Analyzing the Tempest through the eyes of imperialism reveals an underlying, separate narrative that manifests a form of social apology from Shakespeare. When gazing through this lens, it becomes evident that many of the characters and locations are in fact symbols embodying key components of colonization. Take Prospero for example.
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He portrays the role of a European invader who comes to rule a foreign, primitive land enshrined in an atmosphere of mysticism. He achieves this outcome through the exploitation of his relatively superior knowledge over the natives, the most notable of which is Caliban, and coerces them into doing his bidding.
Shakespeare, shortly before writing The Tempest, read a contemporary travel account depicting the 1609 Virginia Company’s new world exploration circa Bermuda. This source of information, which would have been readily available to Shakespeare, would be instrumental in shaping the plot of the play as well as providing an explanation as to why the topic of imperialism was being discussed in 1611. Colonization holds a general significance as there exists harmful, lasting social and geopolitical effects seen today, as well as promoting avarice and greed, cruelty, and engendering a cultural superiority view as demonstrated by the colonizers in The Tempest.
Shakespeare demonstrates the corrosive effects of imperialism by generating an atmosphere inscribed in avarice and greed. The chief example of this can be seen through the interactions between Antonio and Prospero. Antonio betrays Prospero with his taking control over the government. Prospero is shocked, stating My brother and thy uncle, call’d Antonio “ I pray thee, mark me “ that a brother should be so perfidious (1.2.4).
With the introduction of the element of colonization, greed becomes the driving force behind the motivations of many of the characters. Even a familial relationship is tarnished in the wake of greed. He thinks me now incapable; confederates –/So dry he was for sway “ wi’ the King of Naples/To give him annual tribute, do him homage(1.2.5). Without regard for the consequences of the other people of Milan, Antonio forces Milan to become subservient to Naples.
In this case, greed comes in the form of a power hungry man. As prospero laments regarding this situation, the reader is reminded of the irony involved in this series of events. He refers to the island as his. This attitude underlines a key issue with imperialism. Prospero enslaved and colonized a foreign land and its inhabitants. Despite doing the same thing to others, he subsequently decries the invasion of his newfound paradise by Antonio. This is further enhanced as the role a shipwreck plays into the introduction of the interlopers into his world.
It is inevitable that, through the process and enforcement of imperialism, some form of cruelty will present itself. A typical median for this to occur is through the enslavement of a group of people, and enslavement does produce itself in Prospero’s domain. Caliban is assaulted with pinches and cramps by the Grand Wizard to keep him under control, and he restrains with fetters the young prince Ferdinand’s neck and feet together (2.2.3-4). These actions demonstrate the unnatural relationship between captor and unwilling subservient. Magic is seen as unnatural or supernatural, and its use as a forceful restraint can be likened to that of shackles.
Further analyzing this, it can be stated that the shackles that hold a slave are both physical and imaginary as thoughts or beliefs. Shakespeare utilizes this double meaning to subliminally criticize beliefs and ways of thinking that promote enslavement. As seen throughout history, violence only begets violence. This is clearly illustrated in the Tempest. This unnatural relationship brews a growing, festering resentment towards Caliban’s overlord.
This eventually leads to the spawn of Sycorax calling upon nature to castigate his tormentor. He calls for “all the infections that the sun sucks up/From bogs, fens, flats on Prospero fall.” (2.2.1-2). Retaliation may be justified, but no such measure would be required absent the presence of a foreign entity in one’s native homeland. A clear example of what the novel says about colonization is depicted in Prospero’s direct threats towards Caliban.
To prephase, he refuses a command to retrieve sticks in order to build a fire. Prospero bluntly tells Caliban If thou neglect or dost unwillingly What I command, I’ll rack thee with old cramps,Fill all thy bones with aches, make thee roar That beasts shall tremble at thy din (1.2.17). Prospero willingness to utilize magic for cruel purposes reminds the reader of a slavemaster with a whip. His continual use of it further indicates both a lack of remorse and respect for Caligan. Shakespeare likens Prospero to a witch when he states that he will make Caliban suffer just like Ariel did at the hands of Sycorax.Thy groans / Did make wolves howl and penetrate the breasts / Of ever angry bears (1.2.16).
Racism and cultural superiority are both drivers and results of colonization. The main native of the island, Caliban, is characteristic of a great deal of typical thoughts held by European people in relation to the natives of the new world. Following these common held beliefs, Caligan represents a person without any moral restraint.
This is seen specifically in his lustful ways. He is a dangerous despoiler of virtuous white women such as Miranda. Another belief was that natives had an intimate relationship with alcohol. In the Tempest, its introduction to Caligan causes him to exclaim “Freedom, high-day” (2.1.186). This encounter led him to meet the characters of Stephano and Trinculo. Similarly to tribes who favored different colonizers based on defining aspects such as country or origin, Caliban becomes disenfranchised with Trinculo as a master and claims that he will only serve Stephano.Stephano chastises Trinculo for his maltreatment of Caliban, saying that “the poor monster’s my subject, and he shall not suffer indignity” (3.2.36-37).
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. Shakespeare’s attitude toward European colonization of the New World amounts to criticism of the non-harmful, but misguided the view Gonzalo has toward the state of nature in a primitive commonwealth. Gonzalo’s “ideal commonwealth” speech (Act II, scene i., ll.143-164), in detail, shows the depiction of the primitive society contained in the French philosopher Montaigne’s essay “On Cannibals” in which Shakespeare was certainly familiar.
In that piece, Montaigne described Native-American society as being without “traffic” (i.e., commerce), without “letters” (i.e., literacy and knowledge) and without “toil” (i.e., vocational work). But, when Gonzalo speaks in glowing terms of a society (without sovereignty) and, even more remarkable (without sweat or endeavor), Prospero’s brother, Antonio, asserts that under such conditions, the citizens would soon become idle (whores and knaves) (l.167). It is this belief that can be seen in Hakluyt’s Reasons Goyen 5.
For Colonization. In his first reason he states that one of the reasons to colonize is to spread the glory of God by planting of religion among those infidels (Hakluyt, 125). The word symbolizes a major belief that if you are not part of the European culture, or refuse to adopt it, you are inferior. This second part leads to Hakluyt’s nineteenth point.
He states If we find the country populous and desirous to expel us and injuriously to offend us, that seek but just and lawful traffic, then, by reason that we are lords of navigation and they not so, we are the better able to defend ourselves by reason of those great rivers and to annoy them in many places (Hakluyt, 125). There is a clear belief that the European travelers have the right to infringe on other nations land. Inversely, the European Nations would seldom, if ever allow natives to step foot onto their land.
In conclusion, Shakespeare issue a subtle, benign rebuke of imperialism in his last solo authored play, the Tempest. There is a general repentive tone that points out the misdeeds of many of the European colonizers. However, he does fully condemn these practices. This type of thinking, even from one of the most introspective and cognizant writers in recorded history, allowed for the continuation of such practices well into the future.
In general, the justification for colonization was held up by a culturally superior outlook of European civilization. Ultimately this mindset lead to the propagation of cruel and humanistic practices fueled by the desire for wealth and recognition. Despite colonization effectively ceasing at the end of World War 2, there are still many lingering effects today. Specifically this is represented by the African Continent, Israel, and the Indian subcontinent existing in continued states of disarray.
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