Colonialist discourse in The Tempest: Fact or myth

Seminar Paper, 2005

10 Pages, Grade: 15/20


Ever since its publication in 1609 (?), The Tempest has been a hugely appreciated play, most probably on account of its ability to satisfy everyone’s taste: music and dancing, action, suspense, comedy and love, The Tempest has got it all. But just as the play is enjoyable, it is also complicated, multilayered. Recent criticism of the play, especially since the 1950s, has focused on the colonial discourse supposedly underlying the play. Stephen Greenblatt for instance, on the subject of Caliban, argues that he ‘is anything but a Noble Savage’.[1] For James Smith, he is ‘one of the most obviously nightmarish figures in the play’[2]. I have in the past six months seen two productions of The Tempest, and never did it strike me as being a play infused with colonial discourse. Although Shakespeare’s interest in other cultures and exploring the ‘exotic’, the ‘other’ pervades the entire corpus of his work, one should be careful about freely associating this curiosity of the unknown with colonial discourse- whether deliberate or unintentional on Shakespeare’s part- or race-writing. ‘In discussion of value, Shakespeare is, of course, invariably treated as a special case, having come to serve as something like the gold standard of English Literature’.[3] Although this is a contestable statement in itself, the aim of this essay is not to discuss the authority and reliability of Shakespeare as a playwright, but to question the views which label The Tempest as a colonial, post-colonial, proto-colonial play. There is no need to discuss the existence of othering in the play, as this would be stating the obvious. Rather, I would like to show that, although many incidents in the play may invite a reader to a colonial reading of the text, they can just as well be over-interpretations and fall victim to a subjugation of a discourse foreign to Shakespeare’s intentions.

One of the first questions that arise when talking of colonial discourse in The Tempest is the issue of anachronism. Is it viable to address the discourse of colonialism and race-writing in a text that precedes the origin of these discourses? In Jonathan Crewe’s eyes, ‘to read these texts into stabilized modern racial categories is anachronistic’.[4] This does not mean that race and the ‘other’ are not a major of Shakespeare’s concern, but that the way he deals with these subjects are different from the way we might interpret them today. Crewe contends that ‘racial categories and imaginary racial genealogies are fluid at the time Shakespeare is writing’[5], as opposed to the stabilized modern racial categories of today. Moreover, ‘racial categories are never constructed independently of other cultural-political categories, notably those of class, sexuality, gender and nationality’[6]. This insinuates that good care has to be in operation whilst looking at a text and, importantly, its context. As Barker and Hulme point out, ‘the dominant approach within literary study has conceived of the text as autotelic (…); in other words a text that is fixed in history and, at the same time, curiously free of historical limitation’.[7] This implies that ‘any reading must be made from a particular position, but is not reducible to that position’[8]. So if we read The Tempest purely against the background of the author’s own time, it becomes clear that, although the entrepreneurial spirit of colonisation was well underway, and although critics, like French sceptic Montaigne, who had written his essay ‘Of the Cannibals’, were questioning the legitimacy of colonial actions, it is important to note that they did not possess the specifically post-colonial scope that we find in contemporary criticism.

To demonstrate that The Tempest is not categorically instilled with colonialist ideas, a close analysis has to be undertaken of the different instances in the text that have given rise to this sort of criticism in the past. The most obvious link made with colonialism surely stems from the character of Caliban. The first time we meet him is when Prospero calls him to his service in Act I, scene 2. An essential subject to address at this early stage of the play is that of ‘true beginnings’.[9] It has often been pointed out that there seems to be a discrepancy between Prospero’s account of his arrival on the island and Caliban’s. Prospero’s protasis recounts how ‘here in this island [they] arriv’d’[10], but it takes Caliban to come on stage to give readers further detail on the circumstances. ‘This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,/ which thou takest from me’.[11] In his forceful speech which follows these lines, he remembers the ‘initial mutual trust’[12] between him and Prospero, and reminds his current master that he is ‘all the subjects that you [Prospero] have,/Which first was mine own king; and here you sty me/ In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me/ The rest o’ th’ island’.[13] The incongruity of their opposing statements heavily puts into doubt the legitimacy of Prospero’s narration. Whereas the usurped duke gives an ample although threatening answer to Ariel upon his request for freedom, he is clearly disconcerted by Caliban’s speech, as all he can reply is a defiant ‘thou most lying slave’[14] whilst launching a counter attack by accusing the ‘monster’ of seeking to violate the honour of his child.


[1] Stephen Greenblatt, Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture, (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 26.

[2] James Smith, Shakespearian and other Essays, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), p. 191.

[3] Rob Nixon, ‘African and Caribbean Appropriations of the Tempest ’, in A Shakespeare Reader: Sources and Criticism, (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 2000), p. 283.

[4] Jonathan Crewe, ‘Out of the Matrix: Shakespeare and Race-Writing’ in The Yale Journal of Criticism, volume 8, number 2, (Yale University and Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), p. 13.

[5] Ibid., p. 15.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Francis Barker and Peter Hulme, ‘Nymphs and Reapers Heavily Vanish: The Discursive con-texts of The Tempest ’ in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis, (London: Methuen, 1985), p. 191.

[8] Ibid., p. 193.

[9] Barker and Hulme, p. 199.

[10] William Shakespeare, The Tempest, (London: Penguin, 1996), I.ii.171.

[11] Ibid., I.ii.332-333.

[12] Barker and Hulme, p. 199.

[13] The Tempest, I.ii.341-344.

[14] Ibid., I.ii.345.

Excerpt out of 10 pages


Colonialist discourse in The Tempest: Fact or myth
University of Glasgow  (Department of English Literature)
Shakespeare/module11/ University of Glasgow
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ISBN (eBook)
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496 KB
Colonialist, Tempest, Fact, Shakespeare/module11/, University, Glasgow
Quote paper
Jenny Roch (Author), 2005, Colonialist discourse in The Tempest: Fact or myth, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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