Analyzing the Tempest through the eyes of imperialism reveals an underlying, separate narrative that manifests a form of social apology from Shakespeare. When gazing through this lens, it becomes evident that many of the characters and locations are in fact symbols embodying key components of colonization. Take Prospero for example. He portrays the role of a European invader who comes to rule a foreign, primitive land enshrined in an atmosphere of mysticism. He achieves this outcome through the exploitation of his relatively superior knowledge over the natives, the most notable of which is Caliban, and coerces them into doing his bidding.
Shakespeare, shortly before writing The Tempest, read a contemporary travel account depicting the 1609 Virginia Company’s new world exploration circa Bermuda. This source of information, which would have been readily available to Shakespeare, would be instrumental in shaping the plot of the play as well as providing an explanation as to why the topic of imperialism was being discussed in 1611. Colonization holds a general significance as there exists harmful, lasting social and geopolitical effects seen today, as well as promoting avarice and greed, cruelty, and engendering a cultural superiority view as demonstrated by the colonizers in The Tempest.
Shakespeare demonstrates the corrosive effects of imperialism by generating an atmosphere inscribed in avarice and greed. The chief example of this can be seen through the interactions between Antonio and Prospero. Antonio betrays Prospero with his taking control over the government. Prospero is shocked, stating My brother and thy uncle, call’d Antonio “ I pray thee, mark me “ that a brother should be so perfidious (1.2.4).
With the introduction of the element of colonization, greed becomes the driving force behind the motivations of many of the characters. Even a familial relationship is tarnished in the wake of greed. He thinks me now incapable; confederates –/So dry he was for sway “ wi’ the King of Naples/To give him annual tribute, do him homage(1.2.5). Without regard for the consequences of the other people of Milan, Antonio forces Milan to become subservient to Naples.
In this case, greed comes in the form of a power hungry man. As prospero laments regarding this situation, the reader is reminded of the irony involved in this series of events. He refers to the island as his. This attitude underlines a key issue with imperialism. Prospero enslaved and colonized a foreign land and its inhabitants. Despite doing the same thing to others, he subsequently decries the invasion of his newfound paradise by Antonio. This is further enhanced as the role a shipwreck plays into the introduction of the interlopers into his world.
It is inevitable that, through the process and enforcement of imperialism, some form of cruelty will present itself. A typical median for this to occur is through the enslavement of a group of people, and enslavement does produce itself in Prospero’s domain. Caliban is assaulted with pinches and cramps by the Grand Wizard to keep him under control,
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