The Tempest From A Post-Colonial Point Of View

A post-colonial interpretation of The Tempest is an interpretation which has gained popularity in the latter half of the twentieth century. This particular reading of the play implies that Shakespeare was consciously making a point about colonialism in the New World in the guise of the magician, Prospero’s, usurpation of Caliban, the ‘slave’. It can be argued that Caliban represents the native American, whilst Prospero can be seen as the European imperialist. This interpretation calls into question values and opinions of the past. It renders Caliban in a sympathetic light and it shows increased understanding for his plight while also raising questions about Prospero’s rule over the island. However, this reading is not universally accepted in modern times. One critic comments that it is “simply absurd to impose our twentieth century concern with the imperialist rape of the third world” onto The Tempest.1 In contrast to this, Stephen Greenblatt responds that it is “very difficult to argue that The Tempest is not about imperialism.”2 This essay aims to show that colonialism is a major issue in the play, and although Shakespeare may not come down in outright condemnation of it, he certainly callsthe practice into question and shows an unprecedented (for his times) empathy for the colonised.

The issue of legitimate authority is introduced immediately in the play which indicates that it will play a major role in the events which follow. The King of Naples, Alonso, and his entourage are caught up in a frightening storm at sea. Panic ensues and the normal hierarchy of power relations is disturbed. The boatswain takes control of the situation and orders Antonio, Duke of Milan, not to interfere: “You mar our labour; keep your cabins:/ You do assist the storm.” (1.1.16-17). He follows this by demanding of Sebastian, the King’s brother: “What do you here?…Have you a mind to sink?” (1.1 45-46). The entourage is shocked and insulted by this treatment by a ‘lowly’ boatswain and they threaten him with hanging. However, this reversal of authority, this theme of the ruler being challenged by the ruled permeates the play. We soon learn of Antonio’s successful palace revolution against his brother. This is followed by Antonio’s plot with Sebastian to kill Alonso while he is sleeping and Caliban’s attempted insurrection with Stephano and Trinculo against Prospero’s domination of the island. The overriding issue, although, is Prospero’s claim to legitimate rule of the island. He is arrogant in his dismissal of Caliban’s claims and appears to be free of conscience when usurping Caliban’s rule.

Frank Kermode, in his introduction to the play, comments that:

Prospero’s assumption of his right to rule the island, ‘to be lord on’t’, is the natural assumption of a European prince…There is ample testimony to the corrupting effect upon natives of contact with dissolute Europeans – ‘Christian savages sent to convert heathen savages’, as Fuller put it.3

Kermode is making the point that the practice of colonialism was so built in to the psyche of European thought at the time that few, if any, thought twice about the morality of expanding European rule to new areas inhabited by the ‘uncivilised’ and ‘wild’. Little consideration was given to the natives of these areas as they were robbed of their land and freedom because they did not live up to the conformity of European life or looks. This is what Prospero has done to Caliban, but this shall be dealt with later. Meredith Anne Skura, in her essay “Discourse and the Individual: The Case of Colonialism” points out that we all fall into the trap of prejudging, of making assumptions before they can be founded. She takes the example of the association of ‘Caliban’ with ‘cannibal’. She says:

Caliban is not cannibal – in fact he rarely touches meat at all – his name seems more like a mockery of stereotypes than a mark of monstrosity, and in our haste to confirm the link between ‘cannibal’ and ‘Indian’ outside the text, we lose track of the way in which Caliban severs the link within the text.4

In short, only if one can lose all preconceptions and stereotypes about what is different, what is unknown, can one judge a situation morally and ethically. This is what is necessary for the post-colonial reading of The Tempest, and once done, it can be seen that Caliban has been blatantly and unfairly dispossessed of what is his.

When Caliban says to Prospero: ‘This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother/ Which thou tak’st from me…/ I am all the subject that you have/ Which first was mine own king” (1.2. 334-336) he is claiming the title of king of the island by inheritance. The only claim which Prospero can have is that which rests solely on superior virtue and fitness of rule. However, Antonio, when taking over Prospero’s position as duke of Milan, argued that Prospero was ‘incapable’ of rule and thus the usurpation was justified.5 So, Prospero is undercutting the basis of his title by establishing his own rule on Caliban’s island. When looked at like this, Prospero’s hypocrisy becomes evident. Our sympathies for Caliban are further aroused in the play’s early scenes. We witness Prospero being quick to anger with Miranda, Ariel and Caliban which must raise doubts in subsequent scenes (1.2.78,87,77, 1.2.246) and his censure of Caliban must be viewed in this light.6 Caliban is not the brutal, unfeeling savage that seventeenth and eighteenth century writers have portrayed him to be – thus making it easier to ignore his unjust oppression at Prospero’s hands. He is capable of learning language and with this new tongue he is able to express eloquently his feelings and, in one example the beauty of the music which the island possesses:

Be not afeard; this isle is full of noises,

Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,

That if I then had waked after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again; (3.2 174-182).

