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Shakespeare's use of 'the other' in The Tempest

Updated on September 12, 2014
Jacqueline Stamp profile image

Jacqueline continues to study and explore the Literature and Socio-Political History of England circa1600-1900, and contemporary criticism.

“The other” is a literary construct relevant to a post-colonial or feminist reading of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It can be interpreted as a person or character who “exists in opposition to the dominant culture” (Smith), although this is not always the case.

The Tempest contains several characters who fall outside the parameters of their society and who challenge the perception of normality in the play’s audience. These characters represent that essence of “otherness” which simultaneously frightens and fascinates us. By comparing and contrasting these various characters I will seek to demonstrate that Shakespeare uses the concept of “the other” for two purposes: firstly to assert the values of colonial and patriarchal rule, and secondly to challenge those values by drawing the attention of his audience to the injustices and inequalities of the imperialist, colonialist and patriarchal society in which it is set, and in which Shakespeare and his contemporaries were living. The inherent paradox is left unresolved and this is the reason that The Tempest is still one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays (Graff 93-108). In pursuit of his twin objectives, Shakespeare uses Prospero to represent

[t]he Other - with the capital O - [which] has been called, the grande-autre by [Jacques] Lacan, the great Other, in whose gaze the subject gains identity (Ashcroft 170),

for it is in relation to Prospero that all the principal characters, and thus all “the others”, of The Tempest are defined. Prospero is, as Aimé Césaire has observed, “the complete totalitarian…the man of cold reason, the man of methodical conquest - …a portrait of the ‘enlightened’ European” (Césaire qtd. in Cartelli 103). Yet, as Deborah Willis has noted “the play cannot be said to endorse fully Prospero’s most blatant expressions of colonial ideology [because] [i]t invites us to look at Prospero from other angles, Caliban’s especially” (Willis 259)

Caliban is the purest example in the play of “the other” existing in opposition to the dominant culture for he is, in fact, the very antithesis of it. Being indigenous to the island and the deformed orphan son of a witch banished from Algiers for her wicked deeds, he is portrayed as an “Abhorred slave, / Which any print of goodness wilt not take, / Being capable of all ill!” (1.2.354-356). Prospero asserts his dominance, and thus his culture, over Caliban by the use of degrading language and by threats of magical retribution, which Caliban concedes are of an “art…of such power / It would control my dam’s god, Setebos, / And make a vassal of him” (1.2.375-377). Usurped and dispossessed by the imperialistic arrogance of Prospero, himself dispossessed of his Dukedom in Milan, Caliban is referred to variously by Prospero as a freckled whelp, hag-born - not honoured with human shape (1.2.283-284),… A poisonous slave, got by the devil himself / Upon [his] wicked dam (1.2.323-324),… Filth (1.2.349),… Hagseed (1.2.368), a devil, a born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick; (4.1.188)… [and] This thing of darkness (5.1.275).

Thus Prospero reduces Caliban to animal status, as he had previously done with “The creatures that were [his]” (1.2.82) in Milan, a phrase which reveals the disdain with which he, and by extension the colonial powers he represents, regards those he considers to be his inferiors. By such simple linguistic techniques, Shakespeare effectively uses Caliban in his role as the colonised “other” to highlight the iniquities of Prospero in his role as the imperialistic “Other”.

This appropriation of Caliban as a bestial “other” is compounded, however, by his admission that he attempted to rape Miranda (1.2.352-354) and by the reactions of other characters in the play: Trinculo, for example, mistakes Caliban for a fish (2.2.25 and 3.2.25), and accuses him of lying “like dogs” (3.2.18), whilst Stephano refers to him as a cat (2.2.79) and a “monster” (2.2180). Caliban’s “otherness” is therefore used again by Shakespeare to contrast with Prospero’s role as the grande-autre, or “Other”, in order to accentuate the opposing Jacobean social constructs of “‘civilisation’ and ‘savagery’” (Takaki 143). This must have been highly emotive at a time when “European culture was delineating the border, the hierarchical division between civilisation and wildness” (Takaki 149), yet, as we shall see, Shakespeare uses the “otherness” of his characters to show that humanity and barbarity co-exist in all cultures, and none is purely good or purely bad.

