Is The Tempest Discussing the Colonisation of the New World?

The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s most loved comedies. It tells the tale of a storm at sea, which causes a small group of travellers to wash up on the shore of a barely inhabited island. The islanders consist of Prospero- a sorcerer and former Duke of Milan, his daughter Miranda, Ariel- a spirit that does as Prospero commands, Caliban- the deformed and brutish former ruler of the island.

The merry few who are shipwrecked on the island include a love interest for Miranda- Prince Ferdinand, the king of Naples, the duke of Milan, a jester, a butler and a courtier.

As with most of Shakespeare’s comedies, there are plots, betrayals, mistaken identities, romance and a drunkard providing comic relief.

But a question that has intrigued me is whether Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a statement regarding the exploration and colonisation of the New World?

Well, to answer that, we need to look at what was occurring during the time of writing.  The first known printing of The Tempest is in 1623, although it was first performed in 1611. At this point in time, there had been a colony in Jamestown, Virginia for about four years, and there had been reports of discoveries of other cultures and peoples since the Spanish and Portuguese landed in South America almost a hundred years previously.

James I was new to the throne, having inherited from Elizabeth I and many of the themes in The Tempest centre around the ideas of family, perhaps a reflection of the king’s concern regarding the future of his dynasty and the marriages of his children.

The Elizabethan ‘Golden Age’ of drama had continued into his reign and the bard would have written with a royal audience in mind. At the time of writing, he would also have had read reports regarding the Americas and the travails of explorers. One such report was written by William Strachey, in which he described ‘A most dreadfull Tempest’, one so dreadful in fact, that it would prevent the travellers from landing in Virginia and instead led to the discovery of Bermuda.

Caliban, the original inhabitant of the island before he was joined by Prospero and Miranda, is presented as a savage, deformed monstrosity; barbaric, prone to over drinking and an attempted rapist. He is the son of the late Sycorax- a witch exiled to the island many years ago. He grew up without any European influence or culture until Prospero arrives and decides to make him his slave. He uses his magical powers and superior mental faculties to control and torture Caliban, denying him ownership and lordship of the island- his birthplace and inheritance. Caliban’s savagery is presented in direct comparison to Prospero’s civility.

Ariel, the other-worldly inhabitant of the island, was kept trapped in a tree by Sycorax for several years. He was released by the magus and in recompense, must do his bidding. He is described as quaint, dainty and delicate and his name itself would have resonated with audiences of the time- Urial was the name of the spirit that royal astronomer John Dee used during his experiments with magic.  Ariel has independent thoughts, he encourages Prospero to forgive rather than to choose vengeance and he tells us that he refused to perform ‘earthy and abhorred commands’ given to him by Sycorax. He is a complex character- not altogether wholesome and good, but rational and elevated in thought.

Upon Prospero and Miranda’s arrival on the island, both Caliban and Ariel are brought under his control. Both serve different uses to the sorcerer. Ariel brings about the tempest that starts the play and acts as the eyes and ears for Prospero throughout. Caliban, on the other hand, is of far more physical use- he is strangely attuned to the nature on the island. He speaks of the ‘strange noises’ on the island but likens them to music, and expresses this is the form of beautiful verse:

“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 sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds me thought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again”

Prospero uses Caliban to show him how to survive on the island, which foods are safe to eat and where the best sources of water are. This reminded me of John Smith’s journals describing his experiences in Virginia- he tells of how the Powhatan tribes helped the settlers in Jamestown. They showed the new comers how to grow maize and other food, as well as trading with them. The alliance between them ensured the survival of the settlers, who used it to their full advantage. Unfortunately, the situation was not half as romantic as Disney would have us believe. The Powhaton people cultivated their land in a certain way, leaving some of the land fallow and practicing a form of crop rotation. The people were semi-nomadic, working with the resources available and treating the world around them with respect. The Europeans did not have the same reverence or appreciation for the natural world, or the assistance they had been given. They raped the land. They built their forts and settlements, taking fallow, good land from the indigenous people. They kept an uneasy truce until the Powhatan tribes made a small, pre-emptive attack. What ensued was basically genocide. There are accounts of ones saying they were “glad [they] didn’t have to pretend to be friends with the Indians anymore”. After using the people for their knowledge, hospitality and resources, the English decimated them.

Not unlike Prospero’s use and abuse of Caliban… Although some of the events in Virginia happened after the Tempest was written, we can be sure that Shakespeare had the reports of the indigenous people in mind when he created Caliban. Andre Thevet described the native people of North America as being a ‘wild and brutish people, without Fayth, without Law, without Religion, and without any civilitie: but living like brute beasts’. The explorer’s reports of the New World had captivated the imagination of the European people for some time and had spread to England with its attempts to colonize areas of North America.

Did Shakespeare have the perspicacity to see the way events would unfold? Was he familiar enough with human nature to know that the ‘civilised’ Europeans would use and domineer the native inhabitants of any new world they discovered? I think so.

His character of Prospero is so complex, some people love him- he is described as a conductor, a creator, a stage manager. This is the last play that Shakespeare wrote alone, and the final speech delivered by Prospero feels like it is an Adieu from the Bard himself. It speaks of the ‘help of [our] good hands’ (our applause in appreciation of his work) and how the audience’s indulgences would set him free. As the one to open and close the play, as well as orchestrating the events throughout and referring to himself as a practiser of white magic, Prospero appears to be a good and strong character. I do not find him so. I find him to be a hypocritical bully. He is usurped because he spends more time looking into his sorcery than ruling his dukedom. He frees Ariel from the tree and speaks disparagingly of Sycorax- who is unable to defend herself from the grave- but then proceeds to not only entrap Ariel into doing as the sorcerer bids, but also plays mind games with him throughout, constantly proffering the gift of freedom to the spirit but also demanding more in return. He uses Caliban- enslaving him and denying his true position as ruler of the island. Something that Caliban is aware of but completely unable to change. He manipulates his daughter and her lover, and never really thanks Gonzalo for his help in keeping both Prospero and Miranda alive.

As a character, I feel that he is well-written and the most complex character in this play. But I can’t help but think that Shakespeare could see how the English travellers to the New World would perceive themselves as being civilised and magnanimous in their rule over the unfortunate people already living there, when in actual fact, they were using the people and the land in a most unethical, amoral and brutal way.

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