Post-colonial reading of The Tempest

Post-colonial readings of The Tempest were inspired by the decolonisation movements of the 1960s and 1970s in Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. Jyotsna Singh describes how these readings challenge more traditional interpretations of the play, questioning Prospero's ownership of the island and rethinking the role of Caliban.

What was Shakespeare’s response to stereotypes of race and religion? Post-colonial criticism is a method of analysis that addresses questions of racial identity and equality, and also of gender equity via two main modes of inquiry. First, it investigates how Shakespeare's plays relate to the social codes and conventions by which early modern Europeans defined non-European and non-Christian people and races they encountered. Second, it explores the more recent history of the reception of Shakespearian drama within non-Western societies and settings – in Africa, India, the Caribbean, and Latin America.

Thus, post-colonial criticism of a play like Othello not only draws our attention to Renaissance attitudes toward Moors, Africans, and Turks, among others, but it also examines how the play may have been interpreted and performed in countries involved in recent colonial and post-colonial struggles, for example in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa. This process was, of course, a complex one. On the one hand, Shakespeare was an export to the colonies of European literature and language as a part of their policy of cultural domination. On the other hand, it also enabled the colonized groups to revise and remake Shakespeare's works in ways which related to their own social conditions.

Early post-colonial responses to The Tempest

Until the advent of post-colonial criticism, Anglo-American critics frequently read The Tempest as an allegory about artistic creation. Since this was once considered to be Shakespeare's final play, Prospero has been defined as a surrogate playwright, shaping the main action through his magic. Starting with the artificial tempest of the opening scene, Prospero directs, rewards, and punishes the main characters according to his master plan, which is to marry his daughter, Miranda, to Ferdinand, the son and heir to the Duke of Naples, his former enemy. This plan is considered his revenge for his forcible exile from his own kingdom. In leading to this desired union of Naples and Milan, Prospero obstructs the advances of Caliban, the native of the island where he and Miranda are exiled. Furthermore, Prospero's magical power not only ensures the enslavement of Caliban, but also demands the servitude of a sprite named Ariel to put his magical designs into action. Overall, in this commonly accepted reading of The Tempest, Prospero emerges as an all-knowing, benevolent patriarch and artistic creator whose motives are beyond reproach. Since the play is a romance in terms of its genre, its plot was generally approached as a fanciful tale with little connection to the history of the period or its aftermath.

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

A God-like Prospero and a devilish Caliban: the Enchanted Island before the Cell of Prospero, The Tempest, Act 1, Scene 2 by Henry Fuseli.

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This long tradition of privileging Prospero's creative powers as beneficent and god-given began to be overshadowed by the growing stature of Caliban, following the de-colonisation movements of the 1960s and 1970s in Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. If, traditionally, Prospero's art represented the world of civility and learning in contrast to the 'natural' black magic of Caliban's mother Sycorax, anti-colonial revisions of the play challenged this rather abstract Eurocentric division between art and nature. Instead, as Africans and Caribbeans saw that widespread national liberation was imminent – that is from 1959 onwards – they began to revise and mobilise the play in defence of Caliban's right to the island on which he is born prior to Prospero's arrival. Caliban's assertion in the play, ‘This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother, / Which thou tak’st from me’ (1.2.331–32), became the rallying cry for African and Caribbean intellectuals from the 1960s to the 1970s.

For instance, Aimé Césaire, a black writer and activist from Martinique, re-wrote Shakespeare's play in 1969 in French. Une Tempête (translated into the English A Tempest in 1985) celebrates Caliban's verbal attacks on Prospero and questions the latter's claims to the island. Set in a colony – a prototype of a Caribbean or African setting – in the throes of resistance and unrest, Césaire's play focusses initially on Caliban's resistance to Prospero's control over language. Here, Césaire is clearly sensitive to the way in which the name Caliban/Cannibal appears in Shakespeare's play and in colonial history as a cultural stereotype for the natives of the New World. Accompanying Caliban's challenge to language are references to an actual guerrilla movement and an impending black independence. And Ariel, who is labelled a 'mulatto' in this play, represents the mixed races more able to accept their limited oppression. Overall, this play characterises the changes undergone by the figure of Caliban in productions of the play: in 18th- and 19th-century European productions he was represented as a primitive or 'missing link' from Darwin's theory (i.e. a being in between apes and humans in the evolutionary process). However, with the advent of national liberation of the non-European races, as in Césaire's play, Caliban was widely depicted as a defiant subject under European rule, or simply an embodiment of any oppressed group.

Programme from a 1980 production of Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête

Programme from a 1980 production of Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête

Césaire’s retelling of Shakespeare's The Tempest celebrates Caliban's verbal attacks on Prospero and questions the latter's claims to the island.

