The Colonizer and the Colonized. Analysis of Shakespeare's "The tempest"

Term Paper, 2006

15 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Sources

3. Dramatic Structure

4. The Colonizer and the Colonized
4.1. Caliban, the Victim of Colonization
4.2. The European Characters’ Attitude to Caliban

5. Summary

6. Works Cited

1. Introduction

It is a fact that Shakespeare’s plays are an essential part of the Elizabethan period and hence deal with topics characteristic of this time. This is also true of The Tempest, which was probably written in 1610 – 1611, for it is concerned with the theme of colonization and exploration of the New World, the newly discovered Americas. The Elizabethan period is known as the Age of Exploration.1

Thus, The Tempest not only deals with the effects of colonization and civilization on the natives but some critics also tend to read this play as a metaphor of colonialism, since every character is concerned with how he would govern the island if he was the ruler.2 However, The Tempest can be regarded as a play whose plot is completely original and also very personal. The critic Richard Dutton even claims that there is a “theory that Prospero in The Tempest represents Shakespeare himself”.3

Critics have taken this play very seriously and have pointed out its complexity. Hence, Stanley Wells says that “The Tempest (…) is a supremely poetic drama (…) because it speaks (…) on many levels, universally relevant (…) and (…) universally effective”.4 Why is The Tempest regarded as so original and unique? Well, one might find an answer to this question by taking a closer look at its background, its sources, its structure and at its main characters.

For this reason, I will deal with the sources of The Tempest in more detail in the following chapter. In a next step, the dramatic structure of the play will be analyzed. Since this play is mainly about colonizers and the colonized, it is also of vital importance to analyze the prominent character Caliban and the European characters’ attitude to him, in this context. It will be argued that Caliban becomes a victim of colonization.

2. Sources

During Shakespeare’s lifetime Europe experienced an immense increase in knowledge, concerning both science and exploration. Hence, a time of unprecedented global expansion began with the English founding Virginia in 1607. From 1607 – 1609 the Jamestown colony, the first permanent English settlement in the New World, was led by Captain John Smith. It is a fact that Shakespeare used letters from the new Virginia colony in Jamestown to create the plot of The Tempest.

In addition, Shakespeare also drew on the account of a tempest in the Bermudas in 1609 that nearly destroyed a fleet of colonial ships.5 In fact, The Tempest seems to rely on a great number of different sources. Hence, researchers pointed out that The Tempest was influenced by Erasmus’s Naufragium which was first published in 1523 and by Richard Eden’s translation of Peter Martyr’s De orbo novo which is also known under the title Decades of the New Worlde Or West India from 1530.6 In this context, researchers also regard Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516) as a possible source of this play for it shows references to a tempest which is also mentioned in Naufragium.

Although The Tempest seems to be set somewhere in the Mediterranean, the setting actually appears to be in an imaginary place in the New World. As a matter of fact, Shakespeare’s The Tempest refers to a letter by William Strachey, a survivor of the shipwreck in the Bermudas. Strachey described how the shipwrecked Europeans survived relatively unscathed on the island.7 Hence, the question arises whether they received any help or hospitality from the natives. Thus, the image of the native people comes into view.

There is also evidence that Shakespeare read and used Montaigne’s essay “Of Cannibals”.8 In this essay, Montaigne, an enlightened philosopher, draws a sympathetic image of native people regarding them as unspoiled savages because of their unalienated relationship to the natural world. According to Montaigne, the savage is unprejudiced and natural.9 Montaigne was one of the first to voice the idea of cultural relativism.10 Hence, the question also arises whether Shakespeare adopts Montaigne’s attitude towards the Other.11

It must also be taken into account that the structure of The Tempest resembles that of the traditional Italian commedia dell’arte. Hence, The Tempest also shows Italian influences. The commedia dell’arte has some typical characters which similarly appear in The Tempest. Hence, the commedia dell’arte often presents a wizard or magus and his daughter who correspond to Prospero and his daughter Miranda, since the father looks for a suitor for his daughter which is also characteristic of the commedia.12 In the commedia, there is also often a clown-like character named Arlecchino and his companion Brighella. They resemble Stephano and Trinculo in The Tempest. What is more, the commedia also frequently features a lewd Neapolitan hunchback called Pulcinella who resembles Caliban.

3. Dramatic Structure

In contrast to most of Shakespeare’s plays, The Tempest adheres to the three unities of time, place and action.13 Thus, one might say that this play is organized in a neoclassical style. The unity of action was introduced by Aristotle and it means that the dramatic work has a clear beginning, middle and end. Similarly, the unity of time was also invented by Aristotle who said that the action of a play should ideally take place within a day. In the Renaissance, the idea of the concept of place was developed. This means that the action of a play should be set at a single place.

