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Shakespeare's Presentation of Colonialism in ‘The Tempest' - Theme Analysis

William Shakespeare, Playwright

'Faithful photographic reproduction of an original two-dimensional work of art', possibly by John Taylor. 'The work of art itself is in the public domain (1610). See:

'Faithful photographic reproduction of an original two-dimensional work of art', possibly by John Taylor. 'The work of art itself is in the public domain (1610). See:

'Colonisation' - A Theme in Shakespeare's 'The Tempest'.

'The Tempest', written by Shakespeare, around 1610, tells the story of a usurped duke, and the shipwreck he arranges in order to to exact retribution.

As in all Shakespeare plays, there is conflict and resolution; there is also romance.

Shakespeare includes certain themes: colonisation, ‘otherness‘, power, nature and nurture, love, illusion and repentance.

I interpret the play as a metaphor on colonisation. This is unsurprising, since Shakespeare wrote 'The Tempest' within 120 years of Columbus’s discovery of 'America' and only four years after Jamestown was founded.

This was history influencing art. And this 'art' can lead us to understand more about history.

I find it interesting to study the presentation of this theme and to discover clues to sources, which criticised Europe‘s treatment of native peoples.

Shakespeare presents travellers' tales, philosophical responses, moral dilemmas and his own opinions, within the framework of a magical adventure.

* * * * *

"We split"


Hazards of the Sea

Colonisation involved hazardous sea voyages and 'The Tempest' opens onboard ship, amidst 'a tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning'.


The audience hears: 'We split!' 'Farewell, my wife and children!' Gonzalo wails: ‘I would fain die a dry death'; 'every day some sailor's wife [shares] our theme of woe'.

Shakespeare's source for this shipwreck was the real plight of the 'Sea Venture', which ran aground off Bermuda ~ particularly William Strachey‘s report of this event. All were considered lost ~ yet, amazingly, they all survived, and one notes that, in this play, ‘Not so much perdition as an hair Betid to any creature in the vessel'.All survived 'The Tempest as well.

References include William Strachey's ‘sparkeling blaze' which becomes Shakespeare's 'Ariel', 'flam[ing] amazement'.

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Use of the term ‘Bermoothes' is also borrowed; this time from an item published by Jourdain. This can be recognised in ‘Bermuda’, island of devils ~ Ferdinand comments: 'all the devils are here' and there are a number of other references to 'devils' or 'the devil'.

The Boatswain‘s cry: 'What cares these roarers for the name of king?' mirrors another writer, Stephen Hopkins, conclusion: 'authority ceased when the wracke was committed', indicating that, in new lands, after shipwreck, social rank loses significance.

The butler of 'The Tempest', Stephano, who was modelled on Stephen, considers becoming lord of the island: 'this will prove a brave kingdom to me', he says.

This notion ~ that a king might be replaced by a commoner in certain circumstances ~ was a dangerous one, so Shakespeare ensures that Stephano’s role becomes comically criminal.

Nevertheless, Shakespeare is indicating alternatives to traditional power models.

* * * *

'The Tempest' - Colonialism Quotes:

One can find, within 'The tempest', colonialism quotes of various kinds.

Quotes illustrate attitudes ~ of Shakespeare and of his audiences.

A number of relevant quotes have been included in this article.

'A True Reportory' by William Strachey

William Strachey‘s report of the shipwreck of the 'Sea Venture', includes the following;

'A most dreadful tempest, the manifold deaths whereof are here to the life described ‑ Their wrack on Bermuda, and the description of those islands'

'Our sails, wound up, lay without their use. ... the strength of the storm in which the sea swelled above the clouds and gave battle unto heaven. ... The waters like whole rivers did flood in the air. ... the glut of water, as if throttling the wind erewhile, was no sooner a little emptied and qualified but instantly the winds, as hav­ing gotten their mouths now free and at liberty, spake more loud, and grew more tumultuous and malignant. What shall I say?­ -- Winds and seas were as mad as fury and rage could make them.'

