What is a post-colonial criticism of The Tempest?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Many of the most penetrating analyses of The Tempest have been provided by post-colonialist readings. Though they inevitably differ in their conclusions, their approaches are largely similar. Uppermost of these is the interpretation of Prospero as a European colonialist. After his unceremonious banishment from Milan, Prospero winds up on a...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Many of the most penetrating analyses of The Tempest have been provided by post-colonialist readings. Though they inevitably differ in their conclusions, their approaches are largely similar. Uppermost of these is the interpretation of Prospero as a European colonialist. After his unceremonious banishment from Milan, Prospero winds up on a remote desert island. It doesn't belong to him, but like the colonialist he is, he proceeds to take it anyway, setting himself up as lord and master of what is now his domain.

Having established ownership of the island, Prospero lords it over the indigenous population, which in this case would be Caliban and Ariel. In keeping with his colonialist perspective, Prospero thinks he's done the natives a favor by bringing them the benefits of Western civilization. In The Tempest, this amounts to Prospero's freeing Ariel from his imprisonment in a tree by the evil sorceress Sycorax. In a post-colonialist reading, this could been interpreted as the white man "disabusing" indigenous peoples of their "superstitions" only to replace them with colonial subjection. The most obvious example of this comes in Prospero's generally appalling treatment of Caliban; he treats him as little more than a slave.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Post-colonial criticism of this play would focus on the themes of geographical exploration and settlement. This is particularly relevant to this text as it was written in a time of notable voyages of discovery and conquest undertaken by English and other European seafarers such as Sir Walter Raleigh, and settlement of English colonies abroad, most notably in the Americas. In time this would become a fully-fledged empire covering a quarter of the globe.

According to such a reading Prospero is a leading colonist, while Caliban, in his ugliness and surliness, represents the native races often enslaved by European conquerors, who regarded them as inferior and sometimes even subhuman,and often labelled them savages. However,Caliban is also seen to exhibit the more positive traits that those supposedly lowly races were sometimes thought to have, in being simpler and closer to nature than the overbearing Europeans. This fits in with the idea of the 'Noble Savage', free from the taints and artificialities of European civilisation, popularised later by such figures as the eighteenth-century French writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team