The Tempest: Post-Colonialism, Morality, and Ecocriticism


The Tempest

The Tempest

It is not easy to determine which of Shakespeare’s plays stand out from the rest with so many great works in his oeuvre, but The Tempest, which is believed by many to be his final play, is certainly among his finest, and may be his best comedy.  Regardless of how one views the quality of the work, there is certainly no work by Shakespeare that is read so differently now than it was at the time it was written, with the single exception of The Merchant Of Venice, and perhaps Othello.  Just as the Holocaust transformed how people read and interpreted The Merchant of Venice, colonialism has likewise, though perhaps not as dramatically, changed the way people read The TempestCaliban, like Shylock before him, and perhaps even like Aaron from Titus Andronicus, were certainly villains to Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences, but in a modern context these characters can been seen as sympathetic.  Reading Caliban through a post-colonial lens, though, is not all The Tempest has to offer, as it also speaks to issues of primogeniture, morality (specifically chastity) and even carries some interesting ecocritical readings.


A poster for the 2013 film adaptation of 'The Tempest', with Helen Mirren as Prospero.

A poster for the 2010 film adaptation of ‘The Tempest‘, with Helen Mirren as Prospero.

Caliban seems crass, vengeful and violent, but when his demeanour is read in the context Gonzalo’s edifying speech about utopian society, it becomes clear that Caliban’s character flaws are simply the consequence of his exploitation under the tyrannical rule of Prospero.  Gonzalo describes a setting where, if he had his way, there would be no magistrates, riches, poverty, contract of succession, wine, treason, felony, occupation, swords, pike, knife, gun or need of any engine.  Some of these items are idealistic, and the list is doubly problematic because, though Gonzalo lists what his utopia wouldn’t have, he does not list what might replace or correct these concepts or objects.  That said, three items  are especially important: magistrates, line of succession and occupation.  These are all things which serve to oppress Caliban.  The island of which Caliban is a native is occupied, as Prospero usurps authority over the it after landing there. Prospero not only occupies Caliba’s native home, but also acts as a king or magistrate, enslaving Caliban.  Prospero also brings the law of primogeniture with him, ensuring that when his life is over, his daughter will inherent his authority.  Caliban, who was once an autonomous being at one with nature, finds human constructs crashed upon his island, turning a world that had once exemplified Gonzalo’s utopia into a dystopia.



When aligned with the natives of the Americas, Caliban seems more like a victim than an antagonist.

When aligned with the natives of the Americas, Caliban seems more like a victim than an antagonist.

Prospero’s exploitation of Caliban becomes clear as the play’s backstory unfolds.  Upon landing on the island, Prospero and his daughter Miranda are in dire need of food and fresh water.  Caliban happily guides them to a supply of fresh water and teaches them how to obtain food on the island.  They repay him by enslaving him and usurping the land.  Sound familiar?  That’s because that is EXACTLY what happened to the native peoples of the Americas!  Caliban speaks to the immorality of his exploitation when he states that Prospero’s “cunning… cheated [him] of the island.”  The human constructs thrust upon Caliban do nothing to improve his life.  This shortcoming is demonstrated when Caliban offers his commentary on language, stating that Prospero “taught [him] language; and [his] only profit on” it was that he now knew “how to curse”.  Language is meant to bring clarity and allow people to understand each other, but for Caliban, it only brought Prospero’s tyranny into sharper focus. All that Caliban can do with language is to respond to the life of oppression with curses.  Human constructs had obviously failed to improve Caliban’s standard of living.


George Romney's (no relation to Mitt) sketch of Lady Hamilton (aka Emma Hart) when she play Miranda.

George Romney‘s (no relation to Mitt) sketch of Lady Hamilton (aka Emma Hart) when she play Miranda.

Caliban is not the only victim of Prospero’s tyrannical rule, as the spirit Ariel also finds himself enslaved by Prospero.  Ariel asks for his liberty, but Prospero, rather than referring to Ariel by name, refers to him as “my slave.” Prospero rationalizes his enslavement, noting that he set Ariel free of other torments.  In a similar fashion, he rationalizes his enslavement of Caliban, as he states that Caliban is filth and even adopts a very colonial mindset when he tells Caliban that he pitied him, much like European colonists pitied ‘unadvanced’ indigenous peoples in colonized regions. Caliban, though, had nothing to be pitied for before Prospero arrived.  In dehumanizing Caliban, much as slave traders dehumanized the people of African heritage, Prospero seems to justify his tyranny, and by situating himself as a hero to Ariel, he suggests that Ariel servitude is justified recompense and fails to recognize the irony of freeing someday only to place them in a new servitude.  Indeed, Prospero seems to serve as a template of another protagonist stranded on an island: Robinson Crusoe (the greatest book ever written according to Gabriel Betteredge).  Crusoe frees a man, named Friday by the novel’s title character, much like Prospero, but rather than granting him autonomy, demands he serve as a slave. Crusoe not only renames the man Friday (no relation to the Rebecca Black song of the same name), but also teaches Friday to call him ‘master’ rather than using his name.  Crusoe, then, seems very much to be a mirror of Prospero in many ways as both freed men for the sole purpose of enslaving them.


Helen Mirren, who played Prospero in the 2010, film adaptation of 'The Tempest'.

Helen Mirren, who played Prospero in the 2010, film adaptation of ‘The Tempest’.