A post-colonial reading of The Tempest thus invites further examination of these social constructs because Prospero’s attitudes and actions often appear more savage than those of Caliban, whilst Caliban displays unexpected sensitivity and humanity. Prospero’s treatment of Ariel, for example, requires him “Once a month [to] recount what [Ariel] hast been / Which [he] forgett’st” (1.2.263-264) in order to retain his services. Ariel was a “servant” (1.2.272) to Sycorax but is a “slave” (1.2.271) to Prospero, denoting a fall in status for even the closest of indigenous aides under colonial rule. Prospero’s threat to “rend an oak / And peg [Ariel] in his knotty entrails till / [he] has howled away twelve winters” (1.2.295-297) is indicative of his “absolute will to power” (Césaire qtd. in Cartelli 103) which is his desire to rule at all costs, with no regard for the feelings or opinions of others. Likewise, he confines Caliban to a rock (1.2.365) and, as we have seen, treats him no better than an animal. All subjects are beasts to Prospero, to be bullied and beaten into submission under the paternalistic notion of “humane care” (1.2.349) rather than treated with the respect and consideration due to them as human beings. Prospero’s speeches reveal only a need to control; to wield power by whatever means necessary. Caliban, on the other hand shows a gentleness and eloquence in his dealings with Stephano and Trinculo that challenges the notion of his savagery:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,

Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices

That, if I then had waked after a long sleep,

Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open and show riches

Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked

I cried to dream again. (3.3.130-138)

The beauty of this speech belies any comprehension of Caliban as an inhuman entity. It reveals his soul and his all too human longing for a better life. It conjures up heavenly visions which would have been as familiar to Shakespeare’s Jacobean audience as they are to an audience today. In short, it redefines the colonial “other”, as a person capable of poetic thought and artistic appreciation. In addition, Caliban reveals an endearing innocence and childlike acceptance when told that Stephano “was the Man i’ the Moon when time was” (2.2.131-132). His fear that Stephano is yet another spirit invoked by Prospero to “torment” (2.2.68) him turns to an infantile adoration which exposes the naivety of the primitive races which were being colonised at the time. By redefining “the other” in this way, Shakespeare is challenging his audience’s perceptions of these “vile race[s]” (1.2.361). As the English were just discovering the “brave new world” (5.1.183) and its strange inhabitants, his portrayal of a colonial “other” with whom the audience were invited to sympathise must have appeared contrary to all convention. But he argues that their primitive state is not that of an uncultured savage or wild-man, nor quite that of an uneducated infant, but a product of a different though equally valuable culture. Shakespeare reiterates this point most clearly in Gonzalo’s observation that

these…people of the island,

…though they are of monstrous shape, yet note,

Their manners are more gentle, kind, than of

Our human generation you shall find (3.3.30-33).

Here again, however, “the others” are classed as sub-human and, therefore, animalistic or bestial. Even Gonzalo’s optimistic altruism can not grasp the humanity of a people so alien to his own culture, and thus Shakespeare’s text again emphasises the extent of the gulf between Lacan’s colonised “other” and colonising “Other” (Ashcroft 170). The tension that evolves throughout the play between these two opposing yet inter-dependant concepts is the key to its dramatic impact. The constant playing off of “others” against “Other” creates at times a triangle of intrigue, such as that formed between Caliban, Miranda and Prospero as the two dependant “others” relate throughout the play from diametrically opposed angles to the one controlling “Other”. Once children together, the play implies they have grown apart, one representing “the good seed which benefits by nurture” (Kermode 178) and one representing the bad seed “on whose ‘nature / Nuture can never stick’” (Kermode 178). They can not be so simply defined, however, and Shakespeare makes use of the similarities as well as the differences in their “otherness” to emphasise their complicity in the colonial experience.

Willis observes that, 'While Prospero clearly views Caliban as a threatening “other”, the audience does not; the play invites us to sympathize with and to laugh at Caliban, … Shakespeare clearly wants us to feel Caliban’s claim on us and to sense Prospero’s limitations' (Willis 259).

It is thus with Caliban that the post-colonial audience sympathises, for it is he who has been robbed of his culture and his birthright (1.2.334), and taught a foreign “language…[though his only] profit on’t / Is [he knows] how to curse” (1.2 366-367). He has been oppressed first by the magical powers of his mother and then by those of “a tyrant / A sorcerer” (3.2.40-41), Prospero, to the extent that he seeks escape not in freedom, as Ariel does (1.2.245 and 5.1.319), but in subjection to a new master, Stephano (2.2.119-120 and 145), to whom he makes the promise

I’ll pluck thee berries,

I’ll fish for thee and get thee wood …

…[I’ll] bring thee where crabs grow,

And I with my long nails will dig thee pignuts,

Show thee a jay’s nest, and instruct thee how

To snare the nimble marmoset. I’ll bring thee

To clustering filberts, and …get thee

Young scamels from the rock. (2.2.153-165)

