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The Tempest by William Shakespeare Analysis

According to Elizabethan beliefs an individual’s social position was more or less fixed. The King was King as he had been given a mandate by God, and all positions below this were based on a rigid social hierarchy, which were also dictated by birth. This ideology was decidedly conservative and used politically as a means of social control: forcing people with less status to internalise their inferiority and subservience, assuming it part of the natural order of the universe. Any rebellion, personal or collective, was therefore seen as an act of defiance not only against the State but God.

This can be seen as a highly effective means of keeping order and perpetuating the power structures already existing in society. We can read literature as expressions of universal themes and investigations into human nature and the human conditions, but we can also give alternative readings that question natural assumptions and investigate the ‘silences’ in a text. In essence, reading the ‘politics’ of the play. A traditional reading of The Tempest would position Prospero as the victim of unjust betrayal, who stranded on an island with his beautiful, virtuous daughter, uses his magical powers to right the wrong done to him.

It is the old story of the ‘rightful’ ruler who is disposed by the bad guys, but manages to get back his power and live happily ever after. A post-colonial reading, which foregrounds issues of race and power inequalities, would give quite a different interpretation. The play contains rebellions, political treachery, mutinies and conspiracies. There are many challenges to authority, however, the text resolves these problems in the end by having peace, harmony and order restored, with the rightful ruler placed back in his position of power.

In this way any disruption to order is seen as evil and those who dare question it need to be punished, thus perpetuating the social values of the time. It is true that Antonio seized power from his older brother, Prospero, and that this usurpation is viewed as wrong by the dominant values of the time and by the text. This viewpoint is constructed by presenting Antonio as a treacherous, evil character who is willing to murder Alonso and Gonzalo. This is the view foregrounded by the play, but little is mentioned about why this state of affairs arose.

The silences of the story, involving Antonio being delegated the task of managing the state while Prospero delves into ‘his books’ as well as his inferior status for simply being the younger brother, are not given a voice in the play. In the end what is valued in the text is that order is restored, the rightful ruler regains his social position and through this the play supports the politically conservative ideology of the time. The Tempest can be seen as a literary vehicle that maintains the status quo and used as a means of social control.

The audience of the time (and later) leaves the playhouse seeing all challenges to this ideology as manifestly wrong and all rebellious attitudes are associated with treachery and evil. The issue of usurpation is also present in Antonio and Sebastian’s plot to kill Alonso and Gonzalo; Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo’s plot to kill Prospero; and Caliban’s attempted rape of Miranda. Interestingly, Alonso, who is just as culpable as Antonio in the disposal of Prospero is still seen as a friend of Prospero: ‘Ariel: My master through his art foresees the danger/That you, his friend, are in .. This anomaly seems to conveniently fit the values of the play and the interests of Prospero. Alonso is the rightful King of Naples and in this position the text sidesteps this issue of his treachery, though it does show that he is remorseful and acknowledges his wrong-doing, but again this only hapens when he is placed in a different, threatening situation. Likewise, it is Prospero’s purpose from the beginning to marry off his daughter Miranda to Alonso’s son, Ferdinand, so that she will be Queen of Naples. This section is also race)

The play also fails to question Caliban’s position as a savage and slave, and seems to validate and legitimise it by his behaviour and his attempted rape of the sweet Miranda. In many ways the play acts out the treatment of indigenous people by Europeans. The values system of Caliban is silenced and simply seen as barbaric. He is costructed as the ‘Other’, different from Europeans and therefore naturally inferior (‘But thy vile race-/Though thou didst learn – had that in’t which good/natures/Could not abide to be with; therefore wast thou/Deservedly confined into this rock’).

If we see Caliban as representative of the indigenous peoples dispossessed by European colonisers the previous quotations certainly shows how it is his ‘race’ and ‘nature’ that makes him inferior, even though the benevolent Whites tried so valiantly to make him human. The issue of the attempted race can also be seen from another viewpoint as his race’s practices and attitudes towards sexuality (like the Pacific Islanders) were far more fluid and liberal, and not equating sex outside marriage as sin.

Ferdinand and Prospero both associate a woman’s virtue with virginity and these values show the coloniser’s morality as unquestionably correct, while the sexual behaviour of other races merely reinforced their view that they were immoral and lacking humanity. Race The Tempest has been traditionally interpreted as a play about forgiveness and reconciliation, change and transformation, illusion and magic and the usurpation of Prospero. These interpretations have foregrounded the noble Europeans and in particular Prospero’s benevolent attitudes.

However, such a reading silences Caliban’s rights for freedom and possession of the island. If read through an alternative discourse, such as a postcolonial reading, a very different picture emerges. The play can then be seen as an allegory of the colonial exploitation of indigenous people, where Caliban represents the natives of the New World who were dispossessed and exploited by the European powers. They were deemed inferior and even sub-human because of the colour of their skin (‘this thing of darkness’) and their cultural traits that were different to the Europeans and subsequently constructed as uncivilised.

Because of this so-called innate inferiority they were economically exploited and used as slaves. The representation of race in the play is Eurocentric. Caliban’s physical appearance marks him as different and therefore sub-human, and this is seen in his name which is almost an anagram of ‘cannibal’. The Europeans (Stephano and Trinculo) on first seeing him view him immediately as a chattel that might be sold in Europe for his freakishness, or for his ‘Otherness’ which they have constructed him as.

Trinculo says ‘Were I in England now – as once I was – and had but this fish painted, not a holiday-fool there would give a piece of silver’ and Antonio and Sebastian see him as a marketable good that can be bought and sold: ‘Very like. One of them/Is a plain fish, and no doubt marketable. Race is therefore a marker for one human-ness and anything other than European is constructed as naturally inferior, without rights and available to be exploited for economic purposes. In this it shows the capitalism of the time where Prospero’s enslavement of Caliban is justified in his reasoning by Caliban’s attempted rape of his daughter, Miranda.

This might be understandable according to western values, however the text only gives Prospero’s version of events and also imposes Western notions of morality and sexuality. Other cultures have different values concerning sexuality, yet Prospero assumes his values are a reflection of a higher state of civilisation and that Caliban’s actions is evidence of his fundamentally evil nature. Western values demand restraint, controland self-discipline (as seen later in Prospero’s warnings to Ferdinand and Miranda) and the text equates indigenous values as barbaric and violent.

In essence the European colonialist has invaded a new country, taken possession and set up their systems of values as the only legitimate code of behaviour. Through this Caliban has been dispossessed and forced to give up his ways of living and language. Caliban is constructed as innately inferior and savage because of his race. This is articulated by the supposedly sweet and tender Miranda: ‘But thy vile race -/Though thou didst learn – had that in’t which good natures/Could not abide to be with .. (31) In these lines Caliban’s race is seen as the reason for his barbaric behaviour – it is his very nature that makes him savage and dangerous. In this the text constructs other non-European races as savage, less human, incapable of so-called ‘civilisation’ all because of their race: this is a damning indictment of non-Europeans as it positions them as naturally inferior and unable to change their ways so that they will never be able to develop the fine sensitivity and refinement of Western civilisation.

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