365 Days of Shakespeare

That's right – the Bard in a year.

281. Caliban: an anti-imperialist icon?

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If William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” is taken to be an allegory for colonialism – with the island representing “uncharted” territory and Prospero representing the settlers – then surely Caliban is what signifies the native population. And, because Caliban so detests Prospero and wants desperately to overthrow him and regain control of the island, Caliban can be said to be an anti-imperialist icon.

The play was written at a time when new colonies were being settled left and right, when new civilizations were taking over native ones and claiming territory for themselves. Shakespeare would surely have been influenced by this idea when writing “The Tempest”, and it is clear in examinations conducted by scholars after the time of imperialism that he probably drew not only from real-life events from also from real-life debates over whether man has the right to rule foreign brothers in such a way.

Neither Prospero nor Caliban are innocents, but neither are they heroes. Prospero is a man driven by power and revenge, and Caliban, equally driven by revenge, is also the attempted rapist of Miranda, Prospero’s daughter. This puts both characters on a more even keel, not necessarily truly taking sides of one or the other. It is made clear that Prospero took over the island by force, at first treating Caliban kindly, and then gradually demoting him further and further down, until he is little more than a slave and criminal.

It is strikingly reminiscent of the treatment of the Native American population by the English colonists: at first wanting to try and keep peace with the native population, but later not only denying them many of their rights, but going so far as to almost wiping them out entirely. While Prospero’s intentions may not be so very dark, it is clear that he considers Caliban to be “less” and considers himself to be the natural leader of the island, despite the fact that he came there after Caliban.

Caliban’s desire to overthrow Prospero and regain control of his home is what makes many believe that Shakespeare intended the character to serve as an anti-imperialist icon. Whatever Shakespeare’s own feelings on colonization, he perfectly illustrated both sides of the argument: one, that there may well be a god-given right to settle and reign over whatever land man may be able to, and two, that the rights to rule lie in the hands of those who were there first – in the hands, in “The Tempest”, of Caliban.


Written by Caroline Mincks

July 9, 2010 at 11:36 PM

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