The Tempest Conquering Islands: Contextualizing The Tempest
by William Shakespeare

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Conquering Islands: Contextualizing The Tempest

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Barbara Fuchs, Stanford University

It is an axiom of contemporary criticism that The Tempest is a play about the European colonial experience in America. While this perspective has generated enormously enriched readings of the play, it runs the risk of obscuring the complicated nuances of colonial discourses in the early seventeenth century. When is America not America? When it is Ireland, or North Africa, or Europe itself, or the no-man's-land (really every man's desired land) of the Mediterranean in-between. Just as the formal literary elements of a text—metaphors, puns, patterns—may signify in multiple ways, context, too, may be polysemous. By exploring other contexts for the insistent colonial concerns of Shakespeare's island play, I hope to show how a multiple historical interpretation can unpack the condensed layers of colonialist ideology. This type of reading depends not only on recent Tempest criticism—what one might call the American readings—but on studies of England's colonial role in Ireland. My aim is, first, to provide descriptions of the contemporary colonial contexts in both Ireland and the Mediterranean, which I believe shed light on the play, and, second, to suggest the advantages for political criticism of considering all relevant colonial contexts simultaneously. If, as I will argue, the superimposition of those contexts on the play reflects the way colonialist ideology is "quoted" from one contact zone to another in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, criticism that attempts to trace that ideology will gain from identifying precisely such layering of referents.1

My purpose in this essay is not to refute American readings of The Tempest; I agree with Peter Hulme that placing New World colonialism at the center of the play has made it a fundamentally more interesting and, at least for twentieth-century readers, a more relevant text.2 Instead, by highlighting the historical and political dimensions of the contemporary Mediterranean world and England's colonial experience in Ireland, I hope to continue to historicize the colonialist discourse that American readings first brought to the fore. Even in highly suggestive and politically sophisticated readings of The Tempest, the Mediterranean often equals the literary, the Aeneid, the essentially European, functioning largely as a background to American newes3—what Hulme calls the first layer of a textual palimpsest.4 The new transatlantic colonial discourse works itself out against this background of the Aeneid and classical Mediterranean travels. Yet this critical privileging of America as the primary context of colonialism for the play obscures the very real presence of the Ottoman threat in the Mediterranean in the early seventeenth-century and elides the violent English colonial adventures in Ireland, which paved the way for plantation in Virginia.

Although twentieth-century historians can speak of the Ottoman Empire in the early seventeenth century as having "passed its peak,"5 such a perspective was hardly available, as Samuel Chew points out, to contemporary observers of Islam's might.6 As I hope to show, the sense of an Eastern empire encroaching on Europe pervades Shakespeare's play, making the European "center" of the text simultaneously the origin of colonial adventure and the target of another empire's expansionism. The general absence of Ireland from discussions of colonialism in the play is troubling, particularly since the devastation of a native population and its culture was more deliberate and vicious in England's first plantation than in its later ventures in Virginia. As Paul Brown has suggested, there are strong analogies between Prospero's island and Elizabethan Ireland, which locate them both "between American and European discourse."7

The Irish are the niggers of Europe, lads.
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(The entire section is 9,209 words.)