In her article “Shakespeare’s Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism”, Deborah Willis seeks to criticize the current state of discourse regarding the depiction of colonialism in The Tempest. Specifically, she seeks to criticize the arguments made by Paul Brown in a recent essay.
Willis first sets out to explain the arguments Brown creates in his work. Brown believes that Shakespeare’s Tempest is a confirmation of British colonialism. By emphasizing the otherness of Caliban, and then having Prospero assume control over him, Brown claims that Shakespeare is furthering the argument for colonization. He sees the play as making the savage Caliban seem inhuman and naturally subservient, representing potential groups to be colonized, and the rule of Prospero to represent the benevolent British colonizers. Brown also believes that Shakespeare ultimately fails in his quest to promote colonization because the “other” ultimately serves as a place of potential societal disruption, that is, some aspects of the “other” still have appeal to civilized man, such as illicit sexuality and masterlessness. Willis concludes this section with her own conclusion: that one of the most problematic aspects of Brown’s work is that he seems to conflate the character of Prospero with Shakespeare.
Willis disagrees wholeheartedly with that last idea. She points out that though Prospero has control in this play nearly unmatched in Shakespeare’s work, he is still a character with flaws, criticisms of whom are made clear. Special emphasis is paced on the way Caliban views Prospero. Most obviously, Prospero can be seen through Caliban’s eyes as a usurper with no more right to the island than Antonio has to the dukedom of Milan.
The author also makes the case that Caliban isn’t so “othered” after all. In addition to the sympathy his rightful claim to the island might garner, his childlike demeanor can also be said to grant him an air of harmlessness. Willis addresses the attempted rape of Miranda by Caliban as certainly being problematic for this characterization, but notes that Caliban repents for what he has done. He has some sense of morality. The author notes other relatable characteristics as well, such as Caliban’s appreciation for art and ability to learn. For these reasons, Willis believes Caliban to be a far too relatable and sympathetic character to be depicted as the “other” in colonialist discourse. Finally, Willis ends by disputing Caliban as a source of potential disruption because of his conversion. She believes he has assimilated adequately.
In Caliban’s stead, Willis states that Antonio is far more “othered” than Caliban. She suggests that his conspiring with Sebastian to kill Alonso is a symptom of a “pathological addiction to treason and fratricide” (281). Willis points to Prospero referring to Antonio as unnatural because of his evil, noting his complete lack of fraternal affection. Unlike Caliban’s repentance for nearly raping Miranda, Willis notes no obvious signs of repentance from Antonio at the end of the play. He is shown to be rather heartless. Because of these depictions of Antonio, Willis finds that he is set up as an unnatural “other” far more than Caliban.
While I agree with Willis assessment to a certain extent, there are a few problems with her argument. I don’t dispute her claim that Antonio is far more “otherized” than Caliban, but I think that she nonetheless downplays Caliban’s role as the other. Most obvious are the real life parallels between Caliban’s situation and that of a colonized group. Prospero has come to Caliban’s island from his homeland and assumed control over him. There isn’t a lot of metaphor there. That describes the process of colonization too closely to ignore. Furthermore, she completely disregards Caliban’s attempted coup against Prospero. Despite the comedy and its unsuccessful nature, this is still a direct conflict against Prospero, the metaphorical colonizer, further “othering” Caliban. Finally, Willis neglects to properly address the issue of racism in the play against Caliban. Racism by default works by “otherizing”, and to ignore this is to ignore a large part of Caliban’s characterization.
Willis, Deborah. “Shakespeare’s Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 29.2 (2006): 277-89. Rice University. Web. 19 Aug. 2015. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/450475>.