The Romance The Tempest

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(Redeeming/Reclaiming the Bard?) The Romance: The Tempest
"Discourse and the Individual: The Case of Colonialism in The Tempest," by
Meredith Anne Skura is a critique of different interpretations arguing whether or not
colonialism is present in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Numerous interpretations of the play
associate it with colonialist patterns, claiming that it is an account of English colonialism and
a critique of the events and attitudes that went along. Skura points out that even though The
Tempest opened the window for a variety of literary interpretations, colonialism as a major
component should not be part of them. These interpretations position colonialism as the
central theme of the play, but this is completely out order according to Meredith Skura. She
attempts to organize these arguments on the spectrum of viewing The Tempest as a universal
allegory to a historical narrative with a foundation in real events. From an objective
classification of Skura’s arguments and point of view, The Tempest is descriptive of
colonialist attitudes not the real colonialism, even if most of the New World colonialist
history had yet to unfold. Skura maintains that The Tempest, having been authored before the
majority of New World colonialism, could not, therefore, attempt to give detailed insight
about it. All that The Tempest presents in this respect are just prophetic of what would later
come to happen the way they did. Reading The Tempest in light of English colonialism is
interesting, but doing so loses sight of the intended artistry.
In her article, Skura supports her assertions that The Tempest is just but a description
of a colonialist attitude, and not about colonialism by tabling a historical logic to the
interpretations that have emerged about it. In the most basic colonialist reading, The Tempest
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presents the characters of Caliban and Prospero as the colonized and the colonizer interacting
in the New World. But because Prospero acknowledges Caliban as his own “thing of
darkness” (among other events), it is on course to interpret Caliban as merely another
dimension of Prospero (Tempest 5.1.289). In this interpretation The Tempest is more of a
psychological mind bender urging the viewer to introspection. This grants Prospero similar
qualities to the English colonizer but is not based in history. Similarities are coincidental and
indicative of human nature, not portrayals of real events. The play uses such stories to
become more prophetic of colonialism than to give an account of it, and this too validates
Skura’s assertions and respective argument.
According to Skura, the issue of whether The Tempest is colonialist or not is more
complicated than choosing one argument or the other. She quotes critic Paul Brown as
saying, “‘The Tempest is . . .fully implicated in the process of 'euphemisation', the effacement
of power,’ in ‘operations [that] encode struggle and contradiction even as they, or because
they, strive to insist on the legitimacy of colonialist narrative’" (Skura 45). One reason it is
complicated is because whenever there are differences and similarities in literary analysis, the
similarities prevail as the differences are ignored. It is hard to believe how this happens and
how the sufficing the decision is. The consideration that Caliban is a New World native runs
contrary to the opinions of contemporary factions who believed otherwise. “Interpretation is
made even more problematic here because, despite the claims about the play's intervention in
English colonialism, we have no external evidence that seventeenth-century audiences
thought the play referred to the New World” (47). The Tempest cannot, therefore, be forced
into describing the colonialist attitudes of the time as have been attempted by certain literary
analyses. Skura’s claims seem considerably valid because by the time The Tempest was
authored, no comprehensive colonialist literary discourse that could support such assertions
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existed. To this extent, it nulls later historicists’ interpretations. Skura’s article exposes
ambiguity in the quest to reduce The Tempest to a narrative about colonialism.
Furthermore, this view is inconsistent with the actual, related occurrences. Different
critiques present political attitudes in The Tempest as profoundly new and revolutionary, but
this is contrary to the real issue. The year 1611 was still very early for a self-justifying, New
World colonialist literary discourse. The sensational story about the shipwreck in Bermuda
that had happened a year before and the general atmosphere of excitement over exploration
might have been enough for inspiration, but they would not have sufficed to create substantial
narrative histories about New World colonialism on their own. The play must be dissected
and cherry-picked to contain such specific, futuristic significance. It is probably the main
reason Skura argues that the play is more prophetic of New World colonialism rather than an
account of it. It is more prudent to identify it as predictive of New World attitudes. Although
certain readings of The Tempest can give great insight into colonialist attitudes, this cannot
happen to the extent presented later by certain idealists. Most of the idealists’ literary
analyses were categorically punitive to The Tempest and the author by forcing meaning on it.
