The Tempest: Revealing Of Racism In A Play

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The Tempest, written by William Shakespeare, is a play that touches on aspects of Racism. Racism is the belief that characteristics and abilities can be attributed to people simply on the basis of their race and that some racial groups are superior to others. Racism and discrimination have been used as powerful weapons for encouraging fear or hatred of others in times of conflict and war, and even during economic downturns. We can say Racism is the belief that there are inherent differences in people’s traits and capacities that are entirely due to their race, however, defined, and which, as a result, justify those people being treated differently, both socially and legally. Alternatively, racism is the practice of certain group/s of people being treated differently. The Tempest is said to be written in 1610-1611 and was first performed at court by the King’s Men in the fall of 1611. It was then performed again in the winter of 1612-1613 during the festivities in celebration of the marriage of King James’s daughter, Elizabeth. The Tempest is most likely the last play to be solely written by Shakespeare, and it is well known for being one of the only two play’s he’s written whose plot is entirely original.

In this play, racism is pretty common. The longer one spends looking through the play, the more racism can be seen. Not all of it is obvious, but there are several actions that wouldn’t be acceptable for a protagonist in a modern-day play. Looking into the background of the play, it is easy to see why the racism is there, but it is also interesting to note how much fictional racism mirrors the racism of the modern world. Many of the racist aspects of the play can be directly linked to the racist events happening at the time of the play’s creation. ‘[The Tempest] was first performed after the English invasion of Ireland but before the colonization of New England’. This means that Shakespeare would have been heavily influenced by the Irish and the First Nations. The Irish were seen as similar to the First Nations, and they both share many traits with Caliban, such as savage, outside of civilization, lazy, wicked, and beastlike. Caliban is also directly compared to First Nations, when Trinculo and Stephano talk of how Indians are put on a show, and the same could be done with Caliban.

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Although Caliban, is not really black, he also experiences alienation because of his race. His mother comes from North Africa and is considered of Berber origin, that’s why many white people, who appear on the Caribbean island, express a racial attitude towards Caliban. As a result, Caliban is only ever seen being treated with mockery and hatred, not once has a kind word been directed to him, and it’s unknown whether or not he was treated kindly when Prospero was teaching him. For instance, Prospero teaches Caliban ways to live on the island; however, then he starts to treat Caliban as a “poisonous slave [and] devil”, considering him to be a vulgar barbarian and a threat to Miranda. Even Ariel, who isn’t even human, is treated much better than Caliban, who is considered to be non-human by the other characters. And as Prospero had sought to educate him in an attempt to “civilize” Caliban thus leading him to learn English, Prospero, and Miranda acted as though Caliban knew no language nor knowledge before Prospero. However, Caliban knew the language that Sycorax spoke to him in and he knows of ‘my dam’s god, Setebos’, as well as having in-depth knowledge of the island. This means that Sycorax was around long enough to pass on some of her knowledge to Caliban. Miranda and Prospero treat Caliban as though he was an idiot without them when actually Caliban is bilingual whereas they only hear brutish noises. Due to the fact that Caliban’s origin is not clearly identified in the play, the character falls under the category of “otherness”, performing a subordinate role throughout Shakespeare’s narration.

On the other hand, Caliban is important to Prospero who mentions to Miranda that they “cannot miss him. He does make our fire, / Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices / That profit us”. These words prove that colonization initiated by English people and utilization of the black population for their own benefits were crucial for England. Colonization allowed the country to overcome many economic difficulties, such as unemployment and hunger, increasing England’s power among other European countries. Therefore, English colonizers utilized various measures to control these black people; however, Shakespeare reveals that Caliban doesn’t want to accept such treatment, he considers himself as the original owner of this place. Before the arrival of Prospero and Miranda to the island, Caliban is really perceived as a king, but the attempt of Prospero to civilize Caliban transforms the character into a slave. As Caliban states, “Thou stroke me and make much of me… / and then I lov’d thee, / And show’d thee all the qualities o’th’isle… / For I am all the subjects you have, Which first was mine own king”. Prospero makes an attempt to create a hierarchical structure in the island, according to which people are divided into superior and inferior on the basis of their race and position. Such behavior of Prospero proves that the involvement of English people in slavery began in the middle of the 16th century when Englishmen realized the benefits of slavery, failing to understand the negative impact of this superiority on black people. For instance, finding himself in close relations with white people, Caliban starts to feel alienated in the place he lives.