Thus Caliban affords Stephano the same introduction to “all the qualities of the isle” (1.2340) that he once promised the newly arrived Prospero. He is childishly eager to show off both his home and his skills, and to put his faith in a complete stranger. His vulnerability and naivety and his willingness to share what little he has are emphasised by Shakespeare in contrast to the over-reaching ambition of the Neapolitans, who, as Sebastian and Antonio prove (2.1.285-291), will literally stab each other in the back to achieve power and influence. Thus Shakespeare again uses the concept of “the other” to raise the question of who is really the most civilised; the back-stabbing, and supposedly enlightened, European imperialist colonisers or the kindly, naïve, unsophisticated and much abused natives of the new found continents.

Seeing Caliban as the dispossessed “other” draws him into parallel with Miranda, who, growing up under Prospero’s “care” (1.2.16) has been dispossessed of her identity, her individuality and her inheritance. Prospero acknowledges that Miranda is “ignorant of what [she is], naught knowing / Of whence [he is], nor that [he is] more better / Than … master of a full poor cell” (1.2.18-20). Miranda does “not know / One of [her] sex; no woman’s face remember[s], / Save, from [her] glass, [her] own” (3.1.49-50). Her integral “otherness”, as we shall see, is used to illuminate the contradictions and inequalities of the patriarchal system and identify it with internal colonialism, for women are the colonised “others” of a patriarchal world.

From a feminist perspective The Tempest polarises women into two patriarchal stereotypes, both of which are used by Shakespeare to represent the subjugation of women as “the other”. At one extreme is Miranda, the “white, virginal and obedient” (Loomba 328) maid, whose subjection to her father is as complete as that of the enslaved Caliban, for “[she] cannot choose but obey Prospero” (Loomba 330), as evidenced by his injunction to sleep: “ ’Tis a good dullness, … give it way … thou canst not choose” (1.2.185-186). Miranda’s life has been moulded by her father, directed by his patriarchal rhetoric and controlled by his “art” (1.2.1) to create what he, and Jacobean society in general, consider to be the perfect female (Amussen 203). At the other extreme is Sycorax, “The foul witch” (1.2.258), and “blue eyed hag” (1.2.270) whose magical powers, were “so strong / That [they] could control the moon, make flows and ebbs,” (5.1.269-270). Even posthumously, her powers are a threat to Prospero through her son, Caliban, who “invokes it for his own rebellion: ‘All the charms / Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you! (1.2.342-343)’” (Loomba 328). This continuing threat causes Prospero to make repeated comparisons between their different magics and their respective reigns of the island…to claim a superior morality, a greater strength and a greater humanity, and hence legitimize his takeover of the island and its inhabitants (Loomba 328)

Shakespeare thus uses Sycorax’s “otherness” in relation to Prospero to represent the evil of the uncontrollable woman so feared in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: “a fear of women who did not conform to the patriarchal ideal” (Eales 104) which led to the proliferation of witchcraft trials throughout Europe in the era, with “as many as 90 per cent of those accused in England [being] women” (Eales 104). Shakespeare uses the two extremes of female existence to accentuate their “otherness”, thus creating a dichotomy between black native evil and white colonialist good. In the New World, his appropriation of Sycorax suggests, women are natural, wild, unruly, promiscuous and evil. Colonial women, on the other hand, his appropriation of Miranda suggests, are trained by the civilising influence of the colonisers to be subservient, obedient and virtuous. Sycorax’s polar opposite, Miranda, is used by Shakespeare to represent “the other” in relation to both Prospero and Sycorax. In direct contrast to Sycorax’s worldliness and powerful reputation, Miranda embodies the patriarchal ideal of the female as “modest, submissive, [and] chaste” (Amussen 203). Brought up sheltered from the harsh realities of life and ever willing to wonder at this “brave new world / That has such people in’t” (5.1.183-184) she dare not oppose or question Prospero for fear he may “chide … if not hate [her]” (1.2.480). This example of emotional blackmail characterises Miranda’s relationship with her father and causes her to consider herself to be a trial to him, as “Gratitude to [him] mingles with self-deprecation” (Loomba 331). This is evidenced by her declaration that her “heart bleeds / To think o’ the teen that I that I have turned you to / Which is from my remembrance” (1.2.63-64) and her cry of “Alack what trouble was I then to you!” (1.2151). This aspect of Miranda’s “otherness” is used by Shakespeare to emphasise the absolute, unassailable, rule of Prospero even over his own flesh and blood. At the same time it emphasises the exact opposite, that is the powerlessness and vulnerability of the woman who is simultaneously coloniser and colonised. As Anna Loomba observes, “In the colonial situation, patriarchalism makes specific, and often apparently contradictory demands on its ‘own’ women” (Loomba 330). Shakespeare is drawing attention to this, one of the strangest paradoxes of colonial and patriarchal rule, whereby the woman is at once mistress and servant; endowed with a limited amount of power at the discretion of her male relatives, and treated by the males as no more than a precious possession. Prospero claims to “have done nothing but in care of [her] … [his] dear one” (1.2.16). It was Miranda “that did preserve [him]” (1.2.152) when they first arrived on the island and it was she who gave him the “stomach, to bear up / Against what should ensue” (1.2.157-158), yet Miranda is more her father’s property than either Ariel or Caliban. Ariel is able to earn his freedom by performing “worthy service” (1.2.246) for Prospero, whilst Caliban is granted his once he concedes to colonial authority and agrees to “be wise hereafter / And seek for grace” (5.1.295).

