Racial Differences the Tempest
Racial Differences in The Tempest The Tempest is a classic example of Shakespeare’s dichotomized notions of right and wrong within the context of racial inherencies, a social commentary of the colonialism of the New World. An important theme in the play is the racial differentiation between Caliban and the other antagonists, primarily, Prospero, who comes to the island and enslaves Caliban to enforce his own rule.
This relationship, as portrayed through the play, is a reflection of the historical social and racial tensions that existed between the colonizers of New Europe and the Native Americans and is illustrated through the language employed by Shakespeare and the interactions that take place between the characters. The Tempest sets a template to describe the hierarchy of society and the subsequent construction of racial differences, which continue to be evident in modern society, ultimately reinforcing the Shakespearean outline for social construct exemplified by The Tempest.
Both the linguistic meanings inherent in his very name and the subsequent characterization serve as the most immediate and obvious strategy employed in the dehumanization of Caliban. The name Caliban itself is worthy of attention because it draws parallels to the word cannibal, implying barbaric, inhumane, and savage behavior. Shakespeare continues with this negative portrayal of Caliban through the physical depiction as given by Prospero: “A freckled whelp, hag-born -not honored with A human shape. (24) This initial description of Caliban creates an image in the mind of the reader of an animal like creature that is inferior and unworthy. The dehumanization of Caliban is further propagated by the questioning of his morality which is brought into reference by his attempted rape of Miranda, Prospero’s daughter. Prospero initially served as a caring teacher until Caliban defied him: “I have used thee, Filth as thou art, with humane care, and lodged thee In mine own cell, till though didst seek to violate The honor of my child. (26) Prospero is given the position of being a benevolent, superior ruler who attempts to teach Caliban the values and ways of humanity with the assistance of his daughter, but his attempted violation of Miranda is seen as his inherent beastly nature that is ruled only by desire and natural instinct instead of the values and morals held by the civilized. Miranda’s words prove to be essential in portraying Caliban as a subhuman creature being of a savage nature, lacking a civilized means for communication: I pitied thee, Took pains to make thee speak, taught the each hour
One thing or other. When thou didst not, savage, Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like A thing most brutish, I endowed thy purposes With words that made them know. But thy vile race, Though thou didsnt learn, had that in’t which good natures Could not abide to be with; (26) Prospero and the superiority of his civilized ways are unable to be impressed upon this inherently inferior creature. This inherent evil and inhumanity of Caliban is once again verified by Prospero later in the play when he says, “A devil, a born devil, on who nature Nurture can never stick” (71).
Shakespeare plays on both the morality of the characters in terms of the evil that lurks within and the apparent physical depiction to dehumanize and differentiate the European selves and the non-white racial others.? Similarly, The Tempest can be seen as a reflection of the European colonialism of the New World which was taking place during the time in which Shakespeare wrote play. The uninhabited island that Prospero takes refuge on with his daughter Miranda is seen as a mirror of the New World, also known as the America’s, and the slaves of Prospero, mainly Caliban, is seen as a parallel to the Native Americans of the New World.
Within this geographical and historical context, it is easy to analyze the dynamics of the relationships between Prospero, viewed as the colonizer and kind ruler, and Caliban seen as the savage, oppressed slave.? Prospero is a Duke from Europe who assumes power of the island by forcing its inhabitants into servitude, similar to the way in which Europeans colonized the New World, maintaining control over the Native Americans and exploiting them as a means to cultivate the land. “We cannot miss him. He does make our fire, Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices That profit us. (25) Prospero enforces the language and values of the Europeans deeming them the practices of the civilized and assuming this way of life to be the better way of life just as the colonizers enforced their way of life upon the natives claiming it to be their responsibility to inhabit and transform the barbaric ways of the people into the civilized way of the Europeans. An assumption is made that these tools such as language are a bestowed gift of the colonizers and something of interest to those being enslaved.
