Racial Differences in The Tempest
The Tempest is a classic example of Shakespeare’s dichotomized notions of right and wrong within the context of racial inherencies, a social commentary of the colonialism of the New World. An important theme in the play is the racial differentiation between Caliban and the other antagonists, primarily, Prospero, who comes to the island and enslaves Caliban to enforce his own rule. This relationship, as portrayed through the play, is a reflection of the historical social and racial tensions that existed between the colonizers of New Europe and the Native Americans and is illustrated through the language employed by Shakespeare and the interactions that take place between the characters. The Tempest sets a template to describe the hierarchy of society and the subsequent construction of racial differences, which continue to be evident in modern society, ultimately reinforcing the Shakespearean outline for social construct exemplified by The Tempest. Both the linguistic meanings inherent in his very name and the subsequent characterization serve as the most immediate and obvious strategy employed in the dehumanization of Caliban. The name Caliban itself is worthy of attention because it draws parallels to the word cannibal, implying barbaric, inhumane, and savage behavior. Shakespeare continues with this negative portrayal of Caliban through the physical depiction as given by Prospero: “A freckled whelp, hag-born -not honored with A human shape.” (24) This initial description of Caliban creates an image in the mind of the reader of an animal like creature that is inferior and unworthy. The dehumanization of Caliban is further propagated by the questioning of his morality which is brought into reference by his attempted rape of Miranda, Prospero’s daughter. Prospero initially served as a caring teacher until Caliban defied him: “I have used thee, Filth as thou art, with humane care, and lodged thee In mine own cell, till though didst seek to violate The honor of my child.” (26) Prospero is given the position of being a benevolent, superior ruler who attempts to teach Caliban the values and ways of humanity with the assistance of his daughter, but his attempted violation of Miranda is seen as his inherent beastly nature that is ruled only by desire and natural instinct instead of the values and morals held by the civilized. Miranda’s words prove to be essential in portraying Caliban as a subhuman creature being of a savage nature, lacking a civilized means for communication:
I pitied thee,
Took pains to make thee speak, taught the each hour
One thing or other. When thou didst not, savage,
Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish, I endowed thy purposes
With words that made them know. But thy vile race,
Though thou didsnt learn, had that in’t which good natures Could not abide to be with; (26)
Prospero and the superiority of his civilized ways are unable to be impressed upon this inherently inferior creature. This inherent evil and inhumanity of Caliban is once again verified by Prospero later in the play when he says, “A devil, a born devil, on who nature Nurture can never stick” (71). Shakespeare plays on both the morality of the characters in terms of the evil that lurks within and the apparent physical depiction to dehumanize and differentiate the European selves and the non-white racial others.
Similarly, The Tempest can be seen as a reflection of the European colonialism of the New World which was taking place during the time in which Shakespeare wrote play. The uninhabited island that Prospero takes refuge on with his daughter Miranda is seen as a mirror of the New World, also known as the America’s, and the slaves of Prospero, mainly Caliban, is seen as a parallel to the Native Americans of the New World. Within this geographical and historical context, it is easy to analyze the dynamics of the relationships between...
Cited: Graff, Geral, and James Phelan. The Tempest: A Case Study in Critical Controversy. By Willam Shakespeare. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000
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