Slavery and Freedom in William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”
The subtly comedic interactions and juxtapositions between masters and slaves in William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” generate a question which has been the source of much controversy throughout history: are the hierarchical classifications “slave” and “free” reflections of a person’s fundamental nature, or are they social constructions based on bias and self-interest which have nothing to do with absolute truth? This question is crucial because the way that we answer it has the potential to either justify or condemn the widespread practice of enslaving certain individuals. A close look at Shakespeare’s portrayal of masters and slaves in this play suggests that although those who enslave others would like to believe that slave and free are natural categories, they seem to be socially constructed.
In his essay “The Ancient Comic Tradition”, Bernard Knox states that “Slave and free were not so much separate classes as separate worlds: Aristotle could go so far as to claim that they were separate natures” (131). While the concept that slave and free are separate worlds is defensible given the vast differences in lifestyle between the two, the idea that they are separate natures is not a logical extension of this fact, but rather a separate idea altogether. Fundamental nature has nothing to do with one’s political or social situation, but rather one’s innate capabilities, motivations, and morality. Our task, then, is to determine the degree of similarity (or lack thereof) in the innate capabilities, motivations, and morality of the masters and slaves in this play.
Through close examination of Prospero and Caliban, it becomes apparent that although Caliban is a slave and Prospero is his free master, their innate capabilities are nearly identical. One place where similarity is shown is when Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo are plotting to overthrow Prospero. In the course of their scheming, Caliban advises Stephano and Trinculo to “Remember/ First to possess his books; for without them/ He’s but a sot, as I am; nor Hath one spirit to command: They all do hate him/ As rootedly as I” (3.2: 95-99). Caliban is claiming that Prospero’s power over him is not due to fundamentally superior intellectual capacity, but rather to privileged circumstances which have allowed him to acquire his books on sorcery. The fact that Caliban is under Prospero’s powers would logically give him first-hand information regarding these powers, and because honesty about this information could potentially further his goal of overthrowing Prospero while dishonesty could undermine it, he has no motivation to lie in this instance. For these reasons it seems logical to trust Caliban’s evaluation of Prospero here. This evaluation supports the argument that “slave” and “free” are separate social classifications rather than separate natures, since one’s circumstances are a product of chance and the framework...