A discussion of Jan Kott’s view of “The Tempest” (Shakespeare)

Essay, 1997

7 Pages, Grade: 1

Free online reading

The part of the history of the world that is repeated is the colonisation of the 'New World'. It is performed in the sense that almost every event happening on the island is either artificially created or artificially controlled by its ruler Prospero. It is, however, not appropriate to speak of the history of the world, but it gives an insight into the mechanisms of colonial rule, The Tempest represents aspects of colonial power and subjugation, being the epitome of an era. It is noteworthy that this play was perceived as light entertainment in earlier times; in the new light of colonial discourse it is perceived as a play about colonialism, subjugation and tyranny as well. It is especially interesting to note that Shakespeare apparently had a lot of insight into colonial matters, Brown speaks of 'Shakespeare's patronal relations with members of the Virginian Company' (48); maybe Shakespeare tried to use The Tempest as criticism of colonial rule.

On the one hand, Prospero is the benevolent ruler who seeks to punish those who overthrew him as Duke of Milan, especially his brother Antonio and Alonso, the King of Naples, without ever letting anything really harm them. On the other hand, every action of his can be viewed as an exertion of tyrannical rule and subjugation. Although his actions are justified by their benevolent purposes, they are nevertheless tyrannical in nature. Kott identifies 'two acts of feudal history' (247): the subjugation of the original inhabitants of the island, which took place when Prospero seized power on the island, approximately twelve years before the actual narration.

Prospero's seizing of power on the island follows the typical pattern of the European colonists. The new arrivals are received in a very friendly and helpful way, like the Spanish 'Conquistadores' who were welcomed as gods. Of course, Prospero is not welcomed as a god, but Caliban shows him the typical friendliness and how to survive: 'And showed thee all the qualities o'th'isle, / The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile' (I.ii.339f), in other words he shows him the things needed to survive. Obviously, Caliban tried to rape Miranda ('... till thou didst seek to violate / the honour of my child.' I.ii.349) without denying the charge ('O ho, O ho! would't had been done! / Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else / This isle with Calibans.' 351-5). Caliban suddenly turns into the prototypical 'salvage', a creature somewhere between man and beast. He represents dangerous sexual drives and presents a common threat to civilisation. Prospero reacts in a typical colonialist's way, he subjugates Caliban by force, using his magic: 'What I command, I'll wreck thee with old cramps, / Fill all thy bones with aches, make thee roar, / That beasts shall tremble at thy din' (371-3). The threat Caliban poses is suppressed by sheer force, Prospero acts like a colonial tyrant. Another aspect of the savage part of Caliban is the fact that he was taught Prospero's language; the colonising force tries to teach their language to the subjugated indigenous inhabitants rather than learning theirs. In Caliban's case it must be noted that he did not speak before being taught by Prospero and Miranda: '...when thou didst not, savage, / Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gobble like / a thing most brutish...'(357-9). Non the less, having linguistic power helps to subjugate the native population, because native speakers master their own language much better and because it is a symbol of power. The language obviously reminds Caliban of his status as a slave, because they '...taught me language; and my profit on't / Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you / For learning me your language!' (365-7)

Opposed to Caliban, who is presented as a dark, brute savage is Ariel, who reminds me of the typical 'noble savage'. He is a subservient character who willingly carries out Prospero's commands. Caliban serves only by (under threat of) force (e.g.: 'Do not torment me, prithee; I'll bring my wood / Home faster.' 73 f), whereas Ariel serves to the best of his abilities to the delight of Prospero: 'Ariel, thy charge / Exactly is performed...' (I.ii.236f). Ariel owes his freedom to Prospero, who reminds him that '...it was mine art, [...] [that] let thee out.' (modified by author). Prospero makes Ariel subservient once a month by reminding him of this fact: 'Once in a month recount what thou hast been' (262). He ensures Ariel's service, like Caliban's, also with threats: 'If thou murmer'st, I will rend an oak, / And peg thee in his knotty entrails, till / Thou hast howl'd away twelve winters.' (294-6), i.e. that Ariel is not really a willing servant of Prospero, but a slave like Caliban. He is forced into service by the perpetual repetition of his imprisonment and the threat to restore it. Once more, Prospero can be seen as a tyrant.

