In The Tempest, who is savage, and who is civilized? How do you determine this?

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The words "savage" and "civilized" are culturally loaded terms that have no purchase in contemporary academic discourse. They're seen as stark examples of an outmoded, colonialist mindset that once divided the world up into civilized races (i.e., white Europeans) and savages (i.e., everyone else). Successive generations of post-colonial scholars have...

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The words "savage" and "civilized" are culturally loaded terms that have no purchase in contemporary academic discourse. They're seen as stark examples of an outmoded, colonialist mindset that once divided the world up into civilized races (i.e., white Europeans) and savages (i.e., everyone else). Successive generations of post-colonial scholars have seen in The Tempest a prime illustration of such an attitude, with Caliban as the savage and Prospero as the bearer of white European civilization.

Yet such an interpretation raises more questions than it answers. Although a post-colonial reading of The Tempest can be suggestive and insightful, it is by no means exhaustive. As one might expect from Shakespeare, the picture portrayed in the play is a good deal more complex.

For instance, the character of Miranda might, on the face of it, seem to be the epitome of white European civilization. Yet in actual fact, she's "savage" by virtue of her innocence of human society. By the same token, Caliban, who's often presented as the paradigm example of all that's savage and uncivilized, actually has a better understanding of how human beings act and think than Miranda. This is largely because he's been on the receiving end of years of abuse and exploitation at the hands of Prospero.

Prospero's use of magic also blurs the distinction between savagery and civilization. Magic was traditionally associated with so-called primitive cultures, a sign of their lack of sophistication in relation to more advanced cultures.

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Because savagery and civilization are highly judgmental terms, there is no realistic way to separate the characters without applying ethnocentric criteria to them. The terms were often applied by colonizers to establish their superiority to those whom they wanted to control. The dominant forces are almost certain to consider themselves “civilized” and the subjugated peoples to be “savage.”

Civilization is often represented, as in this play, by the knowledge contained in books.

We can see the dichotomy in The Tempest in the character of Prospero. When he and Miranda arrived on the island, he decided that he should be its ruler, disregarding any existing political structures or land ownership. He used his magical powers to enslave Caliban and continues to subjugate him with those powers. Ariel, though apparently not enslaved, is likewise a servant to Prospero.

Caliban enlists the assistance of the newly arrived Europeans to try and defeat Prospero and win back his homeland. Although Shakespeare uses unflattering terms to describe him, the audience also understands that he is intelligent and capable of formulating a plan to recover his stolen rights. Although in Shakespeare’s day, audiences were likely to side with Prospero, a white European, recent interpretations have focused on the issue of slavery and the injustice of the wizard’s use of magic to take over a land to which he had no birthright.

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To determine who is savage and who is civilized in this play, it is first necessary to come up with a definition of "savage" and "civilized" that can be applied universally to all the characters in the play. Shakespeare often found civilized behavior to be merciful, compassionate, honest, and just, whereas he condemned mercilessness, cruelty, treachery, and unfairness.

Categorizing characters as civilized or savage based on these character traits will present some problems, so let us begin with characters who are easier to slot into one category or another:

Civilized: Miranda, Ferdinand, and Ariel would fall fairly clearly into this category. All three are basically merciful, compassionate, honest, and just. Ariel engages in some deceptive and manipulative behavior, but this is because he is controlled by Prospero.

Savage: Antonio, Prospero's treacherous and unrepentant brother, Sebastian, and Stephano are clearly treacherous, merciless, cruel (or willing to be cruel) and unjust characters.

Prospero, Alonso, and Caliban are problematic characters. Prospero redeems himself at the end of the play by his acts of mercy and forgiveness, but we cannot forget that he learned everything he needed to survive from Caliban. He then enslaved him, which Caliban rightly sees as treachery. Prospero also engages in a good deal of unkind and manipulative behavior before his turn to compassion at the end.

Likewise, we can feel compassion for Caliban because Prospero has enslaved him and treats him unkindly. On the other hand, Caliban does want to rape Miranda and tries to involve Stephano and Trinculo in a treacherous plot to kill Prospero and rape Miranda.

Alonso participates in treachery against Prospero but then repents and asks for forgiveness, showing his civilized side.

We read Shakespeare because he creates problematic characters who, like real humans, are a mix of virtue and vice.

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I think it's safe to say that Caliban is savage because, according to Prospero, he tries to rape Miranda.

You can make the case, as some have, that no one in the story is savage because to do so would assume that one group is superior to another in the story. This raises some serious questions that pertain to colonialism. Montaigne insisted, for example, that the native American indians he read about were far superior to the crooked European cultures he knew of.

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Savage and civilized are words that are often used when discussing what began as Hegel's self/other concept. He posed the idea that we separate ourselves into two groups, the Self, the known, the civilized, and the Other, the unknown, the savage. This idea is typically used when discussing colonialism, and is thus appropriate when discussing the Tempest, by William Shakespeare. The island in this play turns civilized people savage and visa versa. It is important to determine what characters start off as civilized or savage, and how they change.

As far as Ariel and Caliban are concerned, one way of determining who is civilized, is by who is 'loftier'. "Ariel" means "of the air" and thus has an elevated (civilized) status. Caliban sleeps on the ground (savage).

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