The Tempest and a Colonialist Representation The Tempest, most likely written in 1610-1611 and staged for the first time at the royal marriage of Princess Elizabeth around 1612, is the final play that Shakespeare’s wrote on his own. It is shrouded in the classic ambiguity that is unique to Shakespeare’s work and thus allows for multiple interpretations. For over a century, and particularly in the past twenty years, one of the more popular approaches to The Tempest is the influence of colonialism and it’s representation in Shakespeare’s last play.
In 1818 the English critic, William Hazlitt, was the first to actually point out that Prospero had usurped Caliban from his position of rule on the island, therefore placing Prospero in the role of an agent of imperialism (T. Vaughan). Caliban’s character is thus identified as the European symbol of the colonized. Since Hazlitt’s first account of supposed colonialism, the theme has remained more or less a mainstream theory, albeit a slippery one.
In exploring the influence of European colonialism on the play, many critics place much of their attention on the events surrounding European colonization of the “New World” in Jamestown, Virginia that occurred around 1607. The play’s initial storm or tempest scene has early scholars paying attention to a particular incident in the British efforts to colonize the “New World. ” Nine pilgrim ships and another ship called the Sea Venture, which was carrying all of the colonial officers, left England in 1609, and headed for Jamestown, Virginia.
All the ships disappeared and its passengers were thought dead until they resurfaced approximately a year later in Virginia and revealed that they had wrecked off the coast of Bermuda (Skura). Both of these historical events, the colonization of North America and the consequent ship wreck, are thought to be significant influences on Shakespeare’s imagination and on The Tempest itself.
If we are to acknowledge the historical relevance of Jamestown’s colonization then we must also realize the extent to which the characters in The Tempest are influenced, much like how the events of the play resemble the reality of Jamestown and the subsequent events. Prospero is a usurped Duke of Milan, hence a European, who has escaped with his daughter and landed on a tropical, Mediterranean island. He has taken charge of this remote island and has succeeded in doing so by employing his special powers or magic, and by forcibly employing the help of the indigenous inhabitants via threats of painful force or by the use of his magic.
Thus Prospero represents the European authority that exerts control over the strange non-European inhabitants, Ariel and Caliban. Caliban, the indigenous inhabitant of the island, is presented as “a freckled whelp, hag-born” (1. 2. 285) monster. Frank Kermode, a prominent critic in the fifties, has described Caliban as the “core” or “ground” of the play’s representation of the uncivilized man and the reconsideration of civilized human nature. Caliban is introduced to the audience as a “savage” and “deformed slave. ” He is neither man nor animal and born of a witch.
He is considered to be part of nature, as Indians often are thought to be even today, and his name itself seems to be a thinly disguised play on the word cannibal (Skura). He has lived and ruled his island in relative peace and without the influence of any outsiders, until he meets Prospero and the shipwrecked nobles that invade his island. Caliban, the island native, regards himself as the rightful owner of this island who is now forced, against his will, to serve Prospero and his daughter, Miranda. He constantly complains and laments over his subjugation and unwillingly performs his tasks.
Caliban is, to many, the metaphor for the native cultures that exist in an imperialist world. There are several mentions made by Caliban that lead one to a colonial image, though not necessarily an American Indian one. Caliban resents the invasion of his island by strangers, who when they first came, “Strok’st me and made much of me,” (1. 2. 330) only later to enslave and confine him. In a particularly revealing exchange, Prospero scolds Caliban with “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 known” (1. . 355-58). In other words, Prospero accredits himself for teaching Caliban a language that was civilized and had a meaning that could now be understood and communicated. Caliban, in his wit, responds, “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. 363-65). Caliban is quick to denote how uncivilized Prospero is by pointing out that Caliban has now been taught to swear. Whereas, the implications are that he obviously did not do so before he learned this so called “civilized” language.
For Caliban, this offering of language is not a gift but an imposition, a means of enforcing Prospero’s rule on his recalcitrant subject. When Caliban and Prospero first meet there is an initial hospitable exchange or swap of knowledge. Prospero teaches Caliban how to speak and in return Caliban reveals the islands natural resources. But the relationship turns sour when Caliban attempts to force himself on Miranda in order to populate the isle with other Caliban’s. Prospero then imposes the master slave rapport on Caliban.
If Prospero questioned Caliban’s brutishness he now is affirmed in his belief. He describes Caliban accordingly: A devil, a born devil, on whose nature Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains, Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost; And as with age his body uglier grows, So his mind cankers (4. 1. 188-92). To prospero, “Caliban’s physical deformity mirrors his moral limitations, which, in Prospero’s analysis, are in born and native to him” (Lupton). To Prospero, Caliban is subhuman; he is deformed, foul smelling, treacherous and rapacious.
