The Tempest was Shakespeare’s last play via which he bid adieu to the stage. It is considered to be one of his shortest plays ever written. But, as they say – small but extremely influential. The Tempest was written in 1610-11. And, like his other plays, Shakespeare always had a lot to comment upon through his plays. We saw in Othello, how Shakespeare touched the topic of interracial marriage or in Hamlet, he talked about the impermanence of life, revenge, Karma, etc.
Likewise, The Tempest also touches upon subjects of immense vitality. The plot of this play is short and simple. Prospero, former Duke of Milan, is living on an island with his daughter, Miranda, after his brother, Antonio usurped his Dukedom. Prospero knows magic with the help of which he makes Caliban & Ariel (inhabitants of island before Prospero) his servants. He then, further uses his magic to restore his Dukedom via his daughter’s marriage to Ferdinand, son of King of Naples. You can read the full summary here.
Now, the two main critical points this play forces us to interpret are-
Colonialism & Post-colonialism
When Shakespeare was writing this play, there was a wave of colonialism going on. British people were going on adventures and conquering new lands. Now, this play showcases that through Prospero’s act of colonizing the island and holding Caliban & Ariel as his captives/servants. The treatment of natives, after colonizing the lands, at the hands of white people is shown through the treatment Caliban & Ariel get. They are forced to dance on the tune of their master otherwise they could be killed. When Caliban recounts his captive story, he tells how Prospero, in the beginning, treated him as his own kid. Cajoling him to know the secrets & bliss of the island, which Caliban, being a naive, gets tricked into telling.
Prospero also tries to teach Caliban the English language and as we know, language & religion were two great tools of colonialism. Anything out of the English comfort zone was regarded as savage. Hence, Caliban is a savage who is needed to be taught the language of sophistication.This act of teaching language to Caliban, gave Prospero the commanding position. Prospero became the master of the island. We also witness some events where Caliban uses the language to verbally rebel against Prospero.
Treatment of women characters
There is double erasure of female characters in & out of this play. Firstly, there is only one visible female character, Miranda and she too has very few lines to say. Other female characters are either dead or are physically far away from this all-male ensemble. Miranda’s mother is mentioned only once that too in reference to tell Miranda how her mother never crossed the female boundaries set by the patriarchs.
Next is Sycorax, Caliban’s dead mother, a black lusty witch, an account provided by the white patriarch- Prospero . She is mentioned to keep Miranda from following her immoral path. She is the silenced Third World female. Then, there is Ferdinand’s sister, who has been married to some king by her father in exchange for powers. She is symbolic of women being the tools for patriarchs to exchange in order to earn wealth & power. Miranda is also like her, a puppet in her father’s hands to regain Prospero his power/Dukedom.
The second erasure of female characters happens out of the play. After this play came out, there has been a flood of postcolonial readings but no feminist readings. So, there is an eradication of female characters in & out of this play.