Post Colonial Interpretations of Shakespeare’s The Tempest
“…do we really expect, amidst this ruin and undoing of our life, that any is yet left a free and uncorrupted judge of great things and things which reads to eternity; and that we are not downright bribed by our desire to better ourselves?” – Longinus
Since the seventeenth century many interpretations and criticisms of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest have been recorded. Yet, since the play is widely symbolical and allegorical Shakespeare’s actual intentions behind the creation of the play can never be revealed. But it is precisely this ambiguity in intention that allows for so many literary theorists, historians, and novelists to offer their insight into the structure and meaning of the play. For many years much of the critical treatment of the play has come from an educated European heritage, like the play itself. However, beginning in the nineteenth century with the re-emergence of the original text of the play and a growing global awareness in Caribbean and African nations, many attitudes were arising about the apparent cultural associations of the play’s characters and the largely heretofore unchallenged European views that had dominated popular ideology. What was once superficially taken as a play about the expansion of European culture into the Americas, was now being explored for its commentary about the inherent dominance and oppression of the natives of the Barbadian islands (the geographical setting of the play), and further as a commentary on slavery and oppression as a whole. The plays main characters, Prospero and Caliban, have come to personify the thrust of the oppressors vs. oppressed debate.
In the introduction to Critical Essays on Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, editor Alden T. Vaughan describes how, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, cheap editions of the play began circulating. Up until this point the commonly accepted view of Prospero’s character was that of “a wise and rational ruler [who] could govern the forces of disorder that undermine the family and the state” (Vaughan 2). Many Europeans had even taken the character of Prospero to be none other than the bard himself, skilfully orchestrating the island’s affairs and inhabitants in a masterful culmination of his playwriting career; a metaphor for the sophisticated prosperity of Europeans. As well as this may be, this view represented only the colonial attitudes of the Europeans as influenced by such materials as William Strachey’s Bermuda Pamphlets and other hearsay. No one had anything to say about the incursion of the European way of life into the native cultures of the Americas. But as time lapsed and the play grew a greater audience across both political and cultural boundaries those views began to change. As Vaughan cites in his introduction; “Not until the nineteenth century rejected neoclassical rationalism was Prospero’s authority challenged” (2).
By the twentieth...