Stephen Greenblatt, with an enviable critical certainty, informs us that “Shakespeare’s plays are centrally and repeatedly concerned with the production and containment of subversion and disorder” (29). The plays summon up challenges to the social and symbolic order so that these challenges may then be contained by means of various ideological mystifications. At the same time, the very necessity of this repeated gesture of containment enacts the possibility (indeed, the inevitability) of its own failure. Ideology is, after all, the imaginary resolution of real contradictions. The challenges these plays attempt to master—challenges to the patriarchal family, to patrilineal succession, to the subordination of the “base-born” to the “noble” and of women to men—were and are not reducible to dangers within discourse: as the long history of, on the one hand, wars of dynastic succession and, on the other hand, peasant rebellions and uprisings illustrates.
The Tempest, if read in relation to the (evolving and inconsistent) English colonial project in the New World, lays out the real contradictions it will imaginarily (that is, ideologically) resolve with exemplary clarity. The play “serves as a limit text in which the characteristic operations of colonialist discourse may be discerned—as an instrument of exploitation, a register of beleaguerment and a site of radical ambivalence. These operations produce strategies and stereotypes which seek to impose and efface colonial power; in this text they are also driven into contradiction and disruption” (Brown 68). My emphasis is on the ways in which the play disrupts the incipient English colonial project by unmasking and disrupting the smooth operation of its mechanics. Whether the play’s rather edifying laying bare of the device (to cite the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky’s phrase) of imperialism would in its own time have been read as a critique of these mechanisms’ mendacity or merely as confirmation of their cleverness and efficacy is not a question I, or anyone now living, can answer. It is also a question that, as Greenblatt indicates in his discussion of Thomas Harriot’s A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, need not be taken to have had an unequivocal answer even at the time of the play’s original performance, especially given what Paul Brown calls the ambivalences and contradictions of the colonial discourse itself.
Thomas Cartelli argues that the play’s “capacity to make a significant intervention in the formation of colonialist discourse and in the development of colonialist practices... was inhibited from the start by the play’s generic resemblances to and rehearsals of contemporary reports of colonial encounters. Indeed, the play’s very participation in this formative moment through the medium of Prospero’s expropriation of Caliban’s island, and his act’s perceived consistency with the colonial ventures of a [Sir Walter] Raleigh and the partisan writings of the Hakluyts, can be said to have condemned the play to participate also in that discourse’s evolution and eventual rigidification in the imperial moment of Britain’s colonization of Africa” (108-109). However, Cartelli’s subsequent discussion of postcolonial and anti-imperialist appropriations of the play demonstrates that it need not be read, or taken to be readable, so univocally.
“The Tempest is not simply a reflection of colonialist practices but an intervention in an ambivalent and even contradictory discourse. This intervention takes the form of a powerful and pleasurable narrative which seeks at once to harmonize disjunction, to transcend irreconcilable contradictions and to mystify the political conditions which demand colonialist discourse. Yet the narrative ultimately fails to deliver that containment and instead may be seen to foreground precisely those problems which it works to efface or overcome” (Brown 48). By allowing the “Other” to speak and make his case, if only in the ostensible master’s language, the text permits the undermining of the colonialist discourse it not only participates in but in some ways inaugurates. Indeed, the very fact of Caliban’s mastery of the master’s tongue “ensures that its interpellation of him as simply savage, ‘a born devil, on whose nature/Nurture can never stick’ (IV.i.188-9) is inadequate. Paradoxically, it is the eloquent power of civility which allows him to know [and to speak] his own meaning, offering him a site of resistance even as civility’s coercive capacities finally reduce him to silence” (Brown 62-63). That “civility” is thus shown to require coercion to produce the Other’s silence may be taken as an indication of the play’s resistance to its own apparent ideological project. Whether the text actively works to undermine colonialist discourse or merely “permits” a reading that produces such subversion is an open question.
Whether The Tempest is “about” the English colonial project in any direct way is another question without much in the way of an unequivocal answer, as the long history of critical controversy on this point (a history I will not engage here) illustrates. Whatever its surface engagements with the dynastic affairs of the ruling houses of various Italian petty states, the play is very much informed by the anxieties and excitations of the English encounter with the Western hemisphere and the various peoples inhabiting that world much less “New” to them. These anxieties, along with those relating to dynasty and proper kinship relations, are within its confines worked through in a displaced and condensed manner much like that of the Freudian dream-work. (Paul Brown has explored this analogy, and the related concept of the play’s political unconscious, in much greater detail in the essay from which I have quoted so extensively.)
