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The Tempest and a Colonialist Representation

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The Tempest and a Colonialist Representation

The Tempest and a Colonialist Representation

The Tempest, most likely written in 1610-1611 and staged for the first time at the royal marriage of Princess Elizabeth around 1612, is the final play that Shakespeare’s wrote on his own. It is shrouded in the classic ambiguity that is unique to Shakespeare’s work and thus allows for multiple interpretations. For over a century, and particularly in the past twenty years, one of the more popular approaches to The Tempest is the influence of colonialism and it’s representation in Shakespeare’s last play. In 1818 the English critic, William Hazlitt, was the first to actually point out that Prospero had usurped Caliban from his position of rule on the island, therefore placing Prospero in the role of an agent of imperialism (T. Vaughan). Caliban’s character is thus identified as the European symbol of the colonized. Since Hazlitt’s first account of supposed colonialism, the theme has remained more or less a mainstream theory, albeit a slippery one.

In exploring the influence of European colonialism on the play, many critics place much of their attention on the events surrounding European colonization of the “New World” in Jamestown, Virginia that occurred around 1607. The play’s initial storm or tempest scene has early scholars paying attention to a particular incident in the British efforts to colonize the “New World.” Nine pilgrim ships and another ship called the Sea Venture, which was carrying all of the colonial officers, left England in 1609, and headed for Jamestown, Virginia. All the ships disappeared and its passengers were thought dead until they resurfaced approximately a year later in Virginia and revealed that they had wrecked off the coast of Bermuda (Skura). Both of these historical events, the colonization of North America and the consequent ship wreck, are thought to be significant influences on Shakespeare’s imagination and on The Tempest itself.

If we are to acknowledge the historical relevance of Jamestown’s colonization then we must also realize the extent to which the characters in The Tempest are influenced, much like how the events of the play resemble the reality of Jamestown and the subsequent events. Prospero is a usurped Duke of Milan, hence a European, who has escaped with his daughter and landed on a tropical, Mediterranean island. He has taken charge of this remote island and has succeeded in doing so by employing his special powers or magic, and by forcibly employing the help of the indigenous inhabitants via threats of painful force or by the use of his magic. Thus Prospero represents the European authority that exerts control over the strange non-European inhabitants, Ariel and Caliban.

Caliban, the indigenous inhabitant of the island, is presented as “a freckled whelp, hag-born” (1.2.285) monster. Frank Kermode, a prominent critic in the fifties, has described Caliban as the “core” or “ground” of the play’s representation of the uncivilized man and the reconsideration of civilized human nature. Caliban is introduced to the audience as a “savage” and “deformed slave.” He is neither man nor animal and born of a witch. He is considered to be part of nature, as Indians often are thought to be even today, and his name itself seems to be a thinly disguised play on the word cannibal (Skura). He has lived and ruled his island in relative peace and without the influence of any outsiders, until he meets Prospero and the shipwrecked nobles that invade his island. Caliban, the island native, regards himself as the rightful owner of this island who is now forced, against his will, to serve Prospero and his daughter, Miranda. He constantly complains and laments over his subjugation and unwillingly performs his tasks.

Caliban is, to many, the metaphor for the native cultures that exist in an imperialist world. There are several mentions made by Caliban that lead one to a colonial image, though not necessarily an American Indian one. Caliban resents the invasion of his island by strangers, who when they first came, “Strok’st me and made much of me,” (1.2.330) only later to enslave and confine him. In a particularly revealing exchange, Prospero scolds Caliban with “When thou didst not, savage, / Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like / A thing most brutish, I endowed thy purposes / With words that made them known” (1.2.355-58). In other words, Prospero accredits himself for teaching Caliban a language that was civilized and had a meaning that could now be understood and communicated. Caliban, in his wit, responds, “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you / For learning me your language!” (1.2.363-65). Caliban is quick to denote how uncivilized Prospero is by pointing out that Caliban has now been taught

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