According to Brown, this dialectical process between 'savages' and 'civilised' helps to constitute order in Shakespearean contemporary views. The 'non-civil' part helps to define the 'civil' part of society (50). The 'savages' require the colonisers to behave to the best of their abilities. The 'natural' men become the very antithesis of the civilised men of 'art', like Prospero. In this view, the so-called 'savages' might even be seen as necessary for the 'civilised' men in the New World to define their own status and rule. Especially when one keeps the ambivalent meaning of 'nature' in mind, which is seen as well (both!) as dangerous and healing. So Miranda can be brought up as a real virgin far away from the vices of civilisation and is at the same time threatened by Caliban's unrestrained sexual urges. As can be seen in King Lear, nature has healing aspects, too. Lear is cured of his madness after he returns from nature. The same holds true for Edgar, although in quite another way. As can be seen in his many asides, Edgar pretends to be mad, a state of mind he has deliberately chosen to escape from capture and death: 'I will preserve myself; and me bethought / To take the basest and most poorest shape' (King Lear: ll.ii.7f); this 'basest and most poorest shape' is nothing but a disguise, because living as Edgar would lead to death: '...Edgar I nothing am.' (21). It is questionable, however, if it is also true for Act III, scene iv, where he behaves like a madman, without any asides. In II,vi,59f he is quite himself again: [Aside] 'My tears begin to take his part so much, / They mar my counterfeiting.' An important aspect of nature is also its indifference towards man: King Lear has an insight into his own immortality and weakness against the elements: '...here I stand, your slave, / A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man' (Ill.ii. 19f), just like Alonso and his followers in The Tempest: 'What cares these roarers for the name of king?' (I.i.l6f). Prospero is the absolute opposite, he is 'art' and the one controlling the elements and the tempest.

The nature of Prospero's 'art' is pointed out by Greenblatt: Prospero's power relies on his books of magic (23), and they must be destroyed to break his power. Therefore Caliban instructs Trinculo and Stephano 'First to possess his books; for without them / He's but a sot, as I am, nor hath not / One spirit to command' (III.ii.90-3). According to this statement, Prospero's whole power is the power of his books and no innate ability to rule. Without them, he is not more powerful than Caliban. This is an interesting thought; it could be derived, that the 'civilised' man does not have the initial potential to rule, although this is certainly not Shakespeare's intention.

The uniting of Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano to overthrow Prospero is an interesting alliance. Brown identifies Stephano and Trinculo as 'masterless men' (64) who first encounter the 'savage' Caliban. They represent a threat to the existing order and are seen as its dangerous antithesis, just like the 'savage'. They pose a common threat to the ruling class on the fringes of the British cities and present a part of the picture of the colonial world. They can be seen as much danger within the core of the colonial empire as well as in the peripheral colonies. An interesting aspect is the fact that Caliban accepts Stephano as his new master and tries in no way to rule over him. Bearing the medieval 'Chain of Being' in mind, this could mean that he is even lower in his social status, and thereby his position in the natural order of things is lower than the 'lowest' person from 'civilised' lands (N.B.: this is by no means my evaluating opinion!). In contemporary Shakespearean times they were considered as totally irreformable bestial and only marginally human creatures: 'and their subsequent punishment, being hunted with dogs, draws full attention to their bestiality.' (Brown: 55). A combining element of the 'savage' and the 'masterless' is, again, sexuality. Stephano wants to kill Prospero so that 'his daughter and I will be king and queen.'(III.ii.!04f) - the 'dark side' of nature.