'During all this time, the heavens look'd so black .. that it was not possible the elevation of the Pole might be observed, nor a star by night, not sunbeam by day was to be seen. Only upon the Thursday night, Sir George Summers ... had an apparition of a little round light like a faint star, trembling and streaming along with a sparkling blaze half the height upon the mainmast, and shooting sometimes from shroud to shroud.... Sir George Summers called divers about him and showed them the same, who observed it with much wonder and carefulness. ... The superstitious seamen make many constructions of this sea fire, which nevertheless is usual in storms.'

Ariel: Detail from William Hamilton's 'Prospero and Ariel', 1797

Public domain - copyright expired (Dated 1797). See:

Public domain - copyright expired (Dated 1797). See:

Compare Strachey's Report with 'The Tempest' ~ Act I, Scene 2


'I boarded the king's ship; now on the beak,
Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin,
I flamed amazement: sometime I'ld divide,
And burn in many places; on the topmast,
The yards and bowsprit, would I flame distinctly,
Then meet and join.
Jove's lightnings, the precursors

O' the dreadful thunder-claps, more momentary
And sight-outrunning were not; the fire and cracks
Of sulphurous roaring the most mighty Neptune
Seem to besiege and make his bold waves tremble,
Yea, his dread trident shake.'

William Strachey and William Shakespeare


Bermuda - Island of Devils

"A Discovery of the Barmudas, Otherwise Called the Ile of Divels" Jourdain.

"A Discovery of the Barmudas, Otherwise Called the Ile of Divels" Jourdain.

Fyodor Paramonov plays Caliban

1905: Maly Theatre, Moscow. Public Domain ~ copyright expired. See:

1905: Maly Theatre, Moscow. Public Domain ~ copyright expired. See:

Difference and Dignity

The juxtaposition of differences, like ‘otherness', and traditional European norms, permeates the play, providing conflict. Ariel is airy. Caliban is earthy. He is human,but 'different'. New lands, though terrifying, suggested opportunities. Having noted: 'Here is everything advantageous to life', Gonzalo later prays: 'heavenly power guide us Out of this fearful country!' There is a degree of contradiction here, but it reflects reality. Anything that is new and excitring will present opportunities as well as potential for fear.

Shakespeare also gives a quiet nod to Montaigne, who argued that European religious practices were as frightening as 'New World' practices.

When Caliban wonders whose is stronger, Sycorax's natural magic or Prospero's book-learned magic, concluding that Prospero's “would control my dam's god“, Shakespeare is comparing ‘civilised’ beliefs with ‘savage’ superstitions, and drawing the typical conclusion ~ that European power is stronger.

Clothing, a leitmotif of the play, stresses difference. Unlike Miranda and Prospero, Caliban does not wear European clothing, and is unimpressed by the finery, magically produced to trick Stephano and Trinculo. Caliban wears a simple gabardine cloak.

Ironically, the usurped Prospero usurps Caliban, stating that, when he arrived, the island wasn’t ‘honour'd with A human shape'. But Caliban argues: 'This island's mine .. Which thou tak'st from me'.This parallels the illegal claims on inhabited lands, made by colonising Europeans, after negating the 'humanity' of the natives. Referring to the native peoples of colonised lands, the Christian writer, Gray, preached that Europeans 'take away their rightfull inheritance‘.

When Caliban theorises that Stephano 'dropp'd from heaven', saying 'be my god', Shakespeare may be alluding to Cortes being mistaken for a god.

Though Caliban claims the island, even planning Prospero‘s murder, he offers Stephano lordship. Shakespeare shows that natives, either through conquest or religious conversion, felt compelled to submit: 'I'll swear .. to be thy true subject', Caliban promises.

Spanish Dominican priest, Bartolomé de Las Casas, wrote that colonisers‘ "ravage and killed“ so “small wonder .. if they tried to kill one of us”. Small wonder also, then, that Shakespeare has Caliban consider murdering the usurping Prospero, who has enslaved him.

'Man or Fish'?

