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Colonialisation in the Tempest Part 1

Updated on January 15, 2015


The most influential playwright and poet in English literature, William Shakespeare was born allegedly on 23rd April, baptized on 26th April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon. There is great conjecture about Shakespeare's childhood years, especially regarding his education. Scholars surmise that Shakespeare attended the grammar school in Stratford. While there are no records extant to prove this claim, Shakespeare's knowledge of Latin and Classical Greek would tend to support this theory. In addition, Shakespeare's first biographer, Nicholas Rowe, wrote that John Shakespeare had placed William "for some time in a free school."

As the records do not exist, we do not know how long William may have attended the school, but the literary quality of his works suggests a solid educational foundation. What is certain is that William Shakespeare never proceeded to university schooling, which has contributed to the debate about the authorship of his works.

The next documented event in Shakespeare's life is his marriage to Anne Hathaway on November 28, 1582. William was 18 at the time, and Anne was 26—and pregnant. The couple had three children Susanna, and twins Hamnet and Judith. Anyway, it is estimated that Shakespeare arrived in London around 1588 and began to establish himself as an actor and playwright.

Shakespeare has written 38 plays in total, 16 comedies, 12 tragedies and 10 historical plays. Besides these plays he has written 4 long poems and 154 sonnets. Most of his famous dramas are written in between 1588 to 1613. The Tempest is one of the most celebrated comedies of Shakespeare, a product of his matured genius, representing the spirit of his time.

Shakespeare’s greatest strength is his ability to bring into his texts a complex nexus of views and debates which continue to resonate, and to defy resolution generations of readers and scholars. And The Tempest is not an exception in that case. It is shrouded in the classic ambiguity that is unique to Shakespeare's work and thus allows for multiple interpretations.

Now-a-days, critics are approaching The Tempest from the perspective of Marxist, feminist, or new historicist theories have seen it as a paradigm of oppression. They frequently read it as a parable of colonial expansionism in the early modern age, equating Prospero with Europeans who exploited the New World and Caliban with persecuted or enslaved Native Americans.

The Tempest, well recognized as the last play of William Shakespeare, probably written in between 1610-11, is always a favorite text among the postcolonial school of writers and critics. For over a century, and particularly in the past twenty years, one of the more popular approaches to The Tempest is the influence of colonialism and it's representation in Shakespeare's last play.

For centuries, Shakespearean critics have puzzled over the meaning and importance of this marginal character Caliban who is one of the most interesting of Shakespeare’s characters. In exploring the influence of European colonialism on the play, many critics place much of their attention on the events surrounding European colonization of the "New World" in Jamestown, Virginia that occurred around 1610.

The Tempest, being a representative play of its age, represents the spirit of his time and we find both the colonial influence and postcolonial effect in it. It also represents Shakespeare’s liberal scientific view in adopting Darwin’s theory in portraying Caliban as a missing link. I would like to through light on Prospero-Caliban, Prospero-Ariel relationship, Caliban-Trinculo, Caliban-Miranda episodes to show how these parts of The Tempest form post colonial point of view- especially on Caliban, the central figure (from the postcolonial perspective) who was not properly understood for a long time.

For many years idealist reading of Prospero presents him as an upholder of timeless moral humane values. In these readings they presented him the way in which he has been able to re-educate the shipwrecked Italians, to heal their civil war, to win over his own vengefulness by forgiving his enemies. In fact, being an Englishman, Shakespeare does not mistake to portray the real mentality and characteristics of the British people.

And on the other hand Caliban is charged for immorality, sensuality, uncivilized behavior etc. But the new postcolonial reading challenges these ideas by giving just the opposite ideas. Here Caliban stands for colonized force, anti-slavery movement, a rebellious spirit and to some extent colonized Virginia.

The English colonial project seems to be on Shakespeare’s mind throughout The Tempest, as almost every character, from lord Gonzalo to the drunken Stephano, ponders how he would rule the island on which the play is set if he were its king. Shakespeare seems also to have drawn on Montaigne’s essay “Of the Cannibals,” which was translated into English in 1903. The name of Prospero’s servant monster, Caliban, seems to be an anagram or derivative of “Cannibal.”

As the first, colonial text The Tempest is one of the most favorite to the post colonial critics for it has set the path of colonial or postcolonial pedagogy. Anyway, to understand postcolonial literature we have to understand colonialism first.


“Colonialism is a relationship between an indigenous (or forcibly imported) majority and a minority of foreign invaders. The fundamental decisions affecting the lives of the colonized people are made and implemented by the colonial rulers in pursuit of interests that are often defined in a distant metropolis. Rejecting cultural compromises with the colonized population, the colonizers are convinced of their own superiority and their ordained mandate to rule.”1

Colonialism is the establishment, exploitation, maintenance, acquisition and expansion of colonies in one territory by people from another territory. It is a set of unequal relationships between the colonial power and the colony and between the colonists and the indigenous population.

The European colonial period was the era from the 1500s to the mid-1900s when several European powers (particularly, but not exclusively, Portugal, Spain, Britain, the Netherlands and France) established colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. At first the countries followed mercantilist polices designed to strengthen the home economy at the expense of rivals, so the colonies were usually allowed to trade only with the mother country. But after some periods these super powers give up the mercantile policies and grab the political powers.

And Shakespeare’s motherland Britain was the largest empire and the most powerful colonizer. So, it is not so unusual or surprising that Shakespeare will be influenced by his age. As, The Tempest was written at the time when this colonization era was flourishing, not so surprisingly it is seen that colonialism has become one of the central themes of the play.

  1. Jurgen Osterhammel, Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview

Post-colonial Literature

Post-colonialism designates a set of theoretical approaches which focus on the direct effects and aftermaths of colonization. Post-colonialism forms a composite but powerful intellectual and critical movement which renews the perception and understanding of modern history, political economy, cultural studies and literary criticism.

Post-colonial literature, however, is a body of literary writings that reacts to the discourse of colonization. Post-colonial literature often involves writings that deal with issues of de-colonization or the political and cultural independence of the people formerly subjugated to colonial rule.

It is also a literary critique to texts that carry racist or colonial undertones. Post-colonial literature, finally in its most recent form, also attempts to critique the contemporary post-colonial discourse that has been shaped over recent times. It attempts to re-read this very emergence of post-colonialism and its literary expression itself.

Shakespeare’s The Tempest is one of the central works in post-colonial theory and in the field of Comparative Literature. This play is thought to be an early post-colonial work by some scholars. While it is debatable whether or not Shakespeare had intended to criticize the European seizure of the new lands to the West, the theme of colonialism is no doubt present in The Tempest. For over a century, a number of critics have tried to interpret the various elements of post colonialism present in the Tempest.

Shakespeare's Tempest is an amalgam of various pots colonial elements:
Prospero is a European who has taken charge of a remote island, being able to do so because of his strong magic powers. With these powers, he organizes a life for himself, gets the local inhabitants (Ariel and Caliban) to work for him, and maintains his control by a combination of threats, spells and enchantments, and promises of freedom some day. By taking charge of a place which is not his and by exerting his European authority over the strange non-European creatures, Prospero can be seen as an obvious symbol for European colonial power.

In 1818, the English critic William Hazlitt was the first to point out that Prospero had usurped Caliban from his rule of the island and thus, was an agent of imperialism. This view provided the basis for modern interpretations of the Tempest as a post colonial work.

Anyway, it is supposed that Shakespeare has taken the plot of the play The Tempest from an incident occurred at the time when the he was writing the play. Some critics think that that is the background of the play The Tempest.


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