He can talk in rhythms of verse, in contrast to Stephano and Trinculo. He can follow plan and reason and can form loving attachments. All of this is combined with his childlike credulity which serves to evoke pity and ultimately, to humanise him.

Prospero is aware that Caliban is not a manifestation of pure evil, yet he constantly treats him as if he is. When Gonzalo comments that although the islanders are ‘of monstrous shape’, “their manners are more gentle, kind, than of/ Our human generation” (3.3.29), Prospero replies: “Thou has spoken well; for some of you present/ are worse than devils.” (3.3 30-32) Here Prospero implicitly ranks the evil of Antonio as greater than the evil of Caliban. There is more fault to be found with Prospero’s regime. Paul Brown, in his essay “The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism” compares and contrasts Prospero’s rule with that of ‘the foul witch’ Sycorax. He argues the fact that Ariel is constantly reminded about being rescued from her regime makes Prospero’s regime seem benevolent to the last. But, “her black, female magic ostensibly contrasts with that of Prospero in that it is remembered as viciously coercive, yet beneath the apparent voluntarism of the white, male regime lies the threat of precisely this coercion”7 In fact both regimes and their rulers are quite similar – both are magicians, both have been exiled because of their practices and both have children on the island. The only difference appears to be that Prospero is simply more powerful and flexible. Both are tyrants.

Caliban’s conversion at the end disappoints and ultimately trivialises his plight. It insures that the moral problems of Prospero’s usurpation are simply forgotten about and focus shifts onto the regeneration of the Milanese political order. Shakespeare does not take the final step in fully condemning Prospero’s colonial activity, although his point has been made. It is interesting to note that the conversion is a result, not of enslavement or punishment, but of events largely outside Prospero’s control8 It suggests, at the very least, that Prospero has employed the wrong strategies in his dealing with Caliban – something which could be said for many of the European imperialists when dealing with natives. Prospero tries to impose European values, ways of thinking and even forms of punishment on the unwilling Caliban, all of which fail. These were destined to fail because both cultures were so diametrically opposed that the first step towards integration, even ruling , should have been mutual understanding and compromise, not harsh treatment and the immediate overtaking of power.

This essay has highlighted only the ‘good’ points of Caliban and the ‘bad’ points of Prospero. This has been a conscious decision as it is easy to read the play and immediately pounce upon the negative aspects (to a ‘civilised’ mind) of Caliban’s character – such as his attempted rape of Miranda- and the positive aspects of Prospero’s – such as his forgiveness of his enemies in the final scene. Each of these characters, on the surface, appear to be too black and white and it is only with a little exploration beneath the surface are the points which have been made discovered. The Tempest is indeed open to many interpretations and the post-colonial one may be far from the most obvious, but nonetheless it is a real and relevant one and will probably continue to bear significance on life in the twenty first century.

1 J. Phelan, The Tempest; A Case Study in Critical Controversy, Ed:G. Graff & J Phelan,( Macmillan , 2000), p.95.

2 Ibid. p.110.

3 W Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. Frank Kermode, (Arden, 1954), p xxxvii

4 M. A. Skura, “Discourse and the Individual. The Case of Colonialism”, The Tempest A Case Study in Critical Controversy. Ed G Graff & J Phelan, (Macmillan, 2000), p 278.

5 Deborah Wills, “The Discourse of Colonialism”, The Tempest A Case Study in Critical Controversy, Ed. G Graff & J Phelan, (Macmillan, 2000), p.260.

6 Ibid. p.264.

7 P Brown, “The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism”, New Essays in Cultural Materialism, Ed: Alan Sinfield, (Macmillan, 1985) p.57.

8 Deborah Wills, “The Discourse of Colonialism”, The Tempest A Case Study in Critical Controversy, Ed: G Graff & J Phelan. (Macmillan, 2000) p.265