“The Tempest’s status as a privileged text in the history of colonialist discourse” (Cartelli 110) seems neither coincidental or accidental. I am struck by the constant parallel the play asks the reader or viewer to draw between the relations of Prospero to Caliban and Ariel and the relations of the English colonists to the “Indians” of the “New World,” even down to such details as the remarkable resemblance of the water with berries in it Prospero gives Caliban to the liquor the Europeans introduced to the “natives.” It furthermore proleptically figures many aspects of the European colonial project in its full exfoliation, particularly that project’s “convergence of assumed high-mindedness with brutality” (Cartelli 110).
My discussion focuses on the figure of Caliban, reading the play from what can only be my version of his perspective. Caliban and Ariel can together be read as a double vision of the indigenous peoples of the “New World,” a vision (simultaneously wishful and prophetic) in which their threat to the colonial project has been securely neutralized at the very moment of being acknowledged.
Ariel is a figure of the “good” native who, though he may at times complain of his servitude, still accedes to it. To put it crudely, he is the hard-working darky who loves and is loved by his master, and performs his imposed labors with good cheer. He accepts (though under explicit threat) Prospero’s version of his enslavement as a form of liberation:
...Thou best know’st
What torment I did find thee in;...
...It was mine art,
When I arriv’d and heard thee, that made gape
The pine, and let thee out.
Ariel: I thank thee, master. (I.ii.286-287, 291-293)
Except in its literalization as entrapment in a tree, Prospero’s account of the brute state of nature from which he has ostensibly rescued Ariel closely resembles European justifications of their presence in and domination of the soi-disant New World. “Ariel is, paradoxically, bound in service by this constant reminder of Prospero’s gift of freedom to him, in releasing him from imprisonment in a tree. That bondage is reinforced by both a promise to repeat the act of release when a period of servitude has expired and a promise to repeat the act of incarceration should service not be forthcoming” (Brown 60). In one of the play’s many imaginary resolutions, Ariel is manumitted for having served so faithfully and so well: he is set free as a reward for not having attempted to free himself.
By contrast, Caliban is a figure of the bad, “rebellious” native. In striking contrast to Ariel, Caliban is in Prospero’s version of things denied his very indigenousness, though whatever Sycorax’s provenance her son was born on the island. It is Caliban who insists on his “illegitimate” rights to the land Prospero has “discovered”:
This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou tak’st from me. (I.ii.331-332)
Prospero’s implicit counter-assertion that before his arrival “this island/...[was] not honor’d with/A human shape,” except, and merely parenthetically, for Caliban, who does not, in Prospero’s view, quite count:
Dull thing, I say so; he, that Caliban
Whom I now keep in service. (I.ii.284-285)
is hardly different in kind from the pretensions of the European invaders in nominating two well-populated continents as a “New World,” and their own.
Caliban’s claim to the island is made in specifically dynastic terms, and thus both parallels and rivals Prospero’s to Milan and Ferdinand’s to Naples. Caliban and Prospero share the status of rulers dispossessed of their demesnes by false-dealing. For that matter, Caliban, as a deposed king, actually ranks higher than Prospero does as a deposed duke. Caliban’s supposed attempted rape of Miranda, besides serving as an example of the way in which “things of darkness” are regularly accused of provoking their own enslavement or worse (the rape attempt is, after all, the reason Prospero gives for Caliban’s servitude), mirrors, as in a glass, darkly, Ferdinand’s determinedly chaste (determined by Prospero, that is) courtship of Miranda later in the play. Caliban’s aborted union with Miranda represents the possibility of a dynastic alliance of the island with Milan. This possibility, of equality between two forces not yet definitely marked as colonized and colonizer, is one Prospero rejects in favor of subjugating the island to his power and thus to that of Europe as figured by Milan. “[W]hat appears to disturb Prospero even more than Caliban’s foiled attempt to violate Miranda’s honor is Caliban’s insistence on recalling his former sovereignty, his repeated effort to lay claim to a history and inheritance which imply a state of equality at odds with his assigned status as slave. It is in the face of Caliban’s assertion that ‘I am all the subjects that you have,/Which first was my own King’ [sic] (and not to any denial of his attempt to rape Miranda) that Prospero responds, ‘Thou most lying slave,/Whom stripes may move, not kindness’ (I.ii.343-4, 346-7)” (Cartelli 110).
In this light, Caliban’s status as only son of the island’s previous ruler, with a duty to perpetuate his line by producing an heir, becomes more clear, and his exclamation that
...I had peopled else
This isle with Calibans. (I.ii.350-351)
is seen as more than the expression of mere bestial lust Prospero insists it be taken as, but rather as an expression of the dynastic imperative which Caliban and Prospero share. What also becomes clear from this viewpoint is Ferdinand’s status as the approved, white European version of Caliban. Ferdinand is the one with a royal claim (and thus, in a rigidly hierarchical society in which one’s purchase on humanity is defined by one’s status, a claim to full personhood) acknowledged and respected within the European power system. Just as Caliban sees and desires Miranda, and specifically sees her as a mother of potential heirs, so Ferdinand sees and desires Miranda as a potential Queen of Naples: he’ll people Naples with Ferdinands. That Prospero both rejects Caliban’s claim to kingship and knows Ferdinand’s claim to (present though not future) kingship to be an illusion (since Ferdinand’s father Alonso, King of Naples, is not in fact dead, though Ferdinand, thinks that he is) points up the parallel further, because both the false nature of Caliban’s claim and the illusory nature of Ferdinand’s are Prospero’s doing.
