Postcolonial Theory in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest

Seminar Paper, 2007

16 Pages, Grade: 2



1 Introduction

2 The Idea of Otherness – Defining Oneself and the Colonized
2.1 The Unsettling Kinship of the Self and the Other

3 The Entrapment of Caliban
3.1 The Conquest and Rupture between Caliban and Prospero

4 Resistance, the Destabilization of Accepted Values and the Creation of the Third Space
4.1 The Instable Construct of Prospero’s Power
4.2 Caliban’s Attempt to Dispossess Prospero of His Power

5 Mimicry and Hybridity.
5.1 Mimicry
5.2 Hybridity – Defining the Difference Between Prospero and Caliban
5.3 Caliban’s Desperation Finally Entraps Him

6 Conclusion

1 Introduction

Postcolonial theory results from a network of political and cultural tensions between colonizers and colonized. This approach will de-construct Eurocentrism showing that European values and standards are not universal. Highlighting that the same historical event can be interpreted in radically different ways depending on perspective, norms and values, accepted values will be destabilized and marked as constructs. Further, this paper will question the reasons given for colonialism and deconstructs them in order to reveal the economic or political interests they are based on.

I will critically examine the representations of Caliban’s culture in Western discourse. In The Tempest, cultural ideology provides the ideological network for the colonial endeavours which could be theorized as bringing progress to an archaic world. A striking example for the strategy deconstructing “othering” is revealed in Chapter 1 where Caliban is presented as a completely inhuman being revealing strong racism. Therefore, Shakespeare implicitly legitimizes the colonial endeavor, because people like Caliban deprived of full humanity can be regarded as people without history, culture and they have therefore no logical claim to sovereignty. Shakespeare also produces a symptomatic reading of western discourse by psychoanalyzing to reveal western fear of the “other”.

In the following chapters I will reconstruct the invisible and analyze colonialism from the perspective of the colonized that is in this case the “monster” Caliban. On the one hand, I will show that Caliban is not only an exploited victim but also a being of natural human descent that is capable of resisting to colonization by active and violent opposition. On the other hand, Caliban’s resistance against Prospero entraps him in Prospero’s system. The colonial situation between Prospero and Caliban creates a “Third Space”, at which I will take a closer look in chapter 4. In Chapter 7, I focus on the theory of mimicry and hybridity revealing how the colonizer insists on the belief that his culture is the norm; and, due to this assumption, I will expose several examples showing how the colonized, Caliban, imitates the colonizer’s culture and becomes therefore a part of the colonizer’s system. Due to the accommodation between both identities, hybridity turns around against Caliban. As a result hybrid space always crushes the colonized in a system like colonialism.

2 The Idea of Otherness – Defining Oneself and the Colonized

Shakespeare’s Tempest is interspersed not only with humor but also with several indications of western fear of the so-called “other”. There is a natural distance between Western colonizers and colonized which is revealed by declaring the colonized as not being human and, therefore, as not being equal. The colonial endeavor is implicitly justified, because people like Caliban, incalculable and deprived of full humanity, can be regarded as people devoid of history, culture and claim to autonomy. The reason why colonized are perceived and described as inhumane is due to their differentness: their odd shape, their weird language, their lack of culture and civilization. In comparison to the Western hemisphere the isle is a backdrop of civilization in which the colonized inhabitant, who is in this case Caliban, is eliminated as human factor. The colonized world, at the time of Shakespeare, is shaped in such a way as imagined by European people.

Caliban serves to represent “the other” in a rising colonial discourse. He is introduced from Prospero’s Eurocentric perspective as a “salvage and deformed slave”1 antithetical to spirit. Prospero and Ariel describe him as an unfriendly “freckled whelp hag-born—not honour'd with a human shape.”2 (Act I, scene 3) The sheer naming of “Caliban” reminds of “cannibal” and suggests a savage being that lacks any human education. The inhumanity of Caliban, or rather his monstrousness, is shaped by both the colonizer and the new intruders when they refer to him as “abhorred slave,” which does not completely dehumanize him as much as: “devil,” “salvage,”, “fish”, because of his smell, and “monster” with “four legs”3. Shakespeare chooses an quite obvious way to deal with Caliban, “the other:” He is simply evil and ugly conveying a biased image of the colonized arousing negation, as it is exemplified by Miranda when she describes her feelings towards Caliban in act I, scene 2, lines 311-312:

Mir. 'Tis a villain, sir,

I do not love to look on.4

Nevertheless, this creature is not as much inhuman as told, because he surprises the new arrived colonizers with speaking the language of them. At the same time, Caliban unsettles the intruders by revealing more and more human properties. Caliban is therefore not shaped as an animal but a being of primitive humanity.

2.1 The Unsettling Kinship of the Self and the Other

When Chinua Achebe speaks of things not “being in their place”5, he points at the disruption between the self and the other. As long as there is a clear distance and a natural separation between the self and the other, things are supposed to be in their place. The discovery of a creature of inhuman shape and experiencing that it adopts humanizing properties leads to unsettlement because things are removed from their place. Therefore, values and definitions of what determines humanity become inconsistent and no longer fixed.

In his critical review of Heart of Darkness, Achebe points at the common ancestry and kinship between “the other” and the colonizer, which Shakespeare also does, but in a rather subtle way. The next cited passage will exemplify Caliban’s lawlessness and lust, which support the idea of his primitive character that is reduced to the mere instincts of an animal:

Pros. [cont.]

In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate The honour of my child.