Miranda, however, can never be free. Like the unfortunate Claribel, who, “Weighed between loathness and obedience” (2.1.127), dutifully married the King of Tunis (2.1.69) at her father’s behest, Miranda is a chattel to be traded among the men-folk for their own political and social advancement. Protected by her father from the advances of Caliban, who would have “peopled else / This isle with Calibans” (1.2.353-354), she is offered by Caliban as a gift to Stephano to “bring [him] forth brave brood” (3.3.100). This accentuates the “otherness” of the female in colonial and patriarchal society, for even the colonised male assumes some rights over her from a purely sexual perspective. Finally Miranda is presented as a gift to Ferdinand as Prospero declares, “Then, as my gift and thine own acquisition / Worthily purchased, take my daughter … She is thine own” (4.1.13-14 and 32). The alliance thus formed with Ferdinand’s father, Alonso, effectively breaks Alonso’s former alliance with Prospero’s “false brother” (1.2.92), Antonio. The contracting of the marriage is, therefore, “in effect, an exchange of Miranda’s virginity (which her father must guard) for the throne of Naples” (Singh 199). Miranda is thus the ultimate example of “the other” within, rather than in opposition to, the dominant culture and as such she represents, paradoxically, a challenge to patriarchal ideology as well as a reinforcement of its core values. Her “otherness” is used by Shakespeare to engage his audience in a debate concerning the conflict between the theory and the practice of patriarchy. She is the pivotal corner of several triangular relationships in the play, as her “otherness” and desirability creates the friction between Prospero and Caliban, Prospero and Ferdinand, Caliban and Ferdinand, and Prospero and Sycorax.

Miranda’s role as “the other” is also used to raise questions concerning colonial theory, as witnessed by the assumption of gender superiority by Caliban. This question is also addressed by Shakespeare’s use of Stephano and Trinculo as “others” in the play. Their “otherness” exists on the parameters of the dominant culture, partly within it and partly in opposition to it. Stephano, listed in the dramatis personae as “a drunken butler”, and Trinculo, listed as “a jester”, represent the “otherness” of what Paul Brown identifies as masterless men…ungoverned…[and] without the restraining resources of social organization, an embodiment of directionless and indiscriminate desire” (Brown 210).

Ubiquitous in Elizabethan and Jacobean society such “others” lived on the margins of society and were perceived by the ruling classes as a threat to law and order (Slack 91-107). As Brown points out, such a threat creates a “necessity for solidarity among the ruling class” (Brown 211), causing both the aristocrats in the audience and those on the stage to unite in condemnation of Stephano’s plot to overthrow Prospero. His childish delight in claiming the island as his own “brave kingdom” (3.2.139) is akin to that of Caliban, whilst his desires to “have music for nothing” (3.2.140) are resonant of the wishes of English colonials to claim foreign lands in order to get their “pearls and pepper” (Greenblatt 114) for nothing. Despite Trinculo’s reservations that if everyone on the island “be brained like [them], the state totters” 3.2.6) the three of them form a trio of unsupervised “masterless men” (Brown 210) living out a fantasy of rebellion, revenge and rule. Shakespeare uses the “otherness” of these clumsy, would-be colonisers to create a parody of true colonialism, making it a laughable concept and thus drawing his audience’s attention to its grosser iniquities.

