Does Shakespeare Critique European Colonialism in The Tempest?
Since the 1960s, several critics have found a critique of colonialism in their respective readings of Shakespeare's The Tempest. The most radical of these analyses takes Prospero to be a European invader of the magical but primitive land that he comes to rule, using his superior knowledge to enslave its original inhabitants, most notably Caliban, and forcing them to do his bidding. While the textual clues concerning the geographic location of Prospero's island are ambiguous and vague, there is a prominent reference to the "Bermoothes." We know that shortly before he wrote his final play, Shakespeare read a contemporary travel account of the Virginia Company's 1609 expedition to the New World and its experience after being run aground on the island of Bermuda. Enslavement does surface in Prospero's realm. The grand magician/scholar inflicts "pinches" and "cramps" upon Caliban to keep him in line and he manacles the young prince Ferdinand's neck and feet together. The servile state in which he keeps Caliban is plainly and understandably a cause of the "ridiculous monster's" deep resentment toward his overlord, and it is with some justification that the spawn of Sycorax invokes nature's wrath upon his tormentor, as in his curse, "all the infections that the sun sucks up/From bogs, fens, flats on Prospero fall ..." (II, ii., ll.1-2).
Caliban himself embodies many of the characteristics that civilized Europeans came to associate with the "primitive natives" of the New World. As in the Elizabethan stereotype, Caliban is without moral restraint, and, more specifically, he is lustful in the same way that Native Americans were viewed in the early seventeenth century as dangerous despoilers of innocent white women like Miranda. And, akin to the "drunken Indian," Caliban's introduction to wine causes his spirits to soar as he exclaims, "Freedom, high-day" (II, ii., l.186) after encountering his new masters and gods, the comic characters of Stephano and Trinculo. Just as Native-American tribes would come to distinguish between colonizers from different nations, e.g., favoring the French over the British or vice versa, Caliban becomes disenchanted with Trinculo as a master and proclaims that he will only serve Stephano. For his part, like some great father protecting his children from a European rival, Stephano rebukes Trinculo for his mistreatment of Caliban, saying that "the poor monster's my subject, and he shall not suffer indignity"...
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Prospero and Shakespeare
There can be no doubt that The Tempest contains numerous references to the theater, and while many of Shakespeare's plays make reference to the dramatic arts and their analogy to real life (e.g., "all the world's a stage"), it is in this, his last play, that the Bard most explicitly acknowledges that the audience is viewing a show. Thus, in the play's final scene (Act I, scene i., ll.148ff), Prospero tells his prospective son-in-law Ferdinand that the revels at hand are almost at an end, that the actors are about to retire, and that the "insubstantial pageant" of which he has been a part has reached its conclusion. It is, in fact, tempting to equate the character of Prospero with that of his creator, the playwright Shakespeare. When Prospero sheds his magician's robes in favor of his civilian attire as the Duke of Milan, with the benefit of hindsight that this is Shakespeare's last work and his crowning achievement, we are disposed to associate the learned sorcerer with the Bard of Avon. How far we are to take this identification, however, is moot.
Prospero of The Tempest, like Shakespeare in his late Romance period, is a mature man with a daughter (Shakespeare, in fact, had two daughters, his only son dying in childhood) at the height of his intellectual and creative powers. Prospero is a polymath, a scholar with a magic book from an entire library that so absorbed him that it was, "dukedom large enough" (I, ii., l.110). Prospero displays a tinge of regret for having neglected his worldly office as Duke of Milan in favor of the life of the mind. Similarly, as virtually all of Shakespeare's biographers have observed, the Elizabethan playwright's knowledge was exceedingly broad, leading many to speculate that he pursued a number of vocations before settling into a life in the theater, and we know from textual correspondences that Shakespeare was broadly read and that he continued to absorb knowledge from diverse publications until his death. We can also speculate that Shakespeare regretted remaining away from his home in Stratford, at least insofar as his career in London kept him away from his children. Lastly, following The Tempest, Shakespeare, like Prospero, retired to civilian life, there being a period of five or six years between his composition of that play and his untimely death at the age of fifty-two.
