Narrative and the Plantation Colony

What are the plantations of The Tempest? Plantation, as defined in Shakespeare’s time, referred to the literal cultivation of the earth—to the creation of a colony on conquered land—and to the sowing of an idea, a belief system: a narrative.

Prospero, in the play, has the power of magic—and the way that power manifests is analogous to his deeper, non-metaphorical source of power: the control of narrative. With ‘magic,’ he moves the individuals of the shipwrecked wedding party to fit his intended scheme—separating some, putting some to sleep to give time for others to plot, guiding their trajectories through Ariel’s song. His more insidious power is the realization of that ability without magic: the relentless forcing of his story upon a listener, spinning their motivations and actions so convincingly there’s no alternative but to acquiesce to his vision. We see that with Miranda, though she gets in slight hints of her frustration. We see that with Caliban, who rages against him and plots to kill him as a result, but by the end of the play is accepting Prospero’s orders: “Go, sirrah, to my cell; … as you look / To have my pardon, trim it handsomely” (V.I.291-293). Even Ariel, who in many cases appears the true arm of Prospero’s pageantry, is susceptible to Prospero’s aggressive storytelling.

The implantation of a narrative is strongly intertwined with colonialism and the colonialist project. In hindsight, and in light of my current other studies (Women and Gender in the African Diaspora, being one), the combination of a play deeply concerned with the conquest and settlement of the Old and New World, and a mastermind forcing others to internalize his narrative feels eerie, prescient. Imposed narratives—of noble savages or savage, sometimes eroticized, men and women, tamed into Christianity and gentility by the kind European—have an afterlife into manifestations of racism and sexism today (including at their intersection), from the individual stereotypes to institutional structures.

If Prospero is the colonizer, there is not it seems a single character in the play exempt to his force. But it is Caliban who is most sorely bound—seeing, after all, as Ariel gets his freedom by the end. Caliban, too, fitting to the cultivation and land-based definition of the word, is strongly associated with the earth. Prospero introduces him to the play with, “he does make our fire, / Fetch in our wood and serves in offices / That profit us. What ho! slave! Caliban! / Thou earth, thou! speak.” Slave, earth, to whom Prospero came under the illusion of kindness, education: “When thou camest first, / Thou strokedst me and madest much of me, wouldst… teach me how / To name the bigger light, and how the less.”

Here is Caliban, either a reflection or a prediction forward as Shakespeare knew of what would be done to the colonized—who desire freedom, but in this telling, fail to attain it. And here is Prospero, representing the power present in a strangle-hold on language, story and memory—and, in my extrapolation, though the play does not go here, the long-term strategy of generation to generation feeding the same narrative of inferiority to a group of people you seek to control.

A blog is too short to dig into the relationship with budding empire and The Tempest. But—before I go, a look at the one time the word is in fact used. Gonzalo’s vision of his anarchic utopia in Act II Scene 1 is not a vision of colonization. It may be impractical, but he denies literacy, government, coin: all structures of society. There is no agriculture, no vineyards. No metal. In class, we assessed this vision as having to be built upon labor he excludes mentioning. When I read the text, I say this vision denies that. It is Eden. Anything that does not drop from the trees will not be had: nothing grown, nothing sown, nothing made. In Prospero’s vision, all these things are done for him, by spirits, by men he considers not worth the word. He founds and maintains his empire by magic—magic words in magic books—and by speech, which can work in a way just as mysteriously and dangerously.