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Copyright: © Théâtre Vollard/ Emmanuel Genvrin

Such identifications with Caliban and an accompanying unease about his alien language typify numerous Latin American and Caribbean responses to the play in the wake of decolonisation in the 1960s. In Africa too, the play became a site for anti-colonial responses, such as the novel A Grain of Wheat (1967), by Kenyan Ngugi Wa Thiong'o. This work, however, does not focus on Caliban's potential resistance. Rather, it examines the nature of Prospero's colonising drives and methods.

Illustration of Beerbohm Tree as Caliban

Illustration of Beerbohm Tree as Caliban

A primitive but soulful Caliban, played by Herbert Beerbohm Tree and painted by Charles A Buchel, 1904.

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The central character of Ngugi's novel is a colonial functionary, John Thompson, who associates The Tempest with the grand moral idea of the British Empire and plans to write about his experiences in Africa in a book entitled Prospero in Africa.

Overall, whether one considers The Tempest as an allegory of Caliban's liberation or of Prospero's colonial paternalism, post-colonial readings of the play's reception in the developing world clearly establish that we can no longer recuperate The Tempest as a historically 'innocent' text, uncorrupted by later historical readings.

The Tempest as an allegory of European discovery and colonisation

Given these changing responses to Shakespeare's The Tempest in the former 'Third World', it is not surprising that by the 1980s, Anglo-American readings of the play began to join in such interrogations of Prospero's rule and in empathy for Caliban. In doing so, post-colonial criticism in the West was somewhat belated in acknowledging the significance of the play's historical background.

Photograph of Rudolph Walker as Caliban in Jonathan Miller's 1988 production of The Tempest

Photographs of Jonathan Miller's The Tempest

In Jonathan Miller’s radical production of The Tempest, Prospero was a white colonist and Caliban was a black slave. Here, Rudolph Walker plays Caliban and Max von Sydow is Prospero.

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Copyright: © Photo by Zuleika Henry

Since the 1980s, burgeoning post-colonial criticism has brought new light to bear upon the play's sources in the narratives of 'discovery' and colonisation of the Americas. Most critics agree that Shakespeare used Elizabethan travel writing, both for his dramatisation of the opening storm and shipwreck and his depiction of the European confrontation with a 'savage', Caliban. In particular, he drew on William Strachey's account written in 1610 –probably circulating in unpublished form – of the shipwreck and redemption of Sir Thomas Gates's expedition in the Bermudas in 1609, while on his way to Jamestown in the Virginia colony established by the British. Gates was wrecked in a most dreadful tempest on an island that proved to be so habitable and rich in food that his men were reluctant to leave. Thus, one strand of post-colonial criticism follows the play's journey literally to the European 'discovery' and settlement of the Americas. In that context, critics note how the figure of Caliban easily merges into the image of the cannibal, the mythical 'savage' whom many European travellers claimed to have encountered. Fantasies of real and imagined cannibals in the Renaissance gave an important impetus to European ventures of bringing 'civilisation' to the natives. Images of otherness evoked by the play, however, also suggest an ambiguous geography, whereby the shipwrecked travellers in the play are supposedly travelling to North Africa, across the Mediterranean.

Strachey's 'A true reportory of the wreck' in Bermuda

Strachey's 'A true reportory of the wreck' in Bermuda

William Strachey’s dramatic account of a shipwreck off Bermuda in 1609 was probably a source for Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest.

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Engravings of Native Americans and Europeans in de Bry's America

Engravings of Native Americans and Europeans in de Bry's America

Theodor de Bry’s images of cannibalism, published in America (1590), played a crucial role in shaping European ideas of the so-called ‘New World’.

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Such a post-colonial focus on The Tempest's relation to geographical exploration – with an emphasis on the colonisation of the Americas – produces a reading of the play that differs radically from traditional European validations of Prospero's dominant role. It calls for a reappraisal of Prospero's and Caliban's competing views of history and settlement of the island. According to Prospero, Caliban's mother was the ‘damned witch Sycorax' who 'For mischiefs manifold, and sorceries terrible / To enter human hearing, from Algiers, ... was banished' to this island (1.2.263–65). When Prospero recounts this story to Ariel, the sprite in his servitude, he makes sure to remind Ariel of the distinction between Sycorax's evil magic and his own supposedly benevolent arts:

This blue-eyed hag was hither brought with child,
And here was left by th' sailors. Thou, my slave,
As thou [Ariel] report's thyself, was then her servant;
And for thou wastaspirit too delicate
To act her earthy and abhorred commands,
Refusing her grand hests, she did confine thee
By help of her more potent ministers,
And in her most unmitigable rage,
Into a cloven pine; within which rift
Imprisoned thou didst painfully remain
A dozen years ...
(1.2.269–79)

Once he establishes Sycorax's supposedly evil nature, Prospero then labels her son, Caliban, as less than human – 'freckled whelp, hag-born – not honoured with / A human shape' (1.2.283–84). However, even as he derides Caliban, Prospero claims to have treated him with kindness in attempts to humanize him.

