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Colonialisation in the Tempest Part 4

Updated on January 16, 2015

Psychology of colonizing

Baker and Hulme in their “Nymphs and Reapers Heavily Vanish” tried to show a potential anticolonial discourse in the play by pointing out that Prospero’s excessive anger toward Caliban’s rebellion indicates Prospero’s anxiety concerning the grounding of his legitimacy in ruling the island. If Prospero believed in his legitimate position, he would not need to be excessively angry because Caliban is, in fact, easily subdued.

In fact, the colonizer suffered from “a domination complex” and the colonized from “a dependency complex.” Colonization occurred because of the complicity of the colonized. Independence did not suit the psychological dispositions of the colonized peoples, and they thus needed European tutelage for their betterment. In Mannoni’s explication, Shakespeare’s Caliban, as a dramatic persona, becomes a surrogate for the Caliban Complex, a cipher in psychological theory. In other words, Caliban moved from dramatic character to a psychological construct.

In other words, Caliban’s rebellion is a satire of Prospero’s own usurpation of the island. In line with this view, speculation has risen that Prospero deliberately initiates Caliban’s rebellion in order to reinforce the need of Prospero’s authority in ruling the island. In this way, the play can be seen as exposing an anticolonial discourse by disclosing the problematical justification and the power game of colonialism. However, as Baker and Hulme finally admitted, Caliban’s clownish conspiracy and repentance cannot help but reinforce a colonial discourse. Besides, there is no evidence in the play indicating that Prospero deliberately incites Caliban’s rebellion. Caliban’s sensibility, appearance and actions inevitably work within the limits of a European ethnocentric paradigm of the Other.

The otherness

Shakespeare’s Tempest is interspersed not only with humor but also with several indications of western fear of the so-called “other”. Although the Orient as such might not have existed when The Tempest was written, Caliban does give indications of how Europe sees the Other. His deformed figure may have signified Shakespeare’s and his contemporaries’ outlook toward the inhabitants of the New World. Caliban’s deformities embody the seeds of a colonial attitude because the following surrogations of Caliban – as seen in Mannoni’s text and those of many traditional critics – reinterprets these deformities in terms of European superiority. Like the Orientalists who make the Orient their interlocutor, Shakespeare makes Caliban speak and rebel; yet his rebellion is shown as futile and Caliban himself in the end repents.

There is a natural distance between Western colonizers and colonized which is revealed by declaring the colonized as not being human and, therefore, as not being equal. The colonial endeavor is implicitly justified, because people like Caliban, incalculable and deprived of full humanity, can be regarded as people devoid of history, culture and claim to autonomy. The reason why colonized are perceived and described as inhumane is due to their differentness: their odd shape, their weird language, their lack of culture and civilization. In comparison to the Western hemisphere the isle is a backdrop of civilization in which the colonized inhabitant, who is in this case Caliban, is eliminated as human factor. The colonized world, at the time of Shakespeare, is shaped in such a way as imagined by European people.


Beginning in about 1950, with the publication of Psychology of Colonization by Octave Mannoni, The Tempest was viewed more and more through the lens of postcolonial theory. This new way of looking at the text explored the effect of the coloniser (Prospero) on the colonised (Ariel and Caliban).

We can see colonialism present in The Tempest through Prospero's control over Caliban, the island's only native inhabitant. Although the introduction starts out with Caliban having the upper hand by introducing the island to Prospero and helping him to survive, the reward of language that he receives only helps to further his place of servitude to Prospero.

This place of servitude is furthered secured by the arrival of others to the island due to Prospero's wishes and pact with the magical spirit Ariel. Though Ariel is often overlooked in these debates in favour of the more intriguing Caliban, he is nonetheless an essential component of them.

Prospero clearly has the upper hand through-out the play and is foreign to the island we can see that he is the imperial power involved in colonialism, while Caliban represents the oppressed natives. Because both characters can be used to symbolize greater scales, we can't just look at individual characteristics. I.E. Caliban is a "Demi-devil" and assume that this is a condemnation of natives. There is a deeper characterization that Wilson points out; "Like the domesticated animal, which really is, he has certain artificial habits and tastes superinduced in him; but whenever his natural instincts reveal themselves we see neither a born devil, nor a being bearing any likeness to degraded savage humanity" (Pg 157). We must look at how the reader is meant to feel during the power struggle that colonialism embodies. If the reader is meant to pity Caliban when he pushes back against the control of Prospero, then there must be a condemnation of colonialism present even if Caliban doesn't succeed in his struggle.

Even though Caiban is repeatedly shown in an unflattering light, the fact that these characterization are given from foreign characters allows us to question the merits of these descriptions. In doing so we see that the author actually characterizes Caliban in a much more favorable light by giving him some of the most eloquent dialogue. According to Greenblat, Shakespeare also read an anti-colonialism author named Montaigne because "because one of the characters in The Tempest quotes from 'Of Canibals'" (Pg 114). This knowledge helps to support the author's bias towards Caliban. Because of this the reader is allowed to feel pity for Caliban's plight and therefor to feel a bit of outrage and disgust for the characters that enslave him. This is further heightened when we look at the parallelism of Prospero's character since we are often told of him being pitied by other characters and shown in a favorable light and yet we aren't actually awarded any scenes where Prospero could be pitied. Since these characters that are meant to represent imperialism are rarely afforded opportunities for them to be pitied themselves and only given shallow characterization that might make us emotionally connect to them, we must conclude that The Tempest in a condemnation of Colonialism.


  1. Nicholas Rowe, Some Account of the Life &c. of Mr. William Shakespeare
  2. Jurgen Osterhammel, Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview
  3. Octavio Mannoni, Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization (1956)
  4. William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespear’s Plays (1817)
  5. Jeffrey Knapp, An Empire Nowhere: England, America, and Literature from Utopia to The Tempest. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1992 1992.
  6. Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England. Berkeley: University of California Press, (1989).
  7. Francis Barker and Peter Hulme, "Nymphs and Reapers Heavily Vanish: The Discursive Con-Texts of The Tempest." In Alternative Shakespeares. Ed. John Drakakis. (New Accents). 1985.
  8. Elmer Edgar Stoll, Shakespeare Studies, The Macmillan Company, New York: 1927.
  9. Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan, Shakespeare’s Caliban: A Cultural History, New York : Cambridge University Press, 1991
  10. Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughn, Shakespeare in America, Oxford University Press, 2012
  11. William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Penguin classics paperback, 2007


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