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Claribel, Tunis, and Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books

In Prospero’s Books, the Peter Greenaway film adaptation of Shakespeare’s romance The Tempest, the arranged and apparently consummated marriage of Claribel and the African King Tunis is depicted in the most grotesque fashion. A miserable and sexually abused Claribel is shown with a bloody pudendum while nude white slave girls attend to the obviously polygamous Tunis. Since in Shakespeare’s play there is no scene set in Tunis, and neither Claribel nor Tunis ever actually appears on stage, can the Greenaway depiction be justified by comments in the text about them and about their marriage made by the other characters? And can this terrible depiction be further supported by references to the negative early modern English stage history of the African, to the comparable stereotypes of Africans presented in travel literature of the time, and by the possibility that Caliban, with all of his negative baggage, is, like Tunis, an African? Probing into these elements, this paper attempts to determine the validity of Greenaway’s brutal vision of the marriage, while recognizing that The Tempest itself is an indeterminate and uncertain text and, possibly for this reason, the definitive Shakespeare play for the post-modern twenty-first century.

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