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Whether and how William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” is an allegory about colonialism or imperialism has been widely debated among literary types. Because the very figure of “Shakespeare” remains such a mystery, it is nearly impossible to determine with a high level of certainty whether the author had colonialism in mind when he wrote “The Tempest” and, if so, to what extent such a theme permeates the work. What is known is that “The Tempest” was written during a time when European, especially Spanish, colonialism was in full swing and directed towards the New World across the Atlantic Ocean. The play takes place in the relatively confined space of the Mediterranean Sea and the northern coast of Africa, specifically, Tunis, and Naples, Italy. The reigning king of England, James, was known to look askance at imperial ambitions that risked incurring the wrath of other colonial powers. At the same time, as one scholar noted, there are references throughout “The Tempest” to slaves (“Thou most lying slave. . .”; “Abhorred slave . . .”; “Thou art here but to thrash Trojans; and thou art bought and sold among those of any wit, like a barbarian slave . . .”) that imply a colonial relationship among the characters:
“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 domination.” [“The Tempest and Colonialism,” www.peterpick.com/Shagsberd/THE%20TEMPEST%20COLONIALISM.doc]
Imperialism manifested in wanton greed – the greed of Antonio (“My brother and thy uncle, call’d Antonio – I pray thee, mark me – that a brother should be so perfidious . . .”) – is the driving force behind the motivations involved. Note the following quote from Prospero in Act I, Scene II:
“To have no screen between this part he play’d/And him he play’d it for, he needs will be/Absolute Milan. Me, poor man, my library/Was dukedom large enough: of temporary royalties/He thinks me now incapable; confederates --/So dry he was for sway – wi’ the King of Naples/To give him annual tribute, do him homage . . .”
Prospero’s laments regarding the intrusions on “his” island are both ironic and indicative of the nature of imperialism. He has colonized an island and enslaved its inhabitants; he now decries the invasion of his paradise by Antonio, despite the role a shipwreck played in the introduction of the interlopers into his world. Whether Shakespeare was inspired while writing “The Tempest” by the real-life shipwreck of people trying to get to Virginia off the island of Bermuda in imposing the same fate upon Antonio and his party who were similarly cast upon the shores of Prospero’s island by the destruction of their own vessel is informed conjecture. It certainly, however, makes sense.
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