Merman caught 1531, Baltic Sea. 'Specula physico-mathematico-historica notabilium ac mirabilium sciendorum' by Johann Zahn, 1696, Augsburg, Germany. Library Call Number: Q155 .Z33 1696. Image ID: libr0081, Treasures of the NOAA Library Collection. Ph

Merman caught 1531, Baltic Sea. 'Specula physico-mathematico-historica notabilium ac mirabilium sciendorum' by Johann Zahn, 1696, Augsburg, Germany. Library Call Number: Q155 .Z33 1696. Image ID: libr0081, Treasures of the NOAA Library Collection. Ph

Prospero describes Caliban as the illegitimate offspring of a witch and the devil ~ both exotic and mysterious. Gonzalo wonders: 'in Naples .. would they believe me? If I should say, I saw such islanders'. Trinculo, asks: 'What have we here? a man or a fish?'. Natives, he claims, could be exhibited as a novelty ~ unsurprising after the traveller Davy Ingram described a creature with 'neither heade nor necke‘ and ‘eyes and mouth in his brest'.

The comment ’Man or fish’ is a reference to the storm-creating sea-bishop, which was depicted by Ambroise Paré, who wondered “what absurdity, repugnance and confusion there would be .. if it were legitimate for devils to conceive by humans“. Shakespeare responds to Paré's question with Caliban.

Gonzalo’s remark: “though they are of monstrous shape Their manners are more gentle-kind than of Our human generation you shall find Many” complements Thomas More's Utopian vision, and Michel de Montaigne‘s conclusion, that “there is nothing in that nation, that is either barbarous or savage, unlesse men call that barbarisme which is not common to them“. Montaigne argues the barbarity of colonists, who presume to 'civilize'.

A pun, included in 'The Tempest', proves that Shakespeare used More's ‘Utopia’ as a source. Alonso says: “no more: thou dost talk nothing.” 'Utopia' literally means 'no place'.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne 1533 - 1592, author of the 'Essais de Montaigne' and Sir (Saint) Thomas More 1478 – 1535, author of 'Utopia', published 1516.

Montaigne: Public domain - copyright expired. See: More: Hans Holbein the Younger 1527. 'Faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain work'. See:

Montaigne: Public domain - copyright expired. See: More: Hans Holbein the Younger 1527. 'Faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain work'. See:

Language and Preconceptions

‘Language’ is important in 'The Tempest.

Stephano asks: “Where the devil should [Caliban] learn our language?”

After hearing Miranda speak ~ and understanding her ~ Ferdinand exclaims “My language! Heavens!”.

Caliban complains: “Thou [didst] .. teach me how to name the bigger light, and how the less,“ but “my profit on't Is, I know how to curse.”

Miranda says to Caliban that she “endowed thy purposes With words that made them known“, indicating that, before she arrived, Caliban could not put action or thought into words, but Caliban already had language. He already knew 'sun' and 'moon', but in his own tongue ~ despite the assumption that he spoke nonsense, as given here “When thou didst not .. Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like A thing most brutish”.

Education and ‘nurture’ are inseparable. 'Nurture versus nature' and the 'noble savage' were then being debated and opinions on the subject are indicated in characters’ behaviour. Prospero calls Caliban: "a born devil, on whose nature Nurture can never stick", while Miranda states: "thy vile race .. had that in 't which good natures Could not abide to be with".

The audience would note the descent of 'noble' vocabulary into something less acceptable; including Sebastian's: "bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog!" and Antonio's: "whoreson, insolent noisemaker". Thus Shakespeare encourages his audience to question their preconceptions about how language refklects nobility or civility.

Though Caliban plans Prospero's murder and, apparently, attempted Miranda‘s rape, the audience wonders who is more barbaric ~ Caliban, or Antonio, who suggested the murders of his companions, Alonso and Gonzalo, having left Prospero and Miranda for dead.

Caliban is, ironically, more sophisticated than the 'civilised' Stephano and Trinculo, and is no more murderous than Antonio and Sebastian.

The 'nature versus nurture' debate is also illustrated by the contrasting characters of Caliban and Ferdinand. Caliban is earthy and beastly. Ferdinand, like Miranda, is educated and refined.