Beyond these surface biographical parallels, Prospero's role is less that of a character than...
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Ariel and Allegory in The Tempest
The temptation to regard The Tempest as an allegory has proved irresistible to critics, although opinions differ on what it might be an allegory of, and what the principal figures might represent. In this essay I wish to discuss the character of Ariel, who has received less attention than either Caliban or Prospero. If The Tempest is an allegory then each of its characters should fulfil some representative function. Prospero is generally associated with the playwright (or even, which amounts to much the same thing in some views, with God) as he controls the action on stage. Caliban is taken to represent the physical aspect of humanity, or the 'will', his uncivilised condition making him close to the beasts. In this view, Prospero represents intellect (in seventeenth-century terms 'wit', or 'reason'). The opposition of 'infected will' and 'perfected wit' is a common trope of Protestant discourse, as in Sir Philip Sidney's 'Defense of Poesie'. Ariel, then, ('an airy spirit' in the 'Names of the Actors') might represent a third part of the self, the soul or spirit, but at this point the allegory seems to break down, in that Ariel is clearly not Prospero's immortal soul, or the divine part in man, as he is under the control of Prospero as intellect, and in fact performs the action of the play just as Prospero directs it.
Frank Kermode, in his introduction to the Arden edition, criticises the tendency to allegorical interpretation, and seems to have imbibed something of the late Shakespeare's insistence on the importance of Chastity. 'It is not surprising that The Tempest has sent people whoring after strange gods of allegory' (p.lxxx) and most modern attitudes to the play are largely the product of romantic criticism with its dangerous and licentious enthusiasms.' (p. lxxxi). In his valuable discussion of Ariel (Appendix B, pp. 142-145), Kermode opines 'These traces are no doubt due to the element of popular demonology in the play, and it would be foolish to expect absolute lucidity and consistency in the treatment of these ideas. It is surely remarkable that, in all that concerns Ariel the underpinning of 'natural philosophy' should be as thorough as in fact it is' (p. 143). This suggests to me a certain reluctance on Kermode's behalf to acknowledge Shakespeare's expertise in 'popular demonology', perhaps considering such knowledge to be beneath the immortal bard. Why? Is not Shakespeare's possession of such knowledge...
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Caliban: A Character Study
Caliban is the only authentic native of what is often called 'Prospero's Island'. However, he is not an indigenous islander, his mother Sycorax was from Argier, and his father Setebos seems to have been a Patagonian deity. Sycorax was exiled from Argier for witchcraft, much like Prospero himself, and Caliban was born on the island. Caliban's own understanding of his position is made eloquently plain when we first meet him:
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 loved thee,
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 here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o'th'island. (1.2.330-344)
We can clearly sense Caliban's resentment of what he sees as a colonial occupation of his island. The story of his upbringing is not so simple, however. It seems that when Prospero and his infant daughter arrived on the island twelve years before, Caliban was an orphan, his mother having died. This is not entirely clear: in conversation with Ariel (formerly Sycorax's spirit) Prospero recalls the 'blue eyed hag', 'The foul witch Sycorax, who with age and envy, Was grown into a hoop' (1.2.258-259), but it is not clear whether he ever met her.
What we do know, as is agreed by Miranda, Prospero and Caliban himself, is that Prospero brought up Miranda and Caliban together, and that they had a close relationship, although perhaps not as close as Caliban might have wished. Prospero and Miranda were both involved in Caliban's education, and the three lived as a family until Caliban overstepped a boundary clear to the two Milanese.
