The Tempest - English Department UCSB

The Tempest
Third lecture: a “postcolonial”
“The first work of American literature”
• This is how Leo Marx, a scholar of American lit., described The
Tempest over 40 years ago (The Machine in the Garden, 1964).
• What he had in mind is the way the play seems to meditate on the
discovery of a new world.
• And in the past 20 years, some critics have found a colonizing
theme in the play.
• Prospero has wrested the island from Caliban.
• “This island’s mine by Sycorax, my mother/ Which thou tak’st from
me” (I.2.351-53), C. says.
• “For I am all the subjects that you have,/ That first was my own
• And Prospero has enslaved him.
• Prospero thus seems a colonizing European master, or despot, who
has taken the isle from its aboriginal inhabitant, whom he has made
to serve him.
• And Caliban’s account of how Prospero originally “made much of
me” becomes a narrative of the colonizing process.
• Naming “the bigger light” and “the less/ That burn by day and night”
(echoing Genesis) seems almost archetypal in its bringing of
European knowledge to native peoples.
The island’s location
• Officially the island must be in the Mediterranean: The
ship is on the way back from Tunis to Naples.
• And Prospero was presumably set adrift in the Tyrrean
• But then we recall that Shakespeare had been reading
accounts of shipwreck in Bermuda – of a ship in a fleet
bound for Virginia.
• And Ariel says he’s moored the ship in “the deep nook
where once/ Thou call’dst me up at midnight to fetch
dew/ From the still-vext Bermudas” (I.2.227-29).
• So the island has imaginatively some New World
• (Bermuda was originally uninhabited.)
• The island’s imaginary character makes it a kind of
virtual space, to be filled by whatever we imagine.
• The name seems related to Carib, the latter name coming from the
Spanish caribe, the indigenous people of the West Indies.
• Whom Columbus called cannibales.
• Is he human?
• Prospero seems to think so: “Then was this island/ (Save for the son
that she [Sycorax] did litter here,/ A freckled whelp, hag-born) not
honored with a human shape” (I.2.281-83).
• Prospero calls him simply “my slave” and, in his anger, “the beast
• Stephano and Trinculo call him a “monster” and remark on his fishy
• But is this, the question of his humanity, very point of Caliban?
• Early sixteenth-century Europeans immediately wondered whether
the inhabitants of the New World were human.
• Just as they doubted the humanity of the black inhabitants of West
Africa, whom they enslaved.
• Miranda says he originally “wouldst gabble like/ A thing most brutish”
until she “endowed thy purposes/ With words that made them
known” (I.2.356ff).
• A colonial reading would see this as imposing a European language
on the “brutish” native tongue.
The horror of miscegenation?
• The breaking point of Prospero’s colonial endeavor: Caliban tries to
rape (in Prospero’s understanding) Miranda.
• He used Caliban “with humane care, and lodged thee/ In mine own
cell till thou didst seek to violate/ The honor of my child.”
• “O ho, O ho! Would’t have been done!/ Thou didst prevent me; I had
peopled else/ This isle with Calibans.”
• Can we imagine Caliban’s understanding of this?
• Can he be understood simply to have misinterpreted Miranda’s pity
and kind intentions?
• (In asking these questions, of course, we’re moving outside the
• The bitterness between the master and slave derives from this
attempted sexual encounter.
• And justifies, for Prospero, the enslavement of Caliban.
The indigenous Caliban
• Caliban says that in the beginning he loved Prospero “And showed
thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle,/ The fresh springs, brine pits, barren
place and fertile” (I.2.357f).
• And his offer to transfer his knowledge to Stephano and Triculo,
confirms this sense of his being at one with island’s natural
phenomena: II.2.156ff.
• Some of the most lyrical poetry of the play is associated with
• In response to Ariel’s “tune on a tabor and pipe” Caliban says, “Be
not afeard: the isle is full of noises,/ Sounds and sweet airs that give
delight and hurt not . . .” (III.3.134ff).
• It’s the one moment when Caliban responds to Ariel.
• In the end Caliban repents his folly in taking up with S & T.
• “And I’ll be wise hereafter,/ And seek for grace.”
• “What a thrice-double ass/ Was I to take this drunkard for a god/ And
worship this dull fool!”
• And the island is returned to him with the withdrawal of Prospero
and the ship.
• The play becomes then literally “post-colonial”?
The status of this reading
How much of this reading of the play could have been intended by
Or available to his first audiences?
We notice how it tends to subvert other readings of the play.
Moving the focus from Prospero and his transformation to Caliban.
The “Caliban problem” perhaps analogous to the “Shylock problem” in
Which raises the question of the mutability of interpretation of classic texts,
What exactly does “classic” mean?
Are there texts that “transcend” their own time and culture?
But can human art really evade the culture of which it’s a part, and through
which expresses its meanings?
Or does “classic” mean an excess of meaning, a sort of spilling over of
meanings, in such a way that other periods, other cultures, can reinterpret?
Caliban is imagined at the very beginning of English imperialism.
And because he was made not only a figure of threat and danger, but also
of fascinating connection with new worlds, he continues to seem interesting.
And as attitudes toward imperialism, colonialism alter over the subsequent
400 years, our attitudes toward Caliban, Prospero can alter.
Do we have to choose definitive interpretation?
Or can we hold alternative interpretations and meanings in our minds?
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