William Shakespeare, The Tempest
Reading with Literary Theory
Reader Response * New Historicism * Postcolonial Studies
The Tempest was Shakespeare's last romance, written in 1611, and in it he meditates on the problems of power and “right rule.” Readers (or spectators) of the play will regard the treatment of these issues in different ways, depending on the circumstances and conditions of their own experience. Reader-Response theory attempts to understand just these differences. Seventeenth-century readers would have understood the political point of The Tempest according to the “horizon” of their own experience and the specific nature of their “interpretive communities.” They might see Prospero as a symbol of social harmony, civil justice, and dynastic succession. However, for modern readers schooled in the history of COLONIALISM and imperial expansion, Prospero is an oppressive colonist, using magic to mask social and political power. Similarly, while Shakespeare's own contemporaries might have regarded caliban as an inhuman barbarian (or, at best, an early form of the Romantic “noble savage”), a modern reader is more likely to regard him sympathetically as the subject of colonial oppression and dispossession, of the inequality and discrimination at the heart of European power.
Reader-Response theory requires the reader of a literary text to make decisions about the significance of character, action, theme, and symbol. it assumes that the reader completes the text at hand, not by discovering “hidden” meanings but by interpreting gaps, contradictions, and ambiguities. consider the following lines spoken by caliban to Steph- ano, one of the men planning a revolt against Prospero:
Why, as I told thee, 'tis a custom with him
I' th' afternoon to sleep. There thou mayst brain him, Having first seized his books; or with a log Batter his skull, or paunch him with a stake, or cut his weasand with thy knife. Remember First to possess his books, for without them He's but a sot, as I am, nor hath not
One spirit to command. They all do hate him As rootedly as I. Burn but his books. (3.2.82-90)
It is difficult for a modern reader not to discern a certain resourcefulness behind Caliban's barbarism, evidence of the extent to which he has learned the language of his oppressor. “You taught me language,” he tells Prospero, “and my profit on 182-83't/Is I know how to curse” (I.2.364-65). But he knows more than how to curse. In the above-quoted passage, the savage beast becomes the strategist, aware of Prospero's weaknesses (his afternoon nap) but also aware that his books of magic are the signs of his social authority. Readers are led to regard Caliban not as a dangerous threat to social order but rather as a victim of that order. But they are also led to regard Prospero, without his books, as no better than Caliban: “without them/He's but a sot, as I am.” The reader of The Tempest must fill in gaps that have been created not only by language (what exactly do “books” signify?) but by the “aesthetic distance” between the play's historical context and the modern reader.
The problem for the New Historicist critic is to determine the “historicity” of the text, the precise relation between the elements of the play and the historical context in which it is embedded. Of particular importance for The Tempest is the New World, where early settlers were engaged in Indian wars, and Ireland, which had experienced a major crisis in 1607 when the indigenous aristocracy fled to the Continent (the “flight of the earls”), displaced by a huge influx of English “planters” into Ulster, Ireland's northern province. In addition to the colonial subtext is another, which would have been more readily grasped by Shakespeare's contemporaries: the problem of proper governance and the right of succession, especially with respect to the new Stuart regime. The play is framed by comic scenes of monarchical infighting between the mutinous nobility (Sebastian and Antonio) and the enlightened guardians of civil harmony (Prospero and Gonzalo). This drama of internecine struggle is mirrored by the farcical plot among Stephan, Trinculo, and Caliban to kill Prospero and take over the island (see 2.1.1-53). The comical struggles that surround Prospero reflect dissatisfaction with the absolutism of James the First, who ascended the throne in 1603 and whose relations with Parliament were contentious. The masque in act four, which celebrates Ferdinand and Miranda’s engagement, solidifies power within a recognizable European tradition, but leaves open the question of whether this power, entailing as it does the oppression of native peoples, constitutes a “right to rule.”
The important question is whether Shakespeare is defending the new king, and thus the Stuart line of succession, or if he is questioning not only his right to rule but also his policies of conquest. The inverse problem is also important: to what extent does Shakespeare's play exemplify the TEXTUALITY of history? For the New Historicist critic, interpreting The Tempest as a commentary on colonial expansion and monarchial absolutism amounts to opening up of history itself to interpretation. Indeed, it calls into question the possibility of a singular, irrefutable historical account.
For Postcolonial Studies, the issue is not proper governance or the right to rule within a context of orderly succession. The issue is rather one of colonial dispossession and the SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION of Caliban, represented as an abject, animal-like slave, as racially OTHER with respect to Europeans. caliban thus becomes a screen on which the conquering Europeans project their own desire. “When thou didst not, savage,/ Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like/A thing most brutish, I endowed thy purposes/With words that made them known” (1.2.35861). Miranda speaks here, but she speaks for Prospero and for the West when she tells Caliban that his own “gabble” has been made “known” because she has taught him language. It is typical for the European colonizer to hear only silence from native peoples and to take them seriously only when they have accepted the language and culture of the colonizer. Miranda sums up this new political dispensation (which is really a “righting” of the old one, like the wrecked ship miraculously righted at the end) by seeing it as if it were new: “O brave new world/That has such people in 't!” (182-83). However, the civil unity that Miranda misreads has been achieved not only at her expense (she has been successfully married off), but mostly at Caliban's. In a final gesture, Ariel and Caliban are freed, but only caliban is “claimed” by his master - “This thing of darkness I/Acknowledge mine” (5.1.275-76) - but in such a way as to suggest that Caliban's existence as an other is essential to Prospero's identity as colonial ruler. For the modern reader, Shakespeare's play thus appears to critique the European colonial order at the very point in history when it was first gaining legitimacy by constructing an Other that requires conquest and conversion.