Shakespeare’s Criticism of Colonialism in Acts 1 and 2 of The Tempest

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About this sample


Words: 1654 |

Pages: 4|

9 min read

Published: Dec 16, 2021

Words: 1654|Pages: 4|9 min read

Published: Dec 16, 2021

Between the 16th and 17th centuries one of the most significant events in the history of humanity took place: European colonialism. Thanks to the progress of Renaissance science, Europeans set out to discover new territories for mainly economic purposes. There they discover new populations with different norms and values. As Montaigne would say: Everyone calls barbarism that which is not of his use. Under the pretext of spiritual enlightenment and education, which is in fact ethnocentrism, entire peoples are uprooted and persecuted. It is in this context that Shakespeare wrote his five-act play around 1610: The Tempest. We feel in his play an influence of this colonial society that can be seen in two different ways. Thus, Shakespeare in Act 1 and Act 2 of his play The Tempest does not criticize colonialism in a very clear way but treats it ambiguously.

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Indeed, Shakespeare wrote at a time when slavery was considered legitimate and above all necessary for the economy. The readers of the time expect to read a story in conformity with the image they have of the colonies. That is why, at the first reading of the first two acts, we come out with a rather favourable view of colonialism.

First, the character of Caliban is very important to understand this ambiguous theme. He symbolizes the primitive man who lived on the land before Europeans discovered it. One of the major arguments used to justify enslavement is the fact that they are savage people without any principles. He’ll even try to rape Miranda, the noble white princess: “till thou didst seek to violate The honor of my child.”. The periphrase to talk about his daughter’s virginity used by Prospero seeks to highlight Caliban’s lack of honor. Moreover, the use of the term ‘child’ rather than ‘ daughter’ accentuates the monstrous and savage side of Sycorax’s son, he is ready to have sex with a young girl. Furthermore, this very pejorative image of the slave is all the more contrasted by the character of Ferdinand. The son of the King of Naples is characterized by a great respect for European customs. The first condition for a union between him and Miranda is: “if you’re a virgin”. The natives did not have morals as strict as the Westerners, for the society of the time this corresponded to an unchaste mind.

On the other hand, Shakespeare seems to insist on the fundamentally evil nature of the native population. If the colonists present us primitive men, bad and unable to discern good from bad, it is impossible for the reader to feel pity for them. Trinculo denounces the always defiant behavior of natives like Caliban: “When’s god’s asleep, he’ll rob his bottle.” By the divine metaphor ‘god’ he’s talking about the all-powerful white man in general. This sentence sounds almost like a saying: it doesn’t matter how good you’ll be to him, the savage doesn’t know recognition. Finally, this very pejorative image of the natives is reinforced with the constant assumption that they are not even human. Caliban is indeed much criticized by Prospero because of his very demonized ancestry: “got by the devil himself Upon thy wicked dam” “A freckled whelp hag-born — not honored with A human shape.” He accuses him of being the son of the allegory of evil: the devil himself. Thus, to say that with such parents he cannot be a good person. The already preconceived opinion of all these characters serves to show readers that slavery is justified in the face of such odious and evil people.

Shakespeare’s vision of colonialism approaches medieval Aristotelianism, which is often used to justify such a process. Indeed, according to Aristotle each being had a defined goal at birth, a temos, some beings were made to be dominated. Added to this is the fact that the church considered foreigners as sinners whom it was their duty to bring back on the right way. It was only after the controversy in Valladolid that they were regarded as human beings who had to be treated properly. Aristotelianism is most evident when Caliban says to Stephano: “I’ll show thee every fertile inch o’ th’ island. And I will kiss thy foot.” Despite the fact that trusting Prospero led him to a sad end, he made the same mistake again. He seems incapable of judgment and caution, which shows that his deepest nature is to be under the guidance of a master.

Finally, to show the positive contribution of colonialism, the dramatist presents the European nobles in a favorable light, the one of the savior and the benefactor. This time it’s Ariel who’s taken to task. Being Prospero’s slave, he asks him to give him back his freedom, to which he answers: “Dost thou forget From what a torment I did free thee ?” Miranda’s father is posing as the savior. He wants to show that while being his slave is not an ideal condition, what he faced before was much worse. The reign of Sycorax may represent the old order that Europeans considered barbaric, but theirs is no less barbaric. In addition, Miranda, who is a very wise and good character, seems to lack empathy for Caliban. In her great colonial kindness, she still tried to help that poor savage: “I pitied thee, Took pains to make thee speak”.

Thus, in a certain sense we can say that Shakespeare seems favourable to colonialism. He presents to us a savage figure, Caliban, who seems without principle, kindness and judgment. Moreover, he portrays the European nobles as the saviors of those ignorant natives.

Yet if we look more closely it seems that Shakespeare’s view of colonialism is not so traditional. If we read these two acts from a more modern point of view and with the fact that colonization is not a justifiable action in mind, we discover a new meaning.

