The Tempest and Colonialism
?THE TEMPEST AND COLONIALISM. There is much in the topical dressing of The Tempest which relates it to the colonial adventure of the plantation of Virginia and with the exotic Bermudas. Critical opinion has varied as to whether The Tempest is closely related to colonialism as undertaken in the Jacobean period; E. E. Stoll wrote in 1927 that ‘There is not a word in The Tempest about America… Nothing but the Bermudas, once barely mentioned as faraway places. On Stoll’s side we can say that the action takes place somewhere between Tunis and Naples, presumably therefore in the Mediterranean, and that the characters who are shipwrecked are returning from Tunis after a wedding, not in the least intending to set foot upon, let alone settle or conquer, uncivilised lands. Against this, we must say that The Tempest participates in a contemporary cultural excitement about the voyages to that Americas and the exotic riches of remote places.
There are traces in The Tempest of a number of colonial and Bermuda voyage narratives, such as Sylvester Jourdan’s ‘Discovery of the Bermudas’ (1610)1, The Council of Virginia’s ‘True Declaration of the state of the Colonie in Virginia’ (1610), a letter by William Strachey which circulated under the title ‘True Reportory of the Wrack’, but was not published until 1625, and stories collected by Samuel Purchas in Purchas his Pilgrimage (1613). Caliban’s god Setebos is reported from Magellan’s voyage as being a Patagonian deity.
There is little doubt that the extraordinary shipwreck of some would-be Virginian colonists on the Bermudas flavours Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Shakespeare’s patrons the Earls of Southampton and Pembroke were investors in the Virginia Company. The Essex group at court supported a Protestant-expansionist foreign policy which did not suit King James, who was anxious not to antagonise Spain. Relations with Spain were one of the main reasons that James executed the Elizabethan imperial hero Sir Walter Ralegh, who championed the settlement of Guiana.
If the general romance of the sea voyage enters into The Tempest, as it does in Pericles, this alone does not permit a view of the play as ‘about’ colonialism. The chief focus of a post-colonial investigation of The Tempest is through the character of Caliban, seen not as the ‘deformed slave’ of the dramatis personae but as a native of the island over whom Prospero has imposed a form of colonial domination2. Caliban’s second speech states this case as clearly as could be wished.
On being summoned from his ‘sty’ by Prospero he responds with curses and proceeds to give his view of their interaction: I must eat my dinner. This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother, Which thou tak’st from me. When thou cam’st first Thou strok’st me, and made much of me; would’st give me Water with berries in’t; and teach me how To name the bigger light, and how the less, That burn by day and night: and then I lov’d thee And show’d thee all the qualities o’ th’isle, The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and feretile:
Curs’d be I that 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 here you sty me In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me The rest o’th’island. (1:2:332-346) We have already seen Prospero bullying his other servant, the spirit Ariel, into compliance with his wishes (1:2:240-300). Prospero’s dominance seems here on the edge of collapse, held in place by threats and the exercise of continual vigilance. He seems a man set uneasily at the apex of mutinous and unstable forces.
As the Boatswain has already made clear (although he does not know that Prospero has created the storm) the bases of authority are under question in The Tempest: What cares these roarers for the name of King ? (1:1:16-17) Caliban’s narrative of Prospero’s conquest of the Island seems self-sufficient, and if Shakespeare were a cultural relativist this might stand as the position of Caliban within the play, but there is a crucial incident which seems to have turned the relationship between Prospero and Caliban sour, and this Caliban does not mention.
Prospero regards Caliban as genetically (rather than culturally) ‘inferior’, inherently incapable of civilised behaviour: A devil, a born devil, on whose nature Nurture can never stick; (4:1:188-189) This condemnation is mingled with the frustration of the teacher who has failed with a difficult pupil: On whom my pains, Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost, (4:1:189-190) We have already seen throughout 1:2 that Prospero is fussy and disciplinarian in his tutelage.
Miranda shares her father’s dislike of Caliban for the same reason: Caliban has attempted her rape, an event which he at least recollects with some satisfaction: Pr: Thou didst seek to violate The honour of my child Cal: Oho, Oho! would’st had been done! Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else This isle with Calibans. (1:2:349-352) Prospero keeps Caliban in order with ‘pinchings’ ‘old cramps’ ‘aches’ and so-on. Caliban is clearly afraid of him, and seeks to rebel.
