American Collections blog

14 October 2016

Shakespeare, Montaigne and Rio de Janeiro.

On the heals of the recent Shakespear exhibit here at the British Library and just before the opening of our new exhibit on maps, this week’s blog is from a guest blogger: Ricardo Cardoso. Ricardo Cardoso is a Brazilian Historian that studies international diplomacy in Shakespeare’s works, his research studies in the University of São Paulo (USP) and Shakespeare Institute/ University of Birmingham were funded by FAPESP.


Shakespeare’s character Caliban, from “The Tempest”, has been the focus of critical discussion, by presumably representing partly the Modern Age colonization process. In this debate, the character has been considered as an allegory for different people, such as the North African, Caribbean Indians, Irish, and even the British. Without ruling out any of these interpretative possibilities, an element can help to illuminate an important and quite likely layer of meaning in its writing. Regarding the source used by Shakespeare for his creation, we can agree that it would have been a well-known essay wrote by Montaigne entitled "Of the Cannibals". From the French text, even the name Caliban could have emerged as a possible anagram for "cannibal". This possibility brings us to formulate an important question: Who are these cannibals that Montaigne had in mind? The Brazilian’s Tupinambás. More specifically, those natives that lived in the Guanabara Bay, where it was later established the city known as Rio de Janeiro.

Montaigne wrote this essay by 1580, using as a starting point his conversations with his servant, a former member of the attempt of French colonization at the Guanabara Bay, called France Antarctique. At that time the Brazilian Tupinambás was becoming famous by narrations and engravings as the travel reports of André Thevet and Jean de Lery, illustrations of Théodore de Bry, Hans Staden’s report, and, of course, later by Montaigne’s essay.

De Bry Brasil


Chorographia nobilis & opulentæ Peruanæ Provinciæ, atque Brasiliæ, Theodor de Bry, 1593 (British Library shelfmark: 10003.e.18).

Another intriguing question, referring to the use that the playwright did of the French essayist’s text is related to the description of an ideal government made by the character Gonzalo in relation to the island in which Caliban live. Gonzalo says that He would collonize that island without: “kind of traffic”; “magistrates”; “letters”; “riches”, “poverty”, “use of service”; “contract”; “gun”; “sword”; “bound of land”; “tilth”; “use of metal”; “wine”; “occupation”; “sovereignty” etc. All things would be “in common nature”. What intrigues us is the fact that Shakespeare for this passage adapted another from "Of the Cannibals" in which an amazed Montaigne describes exactly what he thought as the real – not an imaginary or fictional – Tupinambá’s social system at the Guanabara Bay, for purposes of comparison to early modern French system, predicting that the settlers would destroy such an ideal society.

Therefore, the transposition of the French text to Gonzalo’s speech can reveal more about Shakespeare's thoughts on colonization process. It is like that The Tempest is speculating about Montaigne essay, because if the French text ends comparing the Tupinambá society with French society, greatly in favour of the Brazilians, then Shakespeare shows that European contact with that so-called "Cannibal" could turn it into "Caliban", a disillusioned primitive man robbed from his own government in his ideal island. Shakespeare takes Montaigne’s description and transforms it into an ideal far from realization in the Gonzalo’s verses. Thus, we see that the Tupinambá social system becomes a properly colonizing utopia, possible only existent in the speech of a dreamy character in a play. Not only the cannibal becomes Caliban, but its social system, according to Montaigne, was about to disappear thanks to colonization, also becomes an ideal aimed at the occupation and government of the fictional island.

The public theatre built by Shakespeare's company, The Globe, had at one entrance Hercules’ badge carrying the globe, it could symbolize the diversity of cultures that populated the world. In this indirect representation, it remains curious that the rising Brazil has been contemplated by the poet through one of its most interesting characters. Caliban may be an oblique reference to a specific group of Brazilian natives and an indirect reference – drawn from Montaigne and recalling aspects of European imaginary about ‘Americans indians’ and the ‘discussion on colonization’ – to Guanabara Bay in the city of Rio de Janeiro, a place recently hosted the whole world - or Globe.

- Ricardo Cardoso