Ferdinand, who is a suitable lover and husband for Miranda, is capable of self discipline, is willing to prove himself and work in order to earn her affections, whereas Caliban does not exhibit restraint. Thus Prospero feels he is morally entitled to exert his authority over Caliban; indeed, Miranda and Prospero’s safety depend upon this enforced obedience. At the same time that they must protect themselves from his violent tendencies, they must also ensure Caliban’s continued service in order to survive on the island. It is easy to see Caliban as an allegory that furthers the theme of European colonialism.
The very description of Caliban and Prospero’s response to Caliban’s personhood, or lack there of, personifies the European’s perception of the uncivilized native, the half human, unrestrained beast. The Europeans were unable to view the New World and it’s natives as cultured human beings. Anything alien to European culture was labeled as bestial, uncivilized and considered the threatening “other. ” In this sense Caliban has come to represents all cultures, not just the North American Indians that the Europeans enslaved or colonized. Caliban is African and he is Caribbean.
His condition suddenly is interpreted in the political and social relations of a colonial world. The problems or issues that Caliban represents are similar problems that colonists had with indigenous peoples. There is however several problems with taking such a political or colonialist stance in the interpretation of The Tempest. Firstly, it requires us to view Caliban as a representative of an oppressed culture or class, yet he is the only one of his kind on the island. He has no cultural template, no existing family and no apparent cultural history that we are made aware of.
Therefore, is the image of colonization or cultural integration particularly apparent? Consider, as an example, the issue of Caliban’s lack of language. In The Tempest, Prospero does not force Caliban to deny his native tongue in lieu of Prospero’s European language. When Prospero arrives on the island it seems that Caliban had no language at all. If Caliban had other indigenous peoples with which he spoke his native speech and shared common cultural customs, the repercussions would be far more substantial.
If Prospero had then collectively oppressed more than just Caliban, but all of Caliban’s people, the impact in view of colonialism would be immense. Consequently, using Caliban as a representative of a native culture is a stretch and requires that we deduce a great amount that is not readily apparent in the play itself. The second dilemma in regards to this interpretation resides in the character of Ariel. What are we to make of Ariel with it’s magical powers and it’s androgynous, non-human form (Shakespeare does not commit to the sex of Ariel’s being, but allows him/her to remain sexless.
Therefore, I will refer to Ariel as “it”). All of Ariel’s characteristics contribute immensely to the action within the play and magnify the mystical effect that The Tempest exudes. If Caliban is a metaphor for the theme of colonialism then we must explore Ariel’s representation within the play. In the colonial discourse Ariel is all but ignored. We cannot simply leave Ariel unaccounted for because it does not fit the current interpretation. After all, just as Prospero is responsible for teaching Caliban a civilized language, Prospero is also responsible for setting Ariel free from his imprisonment.
Even though Prospero kindly sets Ariel free it is only to be made an indentured servant to execute his will. How then is Ariel accounted for in this interpretation? In pursuing the colonial representation, what conclusions does one deduct as Shakespeare’s opinion of colonialism? What is The Tempest’s stance on European imperialism? If we continue to view Caliban in light of this interpretation, it would seem, at first glance, that Shakespeare was in favor of colonialism. But by the end of the play we would have to agree that he rescinds this argument.
Caliban may, indeed, offend the civilized European, but in many ways he is most intelligent, if not more so, than some of his European intruders. A prime example would be Caliban’s interactions with Stefano and Trinculo. It is questionable whether these two drunken idiots would have survived had it not been for Caliban and, as was stated previously, Caliban was most definitely an indelible force in Prospero’s own survival. In the end Caliban may be defiant in the face of Prospero’s authority, but ultimately that authority and it’s relevant justice can be called into question, especially when we examine the way in which it was enforced.
In Prospero’s rejection of his magic and consequent return to Europe, it would seem that Prospero is finally relinquishing his authority and conceding that to continue his rule on the island is unethical. He leaves the island and Caliban to rule it. Significantly, Prospero makes a final comment in regards to Caliban, “This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine” (5. 1. 275-276). Prospero recognizes a bond between himself and Caliban, and in leaving the island to Caliban’s rule and renouncing his source of power, is books of magic, it would seem an implied apology for the imposed enslavement. Bibliography 1. Meredith Anne Skura, “Discourse and the Individual: The Case of Colonialism in The Tempest. ” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 40, No 1 (Spring, 1989), 42-69. 2. Julia Reinhard Lupton, “Creature Caliban. ” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 51, No. 1 (Spring, 2000), 1-23. 3. Alden T. Vaughan, “Shakespeare’s Indian: The Americanization of Caliban. ” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 39, no. 2 (Summer, 1988), 137-153.