The Tempest is considered one of the greatest works of William Shakespeare; the play includes various themes and Shakespeare provides insightful social observation on the relations within Britain during the Elizabethan era. The Tempest clashes disputes such as hierarchy, power, individualism and colonialism, as well as challenging the viewpoints that there is only black and white and that an individual is either good or evil. The major theme in this play is colonialism.
For the period time of Shakespeare (1600’s) many European countries were expanding their borders by taking over less developed countries, referred to as the colonies of the Americas. Though it started way before these years with the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus in the 1490’s, the play is deliberated as a postcolonial play, though which we can find out mainly due to Caliban’s protest against Prospero and his opposition to colonial power using the language taught by the colonizer.
Observing at the plot of The Tempest, there is representation of the Europeans through Prospero’s actions, he arrives at Sycorax’s island, moderates it and enforces his own culture to its people. Sycorax’s island could be seen as a symbol of America, which suffered the same obligations that the island did. As Europeans did with Americans, Prospero takes away the power from Caliban and treats him as an evil, horrid, and deformed being, a disgraceful being, who in his eyes is not even a human. Prospero said, Thou Poisonous slave, got by the devil himself, upon the wicked dam, come forth (William Shakespeare).
In 1609 a fleet of ships set out from England, sailed towards the Virginia colony. One of the ships was parted during the forceful storm and ended up on Bermuda. These shipwrecked Europeans began colonizing the island and enslaving the Native population. Shakespeare’s, The Tempest is based on this incident (British Colonial America Migration Timeline 1607 to 1783 (National Institute)) Virginia was the first territory to be colonized in America, Sycorax’s island was a representation of Virginia. Prospero, Caliban, Ariel and Miranda characterized the colonizers and the colonized correspondingly. Prospero is an European who has taken charge of a remote island (he lost his dukeness of Milan), being able to do so because of his strong magic powers. With these powers, he sorts out a life for himself and gets local citizens (Ariel and Caliban) to work for him, and sustains his control by a combination of threats, spells and enchantments. He promises and assures them freedom someday. By taking responsibility of a place which is not his by applying his European power over the strange non-European creatures, Prospero can be seen as an evident symbol of post colonialism. Caliban, a Native of the island, regards himself as the rightful owner the place. Caliban states, This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother, which thou takest from me. He is forced against his will to serve Prospero and Miranda. Prospero extends to Caliban his European hospitality, teaches him language and in return is to show all the natural resources of the island by Caliban.
The Tempest explores the complex and problematic relationship between the European colonizer and the Native colonized individuals through the relationship between Prospero and Caliban. Prospero views Caliban as a lesser being than himself. As such, Prospero considers that Caliban should be appreciative to him for educating Caliban and lifting him out of “savagery.” It simply does not occur to Prospero that he has taken rulership of the island from Caliban, because Prospero cannot imagine Caliban as being fit to rule anything. In difference, Caliban soon becomes conscious that Prospero views him as a second-class citizen fit only to serve and that by giving up his rulership of the island in return for his education, he has allowed himself to be robbed. As a result, Caliban turns bitter and violent, which only reinforces Prospero’s view of him as a “savage.” Shakespeare uses Prospero and Caliban’s relationship to show how the misunderstandings between the colonizer and the colonized lead to hatred and conflict, with each side thinking that the other is at fault.
In addition to the relationship between the colonizer and colonized, The Tempest also explores the fears and opportunities that colonization constructs. Introduction to new and different people leads to racism and intolerance, as seen when Sebastian criticizes Alonso for allowing his daughter to marry an African. Exploration and colonization led directly to slavery and the conquering of Native people. For instance, Stephano and Trinculo both consider seizing Caliban to sell as a curiosity back at home, while Stephano eventually commences to see himself as a probable king of the island. At the same time, the expanded territories established by colonization created new places in which to experiment with alternative societies. Shakespeare conveys this idea in Gonzalo’s musings about the perfect civilization he would establish if he could acquire a territory of his own.
British Colonial America Migration Timeline 1607 to 1783 (National Institute). FamilySearch Blog, Family Search, 14 July 2014, 18:57, www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/British_Colonial_America_Migration_Timeline_1607_to_1783_(National_Institute).
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. T. Nelson & Sons, 1998.