Prospero: Thou most lying slave,
Whom stripes may move, not kindness! I have used thee,
Filth as thou art, with human care, and lodged thee
In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate
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Themes in The Tempest
The Tempest is generally considered to be Shakespeare's last sole-authored play. As early as 1875 it was identified as one of a group of late Shakespearean 'Romances' with Pericles, The Winter's Tale, and Cymbeline. The Tempest differs markedly from these others, however, in containing the action within the 'classical unities' of time and place (meaning that the duration of the performance is equal to that of the events depicted, and that the action is confined to one geographical area, requirements which the other romances entirely disregard.) The Tempest is a very beautiful play, beautifully constructed and beautifully written. Such is its atmosphere that many commentators have considered it to be a religious, or at least 'spiritual' play.
There is no single source for the play, as far as anyone can prove, but it issued from and into a culture newly excited by reports from Virginia and the Bermudas, and seems to have drawn on these contemporary accounts, on Ovid's Metamorphoses, (both in the original Latin and in Golding's translation), on Virgil's Aeneid, on the genre of 'Romance', and perhaps on the Bible. A further source seems to be Michael de Montaigne's 'Of Cannibals', a work which equates the state of nature to an Edenic innocence, and civilisation with the Fall. The Tempest has generally been read with two interlinked interpretive strategies: it has been seen as a personal allegory, and as a highly Christian work.
The play draws a number of oppositions, some of which it dramatises, and some of which it only implies. Prospero, a figure exhibiting many resemblances to the Elizabethan idea of the 'Mage', (of whom the best known is probably Dr. John Dee), is opposed to both his corrupt brother, usurper of his role as Duke of Milan, and to Sycorax, an evil witch and mother of the 'deformed slave' Caliban. Sycorax does not enter the action of the play, having died before it opens, but enough is made of her evil disposition and behaviour to show Prospero as a model of human virtue in comparison. This despite Prospero's own use of magic to accomplish his will, and his bullying of the spirit Ariel and his threats to and punishments of Caliban. Prospero's role is central to the play, he is in control of the action throughout, through the exercise of his 'Art'. A further contrast is drawn between Miranda, Prospero's daughter, and Caliban. Both were brought up...
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Father-Daughter Relationships in Shakespeare's Pericles, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest
"This form, this face, this life
Living to live in a world of time beyond me; ...
My daughter.” - T.S. Eliot, "Marina".
The purpose of this paper is to explore some of the ways in which father-daughter relationships define both structure and theme in Shakespeare's Pericles, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. While avoiding the issue of the exact nature of Shakespeare's crisis of c. 1607-1609, we shall nevertheless agree with Dover Wilson that a conversion of some kind took place as a result of that crisis, allowing the frame of mind which was to produce the transition from the tragedies to the romance plays. Perhaps, as Wilson asserts, "by the help of a woman (...perhaps by his
daughter), the spiritual convalescent recovered his lost self and his love of the countryside...” Indeed, it is not unreasonable to assume that Shakespeare's return to Stratford at this period, and his renewed contact with his daughters, Susanna in particular, provided the environment in which the concerns of family, continuity and reconciliation became pressing. The birth of a granddaughter, Elizabeth, in 1608, and the death of his mother in the same year can only have added to his preoccupation with family matters and with women.
Shakespeare had given his audience notable daughters before, in Ophelia and Cordelia among others, but it is not until Pericles that his point of view becomes that of a father recognizing redemption and even immortality in the person of his living daughter. Thus, daughters become important not only thematically but formally, in the interplay and structure of lost and found, dead and alive, impure and pure, estranged and reconcilled.
Even E.M.W. Tillyard, who disagrees with E.K. Chambers’ extreme statement of the reasons for the change in dramatic direction from the tragedies to the romances admits that "Shakespeare at the time of Pericles was being impelled along some new way of expression." Whether that play is a result of a collaboration or a reworking by Shakespeare of an earlier manuscript, we shall assume, with most critics, that Acts III to V are substantially his. While the play as a whole is structurally weak, with Acts I and II almost unrelated to III, IV and V, the last three Acts in themselves form a unified whole. Although, as in The Winter’s Tale, Pericles has lost both daughter and wife, in...
