Thursday, December 17, 2009

Shakespeare's The Tempest as a critique of colonialism

In this post-colonial age the readers tend to give a revisionist reading to any literary text written during the colonial age.In this respect Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a suitable text for the post-colonial study. The play,which reflects a "colonial ethos",can easily fall into the mould of Colonialist literature.Prospero’s attitude to the island, to Caliban and also his usurption of power all can be interpreted from the post-colonial view.The time of the composition of the play also favors the investigation of colonial interests of The Tempest. Shakespeare’s The Tempest premiered two short years after England first colonized Virginia in 1609. The misfortune of one colonial ship, The Sea adventure, separated from its fleet and then wrecked upon the island of Bermuda served as a starting point for Shakespeare to base his shipwreck on in The Tempest.

At first Prospero’s attitude to the island is similar to the attitude of a colonizer who goes to the colonies.It is true that Prospero’s coming to the island is accidental not intentional.He did not come to the island to better his condition.He was made an exile against his will.But as soon as he lands on the island his conduct does not differ much from that of a colonist.He subjescts the two inhabitants of the island and demands unwavering loyalty from them.He uses the island as a colony and very much like a colonist discards it as soon as his use for it is over.

Prospero’s conduct in The Tempest as an exile reflests the colonial mentality.A colonist can never think the colony he goes to as his true home.He alawys remains allegiance to the center,his mother country.Here Prospero also shows little love for the new world and remains a protagonist from the old world.His thoughts and attitudes are so strongly determined by his old-world allegiance that his conduct bears strong resemblances to that of a typical colonist,who explores and exploits an alien country for selfish ends and then abandons it.

That Prospero at heart is a colonist is seen by the fact that he hates the island inspite of his passing twelve years there.The island geve him shelter,provided him sustenance and created opportunity to accomplish his final mission.But in the play he seldom speaks about the island.He rarely mentions it and on the few occasions when he refers to his own abode onthe island he calls it ’a poor cell’, ’a poor court’.It is true that the island is poor and bare compared with Milan,Prospero’s home country.But the other characters in the play do not such a dislike to the island. Gonzalo,Ferdinand,Stephano and Trinculo don’t hide their likeness to the island.Their likeness contrasts Prospero’s disliking of the island.Thus the main difference between responses of Prospero and others is that while Prospero is openly critical of the island ,others do not profess any hatred for it.Prospero is keen on returning to his home Milan ,leaving the bare island behind while others are not driven by any hatred for the island.Milan or Naples does not appeal to them as it does to Prospero.Thus considering his negative attitude to the island which served him as a home for twelve years it can be assumed that at heart he always remains a colonist.

For Prospero there is always a fixed home and a well defined logos.All his thoughts and actions are governed by a deep tie to his old home and logos.They failed him in the past ,but he believes the lost order can be recovered if his restorative plan succeds.He lived on the island as an exile and happy to leave it.It does not feature in his future thought. For him Milan is home and logos.

Like a typical colonist Prospero lives in a bi-polar world,neatly divided into home and physically distant colony.Home stands for the values he cherishes and belongs to ,where the island symbolizes the other with which he has the least common.
Now let us turn to Prospero’s relation with Caliban.The relation between them is obviously the master servant relation.Caliban represents the native population of a country newly discovered by the white explorers and which is then colonized by them.When the white people conquered a country they considered themselves as the masters and the native people as slaves.Of course ,in settleing down the colonizers conferred many benefits upon the native populations.But at the same time they treated the natives as the slaves and servants.From this point of view Caliban acquires great importance as a representative of the dispossessed natives of a newly discovered country.From Caliban’s speech at the beginning of the play we find Prospero’s treatment of Caliban and the island.

I must eat my dinner
This island is mine ,by Sycorax my mother
Which thou tak’st from me.

Caliban is conscious of his claim over the island ,but powerful Prospero rules over him and the island.Prospero’s attitude is the hegemonic attitude of a colonizer.
Thus Prospero emerges as dictorial colonial governor-general,whise presence on the island demands that Caliban,its native inhabitant,complies with his wishes and standards.Caliban’s lust and his primitive religion are regarded as evil,but ironically,Prospero depends on Caliban’s service for servival.Prospero also exacts constant and loyal service from Ariel as a payment for his having rescued him fromm Sycorax’s imprisonment.The original act of kindness and humanity is rapidly exploited by Prospero once he recognizes what a powerful agent Ariel can be.

Thus Prospero’s conduct on the island is governed by his colonial and utilitarian motives which deny any love ,gratitude,recognition of a place culturally and morally alien to him.He has exploited the island and as soon as its function ends ,he decides to leave it.He is like a selfish and ungrateful guest who is most glad when he can disown his poor host.