These three unities are important because they add coherence and thus plausibility to a play so that the audience can follow the action more easily. As far as The Tempest is concerned, the action is set on a single place, namely on an island and the action takes place within a relatively short period of time. Hence, one might say that the audience witnesses the action in actual time. Some researchers are of the opinion that the island is located somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea,14 whereas other scholars say that the action takes place in the New World for it seems to be an island that has been colonized.15 I tend to side with the second way of reading. What is more, the play shows unity of action because it has the structure of five acts.

According to this dramatic structure, the first act constitutes the exposition of the play. The exposition serves to introduce the main characters and the problem or conflict of the play. Hence, the first act of The Tempest deals with Antonio’s betrayal of Prospero. Thus, the audience learns how and why Prospero and his daughter Miranda settled on the island. What is more, the protagonists are presented and a severe storm (tempest) introduces this play which serves to indicate the extent of Prospero’s magical power.

The second act introduces the complication or conflict of the play. Hence, in The Tempest it is indicated that Antonio is a revengeful character who plans to murder Alonso. Additionally, the audience is introduced to the savage Caliban as well as to the characters Stefano and Trinculo. Hence, these characters plan a second conspiracy and thus complicate the play.

The third act constitutes the climax of the play which means that a crisis occurs. In romance plays, this is often the moment when two young lovers declare their love in the midst of some complications. Thus, in The Tempest it seems that Prospero does not want his daughter Miranda to see Ferdinand, the man who is in love with her. However, this is only his pretence and the audience knows that. What is more, the conspiracy against Prospero is further developed but again the audience knows that Prospero is not really in peril because Ariel, a spirit of the air who assists him, listens to everything and warns Prospero.

The fourth act is concerned with the falling action which leads to the resolution of the play. Hence, in the fourth act of The Tempest Ferdinand and Miranda admit their love to each other and thus their affection and amour is celebrated. At the same time, Prospero punishes Stefano, Trinculo and Caliban who plotted against him.

The final fifth act constitutes the catastrophe which brings about the conclusion of the play. This act closes the play for it resolves the conflict. In this act, Prospero triumphs over those who wanted to harm and murder him. What is more, Caliban regrets his action against Prospero and Sebastian and Antonio are defeated.


1 Cf. Andrew Hadfield, Literature, Travel, and Colonial Writing in the English Renaissance 1545 – 1625 (Oxford, 1998), passim and Jonathan Hart, Columbus, Shakespeare and the Interpretation of the New World ( New York, 2003), passim.

2 Cf. Christopher Schmidt-Nowara, The Conquest of History: Spanish Colonialism and National Histories in the Nineteenth Century (Pittsburgh, 2006), p. 21.

3 Richard Dutton, William Shakespeare: A Literary Life (New York, 1989), p. 152.

4 Stanley Wells, Shakespeare: The Writer and His Work (New York, 1978), p. 74.

5 Cf. ibid.

6 Frank Kermode, The Arden Shakespeare: The Tempest (London 1954, 1983), passim and Herbert Coursen, The Tempest: A Guide to the Play (Westport, 2000), p. 7. See also Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. Volume VIII (London, 1975), passim.

7 Cf. Scanlan, passim.

8 “Of Cannibals“ was published in France in 1580 and available in English translation in 1603 (ibid).

9 Cf. Ingrid Heermann, „Edle Wilde – Rohe Barbaren. Vorgeschichte eines Mythos.“ In: Mythos Tahiti: Südsee und Realität (Berlin, 1987), pp. 10-13.

10 „(…) everyone gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country: as, indeed, we have no other level of truth and reason than the example and the idea of the opinions and customs of the place wherein we live. There [where we live] is always ‘the perfect religion,’ there ‘the perfect government, ‘ there ‘the perfect’ everything (Montaigne quoted from Scanlan, p.1).

11 I will use the term ’the Other’ in order to refer to native people.

12 Virginia Mason Vaughan & Alden T. Vaughan, The Tempest. The Arden Shakespeare, 3rd Series (London, 2001), 12.

13 David L. Hirst, The Tempest: Text and Performance (Houndmills, 1984), pp. 34-35.

14 Cf. Vaughan & Vaughan, p. 4

15 Cf. ibid, pp. 98-108 and Stephen Orgel, The Tempest. The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford, 1987), pp. 83-85.

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The Colonizer and the Colonized. Analysis of Shakespeare's "The tempest"
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Shakespeare, The Tempest, Drama, Caliban, Colonisation, Colonizer, Victimization
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Dr. Sirinya Pakditawan (Author), 2006, The Colonizer and the Colonized. Analysis of Shakespeare's "The tempest", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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