Colonization in the Tempest

Question: Discuss the theme of colonization in the Tempest.


William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” can be read on many levels. From a humanitarian point of view, Prospero can be accepted as a benevolent ruler. However, if we read the play on the issue of colonialism, we can consider Prospero as a colonialist who invaded a new country occupied by Caliban and his ancestors. Thus, the play seems to introduce the complex problem of subjugating another society.

Similarity with English colonial history

The plot of The Tempest and the specific events have a literal resemblance to attitudes in English colonial history. Caliban, for example, can be taken as a Native American who was enslaved by Prospero under occupation. Prospero describes him as a ‘born devil’. Similarly, Stephano and Trinculo do not see him as a man, but rather he is a giant who comes from a ‘disgusting race’. Even the color of his skin is taken as a sign of his less human status. Prospero describes him as a thing of darkness.

Allegorical representation of military force

There are other issues in the play related to colonial history. Prospero’s magic may be taken as a symbol of the superior military skill of the Europeans, and his torture of Caliban resembles the colonist’s brutality in controlling the native inhabitant. Prospero hunts Caliban with spirit dogs. It recalls a terrible feature of colonization in which the Spanish settlers would sometimes hunt the native using dogs.

Economic exploitation

A related issue of colonialism is the process of economic exploitation. The Europeans sought profit through trade, exploiting the rich resources to the New World. Explorers sometimes brought inhabitants of the newly discovered countries back to England. These natives were cruelly displayed for profit in fairgrounds and other public places. When Trinculo first sees Caliban his thought is to take him to a fair. In the same manner, Antonio thinks that Caliban “is plain fish and no doubt make table”. Finally, Prospero also thinks of Caliban in utilitarian terms as he says;

“He does make our fire,

Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices

That profit us.”

These lines can be taken as the confession of a colonizer.

Ethnic superiority

In a typical manner, the colonizing ideology is work in The Tempest. The Europeans believed in ethnic superiority and thought that it was their duty to improve the natives. For example, Caliban’s tempted rape of Miranda is thought of as evidence of his fundamentally evil nature and it justifies his punishment. Again, a major aim of colonization was to spread Christianity. The native Americans were seen as heathens. Thus, Caliban is described as the son of the devil The European settlers claimed that it was their duty to save the soul of natives. In another example, most Europeans believed that only their own languages were civilized. The native languages were, as Miranda calls, “gabble’ that have no meaning. Thus Caliban is taught language. All the factors stated above exemplify the European’s attempt to rationalize their imperial ambition.

Ideology based on subservience

Of course, The Tempest also exemplifies the issues of subversion behind the ideology put forth by the colonists. For example, when Caliban says, “This island mine, by Sycorax, my mother, which thou tak’st from me”, we see Prospero as the usurper on the island, who came to the island, making Caliban his slave. Caliban’s experience is a typical example of what happens to any race subjugated to colonization.

Spreading so-called civilization

Besides, Prospero says that Caliban is “A devil, a born devil, whose nature can never stick’. We notice that he is asserting the white man’s burden’ as a civilizer of the world. However, we also find that his view of nature is a limited one. He has trained Caliban as a slave, he does not give him a real education as he gives it to Miranda. It is true that Caliban is vulnerable to lust and treachery, but these are fundamental aspects of raw nature and are parts of humanity. Moreover, these vices are not exclusively associated with Caliban only, we have seen Antonio and Sebastian, members of the so-called civilized society, plot against Alonso’s life. In Stephano and Trinculo’s desire to make a profit out of Caliban. Thus, we discover the basic inhumanity of the colonizer.


The history of colonization of America is a history of horror and savagery. The Tempest seems to dramatize this history of brutality and occupation. The play reveals that the colonized are tortured and murdered. Besides, the colonists crush the freedom of the colonized and destroy their land and religion and they do all these in the name of progress and civilization. And it is a fact that Shakespeare’s attempt to scatter the message of peace fails because the colonialists got the source of writing for the purpose of expanding imperialism from Shakespeare.

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SR Sarker
SR Sarker
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