Prospero concludes the play with an appeal to the audience for forgiveness and clemency:

As you from crimes would pardoned be,

Let your indulgence set me free (Epilogue 19-20)

Shakespeare thus uses Prospero’s role as “Other” to seek pardon for the injustices of his regime from the subjugated “others”, among whom he counts the audience who have subjected their minds to his rhetoric for the last three hours. As Stephen Greenblatt has observed, “at the enigmatic end of the play all of the Europeans - every one of them - leave the island” (Greenblatt 114). This is a significant withdrawal, prophetic of the path towards eventual withdrawal from the colonies which British colonialism was to take as its empire declined in the early twentieth century. That Shakespeare foresaw the consequences of colonisation at its very dawn is remarkable. His use of “the other”, both within and without the dominant culture of his day, to accentuate the polarisation and marginalisation of colonial societies is more remarkable still. He neither endorses nor denies Caliban’s claim to the island by birthright (1.2.334), but nor does he sanction Prospero’s occupation of it. Instead he uses the concept of “the other” to set out his arguments for and against colonisation, imperialism and patriarchy so that his audience can enter into the debate and draw their own conclusions. In short, Shakespeare uses the “otherness” of his characters to emphasise their humanity and challenge his audience’s preconceptions of what constitutes civilised behaviour and what constitutes savagery.

Sources/References for this article:

Amussen, S.D. “Gender, Family and the Social Order” 1560-1725 in A.Fletcher and J.Stevenson (eds) Order and Disorder in Early Modern England. 196-217. Cambridge U.P. Cambridge. 1985

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. Key Concepts in Post Colonial Studies.Routledge. London and New York. 1998

Brown, Paul. “This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine”: The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism in Gerald Graff and James Phelan (eds) The Tempest: a Case Study in Critical Controversy, 205-229. MacMillan Press Ltd. Basingstoke and London. 2000.

Cartelli, Thomas. Repositioning Shakespeare: National formations, postcolonial appropriations. Routledge. London and New York. 1999.

Eales, Jacqueline. Women in Early Modern England, 1500-1700. University College London Press. London. 1998.

Graff, Gerald and James Phelan. The Tempest: a Case Study in Critical Controversy. MacMillan Press Ltd. Basingstoke and London. 2000.

Greenblatt, Stephen. The Best Way to Kill our Literary Inheritance is to Turn It into a Decorous Celebration of the New World Order in Gerald Graff and James Phelan (eds) The Tempest: a Case Study in Critical Controversy. 113-115. MacMillan Press Ltd. Basingstoke and London. 2000.

Kermode. Frank. From Shakespeare: the Final Plays in Gerald Graff and James Phelan (eds) The Tempest: a Case Study in Critical Controversy. 174-182. MacMillan Press Ltd. Basingstoke and London. 2000.

Loomba, Anna. From Gender, race, Renaissance Drama in Gerald Graff and James Phelan (eds) The Tempest: a Case Study in Critical Controversy 324-336. MacMillan Press Ltd. Basingstoke and London. 2000.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest (full text) in Gerald Graff and James Phelan (eds) The Tempest: a Case Study in Critical Controversy. 10-88. MacMillan Press Ltd.Basingstoke and London. 2000.

Singh, Jyotsna. Caliban versus Miranda: race and gender conflicts in postcolonial rewritings of The Tempest in Valerie Traub, M. Lindsay Kaplan and DympnaCallaghan (eds) Feminist Readings of Early Modern Culture: Emerging Subjects, 191-209. Cambridge U.P. Cambridge, New York and Melbourne. 1996.

Slack, Paul. Poverty and Policy in Tudor and Stuart England. A Pearson Education Print on Demand Edition. Longman Group Ltd. Harlow and New York. 1995 (transferred to digital print on demand 2002)

Smith, Zadie. Interviewed by Francine Stock on Radio Four’s Front Row about the Jewish Quarterly Wingate Prize. 8th April 2003.

Takaki, Ronald. The “Tempest” in the Wilderness in Gerald Graff and James Phelan (eds) The Tempest: a Case Study in Critical Controversy, 140-172. MacMillan Press Ltd. Basingstoke and London. 2000

Willis, Deborah. Shakespeare’s Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism in Gerald Graff and James Phelan (eds) The Tempest: a Case Study in Critical Controversy, 256-268. MacMillan Press Ltd. Basingstoke and London. 2000

© 2014 Jacqueline Stamp


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    • Jacqueline Stamp profile image

      Jacqueline Stamp 2 years ago from UK

      That's good to know; thank you, and good luck with the examination.

    • Glenis Rix profile image

      GlenR 2 years ago from UK

      Thank you for this essay. It has been very useful for my revision for final OU examination.