GONZALO Fernandez De Oviedo Y Valdes 1478 - 1557

Oviedo was a Spanish writer who was educated at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella.
He visited the Americas a number of times and was made 'Historiographer of the Indies' in 1523.

A short version of his 'Natural hystoria de las Indias' was read widely in England, after it was translated in 1555.

Shakespeare is likely to have known of its contents and probably used it as a source.
Las Casas considered that it contained "almost as many lies as pages" and described Gonzalo, himself, as "one of the greatest tyrants, thieves, and destroyers of the Indies".

Shakespeare, Montaigne and Oviedo

A speech,

From 'The Tempest', Act 2, Scene I:

'Here is everything advantageous to life.
How lush and lusty the grass looks! how green!
Had I plantation of this isle, my lord,--
And were the king on't, what would I do?
I' the commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty;--
All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.'


Compare this speech with a quote from Michel de Montaigne, when writing about the native inhabitants of the Caribbean (English version published 1603):

'It is a nation ... that hath no kinde of traffike, no knowledge of Letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate, nor of politike superioritie; no use of service, of riches, or of poverty; no contracts, no successions, no dividences, no occupation but idle; no respect of kinred, but common, no apparrell but naturall, no manuring of lands, no use of wine, corne, or mettle. The very words that import lying, falsehood, treason, dissimulation, covetousnes, envie, detraction, and pardon, were never heard of amongst them'.

Apparently, Montaigne is believed to have used Gonzalo Oviedo's stories, as his source, and Shakespeare may well have read and used them.

'1492: Christopher Columbus discovers The Americas and takes Possession for Spain'. The Reports of Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) Make For Very Disquie

Public domain - copyright expired (1893). See: Source: Wikimedia Commons / Prang Educational Co / L. Prang & Co. Boston

Public domain - copyright expired (1893). See: Source: Wikimedia Commons / Prang Educational Co / L. Prang & Co. Boston

Love and Lust; Violation and Violence

'Love' is another theme of 'The Tempest. Relationships between the settlers and the natives are considered.

Both Ariel and Caliban have love-hate relationships with their master. When Ariel, resenting enslavement, but loving Prospero, asks: 'Do you love me ..?', he replies: 'Dearly'. Enslaved Caliban hates Prospero, but claims: ’When thou cam't first Thou strok'st me and made much of me' ... 'then I lov'd thee'.

Prospero, who bestows knowledge on Caliban, also exploits Caliban's own knowledge ~ of 'fresh springs‘ and ‘brine pits', just as Columbus describes colonists befriending, then exploiting, the natives whom he encountered. Prospero justifies his change in attitude: 'I have used thee .. with human care ... till thou didst seek to violate .. my child.'

Keith Sagar wrote that Prospero’s 'human care' was given 'with the same assumption of superiority which had been rationalized as benevolence by the colonists in the New World'.

Caliban is accused of attempted rape. Columbus recorded that he kidnapped natives for rape. Ania Loomba claims that rape by colonisers was commonplace. Then Natives who rebelled 'started to be described as the rapist rather than the master'. She wonders if 'The Tempest' reflects this 'role-reversal'. No proof of assault is provided. Dialogue confirms that Miranda's virtue is intact. Miranda claims: 'I pitied thee', but perhaps she actually loved him. White women, who loved non-Europeans, sometimes claimed rape.

Is Shakespeare presenting another issue here? A union between Miranda and Caliban wiuld have been considered impossible. But a union with Ferdinand would definitely have been preferable. His love is, apparently, pure and chaste; Caliban's was, apparently, lustful and violent. The comparison represents civilisation versus barbarity.

Where? Mediterranean Sea, or Caribbean Sea?


Inferiority? - Superiority? - Difference!

Initially, Caliban feels inferior to to the newcomers, Trinculo and Stephano (the 'clowns' of the play), but questions this reaction, when Stephano proves to be fearfully ignorant of island sounds.

