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From Creation Myths to Marriage Alliances: Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Murasaki’s Akashi Chapter

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In suggesting ways that teachers might use cross-cultural comparisons between Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611) and Murasaki’s Akashi chapter from The Tale of Genji (c. 1000), I am influenced by Wendy Doniger’s lively analyses of how Shakespeare diverts and inverts motifs found in narratives of ancient India. She is wonderfully dismissive of the attempts of Freud, Jung and Levi-Strauss to explain similarity by positing universal structures of mind, body and society. Instead, parallel plots are enticing because they can reveal why, in a particular place and time, writers use characters and images for specific purposes, and why and how motifs are shaped, transformed and created. The Tempest and this single chapter from The Tale of Genji have a solid basis for comparison. Prospero can be compared to the Old Monk, Miranda to the Akashi Lady and Prince Ferdinand to Genji. Both plots involve an exiled father who causes a supernatural storm at sea to bring a prince to a daughter, thus achieving political reintegration through a marriage alliance. Juxtaposing the two stories might reveal to students how their initial assumptions are ethnocentric, but then the comparison moves students to analyze more carefully the complexity of texts and cultures.

Doniger believes that “tracing the genealogy of a story is a mug’s game.”1 Yet there seems to be a flow of ideas, including the concept of romantic love, that moved from India through Persia to Renaissance England and long preceded the modern Westernization which has led the Japanese to admire Shakespeare.2 An introductory world literature course or interdisciplinary humanities course, such as the ones I have been teaching at Community College of Philadelphia, can include versions of Sita and Rama3 and the Bamboo Cutter’s Tale,4 as well as other analogs which moved both east and west. Folklorists chart the movement and permutations of such stories. Once suggesting that Shakespeare and Murasaki may be linked by very ancient mutual sources from India, rather than any influence from Heian Japan to Renaissance England, one can move on to other issues.


1. Wendy Doniger, The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 140.

2. Thomas Rimer discusses the “complex set of relationships between Japanese theater and the theater of the European world” including Ninagawa’s production of The Tempest in Japanese Theater in the World, Samuel Leiter, ed. (New York: Japan Foundation, 1997), 25–31. Shakespeare’s plays have struck many critics as Buddhist; for example, see James Howe, A Buddhist’s Shakespeare: Affirming Self-Deconstructions (Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994). Filmmakers such as Kurosawa are drawn to Shakespearean themes and images that have Japanese parallels. I thank James Brandon for his telephone interview in January 2000 regarding the lack of any evidence that Renaissance England was aware of Noh plays. I also thank Thomas Rimer and Norma Field for coming to Community College of Philadelphia through a U.S. Department of Education Title VI grant.

3. Sita’s supernatural birth has similarities to both Miranda and the Akashi Lady who are symbolically, if not literally, motherless. Rama’s wooing of Sita through performing tasks has similarities to Ferdinand’s tasks in The Tempest. The combination of birth story, wooing and ritual exile may also come from the Ramayana rather than being a “universal” motif.

4. H. Richard Okada discusses the influence of The Bamboo Cutter’s Tale on The Tale of Genji and its Tibetan/Chinese source in Figures of Resistance: Language, Poetry and Narrating in the Tale of Genji and Other Mid-Heian Texts (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), 50–2