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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" (III, ii., ll.36-37). All of this closely resembles some aspects of European colonialist stereotypes of the New World's peoples and of their historical subjugation of Indians for their own good.

If Shakespeare's play does comment upon European exploration and colonization in the Western Hemisphere, however, The Tempest does not contain a critique of exploitation, but, instead, an apology for it. Caliban was initially treated as an ignorant child and only put under wraps after he attempted to force himself upon the completely innocent Miranda. The charge of "rape" is made more credible in having Miranda pass judgment upon Caliban whom she calls an "Abhorr'd slave" (I, ii., l.352). Unlike our current understanding of European colonialism, Prospero puts Caliban in chains because he has earned the status of slave. To highlight this point, the sprite Ariel's bondage to Prospero is a light yoke, akin to indentured servitude. In exchange for releasing him from his imprisonment in a tree stump, Ariel has agreed to serve his new, benevolent master Prospero. Indeed, in Act I, scene ii, Prospero and Ariel acknowledge that the latter's servitude is a deal between equals, and that Prospero has kept his word to reduce Ariel's term by a full year because the sprite has performed his assigned duties "without grudge or grumblings" (l.248). Prospero later promises Ariel that he will discharge him within two days time and does, in fact, make good on his word.

Shakespeare's attitude toward European colonization of the New World...

(The entire section is 15,249 words.)