The Tempest: Colonial Encounters and Gendered Readings

by Amatoritsero (Godwin) Ede

I. Traditional Readings of The Tempest
II. Contemporary Criticism
III: The Tempest as political Act
IV. The discourse of Gender: The Tempest and The Charge of Incest


Traditional Readings of The Tempest.

Since most contemporary receptions of The Tempest from Lamming to Skura are politicised one should attempt to locate them within the Colonial/Post-Colonial dialectics in order to properly apprehend traditional criticism.

Considering the place and moment of the text’s actual production – England in the seventeenth century, The Tempest cannot qualify as Post-Colonial, if the term covers “all the culture [outside England] affected by the imperial process.” Nevertheless, since The Tempest reflects a “colonial ethos” it can easily fall into the mould of Colonialist literature. This would nevertheless only result in an over-simplification. The question of period still excludes The Tempest `effectively┬┤ from such a categorisation. The Tempest‘s initial staging took place in 1611 at the Jacobean Court and it was “first printed in the Folio of Hemminge and Condell in 1623”. Significantly

Europe’s attempt to cast its reflection upon lands and oceans goes back several centuries. However it was in the nineteenth century that the economic supremacy and political authority of Europe, and in particular of Britain, became global. (Boehmer 29).

Boehmer refers to the Indian Historian, C. A. Bayly who insisted that a “`constructive authoritarian┬┤ British imperialism came off age as early as 1783-1820” (30). This suggests that a ‘nascent’ form of imperialism existed already before the seventeenth century. The bare bones of this can be easily carbon-dated in The Tempest. The dramatic enactment follows the usual pattern of subjugation, domination and rule of a geographical space by a colonising power, rounded off by a rebellion and independence which is only apparent. Caliban after his aborted rebellion against Prospero must still show difference to the later’s superior might and accept it as a precondition for his independence:

Pros: Go, sirrah, to my cell;
Take with you your companions; As you look
To have my pardon, trim it handsomely.

Cal: Ay that I will; and I’ll be wise hereafter,
And seek for grace[…]

Moreover ” ‘Difference’, ‘Power’ and ‘pleasure’ are all the issues which must be addressed in any critique of colonial representation.” These are very much present in The Tempest. Prospero imposes a sexual and racial hierarchy upon the difference of Caliban, the Other. A discourse of power develops through this hierarchy towards the purpose of confirming and consolidating that power. Civil society derives a morbid enjoyment from Caliban’s dehumanisation and powerlessness. And Prospero derives a voyeuristic pleasure in his reduction of Caliban’s sexuality to one of an assumed racial bestiality, as twisted as his physical body, brought to being by renaissance myth-making, which in turn must have given vicarious pleasure to renaissance audiences. Thus it would be appropriate to describe The Tempest as a ‘nascent-colonial’ literature. Nascent-colonial in an ideological sense because although we have no incontrovertible prove that Shakespear’s personal psychology is consciously at work here nevertheless, the psychology of his age is indeed consciously at work, must have been at work through Shakespear’s own ideological unconscious.

But one would like to ask how and why it was possible for traditional reception to have overlooked the importance of historical space. Francis Barker and Peter Hulme in rejecting an English past “which is picturesque, familiar and untroubled,” have pointed out: “Modern scholarly editions of Shakespear, amongst which the Arden is probably the most influential, have seemed to take their distance from such mythologising by carefully locating the [play]s against [its] historical background”. (191)

Such distancing might not be as innocent as it appears. It is instructive that, in the first place, these kinds of myth-making was the site upon which colonialism was established and consolidated. And since the heyday of English Imperialism is over sentiments of faded grandeur might be nostalgically reconstructed in the universalist textual analyses of Colonial or, as in the case of Shakespear, Nascent-colonial literature. A recent article in the Times Literary Supplement has discusses the mixed feelings with which the contemporary Englishman apprehends his Englishness. That is understandable, considering that “The nationalism Empire generated, the race antipathies it provoked, played a crucial part in British society, in particular in creating strategic solidarities within the country. National selfhood in Britain had traditionally been forged in opposition to an Other overseas.” (Boehmer 32). It is even more understandable considering the shift of imperial prestige and Global power over to the United States of America in the twentieth century and, Britain’s unwillingness to give up its only surviving colonial hold in Ireland.

Contemporary Criticism

Recent criticism argues against a New Historicist approach on the grounds that it is too reductive or that it needs some qualifications. Paul Brown is apparently guilty of such reductionism. He begins his essay by analysing particular stock myths and historical source texts – notably Montaigne’s essay on cannibals enabling the stereotyping of Caliban. Declaring that The Tempest is not simply “a reflection of colonialist practices […] [but a] powerful and pleasurable narrative which seeks […] to mystify the political conditions which demand colonialist discourse” (48), he goes on to give a concrete example of John Rolf, a Virginia planter, who re-writes his wish for power over plantation land and his carnal desire for the body of Pocahontas, an indigenous American woman, by constituting them as a missionary and noble project towards the elevation of the savage Other to civility.

Presumably Brown considers this one of the examples of colonial practice. He finally draws a geographical model of colonial influence based on rough Wallersteinian terms of ‘core’ ‘semiperiphery’ and ‘periphery’ where each category corresponds to the “English-Welsh mainland (internal colonialism of the core), the extension of British influence in the semiperiphy of Ireland, and the diffuse range of British interests in the extreme periphery of the New World”, respectively.

In this way Brown draws parallels to the dramatic enactment of The Tempest. Thus Caliban would become the demonised uncivil masterless Other, like Pocahontas, and his colonisation is the colonisation of the periphery. Prospero is the coloniser, like John Rolf, who through his magic opposed to Caliban’s nature is able to master himself and Caliban and manipulate the sexuality of Miranda and Ferdinand as a site for achieving his political goal of reinstatement as duke of Milan. In this way Brown confirms Skura’s deductions from her elaborate review of revisionist criticism that The Tempest is a “political act” (223). Arguing that traditionalist criticism had not “entirely ignored either Prospero’s flaws or their relations to the dark side of Europe’s confrontation with the Other” (222) , she quarrels with the over-emphasis on the single-minded exploitation of indigenous resources by European colonialism and its recourse to propaganda and damaging stereotypes of the Other to enable that exploitation. Although the recent critics

are making important distinctions […] they are not calling attention to history in general but rather to one aspect of history: to power relations and to the ideology in which power relations are encoded,
[ and adding almost with a gruff indulgence], it is no longer enough to suggest that Europeans were trying to make sense of the Indian; rather the emphasis is now on the way Europeans subdued the Indian to make sense/order/money not of him so much as out him (221-223) [my emphasis]

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1 comment

Anonymous September 28, 2005 - 3:25 pm

a vision for those from the erstwhile colonies

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