Good Colonialism And The Subjugation Of Caliban In The Tempest Argumentative Essay Example
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Analyzed form a neo-colonial perspective, the character of Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest has been seen as a vindictive and evil monster, who deserves to be punished and enslaved. Alternatively, more recent interpretations portray Caliban as an exploited and dispossessed victim of imperial slavery. This essay will focus on Shakespeare’s depictions of Calibon and Prospero’s relationship and the ways he may have suggested that that Prospero was in fact an oppressive slave master, and not an enlightened ruler. The historical context, general knowledge and sources that Shakespeare may have used as an inspiration for The Tempest show that he was aware that Europeans were exploring distant lands and encountering new people. Finally a new movie adaptation sheds more light on the evolving interpretations of the role of Caliban, supporting the conclusion that Prospero was a tyrant, and Caliban a victim of colonial oppression.
In The Tempest, Prospero and Caliban have a complex relationship. At one point they were friendly, Caliban taught Prospero and Miranda how to survive on the island. Prospero “civilized” Caliban by teaching him to speak. However, the relationship deteriorated, Prospero enslaved Caliban and they became enemies. Prospero considers Caliban a incorrigible monster. Caliban sees Prospero as an interloper who has invaded his territory. In many scholarly interpretations of the play, Prospero represents colonial powers, and Caliban is a colonized subject. This relationship can be seen two ways. One, Caliban is a savage, fit only for slavery, and Prospero is an enlightened and benevolent ruler who is forced to enslave him for his own good. However, Shakespeare gave Caliban some of the most clever and beautiful lines in the play, suggesting he is no ignorant savage. Instead, Caliban is an exploited and misunderstood aboriginal character oppressed by Prospero.
The Tempest was written during a time when the age of exploration had created curiosity about the new world, and Shakespeare’s audience was aware that exotic islands existed with strange native inhabitants. Caliban is a representation of a wild native, and later interpretations see him as a colonized subject of Prospero, who eventually rebels against his oppressive ruler. The same way Natives often warmly greeted Europeans, Caliban originally opened his arms to Prospero. However, the same way the colonized will rise up against the authority of a colonial empire, Caliban grows tired of Prospero’s oppression. He senses the injustice, declaring "This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother" (1.2.3).
Despite his often golden tongue, Caliban is not a very sympathetic character. He is uncivilized, rude, greedy, and yes, an attempted rapist. He is resentful of Prospero’s powers. The social dynamic between Prospero and Caliban can be seen as the justifications offered for European colonialism. Quite simply, Caliban is a savage, and needs to be civilized for his own good. The enlightened Prospero tries to help the poor savage, but ultimately realizes Caliban is a lost cause. He is not a noble savage. This relationship can be analyzed much differently from a post-colonial conflict theory lens. Like the Pilgrims, who were taught to grow corn by the native Americans, Prospero shows up to the island completely unprepared, and would have died without Caliban. Prospero wants Caliban to conform to his own ideals, and when he does not, Prospero enslaves him. Since Caliban cannot become “civilized” to Prospero standards, he is “brutish” and fit only to be a slave:
One thing or other: when thou didst not, savage, Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like A thing most brutish, I endow'd thy purposes With words that made them known. But thy vile race
Furthermore, Prospero is clearly an oppressive ruler who is a perfect model for colonial government powers. He is a bully, manipulates everyone and was betrayed by how own brother. He killed Calibans mother. This could be seen as the way colonial empires overthrow rulers when they colonize a new territory. He steals magic books from Sycorax, the same way Europeans “stole” the knowledge of science, math and astronomy from other cultures. He dabbles in sorcery, threatening to torture Caliban with it. His “magic” is a form of technology, likes guns, which are often used to dominate and exploit natives in a colonial model. Moreover, Prospero uses his books and knowledge to outwit his enemies, who are uneducated and ignorant, like native peoples encountered by European adventures. Caliban and Ariel represent two different ways that colonized societies can deal with their colonizers. Ariel is a good dependent and submissive servant, grateful to Prospero for freeing her. Caliban is revolutionary, and wants to usurp Prospero to get “his” island back.
In the epilogue, Prospero has won, but he feels guilty. He gives up magic, pardons Caliban and asks the audience for forgiveness. Throughout the play, the audience has gotten a little sick of Prospero always “winning.” He is indeed prosperous, and everything goes his way. Once he gets his kingdom back, he releases his slaves and denounces his books of magic. The colonial paternalistic master feels some sympathy for his subjects and sets them free. He leaves the island, and goes back to Milan where he belongs. The colonizer ultimately recognizes that ruling foreign lands with an iron fist is futile. If Caliban was truly the bad guy, Prospero would not have pardoned him. Another way of reading Prospero’s magnanimous behavior is he realizes the errors of his way, and has become more tolerant of “others” like Caliban.
Shakespeare usually based his plays on traditional stories. However, The Tempest may be a pastiche of different stories about rulers going to strange islands, practicing magic, and interacting with rustic unkempt natives. In “Sources of the Tempest,” Henry David Grey argues that the source for The Tempest has never been conclusively “agreed upon” by scholars (321). In particular, the Caliban conspiracy is not in any of the previous texts (Grey 322). However, Grey believes it is probably based on Italian commedia dell' arte performances, which were improvised plays featuring masked characters popular in the 16th century (Grey 322). The often featured a magician, his daughter and assorted uncivilized “rustics” (Grey 33). Furthermore, Grey believes the names of the characters were taken from books about Italian history. Other Shakespeare scholars have found antecedents in colonial travelogues. This would reinforce the theory that Shakespeare was commenting on the power struggle that occurs when explorers and governments start to infringe on inhabited territory. For example, A True Declaration of the Estate of the Colonie in Virginia was a popular pamphlet circulating around England in 1610 (Shakespeare). At the time Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, England was flooded with stories of the new world circulated by sailors and adventurers. This is evidence that Shakespeare was not just writing a fantasy tale about magic and shipwrecks, but a more geopolitical examination of the effects of global exploration and colonization.
The movie adaptation of The Tempest supports this interpretation that Shakespeare was offering a critique on the subjugation of foreign people. The setting is the colonial new world, and feature bloodthirsty Conquistadors. The film focuses on the power structure inherent in colonial relationships. Caliban is a monster, and seen as subhuman, echoing the worldview of slave masters and colonial conquerors.
Shakespeare was a popular storyteller and not a sociologist or anthropologist, and perhaps modern analysis has gone too far analyzing The Tempest through a Marxist and racial conflict lens. However, it is clear that Prospero is not an enlightened despot, but an oppressive ruler. Caliban challenges Prospero’s authority, which is natural in humans, but also a fundamental part of colonial history. For these reasons, The Tempest can be seen as a tricky play, the protagonist is actually something of a villain, and the antagonist, Caliban, a disgusting brute, offers the only beautiful lines that describe the beauty of the island: “Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not” (Shakespeare 3.2.16). Only Caliban loves the island because it truly is his land. Like all colonial powers, Prospero does not truly appreciate the territory he conquers, and eventually goes home.
Gray, Henry David. "The Sources of The Tempest." Modern Language Notes(1920): 321-330.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Ed. William Allan Neilson. New York: Scott, Foresman and company, 1914. Shakespeare Online. < http://www.shakespeare- online.com/sources/tempestsources.html >.
The Tempest. Dir. Julie Taymor. 2010.
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