Cal. O ho, O ho! would 't had been done!

Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else This isle with Calibans.6

Shakespeare’s idea of copulation between degenerated Caliban and delicate Miranda, which could have resulted in Miranda’s pregnancy, shows that Caliban is of human descent; otherwise, he could not be capable to father children with another human being.

The Tempest projects the image of the colony as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization. The character Caliban does not only symbolize the colonized and a victim of psychological and cultural oppression, but he also stands for the dehumanised savage. By shaping the image of the other, the colonizer defines himself and his natural identity.

3 The Entrapment of Caliban

From the Eurocentric perspective negation does not mean excluding the other from social network but to entrap him by systematically domination. This happens through the process of love and fear: Love, in terms of education, constitutes the initial step to access the faith of the colonized. Fear, as a next step, is applied through oppression, violence and torture in case that the colonized, Caliban, attempts to resist. The effect of the new Anglo-American nationalism reflects a disregard for the independence and autonomy of the inhabitants of the island. Nevertheless, despite of being evil and inhumane, the colonized prove to be useful when they are forced to comply.

Pros.: We cannot miss him: he does make our fire, Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices That profit us.7

Cultural ideology provides the ideological network for Prospero’s endeavours which could be theorized as bringing progress to the colonized world. But Prospero’s intention to educate Caliban, of course, is not to make a perfect, equal human being out of him but to find a level to communicate with him in order to make him useful and finally to abuse him. Caliban, at least, must be introduced to Prospero’s language; otherwise Caliban would not understand Prospero’s instructions. As a consequence, Caliban’s cultural identity and history is distorted and suppressed within the power structure of colonization. His physical deformation represents his distortion and result of the violence he has to face during his enslavement.

3.1 The Conquest and Rupture between Caliban and Prospero

Frantz Fanon explains that “colonialism cannot be understood without the possibility of torturing, of violating, or of massacring.”8 What Fanon means is that colonized will never accept to be dominated by their intruders without resistance, and resistance, again, needs to be opposed by torturing, violating, massacring. Most People of the Third World are unaware of their alleged cultural deficit, and they usually try to defend their autonomy to a certain extent. In return, the colonizers would never accept to retreat and refuse to their domination. Therefore, postcolonialism affects both the colonizers and the colonized.

In the Tempest, both Prospero and the intruders of the island as dominant colonizers and mediators of history uphold a cultural ideal through both psychological and physical force, which Caliban is exposed to. Caliban is also presented as a raw material with a remote human ancestry that needs to be rebuilt by violent education. One of Caliban’s main characteristics is the creative use of colonizer’s language and culture as the next quote will exemplify.

Cal. As wicked dew as e'er my mother brush'd With raven's feather from unwholesome fen Drop on you both! a south-west blow on ye And blister you all o'er!9

Caliban enters the scene by expressing an aggressive stream of curses just to confirm what has been said about him in previous scenes when he was absent. This passage implicitly invites the audience to adopt the Eurocentric view of the evil Caliban and, therefore, to support the idea of dominating him. In fact, there is no chance for Caliban to present himself as a victim and exploited slave; instead, Caliban indirectly legitimized Prospero’s reaction to his abusive cursing:

Pros. For this, be sure, to-night thou shalt have cramps, Side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up; urchins Shall, for that vast of night that they may work All exercise on thee; thou shalt be pinch'd

As thick as honeycomb, each pinch more stinging Than bees that made 'em.10

The dialogue between Caliban and Prospero exemplifies the disability of cooperation in the colonial system of this island, because there is no level of common interest, despite to whish the other to leave or making him adopting the own culture. After having been suppressed once again, Caliban draws back and reveals desperation:

Cal. I must eat my dinner.

This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother,

Which thou tak'st from me. When thou cam'st first […]11

Here, Caliban strings together two propositions, the one expressing a need, the second a claim. “I must eat my dinner,” and “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,” are completely on different levels of meaning. The sudden urgency to eat dinner considerably weakens his claim to having been betrayed. Caliban still resists in a way, but, on the other side, he is resigned to his fate. He reflects desperation and distress, but the continuous hints at especially his evilness try to avoid compassion for his situation. Nevertheless, Shakespeare offers room to Caliban to reveal his feelings. In contrast to other literary pieces, such as The Heart of Darkness, Caliban has a voice and is able to expose his anger:

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 lov'd thee, And show'd thee all die qualities o' th' isle,

The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile12


1 William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. Frank Kermode (London: Routledge, 1988) 2.

2 Shakespeare 28.

3 Shakespeare 64.

4 Shakespeare 29.

5 Chinua Achebe, "An Image of Africa" The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001. 1783-1794) 1787.

6 Shakespeare 32.

7 Shakespeare 29.

8 Frantz Fanon, Toward the African Revolution: Political Essays (New York : Grove Press / Atlantic Monthly Press, 1969) 66.

9 Shakespeare 30.

10 Shakespeare 30.

11 Shakespeare 31.

12 Shakespeare 31.

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Postcolonial Theory in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
Oberseminar Theories of American Studies
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
437 KB
William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Postcolonialism, Postcolonial Theories, Caliban, Miranda, Prospero, Theories of American Studies
Quote paper
Gerlinde Didea (Author), 2007, Postcolonial Theory in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • guest on 12/15/2012

    The book is written very clearly focusing on its topic. The language is also lucid., not very intellectual but pleasing and suitable for students. But i could not read the whole text for its unavilability. Thanks.

Read the ebook
Title: Postcolonial Theory in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free