English Imperialism and Representations of the New World and Its Indigenous People in William Shakespeare’s the Tempest

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Conan Kmiecik
Professor Carducci
Eng 607
30 April 2007
English Imperialism and Representations of the New World and its Indigenous People in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest
In William Shakespeare’s The Tempest Prospero, an exiled Naples duke, and his daughter, Miranda, are marooned on a remote island with the lone indigenous[1] inhabitant, a beast man named Caliban. Through his sorcery Prospero is able to enslave Caliban, the indigene, who toils for the benefit of Prospero and Miranda, the usurping colonial powers. While it is unclear if Shakespeare intended The Tempest to mirror English imperialism during the late 16th and 17th century, there are many congruencies between events in the play and events around the time of the play’s first performance in 1611. To begin with, in order to analyze these congruencies a brief overview of England’s New World[2] exploration and colonization is necessary. Next, Gonzalo’s interest in the island and his “plantation” scheme illustrate the English imperial yearning for the New World. In addition, the first exchange between Caliban and Prospero encapsulate the conflicts of indigenous people and the colonizers in an imperial relationship. Finally, the question remains if Caliban represents specifically Native Americans or broadly represents subjugated indigenous people by English colonization. Shakespeare’s The Tempest metaphorically represents English imperialism and encapsulates English sentiments towards the New World during the time of its cultural production. During the life of Shakespeare, especially around the time of the first performance of The Tempest, Europe engaged in imperialistic activities throughout the New World. In addition, during Shakespeare’s lifetime, England’s imperialistic activities would play a larger role in the country’s interests and developments. In Alden T. Vaughan article “People of Wonder: England Encounters the New World’s Native,” Vaughan describes how English perceptions of the Native Americans developed over the course of the 16th century. The English, while interested in the New World, did not play an active role in its initial exploration: “English people in the Tudor era lagged noticeably behind other Europeans in learning about the Americas. For nearly a century, English interest in the New World was surprisingly tangential, more a matter of curiosity than of conquest and based primarily on foreign rather than on English observation” (Vaughan, “People,” 13). For a majority of the 16th century the English received second hand accounts (writings and illustrations) of the New World. However, the English did make limited forays into developing first hand knowledge of the New World. Vaughan states, “The first document contact between the English and the Indians occurred in about 1502, when Sebastian Cabot…brought back [three men taken from Newfoundland]” (“People,” 14), but he continues, “Not until 1530, apparently, were other Indians brought to England, and not until 1553 did an English publisher issue a book with appreciable attention to America’s inhabitants” (“People,” 14). While slow to capitalize on exploring and colonizing the New World, the English “[became] actively involved in the exploration and conquest of the [Americas] and its peoples. Thereafter, England’s image of American natives reflected uniquely English experiences and expectations” (Vaughan, “People,” 13). One of the significant imperialist ventures around the time Shakespeare wrote The Tempest was the Jamestown colony. The English founded Jamestown in 1607, four years prior to the first performance of The Tempest. While a contemporary critic can only speculate the extent which the New World tantalized and influenced the English during this time, it must have had some sway on the popular imagination of English society, including Shakespeare’s. In The Tempest, the character Gonzalo demonstrates an interest with the pristine island setting that...
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