. And it’s the way in which he began to think about Othello, and Othello and the work that Shakespeare did, in relation to Touissant, and what that might be, in terms of thinking about tragedy.

GRANT: Well, this has been just a fascinating conversation. Tony and Giselle, thanks so much for being with us.

RAMPAUL: Thank you so much for having us.

BOGUES: Okay, thank you very much.

WITMORE: Dr. Giselle Rampaul is a lecturer of literatures in English at the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine, Trinidad. Dr. Barrymore A. Bogues is director of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University. They were interviewed by Neva Grant.

“A Vision of This Island” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Melissa Marquis at NPR In Washington, DC, Courtney Coelho at Brown University, and Kerri Chandler at Wiluvbeats Studios in Barataria, Trinidad.

We also want to say a special “thank you” to Fabienne Viala, a professor in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Warwick in the UK. Early on in our research on this topic, Dr. Viala was uncommonly generous in offering her time and her deep understanding of this history. She also introduced us to Giselle Rampaul.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.