CSEC English B: The Tempest Revision Notes- Colonialism

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

If you live in the Caribbean, or any country other than the European superpowers for that matter (actually, even if you live within those countries), you are intimately familiar with colonialism. Whether spoon-fed to you through History and Social Studies syllabi or plastered across the halls of museums, you have encountered this concept several times, and may have even formulated your own opinions on it. Well, good news: here it is again. Whether or not you recognized colonialist ideas in The Tempest or not, it's definitely there (and has been the focus of much analysis in the centuries following Shakespeare's drop), and hopefully by the end of this post, you'll be an expert on commenting on colonialism and New World parallels in an allegorical interpretation of The Tempest.

Colonialism is the political-economic phenomenon by which one country acquired control over another country or people through the establishment of colonies, usually with the aim of economic exploitation and dominance. The 'exploitation' aspect of colonialism is the aspect we are most familiar with, wherein explorers from European countries invaded New World and other less advanced countries to claim dominance of the resources and its people, usually through several stages of initial hospitality, indoctrination and then subjugation. (With that introduction, you may be coming up with example of colonialism from the text)

Colonialism in the Play

The parallels that the play has with the typical progression of colonial occupation are surprisingly vast. Prospero and Miranda, Europeans by origin, arrive on the island 12 years prior to the events of the play. Like the colonial conquerors of the 15th and 16th centuries, they arrived with a superior technology or method through which subjugation could occur- Prospero's magic. Just like the technological advancements which were so aggressively weaponized by explorers for oppression of natives, Prospero's magic can be used to paralyse, riddle with aches and even modify mental states in those he targets.

Following their arrival, as we are made aware by a bitter Caliban, Prospero had treated the islander there with kindness:

"When thou cam'st first, thou strok'st me and made much of me, would'st give me water with berries in't and teach me how to name the bigger light."

Caliban matched his visitor's kindness with his own, acting as a hospitable host that showed him the island:

"And then loved thee, and showed thee all the qualities o'th isle. Cursed be I that did so."

In a similar vein, colonizers would initially seek the kindness and instruction of the natives of the lands they colonized to learn how to survive in the new environment as well as find the aspects of the environment most suitable for exploitation. Prospero's initial kindness followed by a sudden switch to enslaving the sole inhabitant of the island is highly reminiscent of the subjugation carried out by colonizers (Encomienda system for all those History nerds? [although admittedly, there is no religious aspect to Prospero's rule])

Prospero, as was common among colonizers, attempted to impart his own culture and language onto the native Caliban, extending a gentleness towards the native in hopes of educating or "westernizing" the aborigine:

"I have used thee

(Filth as thou art) with humane care and lodged thee

In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate

The honour of my child."

However, this initial apparent benevolent intention soon loses steam, as Prospero is made aware of Caliban's immutably depraved nature- and the native's only profit on being taught this language is his newfound ability to curse.

Caliban's attempted rape of Miranda is construed as the 'tipping point' at which Prospero condemned the islander to a cave and enslaved him as punishment. While this retribution for assault is normal in the eyes of society due to developed laws and social moral practices, to Caliban, the uncivilized, unkempt bestial man of medieval lore, such civilized pretexts and ethical considerations are of no meaning to him. He does not regret what he has done because he has no way of understanding what is inherently wrong with seeking to reproduce- a strange conception for the civilized, but understandable when considered against the background of an uncivilized man living on an island for his entire life. In this light, then, it is more cruel for Prospero to condemn this "freckled whelp" to slavery for a crime which the perpetrator himself does not understand, than for Caliban to unknowingly violate the customs of a world he has not yet seen in any capacity. Interestingly enough, Propsero's presence on the island is the sole grounds for Prospero's expectation of Caliban's compliance with his standards and wishes. The islander's unchecked lust and primitive religion are regarded as evil by the European visitors, but still, they depend on his service for survival.

Like colonial systems wherein the native inhabitants are used for labour, Caliban is forced into servitude by Prospero, apparently for his 'crime,' but with no set date of termination (strikingly similar to the situation that exits with Ariel). He fetches them wood and fishes for them, becoming an essential tool for their survival- completing those tasks which Prospero may have deemed too low for him (a duke, by right) and his noble-born daughter. Prospero's magic becomes like a whip that threatens pain and suffering for Caliban's every slightest deviance from complete obedience, promising "old cramps" and bones filled with aches to discipline him.

In his relationship with both his servants, Prospero is like the colonialist master; brandishing the whip of magic and elemental mastery to maintain the compliance of those he holds as servants.

Ariel, Caliban's foil in many respects, exhibits an enthusiasm and willing deference to Prospero almost completely absent in Caliban's interaction with the magus. In this way, either servant represents two alternative views of servitude- one, a willing servant who respects his master and seems to garner a mutual affection with him, and the other, a reluctant slave whose palpable resentment frustrates his master and begets punishment manifold. Ariel's first address of Prospero expresses his enthusiasm and alacrity of service (compared to Caliban's initial lines, a slew of curses):

"All hail, great master, grave sir, hail! I come to answer thy best pleasure... to thy strong bidding, task Ariel and all his quality."

Ariel still desires freedom, though reminding Prospero of that which was "promised which is not yet performed [him]." This reminder is much to the chagrin of his master, who threatens him with the same thralldom from which he was freed if he murmured further.

However, Prospero's relation with his servants and the nature of his arrival are not the only allusions to colonialism incorporated by Shakespeare into The Tempest. Other aspects of dialogue and inter-character interactions also can be analyzed with their colonial connotations in mind.

Caliban's encounter with Stephano is akin to the encounters between explorers and natives of colonial times. The clueless Caliban believes Stephano to be a god, similar to the godlike status given by natives of old to their Old World visitors. He is entranced by the 'celestial liquor' carried by the drunken butler, an ethereal concept then unfamiliar to him like the strange technology carried by explorers. The condescending kindness shown by Trinculo and Stephano begets the "monster's" promise of service and hospitality, similar to that given to Prospero.

Most interestingly, Caliban's interactions with Stephano reveal the depth of his hatred and desire for freedom from Prospero. He yearns for the downfall of the 'tyrant' he serves:

"A plague upon the tyrant that I serve!

I'll bear him no more sticks but follow thee,

Thou wondrous man."

This bit of dialogue indicates his dissatisfaction with his current situation. He hates being subjected by Prospero- but, paradoxically, throws himself into the subservience beneath another master. This contradictory course of action seems to be a comment on the tendency of natives to be led, some form of 'dependency syndrome' developed by Caliban over prolonged servitude.

"As I told thee before, I am subject to a tyrant,

A sorcerer, that by his cunning hath

Cheated me of the island."

He is convinced that he has been 'cheated' of the island, and it is this sentiment that drives him into servitude of a new master to guarantee the downfall of Prospero.

Dramatic Techniques Portraying Colonialism


"As I told thee before, I am subject to a tyrant,

A sorcerer, that by his cunning hath

Cheated me of the island."

Caliban believes he has been cheated of the island that is his birthright by the newcomer Prospero, and refers to him as a tyrant, forcing him into slavery.

"All hail, great master, grave sir, hail! I come to answer thy best pleasure... to thy strong bidding, task Ariel and all his quality."

This line shows Ariel's alternative approach to service- enthusiastic and deferential.

"When thou cam'st first, thou strok'st