Shakespeare’s The Tempest emerged at a very significant time in English history. English imperial ambition was just beginning to take hold, English settlers were attempting to survive in the new colony in Virginia and stories of the savages of the New World were beginning to make their way into the collective English consciousness. In his article “The Tempest in the Wilderness: The Racialization of Savagery,” Ronald Takaki sums up the play’s historical situation: “The timing of the first performance of The Tempest was crucial. It came after the English invasion of Ireland but before the colonization of New England, after John Smith’s arrival in Virginia but before the beginning of the tobacco economy, and after the first contacts with the Indians but before full-scale warfare against them. In that historical moment, the English were encountering “other” peoples and delineating the boundary between civilization and savagery.” (893)
The dichotomy of savagery and civilization is present throughout the play. Shakespeare invites both his characters and his audience to explore and form their own opinions about it. In the words of Daniel Wilson, “Shakespeare has purposefully placed the true anthropomorphoid alongside these types of degraded humanity, to shew the contrast between them.” (Murphy, 20). Shakespeare uses the reactions of his characters to the character of Caliban and the issue of race in general to differentiate those who are evil or stupid from those who are basically good and just. Those within the play who react negatively or exploitatively toward Caliban are among the most evil or stupid in the play.
The debate between civilization and savagery was a popular one in Europe at the time. Some, like Spanish lawyer Juan Gines de Sepulveda, argued Aristotle’s view that some people were “natural slaves” and therefore incapable of being educated or existing alongside the civilized people of Europe. Others, including Pope Paul II, thought that Indians, as well as “other people,” “should not be deprived of their liberty and property, even though they were outside the Christian faith.” (Takaki, 899)
The Tempest invites readers and playgoers to explore this dichotomy for themselves. As Takaki puts it: “The play invites us to view English expansionism not only as an imperialism but as a defining moment in the making of an English-American identity based on race. For the first time in the English theater, an Indian character was being presented.” (893)
Shakespeare himself seems to take great pains to present both sides of the issue. In Act 1, Scene 2, the reader gets two conflicting stories of how the island came to be under the control of Prospero. The first, Prospero’s version delivered in a series of speeches to Miranda, sees the two castaways coming ashore and subsequently ruling the island “by providence divine.” The version delivered by Caliban is quite different. In his account “Prospero is the usurper in his dispossession and enslavement of Caliban.” (Graff, 203). Shakespeare resists the temptation to make a simple caricature of Caliban, instead, “Shakespeare gives him some of the best lines in the play, lines that show him protesting eloquently and convincingly about what Prospero has done to him.” (Graff, 93).
This dichotomy plays out in interesting ways within The Tempest. Some characters, like Stephano and Trinculo, see Caliban solely as something to be exploited and seem to agree more with Sepulveda’s view of so-called “savages.” Others like Gonzalo seem to take a more sympathetic view of native peoples more in line with the opinion of Pope Paul II.
Stephano and Trinculo repeatedly refer to Caliban as a “monster.” When Trinculo first comes across Caliban in Act 2, Scene 2, his first thought is of finding a way to exploit him for profit: “Were I in England now, as once I was, and had but this fish painted, not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver.” (lines 28-30). When Stephano comes across the four-legged monster of Caliban and Trinculo, he too immediately thinks of the possible benefits of exploiting the “monster.” “If I can recover him and keep him tame and get to Naples with him, he’s a present for any emperor that ever trod on neat’s leather.” (2.2: 69-72). Later on, in Act 3, Scene 2, Stephano delights in talking down to his new servant. He seems to have no concept of Caliban as a human being. Rather, Stephano only sees him in terms of what he can get from him.
Stephano and Trinculo are easily the biggest buffoons in the entire play. They’re seemingly drunk from the moment we meet them until the play ends, they make no effort to seek shelter or devise a way off the island, they’re simply content to wander around until they meet Caliban and Stephano declares himself the king of the island. They easily fall for Ariel’s simple ruse in Act 3, Scene 2. All Ariel has to do is speak a few words while imitating the voice of Trinculo to get them fighting. Stephano strikes Trinculo at the very suggestion of a challenge to his self-granted authority, a challenge that doesn’t’ even come from Trinculo himself. The whole of Act 3, Scene 2 plays out like a scene from The Three Stooges. They are constantly getting distracted from their plot against Prospero, and when they finally arrive to perform the deed in Act 4, Scene 1, they are so preoccupied with playing dress up that they miss their opportunity completely. Instead of murdering Prospero and taking over the island, they’re driven off by Ariel’s apparitions. It’s no accident on Shakespeare’s part that two of the most racist characters in the play are also the least intelligent.
