Shakespeares 'The Tempest' as a Study of Colonialism.

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The Tempest as a Study of Colonialism

particularly relevant political issues. that Prospero had usurped Caliban from his rule of the island and was thus an agent of imperialism. Since then such an approach to the play (with various modifications) has remained more or less current.

This approach to The Tempest also begins with some obvious features of the play. Prospero is a European who has taken charge of a remote island. He has been able to do this because he brings with him special powers. With these he organizes a life for himself, gets the local inhabitants (Ariel and Caliban) to work for him, and maintains his control by a combination of painful force or threats of force, wonderful spells, and promises of freedom some day. In taking charge of a place which is not his and in exerting his European authority over the strange non-European creatures, compelling them to serve him and his values, Prospero, so the argument runs, is obviously a symbol for European colonial power, with which England was growing increasingly familiar during Shakespeare's lifetime. The key figure in this treatment of the play naturally is Caliban, the island native who regards himself as the rightful owner of the place, who is forced against his will to serve Prospero and Miranda, and who constantly proclaims his unwillingness to do so. Initially, Prospero extends to Caliban his European hospitality, teaches him language, and, in return, is shown all the natural resources of the island by Caliban, in an act of love. But Caliban refuses to live by Prospero's rules, tries to rape Miranda (he still wants to), and their relationship changes to one of master and slave. The gift of language, Caliban now says, is good only because it enables him to curse. Prospero may control Caliban (with painful torments), but he has not vanquished his resistance.

For Prospero, the main problem with Caliban is that he is incapable of being educated (although Caliban's command of beautiful poetry might make us wonder about that). He is thus (for Prospero) some lower life form (like a native of Ireland, for example, many of whom were in Shakespeare's day not considered fully human): deformed, evil smelling, treacherous, rapacious, and violent. Unlike Ferdinand, who is a suitable lover for Miranda because he can discipline himself to work to earn her, Caliban has no restraint. Hence, Prospero feels himself morally entitled to exercise his control over him; indeed, the safety and security of his and Miranda's life depend upon such enforced obedience (as Prospero says, they need Caliban's labour to survive).

There is obviously much here one might point to as an allegory on European colonial or capitalist practices. One might well argue that the presentation of Caliban is itself a very European perception of alien New World cultures, and thus Prospero's moral authority rests on a complete inability to see the natives as fully cultured human beings, in other words, on his European mind set, which automatically labels those different from Europeans as ugly, uncivilized, and threatening "others." The gift of language is not a gift but an imposition, a common means of enforcing colonial rule on recalcitrant subjects.

the actor playing Caliban had the two halves of his face made up in different ways: one side was that of a noble-looking Native American; the other side was that of a grotesque ape-like man. Depending upon which way the actor turned, the audience's perception of the character changed entirely. This theatrical device obviously invited the audience to consider the importance of cultural perceptions in our evaluative judgments in dealing with people from "primitive" non-Europeanized societies].

If we pursue such a political basis for the allegory, can we come to any conclusions about Shakespeare's vision of colonial practices? What, if anything, is the play offering as a vision of European imperialism? For me, the emotional logic of the action suggests that Shakespeare is offering a defense of colonial practices which he then undermines. Caliban may, indeed, offend every European moral principle, but in some ways he is more intelligent and more open than some of the Europeans (like the drunken idiots Stephano and Trinculo and the deceitful murderous conspirators). He may resist Prospero's authority, but that authority is something we can call into question, especially by looking closely at the way it is enforced. In his renunciation of magic and return to Europe, Prospero would appear to be finally conceding that continuing on the island is wrong. Significantly, among his last words is the potentially pregnant comment (about Caliban) "This thing of darkness I/ Acknowledge mine." If this means, as it might, some recognition of a bond between Prospero and Caliban, then Prospero's leaving the island to Caliban and renouncing his magic (the source of his power) would seem to be a tacit apology for the master-slave basis for their earlier relationship which Prospero enforced.

That said, however, there are one or two interesting problems which such a political interpretation of the play (which I have not had time to present fairly) generally has some trouble with. In the first place, it requires us to see Caliban as representative of an oppressed culture or class (either a Native American Indian or an Irish peasant or a member of the proletariat). Yet he is the only one of his kind (that is made very clear to us), and is a relatively recent arrival there. He has no culture matrix, no family, and no cultural history. So I'm not sure that the image of cultural oppression is particularly clear.

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Consider, for example, the key issue of language. In this play, it's not the case that the Europeans forced Caliban to forget his language and learn theirs. Before they came Caliban had no language at all. This is surely a key point. One can imagine how very different the impact of this play would be if Caliban had some other island natives with him and if they shared their own language and customs, which Prospero then forcibly suppressed. Then the issues of cultural oppression would be irresistibly there. As it stands, making Caliban the representative of a native culture would ...

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