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The Tempest: Illusion and Reality
This essay will discuss the part that illusion and reality plays in developing and illuminating the theme of Shakespeare's The Tempest. This pair of opposites will be contrasted to show what they represent in the context of the play. Further, the characters associated with these terms, and how the association becomes meaningful in the play, will be discussed. Quotes used in this essay are taken from the Folger Library edition of The Tempest, edited by Louis B. Weight and Virginia A. LaMar, published by Pocket Books, New York, 1961. Quotations will be formated according to Act, scene and line.
A good starting point to discuss the use of illusion and reality in The Tempest is to focus on the setting in Act I, scene ii. Here, the reader (or viewer) realizes that it takes place entirely in Prospero's cell which is a small room where he practices his magic arts. Miranda here asks her father, Prospero, to make sure that the people on the ship will be safe even though he has created a storm which threatens to capsize their boat and drown them all. Prospero reassures her. He says that he has no intention of allowing the people to die. To reassure her further, he continues by explaining his motives in creating the storm. Here the reader learns that Prospero and Antonio are brothers, and that Prospero is the rightful Duke of Milan but that his brother usurped his kingdom and exiled Prospero and his daughter Miranda. Fortune saved the two from their rotting ship which had been set to drift, and brought them to the island where Prospero has been granted supernatural powers by the enemies of Antonio.
From the above description it is clear that the play embraces both the natural and the supernatural world. Twelve years before the action takes place, we are told that Prospero was a prince who had a different type of power than he has now.
Twelve year since, Miranda, twelve year since,
Thy father was the Duke of Milan and
A prince of power (I, ii, 65-68).
Previous to this declaration it is clear that Prospero now has power, but it is power associated with the supernatural. His power is not granted to him by mortals, but it has been given to him by those above human status. His power is symbolized by and vested in his cloak. It is something which can be physically removed.
I should inform thee further. Lend thy...
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The Tempest: An Overview
The Tempest was originally performed in late 1611, and was published in its current form in the First Folio of 1623. It is the one play by Shakespeare not derived from one or more of the many sources commonly utilized by all playwrights of the Elizabethan era, although a contemporary German play possesses an analogous exile theme. The story of the shipwreck was probably taken from Sir George Somers' narrative of a Bermuda shipwreck of 1609.
The play itself is a masque-like comedy; it far surpasses the majority of those traditional pieces with similar themes which were continuously being updated by other writers of Shakespeare's day. It is a tale of magic and wonderworking, of retribution and forgiveness, of shipwreck and enchanted isles. The Tempest is also the last of Shakespeare's completed plays.
Prospero, Duke of Milan, a studious man who had delegated to his ambitious brother Antonio many of the affairs of government, was 'extirpated’ by him and sent to sea, with his infant daughter. Providence brought him safely to an island used as a place of exile by the witch Sycorax, where he lived for many years, studying the art of sorcery. When the play opens, he has long ruled the island, commanding the spirits of the air, and enslaving the brutish, misshapen Caliban, progeny of the witch. Through his spells he causes to be swept ashore by a tempest, a ship bearing the ally of Antonio, the King of Naples, and his son Ferdinand, and Antonio himself. As Prospero tells Miranda, his daughter:
This King of Naples, being an enemy
To me inveterate, hearkens my brother's suit,
Which was, that he, in lieu of the premises
Of homage, and I know not how much tribute,
Should presently extirpate me and mine
Out of the dukedom, and confer fair Milan,
With all the honours, on my brother: Whereon,
A treacherous army levied, one midnight
Fated to the purpose, did Antonio open
The gates of Milan, and, in the dead of darkness,
The ministers for the purpose hurried thence
Me, and thy crying self. (I, ii)
To suit his purposes, which include revenge, Prospero separates and bewitches the various groups of his prisoners. He works upon them through the instrumentality of his servant, the spirit Ariel. First, he secures the young Ferdinand as husband for Miranda, making certain that a...
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The Tempest and Colonialism Revisited
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 the 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), 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 Raleigh, 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...
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