Caliban refutes this idea: “ You taught me language and my profit on’t Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you For learning me your language! ” (26-27)? Historically identifying the America’s as the New World and concurrently the uninhabited island as the New World, the reader must question to whom this world is new. It is not necessarily fair to define them as new because both were inhabited. Prospero assumes the position of ruler of the island, ignoring Caliban’s preexistence and control just as the Europeans ignored the tribal inhabitants of the New World.
Caliban’s words bring into light the forced colonization of his land and his desire to regain his freedom: “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother, Which thou tak’st from me” (26) In both cases, the idea of human superiority of the European is used as the objective and justification for the oppression of the colonized. The racial and colonial divides do not remain at the mere differentiation or relegation of a people but extend to explain why these differences justify the dominance of supposed superior culture over these very people.
The play reflects early modern conceptions of race and racial differences through the marriage between Claribel and the African King of Tunis as well as through the treatment of Caliban by the antagonists. Claribel marries the King of Tunis out of obedience to her father even though she does not want to. Shakespeare portrays this marriage to an African as degrading, reflecting the racial conception of the inferiority of the colored man to the white man through the character of Sebastian and his conversation with Alonso, the King of Naples: That would not bless our Europe with your daughter,
But rather loose her to an African, Where she at least is banished from your eye, Who hath cause to wet the grief on’t . . . You were kneeled to an importuned otherwise By all of us, and the fair soul herself Weighed between loathness and obedience at Which n o‘ the been should bow. (36-37) Caliban also reflects the racial differences and inferiority of other races to the white race, which is partially reflected in his contrast to Prospero. Caliban’s mother was Algerian, implying that Caliban himself was not white.
As previously stated, Caliban draws a parallel to the Native Americans, who were of color, and by nature presumed to be inferior to the white European colonizers. The logic and justification of the oppressor, whether referring to Prospero or European colonizers as a whole, is formulated in the idea of the inherent barbaric and uncivilized nature of the inhabitants of the New World. The lack of language and code of morals and values is the supposed reason for the segregation and enslavement.
It is taken upon those deemed superior to attempt to civilize the others through the means of forced servitude in order to implement language, religion, and values. The New World colonizers took it upon themselves, concluding that it was their given responsibility to force the civilized way of life upon the natives. This gave the colonizers their superiority complex over the native, allowing for them to exploit and use them to their benefit just as Prospero taught Caliban the ways of the Europeans and used him and his knowledge of the land for cultivation, providing him and Miranda with food, fire and other necessities for life.
The presumed benevolence of the colonizers was not seen as an act of kindness for those being colonized. They had been robbed of their land, their language and their independence only to be enslaved by the colonizers. Caliban supplied Prospero with the means and knowledge to survive on the island, which ultimately added to the control Prospero held over him: And showed thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle, The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile. Cursed be I that did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you! For I am all the subjects that you have, Which first was mine own king; and her you sty me In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me The rest o’ th’ island. ”(26) Ultimately, The Tempest acts as a reinforcement of the prevailing conceptions in Europe about the New World. The play enhances the idea of the natives as being barbaric and uncivilized, which provide grounds for a necessary social hierarchy. Caliban’s ultimate regret for betraying his master, acceptance of rong-doing, and resubmission to the power of Prospero only reinforces the idea the he is inferior and his dependence on a master is necessary to his survival. “I’ll be wise hereafter And seek for grace. What a thrice-double ass Was I to take this drunkard for a god And worship this dull fool! ” (85) Caliban, throughout the play, is incapable of being independent. He shows his need for a master, when he searches to replace Prospero with Stephano, leading to the conclusion that the natural order of society deems him to be subservient and that he needs a master for survival.
This view coincides with the reasoning for enslavement by many colonizers who believed and justified their actions with the belief that natives were subhuman and their dependence and enslavement was based on their overall benefit in transforming into a more civilized people, which meant a necessary dependence on the colonizers to function and survive in society. Works Cited: Graff, Geral, and James Phelan. The Tempest: A Case Study in Critical Controversy. By Willam Shakespeare. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000