Sebastian and Antonio are the most treacherous characters in The Tempest. Antonio’s original plot against Prospero is alluded to many times, and he himself confirms it in his conversations with Sebastian. When Alonso falls asleep in Act 2, Scene 1, Antonio easily convinces Sebastian to murder his brother in order to usurp the crown of Naples the same way Antonio stole Prospero’s dukedom. In Act 3, Scene 3, the two discuss their plot again, and Antonio actually expresses happiness over Ferdinand’s death: “I am right glad that he’s so out of hope.” (line 13).
Antonio and Sebastian only encounter Caliban at the end of the play, but Shakespeare does not waste the opportunity to show the audience how the two characters react to him. “What things are these, my Lord Antonio? Will money buy ’em?” asks Sebastian. “Very Like. One of them is a plain fish and no doubt marketable,” Antonio replies. (5.1: 318-321). Antonio’s immediate reaction to Caliban is one of exploitation, eerily similar to the reactions of Stephano and Trinculo. Antonio and Sebastian are much more intelligent than Alonso’s servants, but they are also far more evil. Again, characters that react negatively to Caliban or native people in general seem to be either stupid or evil within the context of the play.
When Gonzalo sees Ariel’s apparitions bringing in a banquet in Act 3, Scene 3, he believes them to be island natives. “If I should say I saw such [islanders]-for, Certes, these are people of the island-Who, though they are of monstrous shape, yet note their manners are more gentle, kind, than of our human generation you shall find many, nay, almost any.” (35-41). Gonzalo looks past the “monstrous shape” of the natives, and sees their gentle natures. His immediate response is not revulsion or exploitation, but patience and understanding. Gonzalo’s response is unique amongst the shipwrecked members of Alonso’s party.
Gonzalo is also unique amongst the members of Alonso’s entourage in that he is actually a very good person. It is Gonzalo who supplies Prospero and Miranda with the provisions they need when they are banished. “Some food we had, and some fresh water, that a noble Neapolitan, Gonzalo, out of his charity…did give us.” (1.2: 191-194). After Ariel’s apparitions work his companions into a frenzy in Act 3, Scene 3, it is Gonzalo who urges Adrian to follow and keep them out of harm’s way. “I do beseech you that are of suppler joints, follow them swiftly and hinder them from what this ecstasy may now provoke them to.” (129-131). Gonzalo is obviously concerned for the safety of the king, but it is worth noting that he’s also sending Adrian to protect Antonio, who not only usurped his master’s duchy, but just a few scenes previous attempted to murder Gonzalo himself. Gonzalo doesn’t know this, of course, but the audience does, and it’s obvious that Shakespeare wants Gonzalo perceived as a good person. The relationship between racism and evil holds up yet again. Gonzalo is among the most good-hearted characters in the play, and his reaction to natives is one of understanding and patience.
Of course, no analysis of the role of racism in the play would be complete without addressing the main character, Prospero. Prospero’s relationship to Caliban is less black and white than others in the play. We don’t see Prospero’s initial reaction to him; instead we have to gather what we can from the conflicting narratives of Caliban and Prospero. Caliban himself admits that Prospero treated him well at first: “When thou cam’st first, thou strokst me and made much of me, wouldst give me water with berries in ‘t, and teach me how to name the bigger light and how the less, that burn by day and night. And then I loved thee…” (1.2: 397-403). Prospero and Miranda teach Caliban to speak, and even allow him to live with them until his attempted rape of Miranda. During the play Prospero treats Caliban harshly, but Shakespeare gives the reader reason to think that perhaps it is justified. By the end of the play, however, Prospero comes to accept Caliban. “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.” (5.1: 330-331).
Prospero is not an evil character, he just seems driven to regain his duchy and willing to use whatever means are necessary to do so. He forces Ariel to help him, but ultimately releases him once his goal is accomplished. He forgives his brother Antonio (5.1: 151), and leaves Caliban to inhabit the island he feels is rightly his. Shakespeare gives Prospero the last speech in the play, in which he begs the forgiveness of the audience. It seems obvious that Shakespeare doesn’t want us to see Prospero in a negative light by the end of the play, and it’s no coincidence that releasing Caliban plays into his redemption.
It’s no accident that Stephano mentions the English practice of exploiting native curiosities for profit. Why would an Italian mention England in such a context if Shakespeare did not intend it to be some comment on the debate regarding native peoples raging in his own country at the time? Shakespeare himself seems to empathize with natives, placing him alongside Pope Paul III in the debate between civilization and savagery. By revealing his most racist characters to be evil or stupid, and showing those who take a more positive view of native peoples to be good, Shakespeare urges his viewers to take a more open-minded stance toward the emerging spectacle of “the savage.”
Graff, Gerald, and James Phelan, Eds. The Tempest: A Case Study in Critical Controvery. London: Macmillan, 2000.
Murphy, Patrick, Ed. The Tempest: Critical Essays. London: Routledge, 2001.
Takaki, Ronald. “The Tempest in the Wilderness: The Racialization of Savagery.” Journal of American History 79.3 (Dec. 1992): 892-912