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Colonialisation in the Tempest Part 2

Updated on January 16, 2015

Colonial background of The Tempest

In 1609 a fleet of nine ships set out from England, headed towards John Smith's Virginia colony, the first English settlement in the New World. One of the nine ships was separated during a violent storm and ended up on Bermuda. These shipwrecked Europeans began colonizing the island and enslaving the native population. It is supposed by some critics that Shakespeare's Tempest is based on this incident.

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 or not.

As 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, uncivilized 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. There is little doubt that the extraordinary shipwreck of some would-be Virginian colonists on the Bermudas flavors Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Shakespeare’s patrons the Earls of Southampton and Pembroke were investors in the Virginia Company.


In a traditional reading we are used to grant Prospero as a great man, a victim, a sufferer, a hero, a person beyond human. He was read as a Magician, dramatist, patriarch, island sovereign for ages. Prospero is also eminently a scientist, an intellectual, a scholar, and a teacher. But in the colonial context, he is discovered newly. We get a totally different Prospero in colonial reading.

Prospero is not a victim or sufferer here rather he is the sole colonial administrator on the island of Caliban. He rules over the island using his knowledge and magic power. He has come from the other side of the sea to Sycorax’s island, subdues her, rules the land and imposes his own culture on the people of the land. Pushing the native to the side, he places himself at the helm of affairs. He displaces Caliban’s mother and treats her as a beast. He has full control over everything on the island. He is as powerful as next to a god on the island. He makes Caliban work as his servant and calls him a thing of darkness.

Caliban is being dehumanized or treated as subhuman. Caliban is coarse, resentful, and brutish, described as a “hag-seed” (I.ii.368), a “poisonous” (I.ii.322) and “most lying slave” (I.ii.347) and as “earth” (I.ii.317). This shows the colonizer’s attitude of looking down on the colonized people. Caliban is seen as a despicable entity. The whites looked down on the people of other color. Some are born to dominate while others are born to be dominated. Caliban is treated as inferior.

The colonizer used words like light, knowledge and wisdom to refer himself while he used terms like darkness, ignorance and elemental to describe the colonized. This binary opposition shows how Prospero as a colonizer creates essences about the colonized people. Prospero sees himself as a ruler carrying out the project of civilization mission. The way light dispels darkness and knowledge dispels ignorance Prospero as a colonizer educates and civilizes Caliban but without much success.

The civilizing mission is always accompanied by the politics of domination over the colonized. Throughout the play Prospero teaches all the characters. Except for Ariel, Prospero doesn't actually script the other characters. Instead he manipulates, trains, and instructs them. Just as the 16th century colonial England, he teaches the islander his own language so that they can obey his orders. These elements allow us to study the play in the light of colonialism.

Moreover there are bases that enable us to make a post colonial interpretation of the play. The hatred towards the colonizer is very great and strong among the colonized.

You taught me language, and my profit on’t
Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language! (I.ii.366–368)

Prospero manipulates everybody and every action in the play. Everybody on the island is manipulated by Prospero the way a puppet master controls his puppets. Caliban as a colonized wants to strike back on the colonizer. Caliban is disobedient and creates problems for the colonizer. He attempts to rape Miranda and it is a threat posed to the safety of the colonizer. He tells Prospero that the land that Prospero rules was forcefully taken away from his mother. These attempts by Caliban to protest and resist the colonizer can support our post-colonial interpretation of the play.


Traditionally, Prospero was considered a benign ruler who had done what he could to reform the naturally evil Caliban and who had a nice avuncular relationship with Ariel. However, we have seen more recently, postcolonial context, how Prospero has been portrayed as the cruel power hungry master who enslaved Caliban simply because he did not understand him and whose relationship with Ariel is more exploitative or even abusive. In fact, it seems to me a much more complex relation.

Ariel is Prospero's 'spirit' (he is not human) servant who manipulates others by changing shapes as Prospero tells him. Ariel is loyal to Prospero because Prospero rescued Ariel from imprisonment in a tree by a witch.

Ariel's main goal is to gain his freedom; he happily serves Prospero so that he can have his life back, which Prospero has promised him. Because of his loyalty, Prospero grants Ariel his freedom and commends him.

But it’s true, Ariel is also in thrall, like Caliban, to Prospero who makes the spirit doing his bidding by threatening to return him to the suffering from which he came. However for a slave Ariel also has power over Prospero. Firstly it is unclear how powerful Prospero’s magic is without Ariel to execute it, secondly Ariel is the more humane of the two. It is Ariel who reminds Prospero that forgiveness is more powerful than vengeance and, as he does in fact turn Prospero from his course of revenge it is the slave here who directs his master.

Ariel uses magic to assist Prospero in getting his needs met but is also kind and compassionate towards others. For example, when a group of shipwrecked men are captured, Ariel makes them seem harmless to Prospero so that Prospero will not be really mean to them.

Even though Ariel is not human, he has feelings and imagines what it might be to be a real human. He helps Prospero recognize the need to forgive his enemies; Ariel states,

'Your charm so strongly works 'em

That if you now beheld them, your affections

Would become tender. Mine would, sir, were I human (Act 5, Scene 1).

Ariel represents goodness in the world. He speaks beautifully and poetically using music or waves of air. He possesses the qualities of air and fire and can make himself invisible. He also changes shapes to fit his environment.

Although Ariel is not human, he possesses many human characteristics, such as compassion and kindness. He manipulates others as when Prospero commands it. Ariel is able to assist Prospero successfully because he knows magic and can make himself invisible if needed. Ariel's main goal in working for Prospero is to gain his freedom. But we see Prospero is using or more truly abusing him blackmailing emotionally, reminding again and again that Prospero saved him or threatening him of returning the condition from where he was saved.


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