The Tempest and Colonialism

Topics: The Tempest, Moons of Uranus, Colonialism Pages: 6 (1635 words) Published: November 20, 2013

There is much in the topical dressing of The Tempest which relates it to the colonial adventure of the plantation of Virginia and with the exotic Bermudas. Critical opinion has varied as to whether The Tempest is closely related to colonialism as undertaken in the Jacobean period; E.E. Stoll wrote in 1927 that ‘There is not a word in The Tempest about America… Nothing but the Bermudas, once barely mentioned as faraway places.’ On Stoll’s side we can say that the action takes place somewhere between Tunis and Naples, presumably therefore in the Mediterranean, and that the characters who are shipwrecked are returning from Tunis after a wedding, not in the least intending to set foot upon, let alone settle or conquer, uncivilised lands.

Against this, we must say that The Tempest participates in a contemporary cultural excitement about the voyages to that Americas and the exotic riches of remote places. There are traces in The Tempest of a number of colonial and Bermuda voyage narratives, such as Sylvester Jourdan’s ‘Discovery of the Bermudas’ (1610)1, The Council of Virginia’s ‘True Declaration of the state of the Colonie in Virginia’ (1610), a letter by William Strachey which circulated under the title ‘True Reportory of the Wrack’, but was not published until 1625, and stories collected by Samuel Purchas in Purchas his Pilgrimage (1613). Caliban’s god Setebos is reported from Magellan’s voyage as being a Patagonian deity.

There is little doubt that the extraordinary shipwreck of some would-be Virginian colonists on the Bermudas flavours Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Shakespeare’s patrons the Earls of Southampton and Pembroke were investors in the Virginia Company. The Essex group at court supported a Protestant-expansionist foreign policy which did not suit King James, who was anxious not to antagonise Spain. Relations with Spain were one of the main reasons that James executed the Elizabethan imperial hero Sir Walter Ralegh, who championed the settlement of Guiana. If the general romance of the sea voyage enters into The Tempest, as it does in Pericles, this alone does not permit a view of the play as ‘about’ colonialism. The chief focus of a post-colonial investigation of The Tempest is through the character of Caliban, seen not as the ‘deformed slave’ of the dramatis personae but as a native of the island over whom Prospero has imposed a form of colonial domination2.

Caliban’s second speech states this case as clearly as could be wished. On being summoned from his ‘sty’ by Prospero he responds with curses and proceeds to give his view of their interaction: I must eat my dinner. This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,

Which thou tak’st from me. 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, and how the less,
That burn by day and night: and then I lov’d thee
And show’d thee all the qualities o’ th’isle,
The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and feretile:
Curs’d be I that that did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own King: and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o’th’island. (1:2:332-346)

We have already seen Prospero bullying his other servant, the spirit Ariel, into compliance with his wishes (1:2:240-300). Prospero’s dominance seems here on the edge of collapse, held in place by threats and the exercise of continual vigilance. He seems a man set uneasily at the apex of mutinous and unstable forces. As the Boatswain has already made clear (although he does not know that Prospero has created the storm) the bases of authority are under question in The Tempest:

What cares these roarers for the name of King ? (1:1:16-17)

Caliban’s narrative of...
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