Despite what one might think at first glance, on closer examination of the Caliban character we discover a man quite capable of judgment and endowed with an enlightened mind. The sentence: “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother, Which thou takest from me.” is very interesting. First of all, he uses a sophisticated language that has nothing to envy the other characters. Moreover, he is capable of being lucid about the situation, he claims his right to enjoy his property. Despite the great influence and fear he has for Prospero, he analyses the situation and expresses himself on it. On the other hand, he claims possession of the island because it belonged to his mother, so Caliban has an awareness of the notion of heritage and kinship. Finally, Shakespeare takes the opportunity to remind us that during colonization, territories are stolen and not acquired in a logical way. At the end of Act 2 the son of Sycorax sings these words with joy: “Freedom, high-day”. The author reinforces the fact that colonization is indeed a suppression of freedom for slaves and not an opportunity. Moreover, the notion of freedom is very complex and is very important for European intellectuals of the time. Caliban was therefore a man like any other who only wanted freedom in an oppressive society.

On the other hand, Gonzalo is the one who must best embody the author’s opinion. He is surely the wisest, most benevolent and intelligent character. In fact, he’s the only Italian nobleman who has Prospero’s grace in his eyes: “A noble Neapolitan, Gonzalo, Out of his charity”. When he arrived on the island, he told his companions how the island would be organized if he were the king. The island is often associated with utopias in literature and we can easily guess that Gonzalo describes what he believes is the perfect society. He says of it that: “Riches, poverty, And use of service none. (…) No occupation. All men idle, all.” In other words, slavery has no place in an egalitarian and just society. He places all men on an equal footing without one man having to perform a task for another. Then, in the sentence: “All things in common nature should produce Without sweat or endeavor.” he suggests that we don’t really need slaves if everyone does their part, it’s more of a whim than a necessity. The fact that such a civilized and honourable man puts forward these arguments gives real resonance to the anti-colonial arguments.

Moreover, we find in the character of Caliban the myth of the good savage according to Rousseau. According to him, people living outside European society are in tune with nature and live in a world before capital sin, in a pure state. Indeed, contrary to the onomastic of his first name which strongly reminds us of the term cannibal, Caliban and the natives in general do not seem to be so barbaric but on the contrary quite harmless. Gonzalo calls them “my innocent people.” and Trinculo refers to Sycorax’s son as “A most poor credulous monster”. The terms used to qualify them are meliorative. We are moved by such a innocuous vision of these men who often frightened the population due to a lack of knowledge. Moreover, Caliban’s behaviour in the face of Stephano, which we may take to be foolishness, could be much more noble and only be a profoundly good nature that still has faith in humanity.

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In conclusion, Shakespeare gives a favourable view of colonialism, especially for the public of the time. For this he uses the character of Caliban, who possesses the attributes of a bloodthirsty savage. The author also shows Miranda and Prospero as saviours who came to bring knowledge to the ignorant. Yet the contemporary reader easily notices the dramaturg’s hidden criticisms of colonialism. What he does in particular through the wise Gonzalo and the not so uncivilized Caliban. Thus, through a play with conventional appearances, Shakespeare makes his point in an ambiguous and thoughtful way. It is in fact a profoundly humanistic writing that questions human nature and asks the question of who is the savage.

Works Cited

  1. Barroll, L. (1997). Politics, Colonialism, and the Tempest. Shakespeare Quarterly, 48(4), 383-412. doi:10.2307/2871366.
  2. Bhabha, H. K. (1985). Signs taken for wonders: Questions of ambivalence and authority under a tree outside Delhi, May 1817. Critical Inquiry, 12(1), 144-165. doi:10.1086/448370.
  3. Césaire, A. (2002). A Tempest. (R. Miller, Trans.). University of California Press.
  4. Greenblatt, S. (1988). The improvisation of power. In Shakespearean Negotiations (pp. 1-32). University of California Press.
  5. Hulme, P. (1989). Prospero and Caliban. Critical Quarterly, 31(3), 54-64. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8705.1989.tb00534.x.
  6. JanMohamed, A. R. (1985). The economy of Manichean allegory: The function of racial difference in colonialist literature. Critical Inquiry, 12(1), 59-87. doi:10.1086/448365.
  7. Loomba, A. (2002). Shakespeare, race, and colonialism. Oxford University Press.
  8. Said, E. (1979). Orientalism. Vintage Books.
  9. Vaughan, V. M. (1993). Representing Caliban. Shakespeare Quarterly, 44(1), 1-31. doi:10.2307/2871308.
  10. Yachnin, P. (1992). The politics of Prospero. Shakespeare Quarterly, 43(1), 1-32. doi:10.2307/2871148.
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Shakespeare’s Criticism Of Colonialism In Acts 1 And 2 Of The Tempest. (2021, December 16). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 28, 2024, from
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