Caliban’s plot with Stephano and Trinculo is futile, as he comes to realise; he has fallen in with fools, who, in common with many Europeans have used alcohol to gain influence over the natives. Caliban’s plot forces the abandonment of Prospero’s magical/ritual masque, the moral authority of which is directed towards Miranda and ferdinand’s chastity, a point which Prospero repeatedly stresses. His fear for Miranda’s chastity demonstrates his anxiety to impose ‘civilised’ behaviour on the island, and his fear that it may not hold; it is part of his power complex.
Paul Brown’s thoughtful article ‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’3 seeks to ‘repunctuate’ The Tempest in order to examine its relationship to colonialist discourse. He discusses the liminal figure of Caliban, who combines the discourses of ‘masterlessness’ and ‘savagism’ (as well as the ‘salvage’ or wild man), ‘masterlessness’ having been a continual fear of authority, as expressed in the parish poor laws, and ‘savgism’ relating directly to the ‘uncivil’ who inhabit the areas at the edges of the dominant culture. Brown states that ‘Prosppero’s island is ambiguously placed between American and European discourse’ (p. 7). The discourse of the Americas is of course colonialist, but Prospero’s island is located in the Mediterranean. Caliban is seen as the victim of the language he has been taught: ‘Whatever Caliban does with this gift announces his capture by it. ’ (p. 61). Nevertheless, Caliban has the ability to represent his powerlessness and express his resentment. 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. (1:2:365-367) He can use this language for his own ends, however, as his arguments with Prospero show.
When Stephano and Trinculo discover him Caliban repeats the attitudes and behaviours he regretted in his relationship with Prospero. I’ll show thee every fertile inch o’th’island; and I will kiss thy foot: I prithee, be my god. (2:2:148-149) While Brown reads The Tempest as a colonialist text, he cannot claim it as an unequivocal praise of or encouragement to the colonial enterprise. In a good discussion of the significance of the disruption of the masque scene, he states that Prospero ‘has insisted that his narrative be taken as real and powerful-now it is collapsed, along with everything else, into the ‘stuff’ of dreams.
The forging of colonialist narrative is, momentarily, revealed as a forgery. ’ (p. 67). Though he claims Prospero’s narrative as ‘colonialist’, I would relate it to more general questions of authority. Prospero himself will return to Milan to contemplate death: the Island has not been the scene of a colonial settlement, but the arena in which Prospero addresses the wrongs of his European past in order to establish a European future. As with other late plays by Shakespeare it is for the new generation to enact a reconciliation which was unavailable to Romeo and Juliet, for example.
Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, and Ferdinand, the King of Naples’ son are to be married, and their optimism balances Prospero’s more jaundiced view. Mir. How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in’t! Pros. ‘Tis new to thee. (5:1:183-184) Although Prospero succeeds in promoting this marriage, in punishing his betrayers, his brother Antonio, and Alonso, King of Naples, and bringing most of them to repentance, he confesses Sir I am vexed Bear with my weakness; my old brain is troubled. (4:1:158-159)
At the end of the masque, and once the larger, island-wide performance has been enacted, he renounces his magical power and prepares to return home, no longer the divine controller of the island’s drama, but a mortal like other mortals. The Tempest has been insistently been read as shakespeare’s farewell to the theatre, and the island functions well as an analogue for the stage (especially in view of Shakespeare’s adherence to the classical unities of time and place in this play), just as Prospero can stand for the writer/director.
Neither the discourse of colonialism nor an auto-biographical interpretation can contain and exhaust the latencies of this subtle and beautifully constructed text. The Tempest remains a wonderfully written, highly atmospheric and fairly mysterious text. Shakespeare’s greatest strength is his ability to bring into his texts a complex nexus of views and debates which continue to resonate, and to defy resolution, for generations of play-goers and scholars. Despite Brown’s commitment to reading The Tempest as an ‘intervention’ in the colonialist debate, he concludes that it is ‘a site of radical ambivalence. ’ (p. 68).