Recent scholarship has begun examining the relationship of Caliban and Prospero through the lens of postcolonialism, leading to a discourse that explores this relationship as analogous with that of the colonized and colonizers. This argument aligns Shakespeare’s work in the context of history, applying it directly to actual events. This allegorical reading explores the nuances of Caliban being abused by Prospero after introducing him to the island and the way that aspects of physical abuse and use of language work in ways to oppress Caliban as parallel to that of European powers colonizing Africa and the “New World”.
Caliban shares many woes with colonized people. His life has been disrupted by an outsider who takes his land and enslaves him. In current postcolonial discourse, this disruption of native lives and forcing outside languages upon them can be properly examined for their negative and destructive qualities. Bill Ashcroft discusses the power of language to take away a people’s or culture’s agency and to oppress. As he explains, language is the way in which “social, economic and political discourse are grounded….it is incontestable that language is the mode of a constant and pervasive extension of cultural dominance- through ideas, attitudes, histories and ways of seeing- that is central to imperial hegemony” (Ashcroft 2). Caliban understands this sentiment regarding the power of language to keep a people dependent and oppressed. When chastised for his cursing, Caliban laments “You taught me language, and my profit on’t/ Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you/ For learning me your language!” ( I. 2. 368-370). He may use the language, but he can never forget his knowledge of this tongue comes from a place of destruction and oppression.
Shakespeare really does seem to be writing an allegory for colonialism. Prospero, the educated noble, comes to the island and is at first at a disadvantage because of his ignorance of the land. Caliban, the native, helps Prospero by introducing him to the island and is undoubtedly responsible for his survival. Despite his aid, Prospero reduces Caliban to a dependent servant, and dismisses him as savage. The power dynamic quickly turns into Prospero as a self-proclaimed ruler of the island and Caliban as the wretched slave. The analogy practically forms itself, but did Shakespeare write such a critical analogy on purpose? Meredith Anne Skura discusses how much Shakespeare actually would have known about the native situation at the time of his writing the Tempest. Conversations in 1611 would have included talk of the ships going traveling to colonize America. Sympathetic and accurate accounts of the abuses of natives, however, would doubtfully have been included in the common dialogue. Accounts of the New World and other colonies relied heavily on the narratives of the colonizers who would not have gone to lengths to actively demonize themselves.
While he might not have known the exact going ons of the New World, Shakespeare was no stranger to the dynamics of the privileged and the oppressed. Time could be spend arguing that Shakespeare was making a specific case against British colonization of whichever country. Those making such an argument should remember he was not living in a postcolonial time. The discourse around colonialism when and where Shakespeare was writing would have relied on the words and opinions of the colonizers. Many of the negative effects of colonialism are only coming to light recently. So while this argument can be made, I believe there is more weight in viewing Prospero, the island, and Caliban as encompassing arguments against roles of power being invented arbitrarily and the ensuing abuse of this power. This theme of power being founded in things as arbitrary as lineage or a man’s declaration is common throughout his works. This view happens to line up perfectly with the case against colonialism as colonialism is enacted by humans and Shakespeare was exploring the negative outcome of humans abusing power and the reactions of the abused humans. While he might not have known much about colonial/postcolonial discourse, humanity was a subject Shakespeare was more than familiar with .
Ashcroft, Bill. Caliban’s Voice: The Transformation of English in Post-colonial Literatures. London: Routledge, 2009.
Skura, Meredith Anne. “Discourse and the Individual: The Case of Colonialism in “The Tempest”” Shakespeare Quarterly 40.1 (1989): 42-69.