This is particularly unfair to both.
Another reason Skura takes a more nuanced view of the idealists’ takes is because
New World colonialism was not fully developed by the time The Tempest was written. The
audience had limited knowledge of the New World. The play was technically authored in
precolonial times, which is why any sense of colonialism in the play is ambiguous, and
without an established support. In her article, Skura confirms that this is because the play was
never part of the colonialism discourse. She points to other characters in Shakespeare’s works
like Vincentio and Lucio in “Measure for Measure” as examples that mirror the interaction
between Caliban and Prospero to show perhaps the play was not intended to portray
colonialism intentionally (62). Instead, it was an exploration of basic human nature, like
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much of Shakespeare’s work. Any similarities to a colonialist narrative merely stem from this
commentary on how people treat those they think are inferior to them. Because the play was
precolonial, it could not make a sincere account of colonialism.
Reading the play The Tempest within the context of colonial discourse has its merits
but is ultimately misleading, because it deviates from the intended artistry. Colonial
interpretations reach beyond the scope of the real accounts of colonization of at the time. This
treatment is either based on falsehood, imagination, or, in the most generous view, a
forecasted description of the future. The treatment becomes even more careless for the book
when it is entirely based on imagination. As people’s imaginations vary widely, they might
feel a certain entitlement to make interpretations that fit their interests. At the time, New
World civilization was still a new concept just gaining momentum. Because of this, The
Tempest is better read as a psychological journey into the human mind.
Limiting The Tempest comes at the detriment of fuller interpretations. As Skura points
out, “Though the term ‘colonialism’ may allude to the entire spectrum of New World activity,
in these articles it most often refers specifically to the use of power, to the Europeans’
exploitative and self-justifying treatment of the New World and its inhabitants” (44). While
power dynamics and exploitation are certainly themes in The Tempest, the exploration of the
tensions between loyalty and betrayal, and justice and revenge are the most dazzling artistry
in the play. There is the embarrassment and shame when Prospero is banished from Milan.
Yet he convinces himself that he is the superior person on the island and demands the loyalty
of Caliban and Ariel. This commentary about social hierarchy and perceived superiority is
not specific to New World events but is an almost universal part of human nature.
The dynamic between justice and revenge is another clear point of the play that could
get missed if reducing the view of The Tempest to a colonial narrative. It is a major part of the
play that readers are urged to confront and analyse. Prospero seeks justice on Antonio in the
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form of revenge. Caliban seeks justice for all the horrible treatments that he received from
Prospero. Through these characters’ stories Shakespeare asks the audience to define the line
between justice and revenge. The messages that the readers should get from The Tempest are
not just about power and exploitation but also concern loyalty, betrayal, justice, and revenge.
These intentions should not be forgotten in an attempt to push a falsified historical
Based on Skura’s reasoning, The Tempest predicted aspects of colonialism, even if the
history had not happened yet. It predicted but did not describe the real case of colonialism.
While it is interesting to read The Tempest as a lesson on colonialism, doing so ignores many
other important themes. Additionally, it forces the theme of colonialism as primary even if it
was not the intention of the author. Such views are mirror images of colonialism fitted to a
central theme of power in the play. This limitation creates the impression that colonialism is a
more formidable part of the play while entirely missing the full range of human behaviour
that is explored in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Literary analyses should be objectively based
upon the real issues of the work and not upon the implied supportive sections. Such cases like
this, where an argument is made to serve certain self-interests and grounded on imagination,
works unfairly to the literature in question and to the author by imposing an unintended
meaning on them.
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Works Cited
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1908
Skura, Meredith Anne. "Discourse and the Individual: The Case of Colonialism in The
Tempest." Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 40, no. 1, 1989, pp. 42-69.

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