Discuss the discourse of colonialism in The Tempest.

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Discuss the discourse of colonialism in The Tempest

The Tempest is a play of such ambiguity that it becomes difficult to discuss the subject of a colonialist discourse in isolation.  It becomes inextricably linked with not only power and authority, but also with illusion and reality, with redemption and regeneration.  It is through the use of language, relationships and events that the discourse unfolds, and the purpose of this essay is to set out and discuss those aspects of the play that contribute to the making of this discourse.

A colonialist discourse will of necessity involve an awareness of power and authority versus slavery and subjugation, of conquest and domination over a deliberately constructed inferior ‘other’1.  It is this inferior other that is an essential part of the colonialist discourse, that component that exists in the relationship between colonizer and colonized, that ensures the superiority of the invading force.

This superiority can only be achieved and maintained if the discourse ‘voices a demand both for order and disorder, producing a disruptive other’2.  So the other has to be seen as both inferior and disruptive, characteristics that are only too apparent in the play in the shape of Caliban.  Indeed it is the relationship between Prospero and Caliban that lies at the centre of the colonialist discourse, for while Prospero demands obedience from all his ‘subjects’ on the island, it is Caliban who becomes the true victim of colonialism.

Caliban is presented to us as the embodiment of all that is primitive and savage, the epitome of degenerate man.  He is the indigenous inhabitant of the island on which the play is enacted; this island is his birthright, a legacy from his mother Sycorax, and a fact that Prospero chooses to ignore as he assumes control of this alien land.

The relationship between the two is at first amicable and Caliban appears to have welcomed Prospero and his appearance of care and concern; ‘When thou cam’st first | Thou strok’st me and made much of me’3.  This so-called savage recalls how “then I loved thee | And showed thee all the qualities o’th ‘isle”4

It is only after his attempted rape of Miranda that the relationship breaks down, resulting in his enslavement and consequent disruptive behaviour, as he plots with Stephano and Trincolo to kill his master.  He has now become ‘A devil, a born devil’5 in Prospero’s eyes, but a devil ‘ on whose nature | Nurture can never stick’6.  Prospero has attempted to tame and civilize his native but has been unable to impose his European values onto an alien culture.

Caliban is now at the mercy of his master’s wishes, exploited and controlled, while at the same time arousing in Prospero fear and distrust.  This distrust is the hallmark of Western imperialism that has always regarded anything foreign as odd and threatening.  Terry Eagleton sees this attitude as the self-loathing of the West projected on to the foreign other, those feelings of cruelty, sensuality, laziness and decadence that we deny in ourselves but choose to acknowledge in others.

It is here that we have to question Prospero’s desire to punish: does he punish because he is able to; is he imposing order on disorder, or is he learning to discipline those darker parts of himself which he recognises in Caliban?  It also raises a further question concerning the dilemma of colonialism; do we civilize for the good of the other, the bringing of ‘light’ to civilization, or for our own purposes of exploitation and self-satisfaction?  It is worth remembering that initially Prospero’s chief motive for colonizing the island was to restore order and harmony to his own disordered society, to regain his dukedom.  It is only as events unfold, and Prospero finds himself unable to come to terms with Caliban’s behaviour towards his daughter, that a benign visitation turns into something more threatening.

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This element of distrust towards Caliban is mirrored in the attitudes of other characters in the play.  To Miranda he is nothing more than an ‘Abhorred slave’7, incapable of absorbing virtue, of being moulded to her design.  Stephano and Trincolo treat him as an ‘ignorant monster’8 an oddity fit only for the purposes of exhibiting, a freak and as such a fitting gift for an emperor.

Throughout these discourses Caliban responds to his adversaries with a mixture of aggression and subjugation, his language being by turns abusive and acquiescent.  He is given some of the most beautiful poetry in ...

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