The Tempest by William Shakespeare

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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The discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1493 had signified a new era in the west. With the discovery of new land, European powers grappled each other’s territory to elevate their economic and social status. To profit off of these new lands, European countries sent laborers and settlers to exploit resources, ultimately leading to establishing colonies then leading to the birth of colonialism.

Sending settlers and laborers proved to be difficult, leading European powers to import slaves from Africa and South Asia in 1584 for free and effective labor. In 1607 colonialism had reached a new height in the western world because of the first English settlement in Jamestown, Virginia. A few years later, Shakespeare’s The Tempest debuted all over England in 1612. The Tempest starts off with a wizard, the ex-Duke of Milan, Prospero, his young daughter Miranda, enslaved spirit Ariel, and enslaved native Caliban, inhabiting an island somewhere in the Mediterranean sea. Prospero’s younger brother Antonio worked with the king of Naples to overthrow Prospero’s dukedom to gain power himself.

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Antonio, the new Duke of Milan, along the King of Naples, Alonso, his son, Ferdinand and other associates, Stephano, Trinculo, and Gonzalo are aboard a ship in the Mediterranean sea when Prospero orders his spirit Ariel to destroy the ship, but save the travelers, scattering them along the island so that Prospero could fulfill his master plan to regain his dukedom from his brother. In the grand scheme, Prospero always seems to neglect Caliban and hurls him with insults. Through cunning and deceiving tactics, Prospero ultimately regains his dukedom harming nobody and Miranda marries Ferdinand.

Throughout the plot, Shakespeare subconsciously draws a parallel between Caliban and Prospero, subtly symbolizing the colonized and the colonizer respectively, reflecting western society’s normalization of colonization. For decades, slavery flourished as the primary economic driving force in New World colonization leading to an influx of African and South Asian slaves living in the New World colonies. As the colonial powers withdrew their presence in the colonies, many people reflected the disasters of colonialism, among them, was Aime Cesaire. Cesaire rewrote Shakespeare’s The Tempest into his post-colonial adaptation, A Tempest, in which the plot roughly remains the same, with the play taking place in an island in the Caribbean and Caliban is a black slave.

However, unlike Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Cesaire draws out the subtle parallelisms to emphasize the central theme in A Tempest, the effects of colonialism; erasing the colonized’s sense of identity and viewing them inhumanely, through the use of more upfront language between Caliban and Prospero. Language plays a key role in determining the demeanor of a character, the authors of both plays use language to express colonial power dynamics between Prospero and Caliban. In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Prospero starts a conversation with Caliban when he needs something, such as, “Shake it off. Come on. We’ll visit Caliban, my slave who never Yields us kind answer…But as ’tis, We cannot miss him. He does make our fire, Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices That profit us.—What, ho! Slave! Caliban! Thou earth, thou! Speak..” (1.2.313-320). Whereas in Cesaire’s A Tempest, the first conversation between Prospero and Caliban displays ignorance of Prospero of Caliban’s basic rights, “CALIBAN: Uhuru! PROSPERO: What did You say? CALIBAN: I said, Uhuru! PROSPERO: Mumbling your native language again! I’ve already told you, I don’t like it’ You could be polite’ at least; a simple “hello” wouldn’t kill you’” (Cesaire 11). Undoubtedly, the contrast in language between both plays is clear through the emphasis of Caliban’s dictation. In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Prospero immediately thinks of Caliban in a negative light – someone who never wields them a kind answer – a native source to exploit resources and provide him a profit.

Prospero views Caliban as an object, someone who is only useful for the gathering of resources to benefit Prospero and Miranda, invaders of the island who enslave Caliban for their material gain by getting rid of his freedom. This rightly draws the subtle parallel, which symbolizes Prospero has a power-hungry colonizer who uses the colonized native, Caliban, to pull resources out of the native’s land with no regard to the colonized. Colonizers view them in a negative, inhuman light, reflecting western society’s stance on colonized populations. Shakespeare does not emphasize this connection because the world powers of his time influenced his perspective on the dynamics of society where colonialism was thriving. This normalization of colonialism led Shakespeare to subconsciously portray Caliban as a foreign barbarian, consequently making Prospero the colonizer, reflecting society’s viewpoint.

However, the contrast in the language in Cesaire’s A Tempest is apparent from the first word of Caliban, “Uhuru!”. Uhuru is the Swahili word for freedom, with Caliban repeating ‘freedom’ twice only to get scolded for demanding his right of freedom shows the audience that Prospero’s preconceived nature sees Caliban, a black slave, as barbaric since he does not meet the colonizer white man’s standard of ‘normal’. Prospero automatically assumes that whatever Caliban said was impolite, and offers a ‘normal’ substitute, “hello”, assuming Caliban greeted him. This use of upfront language further stresses the nature of the colonizer, he perceives himself as a savior or helper of the colonized to save them from their ‘barbaric’ nature because it differs from theirs. Prospero thinks he can improve the language of Caliban through a western variant because he assumes Caliban greeted him because of Prospero has a colonist savior complex- not realizing Caliban wanted Prospero gone.

The colonizer views the colonized as inferior and inhumane because of the colonized’s otherness, which Prospero doesn’t think is ‘normal’ or polite. Caliban uses the word ‘Uhuru’ to reclaim his lost language, which white colonizers took away from him, directly to demand the black man’s freedom. Using direct language here shows retaliation of the colonized, exposing the abuse of ethics and that they do not need a savior as the white colonist perceive. Caliban reclaims a lost part of himself by exclaiming ‘Uhuru!’, emphasizing this notion in other parts of the play to show that colonialism erases the identity of the colonized and whitewashes it.

For instance, CALIBAN: Put it this way: I’m letting you that from now o’ I won’t answer to the name Caliban…Well, because Caliban isn’t my name… It’s the name given me by your hatred, and every time it’s spoken its an insult…Call me X. That would be best. Like a man without a name. or, to be more precise’ a man whose name has been stolen. You talk about history” ‘well’ that’s history’ and everyone knows it! Every time you summon me it reminds me of a basic fact, the fact that you’ve stolen everything from me, even my identity! Uhuru! He Exits. (Cesaire 15) The implications Caliban leaves here are profound on the colonized regaining their lost identity. Caliban demands Prospero to call him a new name, X, referring to the civil rights leader Malcolm X who had renamed himself regarding his ancestor’s original name because he felt that colonists robbed his ancestor’s last name (X and Haley).

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The Tempest by William Shakespeare. (2021, Apr 03). Retrieved from