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The Tempest is a play by William Shakespeare, first performed in the early 17th century. It is one of Shakespeare’s last plays, often considered one of his most remarkable masterpieces. The play is set on an island and tells the story of Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan. Prospero has been exiled to the island and relies on his magical powers to bring his enemies into subservience (Shakespeare & Homfrey, 1968). In the play The Tempest, Shakespeare succeeds in deconstructing the realities of colonialism by using metaphors and deliberately contrasting the characters to create implied identities of the colonizer and the colonized.
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Use of Metaphors
Shakespeare uses metaphors to explore the theme of colonialism in the play. Specifically, the inhabitants’ experiences under the authority of Prospero represent a metaphoric relationship between a colonizer and a colonized person, with Prospero representing the colonizer and natives representing the colonized (Borah, 2020). From the onset of the play, Caliban, a native of the island, resents Prospero’s control and yearns to be free of his influence. At the same time, Prospero considers himself superior to Caliban and attempts to civilize him (Shakespeare & Homfrey, 1968). This power struggle between Prospero and Caliban reflects the real-life relationship between colonizers and the people they colonized during the Age of Exploration.
It is worth noting that the metaphoric approach in The Tempest does not present a simplistic view of colonialism but rather explores the subject in a nuanced and complex manner. As a result, Shakespeare does not readily establish a distinct stance on colonialism. For instance, the character of Caliban comes off as a critique of colonialism, as he is portrayed as being resentful of Prospero’s control and yearns to be free of his influence. Yet, at the same time, the play also presents Ariel as a nuanced character who embraces Prospero’s command of the island, suggesting that the play may be an accommodating view of colonialism.
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Other metaphors in the play include the storm that brings the shipwrecked characters to the island. They represent the world’s upheaval and chaos and Prospero’s masque for the betrothal of Miranda and Ferdinand, which symbolizes the reconciliation and restoration of order. These metaphors add depth and meaning to The Tempest by allowing the audience to draw connections between seemingly unrelated occurrences on the island. In addition, they help Shakespeare paint a vivid picture of colonialism through the sufferings of Caliban and his colleagues in the audience’s minds. A possible explanation for this observation is that the audience considers the characters’ experiences similar to the encounters of the colonization era servitudes. Thus, the author effectively employs metaphors to express deep thoughts and feelings to the audience in a manner they can readily relate to and comprehend.
Shakespeare’s characterization also enables him to explore the theme of identity. The juxtaposition between Caliban and Ariel creates an ambiguity of identity. Prospero colonized Ariel and Caliban, but their varied views of him show how humans independently react to societal circumstances depending on their temperament and background (O’Toole, 2013). Ariel embodies the persona of a meek, subservient subject right from the start. His speech is that of a slave who submits to his master without protest. In contrast, Caliban’s sarcastic rebelliousness challenges Ariel’s self-effacing eagerness to serve Prospero. Thus, Ariel affirms the identity of submissiveness, while Caliban projects utter rebellion in the face of oppression.
Similarly, the character of Antonio contrasts with that of Prospero. Antonio is ambitious and scheming, willing to do whatever it takes to gain power, including betraying his brother. Contrarily, Prospero initially emerges as more hesitant to wield his power and eventually forgives his brother for his role in Prospero’s exile (Shakespeare & Homfrey, 1968). Consequently, Antonio earns the position of a central antagonist, while Prospero is the protagonist. This contrast of identities persists in the characters’ interactions with the other characters on the island and their roles in the play’s plot.
By contrasting the characters in this network of relationships, Shakespeare creates a balanced view of reality and keeps the audience intrigued. In addition, the differences in identities enable the playwright to highlight and explore the characters’ unique personalities and motivations (Begüm, 2016). This approach significantly contributes to exploring different themes and ideas. For instance, Shakespeare successfully conveys the themes of leadership and morality by juxtaposing the ambitious and power-hungry Antonio with the reserved and emotionally stable Prospero. Overall, the contrasting identities build tension and conflict between the characters, thereby driving the plot forward and keeping the audience engaged.
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In conclusion, William Shakespeare’s The Tempest metaphorically explores the realities of colonialism and uses appropriate characterization to portray the contrasting ways society developed its identities in the age of exploration. The play examines the relationship between Prospero and the natives of an estranged island and the power dynamic between them. This play is among the author’s greatest masterpieces. Regardless, the play’s complexity and multi-faceted stylistic approaches continue to attract debates between scholars and readers.
- Begüm, T. (2016). Identities in The Tempest, tempests in identities. International Journal of English and Literature, 7(5), 62-68. https://doi.org/10.5897/IJEL2016.0915
- Borah, U. K. (2020). Situating race in Shakespeare’s The Tempest: A colonial perspective. PalArch’s Journal of Archaeology of Egypt/Egyptology, 17(9), 7675-7680. https://archives.palarch.nl/index.php/jae/article/view/5571#:~:text=The%20play%20is%20kind%20of,due%20to%20the%20racial%20differences.
- O’Toole, M. (2013). Shakespeare’s natives: Ariel and Caliban in The Tempest. Columbia University in the City of New York. http://www.columbia.edu/itc/lithum/gallo/tempest.html#:~:text=Both%20Caliban%20and%20Ariel%20are,to%20and%20challenges%20Montaigne’s%20essay.
- Shakespeare, W., & Homfrey, L. (1968). The Tempest (p. 130). NSW Department of Education Division of Guidance & Special Education. https://egypdf.com/wp-content/uploads/books/2020/06/The-Tempestegypdf.com_.pdf