According to Ric Allsopp, Prospero’s dominance over Caliban reveals the social structure that existed in England in that period and that deprived foreigners of the possibility to lead normal lives under racial prejudices. Colonization of the island aggravates these biases and provides Prospero with an opportunity to receive power over the islanders. As MacDonald puts it, “representations of racial identity and difference, similarly matter and show in early modern English literature, [are] itself the product of an age of slavery and colonial displacement”. By applying to such claims as “Providence Divine”36, Prospero implicitly points at the fact that he has control over the island and its inhabitants37. However, Caliban states that it is his mother who controlled the island and further transferred this right to Caliban. In this regard, Prospero, utilizing various magic tricks, takes control over the islanders by brute force, putting its inhabitants into positions of slaves38. In order to avert people’s attention from this control, Prospero claims that Caliban has tried to rape his daughter, simultaneously revealing the stereotypic vision on barbarians.

But some critics consider this accusation as Prospero’s attempt to conceal his violent actions in regard to Caliban and other native people39. Thus, it is no wonder that Caliban rises against Prospero and his control; however, finally, Prospero suppresses this assault, proving that white people are superior and more powerful than people of other races. Society is considered to exist on the basis of two ways of interaction: subjugation and mutual interchange of profits. In the case of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, the relations between two races are based on subjugation that allows Prospero, as a member of a more powerful racial group, to enslave Caliban and other native inhabitants and utilize them for his own benefit. As a result, a race of white people appears in a more advantageous position than a race of the colonized black people. It is clear that their relations are not based on mutual interchange, that’s why the members of the second group are deprived of their freedom, former life and cultural roots.

However, by the end of the play, Prospero realizes that on a long-term basis such kind of relations can result in many negative consequences for both interacted groups. Therefore, despite the fact that Caliban usually acts as a barbarian black savage, Shakespeare reveals that, to some extent, Caliban’s actions are justified. When white people arrive to the island, where he lives and where he is thought to be a king, and deprive him of his rights and freedom, he rises against such a subordinate position. Caliban, who collides with another culture and another race for the first time, is unable to understand the difference between these white people and native inhabitants. But for Prospero the difference is obvious; Prospero, Trinculo and other white people regard Caliban as a monster, and Trinculo even thinks of taking this beast to England and demonstrating him in specific shows. These shows were rather popular and beneficial for the country’s economy in the 16th century, as people of different races, mainly Indians or the Moors, were shown to English audiences for a certain fee. As Caliban understands that Prospero transforms him into a slave, he opposes him by claiming: “I am subject to a tyrant, a sorcerer that by his cunning hath cheated me of the island”.

As Prospero makes an attempt to civilize Caliban, his major aim is to suppress Caliban’s nature and make the character serve him. Such dominance over wild inhabitants reflects the attitude of Europeans towards these people of different races. This attitude is especially obvious from the following words of Miranda, Prospero’s daughter: “Thy vile race – / Though thou didst learn – had that in’t which good natures / Could not abide to be with; therefore wast thou / Deservedly confined into this rock, / Who hadst deserved more than a prison”41. Such judgment reveals serious racial prejudices; it is clear that Caliban is not able to withstand such an attitude, and his rape of Miranda and his assault against Prospero are direct consequences of this racist treatment. However, Prospero manages to stifle a rebellion and change his attitude towards these black people. He leaves the island and releases Caliban. Such actions reveal Shakespeare’s views on colonization and race; the dramatist proves that the relations among different races should be based on mutual benefits and freedom.

But if one race suppresses another race, this suppression will finally result in the destruction of both races. Despite the fact that Caliban acquires the language and manners of the colonizers, they do not change his nature, because racial attitude, suppression, and enslavement deprive Caliban of adopting these norms. Simultaneously, these actions deprive Prospero of establishing good relations with native inhabitants, instead of inspiring hatred in them. But as Prospero provides freedom to Caliban, he also achieves inner freedom and understanding of other people. 


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