Miranda is the one who's virginity must be protected. She is an important pawn in Prospero's scheme to regain power. She is the ultimate expression of filial devotion whom Prospero wants to marry off to found a royal line of his own. Fortune, Prospero's ally: 'bountiful Fortune, / (Now my dear lady) has mine enemies / Brought to this shore' (l.ii. 178-180) - among these 'enemies' is the son of the King of Naples, Ferdinand - has helped him to seize power over his former enemies. Keeping Prospero's absolute power in mind, it is not clear, whether he is just lucky by chance or has arranged his luck. In this respect, King Lear is the very opposite of Prospero, he is 'The natural fool of Fortune' (King Lear: IV.vi. 189), being unable to control his own kingdom and his subjects, especially his daughters. Prospero has absolute control over Miranda and uses her no different from his other subjects: 'Thou art inclin'd to sleep; 'tis a good dulness, / And give it away: I know thou canst not choose.' (Tempest: l.ii. 185), he raises her in ignorance and tells her their story after having spent twelve years on the island: 'thee, my daughter, who / Art ignorant of what thou art;' (I.ii.17f) and 'Twelve years since, Miranda, twelve years since,' (l.ii.53), to secure her from the vices of the 'civilised world' and to create an absolute virgin that can be married off unspoiled to a prince: If thou dost break her virgin-knot' before' (IV.i. 15), he warns Ferdinand, 'barren hate, / Sour-ey'd disdainand discord shall bestow' (IV.i.20). Once again, sexuality is seen as a part of nature that has to be controlled by the civilised man of 'art', stressing the contemporary view on this matter.

There are still more examples of people being at Prospero's mercy. The nobles, except Gonzalo, are all being taught a lesson and have all exacted Prospero's revenge on them. This is no matter of colonial rule, however, and because of this they are left out in this essay. They represent power-struggles of the 'Old World', which are shown on the stage of the "New World'. There are, however, many aspects of the notions of Shakespearean contemporary views on the 'New World' expressed in the way these struggles and their participants are described, without going into further detail now. What The Tempest shows is that a colonial ruler seizes an island, subjugates the indigenous inhabitants, tries to form them in his own like and rules with (by) force when he fails to do so. It shows the nature of colonial rule and many of the contemporary notions about the 'New World' and its inhabitants, the need of the 'other' to define the 'self in a new geographical environment. I tried to focus on the relation between the intrusive coloniser (Prospero) and the indigenous inhabitants (Caliban and Ariel) in particular. These three persons (N.B.: 'two persons' were probably not regarded as such in Shakespearean times; Caliban is a 'sa(l)vage' and Ariel is a 'sprite') form the core of the colonial discourse. It is further interesting to notice that Sycorax' natural magic is presented as 'black' and 'evil' (e.g. 'This damn'd witch Sycorax, / For mischiefs manifold' (I.ii.263f)) without question, just like 'pagan' religions were identified as 'devil-worshipping' by Christians. Quite as natural, Prospero's 'white' magic of 'art' is seen as benevolent and good, although it is used for the subjugation of all the people at his mercy. Quite typical of colonial rule is the fact, that the ruler leaves the land without giving further thought about what is to become of it and its inhabitants. Greenblatt points out that Prospero 'freed Ariel to the elements' but leaves 'Caliban's fate naggingly unclear.' (26), after he acknowledges Caliban as his own creature (ibid.): 'this thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine' (V.i.275f). The Tempest represents many aspects of colonial rule; it is, however, rather a fragment of history, than history itself.


- Shakespeare, William: The Tempest, Ed. and introd. F. Kermode, London, New Arden Ed., 1994
- Shakespeare, William: King Lear, Ed. and introd. K. Muir, London, New Arden Ed., 1994
- Brown, P.: 'This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine', ???, 48-71
- Greenblatt, S.J.: 'Learning to curse: Aspects of Linguistic Colonialism in the Sixteenth Century',16-37
- Kott, J.: 'Prospero's staff, 1964, 244-258

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A discussion of Jan Kott’s view of “The Tempest” (Shakespeare)
University College Cork
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Shakespeare, Arcadia, Kott, TEMPEST
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M.A. Thorsten Witting (Author), 1997, A discussion of Jan Kott’s view of “The Tempest” (Shakespeare), Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/75130


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