I have used thee,
Filth as thou art, with human care, and lodged thee
In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate
The honour of my child.
(1.2.348–48)

Once Prospero defines Caliban as a potential rapist of his daughter Miranda, he easily justifies taking him into forced servitude, as he explains in this exchange:

MIRANDA 'Tis a villain, sir,
I do not love to look on.

PROSPERO But as 'tis,
... He does make our fire,
Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices
That profit us.-What ho! Slave! Caliban!
(1.2.311–13)

Miranda also justifies their enslavement of Caliban with the assertion that they tried to civilise him but to no avail:

Abhorrèd slave,
Which any print of goodness wilt not take,
Being capable of all ill! I pitied thee,
Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour
One thing or other. When thou didst not, savage,
Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish, I endowed thy purposes
With words that made them known.
(1.2.351–58)

Miranda and Prospero's justifications of their enslavement of the 'savage' Caliban, whose ‘vile race' (1.2.358) lacks natural goodness, are strongly challenged by post-colonial criticism. Unlike generations of earlier readers, post-colonial critics view Prospero's and Miranda's relations with Caliban as an allegory of European colonialism – one that reveals Shakespeare's own ambivalence toward Prospero's power Europeans' colonising activities among non-European natives they encountered in the Americas, Africa, and the Caribbean were based on the premise of the 'civilising mission'. This mission assumed that the natives lacked any culture or formal language until the Europeans brought them the 'gifts' of Western language and culture. If the natives resisted European paternal rule, then they were labelled as 'savages', beyond redemption. It is ironic that Shakespeare makes Caliban articulate this dilemma when he exclaims to Miranda and Prospero: 'You taught me language, and my profit on't / Is I know how to curse' (1.2.363–64).

Eden's Decades of the New World, 1555

Eden's Decades of the New World, 1555

Richard Eden compares the people of the ‘New World’ to a blank piece of ‘white paper’ on which you can ‘paynte and wryte’ whatever you wish.

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Coloured engravings of Native Americans and Picts bound with Strachey's New World 'Dictionary' and 'History'

Coloured engravings of Native Americans and Picts bound with Strachey's New World 'Dictionary' and 'History'

William’s Strachey’s hand-written dictionary of the Powhatan language, c. 1618. This challenges the idea that the indigenous people of Virginia lacked language before the arrival of the Europeans.

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Caliban's version of history

In trying to view the conditions of Caliban's servitude from his perspective, post-colonial criticism gives legitimacy to his claims to the island, based on a reading of history that challenges the version narrated by Prospero to his daughter. In Caliban's account, Prospero is the intruder who betrayed the initial welcome given to him by Caliban:

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, wouldst 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 loved thee,
And showed thee all the qualities o' th' isle,
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile –
Cursed be I 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.
(1.2.331–43)

It is this rendition of history that became the battle cry for the anti-colonial movements in Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America – a rendition that became the staple of many revisions and appropriations of Shakespeare's play in these regions. While the play was written in 17th-century England, post-colonial criticism takes the play outwards towards its complicated transactions between European and African and Caribbean cultures in the succeeding centuries. Post-colonial criticism in the West has mined this new archive of the reception history of Shakespeare's The Tempest, questioning, once again, all normative ideas of a 'common humanity', while articulating, as Shakespeare did, the voices of the seemingly marginal characters in Prospero's grand designs.

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Extract (2,049w) from pp.492-501 Ch.33 'Post-Colonial Criticism' by Jyotsna Singh from Reading: The Tempest from “Shakespeare: An Oxford Guide” edited by Wells, Stanley & Orlin, Lena Cowen Singh (2003)

Free permission Author's own material

  • Jyotsna Singh
  • Jyotsna G. Singh is Professor of English at Michigan State University, where she teaches and researches early modern literature and culture, colonial history, early modern history of Islam, and gender and race studies. Her published work includes the following: A Companion to the Global Renaissance: English Literature and Culture in the Era of Expansion (Ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2009 and 2013); Travel Knowledge: European ‘Discoveries’ in the Early Modern Period (Co-editor, Ivo Kamps, New York: Palgrave, 2001); and Colonial Narratives/Cultural Dialogues: ‘Discoveries’ of India in the Language of Colonialism (London: Routledge, 1996). She is currently working on a book, tentatively entitled, Transcultural Islam.

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