Just as Prospero imposes constructs of language and hierarchies onto Caliban, he likewise enforces constructs of morality onto his daughter Miranda, specifically concepts of chastity.  This, coupled with the fact that there is only one female character in the play, has generated a fair deal of criticism from feminist theorists.  When Miranda first meets Ferdinand, Prospero does everything he can with the hopes of preserving his daughter’s chastity, projecting patriarchal values onto his daughter and preserving his ownership over her, despite the fact that she has never had an opportunity to socialize with anybody other than her father.  Some credit may be due to Prospero as, being trapped on an island alone, he at least didn’t resort to the kind of behaviour that Lot and his daughters resorted to, but at the same time, though praising one for simply not committing incest may be setting the bar a little low.  Prospero’s patriarchal approach, though, is callously reinforced when he finally agrees to the match between Ferdinand and Miranda. Prospero says to Ferdinand: “as my gift, and thine own acquisition/ Worthily purchased, take my daughter”.  This rhetoric clearly positions Miranda as a piece of property: a commodity within patriarchal society that is defined by her chastity.  Not exactly a progressive approach to the presentation of women.



Did I mention that Helen Mirren player Prospero?  She's only like the most beautiful woman ever!

Did I mention that Helen Mirren player Prospero? She’s only like the most beautiful woman ever!

It is Prospero’s obsession with his daughter’s chastity and other human constructs, in the way of books, that Caliban targets in order to revenge himself on Prospero.  Caliban is vilified by Prospero for his attempt to violate Prospero’s daughter, but Prospero fails to realize that the source of this threat is his own doing for two reasons.  Firstly, he is the one who has mistreated Caliban and planted vengeance in Caliban’s heart.  Secondly, it is Prospero’s own obsession with his daughter’s chastity that inspired Caliban to target Miranda’s chastity as his means of revenge.  Had Prospero not mistreated Caliban and then made such a prize of his daughter’s chastity, Caliban would not have been moved to behave in such a way.  Prospero’s books are also the target as they are the source of Prospero’s oppression.  Prospero has books on sorcery and employs them to maintain his control of Caliban.  The books, then, are both a means to freedom for Caliban, and a means to enact his revenge.  The irony is that Prospero demonizes Caliban because Caliban’s mother was a witch, or sorceress, but Prospero himself sees no moral qualms when he employs such tactics to manipulate the world around him.


John William Waterhouse's portrait of Miranda.

John William Waterhouse‘s portrait of Miranda.  Waterhouse greatly influenced the work of contemporary artist George Zimmerman.

The issue of primogeniture comes up often within the context of conversations of nature.  When speaking to his brother, Prospero notes that Antonio’s “ambition,/ Expell’d remorse and nature”, and then claims that his brother’s desire to rule as duke is “unnatural”.  Just as Prospero hypocritically judges Caliban for sorcerous lineage, he maligns his brother for ambition, but in both instances Prospero is guilty of the same sins as he employs sorcery and carries his own ambition, both to rule the island which he was not native to, and to return to his rule as duke whilst matching his daughter off to the king’s son in order to reinforce his authority.  The biggest problem is that Prospero sees primogeniture as the ‘natural’ thing, and see his authority as one that is dictated by nature. In the context of Gonzalo’s proposed utopia, though, it is Caliban who is at one with nature, not Prospero, and Prospero exemplifies as the character flaws that he criticizes his brother for: he simply rationalizes them.  Because Prospero doesn’t believe Caliban fits prescribed notions of beauty and intellect, much like the native people in the Americans did not fit European prescriptions of beauty and intelligence, Prospero sees his tyranny as justified.  This, of course, is and was a fallacy, as Europeans colonizers were unable to survive in the Americas without a great deal of assistance from the natives of the Americas and relied heavily on knowledge natives to survive the brutal and unforgiving landscape, much like Prospero and Miranda relied on Caliban when they landed on the island.


An alternate posted for the 2010 film adaptation of 'The Tempest'.

An alternate posted for the 2010 film adaptation of ‘The Tempest’.

The Tempest is ultimately an inconsistent work.  Gonzalo’s speech seems to sit in stark contrast with Prospero’s hypocrisy.  Though it is clear that by Gonzalo’s concept of a utopian society positions Caliban and the morally ideal character, Prospero, even though he has victimized Caliban, is awarded the boon of the comedic ending as he has his dukedom returned to him and his daughter’s chastity is secured on Prospero’s terms.  Such a post-colonial reading may not be as anachronistic as most think, as views that contrast colonial imperatives are clearly laid out in the play and presented as utopian ideals.  Though Caliban, like The Merchant of Venice’s Shylock, is clearly situated as the antagonist of the play, it is these antagonists that illicit the most sympathy.  Perhaps Shakespeare constructed these characters like this intentionally in order to challenge audiences and encourage them to re-evaluate their own constructs of morality, or perhaps he was as blind to the hypocrisy of Prospero as Prospero was.  Coupled with this, a feminist reading, which certainly is anachronistic, dilutes the Prospero’s appeal as the protagonist even further.  Ultimately, the play, because of its problematic elements, makes for an interesting read that generates many questions about colonialism and individual autonomy, and whether intentionally or not, manages to beautifully link colonial oppression with patriarchal oppression, making the work ideal for any postcolonial feminist to study.


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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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