The implicitly deceitful friendliness Caliban accuses Prospero of practicing on the latter’s first arrival on the island (in a condition, like that of the first colonial settlers in the “New World,” of great vulnerability and need) seems remarkably like that of the first Virginia colonists. Whatever counter-argument Prospero presents, Caliban clearly indicates that Prospero used him to learn the lay of the (is)land, then enslaved him when Prospero’s position of superiority was secured:
...When thou cam’st first,
Thou strok’st me and made much of me, wouldst give me
Water with berries in’t...
...and then I lov’d thee
And show’d thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle,
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile.
Curs’d be I that did so!...
For I am all the subjects that you 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. (I.ii.332-334, 336-339, 341-344)
That part of Prospero’s response to his “lying slave” is the assertion to “have us’d thee/(Filth as thou art) with human care” (I.ii.345-346) does not support the justice of his claim, especially given the ambiguity of the word “use.”
The English colonists’ use of religion and superior technology appearing as magic to manipulate the natives is analogous to Prospero’s use of magic gotten from books to subdue and render usefully obedient Caliban and Ariel. (“Bible,” in case we needed any reminding, means “book.”) “If we remember that, like virtually all sixteenth-century Europeans in the New World, the English resisted or were incapable of provisioning themselves and were in consequence dependent upon the Indians for food, we may grasp the central importance for the colonists of this dawning Indian fear of the Christian God. As Machiavelli understood, physical compulsion is essential but never sufficient; the survival of the rulers depends upon a supplement of coercive belief” (Greenblatt 23). As Caliban says, prompted as much by Prospero’s repeated insistence on his power to compel his “slave” to “make our fire,/Fetch in our wood, and [serve] in office/That profit us” (I.ii.311-313) as by the pinches and frights and trifles that Prospero sets on him when he expresses insubordination,
...His art is of such power
It would control my dam’s god Setebos,
And make a vassal of him. (I.ii.371-373)
Greenblatt describes the English manipulating such occasions as the spread of epidemic disease as demonstrations of the superior strength of their God versus the gods of the Indians (Setebos, we should recall, was the English version of the name of a Patagonian god); similarly, Prospero manipulates his control over elves and “demi-puppets” to impose such a belief on Caliban. “The key to this imposition...is the coercive power of religious belief, and the source of this power is the impression made by advanced technology [in this case, Prospero’s books] upon a ‘backward’ people” (Greenblatt 24). Indeed, the lesson of the Stephano-Trinculo sub-plot (besides that European social inferiors who attempt to rise above their station will always and easily be put back in their rightful places) is that Caliban has taken the wrong white men (i.e., commoners) to be gods: “Caliban misrecognizes true sovereignty and gives his fealty rather to a drunken servant” (Brown 64). It is rather as if Moctezuma II had bowed down to Cortés’ valet rather than to the great conquistador himself.
Near the end of the play Prospero, in the course of an elaborate and elaborately rhetorical boast of the powers of his “so potent art,” powers of which we hear much but of which, except for the titular storm itself, we see little evidence in the play, where the arts practiced are primarily those of illusion, allows that the forces at his command are “Weak masters” in comparison with the demons summoned up by black magic, thus implicitly admitting his powers to be inferior to those of “the foul witch Sycorax.” As is more explicitly acknowledged in the masque of the three goddesses acted out by sprites, Prospero’s power in the play subsists largely in the performance of a spectacle of power, a pageant which produces the very power it purports to instantiate and represent. Like the English colonists, Prospero both conceals and overcomes his physical weakness (vis à vis the Indians or Caliban) by a staging of his metaphysical strength.
“Theatricality [in this most self-referentially theatrical of plays] is then not set over against power but is one of power’s essential modes” (Greenblatt 33). I choose to read The Tempest’s almost brazen theatricalization of colonial power as a critique, well aware that it could also be read as that power’s spectacle of self-congratulation at the effectiveness of the devices this performance lays bare.
Brown, Paul. “‘This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine’: The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism.” In Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism. Ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1985.
Cartelli, Thomas. “Prospero in Africa: The Tempest as Colonialist Text and Pretext.” In Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology. Ed. Jean E. Howard and Marian F. O’Connor. New York: Methuen, 1987.
Greenblatt, Stephen. “Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and Its Subversion, Henry IV and Henry V.” In Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism. Ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield.. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1985