Colonial Discourses

Category: Culture
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As society progresses, the old societal practices come under scrutiny as their ubiquity decreases. However, with no living memory of most of human existence, literature has become the means through which cultural attitudes have survived. One such example comes from The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, which began as a humorous play about revenge, but has transformed into a stark representation of the colonial process and interracial encounters in the imperial mindset. In this play, Prospero establishes his dominion over the island through colonial discourse that degrades, humiliates and depowers all other characters.

When Prospero first encountered Caliban on the island, he “strok’st [Caliban] and madest much of [him], wouldst give [Caliban] water with berries in ‘t, and teach [Caliban] how to name the bigger light and how the less, that burn by day and night. And then [Caliban] loved [Prospero], And show’d thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle, the fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile.” (Act1, Scene2) Caliban teaches Prospero how to survive on the island indefinitely while Prospero teaches Caliban how to communicate in English, quite clearly demonstrating early on that Prospero does not view him or their relationship as equal. While it appears that Prospero becomes friends with Caliban initially to learn about the island, he quickly begins using this relationship to indoctrinate him with European culture and bring Caliban under his control. He establishes himself as Caliban’s ‘benevolent’ superior and attempts to teach him English, yet Caliban has no need to learn how to communicate with a culture he will never personally experience or see in his life.

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But, Prospero understands commonality of language as essential for assimilation and eventual establishment of a colonial hierarchy on this island where he is the foreigner. Relying on this mental framework of educating the savages, Prospero is not only able to declare his intellect above Caliban’s but also groom Caliban to better be able to fulfill his duties as a future slave. On the grounds of attempted rape of Miranda, Prospero eventually enslaves Caliban and punishes him relentlessly. Whether or not this rape really occurred is up for debate, as Prospero is not only very Oedipal in his relationship to his daughter but lies frequently for personal gain. He also lives in perpetual fear that the black savage will rape his white daughter, a prevalent aspect of white racism that he ascribes to and lets justify many of his harmful actions towards Caliban. However, to keep up the illusion of power as the relationship progresses, Prospero continually reinforces Caliban’s lesser status. He often equates him with a beast, stating “A freckled whelp hag-born—not honored with a human shape” and even referring to him as “thou tortoise” at one point(Act 1, Scene 2). His continual use of this degrading discourse with Caliban stems from his lack of language before Prospero, which in Prospero’s mind leaves him no better than any animal.

He hammers this inferiority complex into every action and every thought that Caliban takes, and leaves Caliban with the inner view of a beast barely good enough to serve a human. On the outside, Prospero uses constant physical pain like “pinches”, stomach cramps and constant physical labor to continually reinforce this social boundary and keep Caliban relegated to the slave class. This certainty of internal and external attacks in Caliban’s everyday life almost completely destroys any memory or hope in Caliban of a free life, leaving Caliban permanently identifying as a vanquished slave. This becomes very apparent as Caliban runs into a drunk and confused Stephano, and almost immediately pledges fealty, stating “I’ll show thee every fertile inch o’ th’ island, And I will kiss thy foot. I prithee, be my god”(Act 2, Scene 2). He runs into another man that appears similar in skin tone to Prospero, and due to the ingrained programming by years of enslavement and colonial discourse, he believes that this man, who he has just met and knows near nothing about, is strong and worth being enslaved to for life. This interaction is demonstrative of how Caliban’s only self worth now comes from enslaving himself to other people and that the years of degradation by Prospero have taken their toll. In the end of the novel, Prospero employs his final tactic, stating “As you look to have my pardon, trim it handsomely”(Act 5 Scene 1). This indeterminate deadline for forgiveness functions to leave Caliban endlessly working to repay his debt to Prospero for having plotted to kill him, continuing the cycle of manipulation and repression.

When it comes to the relationship between Prospero and Ariel, the colonial discourse still exists, but is much more subversive. In their first encounter on the island, Ariel is confined “into a cloven pine, within…thou didst painfully remain a dozen years,” and “when [Prospero] arrived and heard [Ariel], that made gape the pine and let [Ariel] out”(Act 1, Scene 2). Ariel has since been enslaved to Prospero but in contrast with Caliban, he rarely acts out or disobeys orders. However, even though Ariel may be called “a brave spirit” by Prospero and treated with some measure of respect, he is careful to not let Ariel forget his place. When Ariel asks for his freedom after 12 years of servitude, Prospero calls him a “malignant thing” and recounts the entire rescue story to re-establish himself as the ‘glorious savior’ and remind Ariel that he is “a spirit too delicate” and therefore undeserving and even incapable of surviving alone without Prospero(Act 1, Scene 2).

Prospero understands that his plans rely heavily upon Ariel, but he is very careful to hide this so that Ariel feels necessary but not essential. He uses polite discourse to casually undermine Ariel by describing him as “quaint” or “delicate” to his face, depowering him and instilling the idea that he is reliant on Prospero for protection. However, just like with Caliban, Prospero dangles the promise of freedom, promising Ariel that he “shalt be as free / As mountain winds”(Act 1 Scene 2). Similarly, this promise keeps Ariel working hard and not rebelling, as the indeterminate time period implies that he can never be free until Prospero sees fit. He matches this half promise with a threat, “If thou more murmur’st, I will rend an oak and peg thee in his knotty entrails till thou hast howled away twelve winters,” leaving Ariel with a certainty of mental, emotional, and physical pain if he isn’t the ‘perfect’ slave. Therefore, while the colonial discourse is not as overt as with Caliban, Prospero still uses the same tactics of taking away the hope of freedom, instilling fear of physical punishment, and degrading self-worth on Ariel.

Prospero uses a colonial viewpoint that alters his interaction with every character he originally encounters on the island. He approaches the island with the mindset of a colonizer, that all inhabitants are lesser than him in some way, and this affects every action that he takes. He employs physical and mental warfare on his slaves to keep them subdued, humbled, and obedient and very clearly demonstrates the European view of all nations and people South of Europe. So in The Tempest, the main act is colonization and repression, instead of revenge as it was portrayed from the start.”

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Colonial Discourses. (2021, Aug 04). Retrieved from