Shakespeare juxtaposes the uneducated Trinculo with Caliban, whom Trinculo considers subservient, while acknowledging his own drunken lowliness: “A most ridiculous monster, to make a wonder of a Poor drunkard!“

Caliban notes Stephano and Trinculo’s ignorance, when they are lured by gaudy clothes. To Trinculo's: 'O king Stephano! ... look what a wardrobe here is for thee!', Caliban responds: ’thou fool, it is but trash.' Caliban finally acknowledges “What a thrice-double ass Was I, to take this drunkard for a god And worship this dull fool!” ~ Shakespeare’s reflection on the mistaken assumption that Europeans were superior.

During Shakespeare’s era, as indigenous Americans were being enslaved, shiploads of Africans were transported to their continent. Prospero refers to 'his' natives as slaves: “Caliban my slave“, he remarks ~ and to Ariel: “my slave...' ‘What is't thou canst demand?”

The play, while representing the Caribbean, is set in the Mediterranean. References to Africans indicate Shakespeare‘s interest in attitudes towards all ‘natives‘. Caliban's mother was Algerian and his 'vile race' is condemned. Princess Claribel married a Tunisian and Sebastian criticises Alonso for “los[ing] her to an African“. Caliban, son of an African, whose name reflects 'Carib', represents both groups.

Slave Caliban?


Repentance and Forgiveness

The theme of repentance and forgiveness is shown when Prospero frees his slaves. Ariel is told: “Set Caliban .. Free” and then: “Be free, and fare thou well!”

Caliban has compared his mother’s magic unfavourably to Prospero’s, but Prospero now shows respect for: “a witch .. so strong That could control the moon, make flows and ebbs”.

Prospero forgives Caliban, returning the island to him: “you look To have my pardon“. Caliban promises to “be wise hereafter And seek for grace”.

There is still an attitude of the 'European' being in command and the 'Native' accepting whatever is being offered.

Caliban - Freed Slave?


Audience Experiences

The audience experiences events ~ hearing, seeing, smelling. Available resources are utilised to dramatic effect.

In Shakespeare’s day, no electric lights, curtains or female actors were available. Direction, understanding and imagination were adapted accordingly.

How actors behaved and spoke, and how scenes followed on, provided dramatic effect.

For example, in the second act, the audience becomes angry at the immoral way Antonio treats Prospero and Miranda.

Later, they question the morality of Prospero’s treatment of Ariel and Caliban.

Anagrams and Near-Anagrams

Shakespeare uses anagrams.

When Ferdinand says: 'Admir'd Miranda', ears are alert for ‘Caliban’ as an almost-anagram of ‘Cannibal’ and ‘Prospero’ for 'oppressor'.

Names have meaning. 'Prospero' means 'fortunate'. 'Caliban' relates to 'Carib' and 'cannibal'. 'Miranda' is 'worthy of admiration'. All reflect attitudes to the native ~ coloniser relationship.

Early modern English enables Shakespeare to make important points. 'Thee', 'thou' and 'thy' addressed inferiors. 'You' and 'your' were high status. Most characters call Prospero 'you', but Caliban says: 'At thy request master'. Thus Shakespeare urges his audience to consider their status and relationship.

Actors speak in three styles. Important characters use blank verse ~ non-rhyming iambic pentameter, similar to real speech. Minor characters speak in prose. ‘Rhyming couplets' are used for high status individuals.

Drama, being a spoken and visual medium, with a live audience, Shakespeare could direct players to stress certain words, high-lighting underlying meanings.

Anagrams and Near-Anagrams


Caliban and Iambic Pentameter

Caliban is treated as beast. Stephano and Trinculo consider him inhuman, calling him 'moon-calf' and 'monster'.

Shakespeare’s use of adjectives illustrates relationships between Europeans and natives. Trinculo feels entitled to call Caliban ‘weak‘, ‘credulous‘, ‘perfidious‘, ‘puppy-headed‘, ‘scurvy‘, ‘abominable’ and ‘ridiculous‘.

Linguistic imagery, like 'dam' and 'whelp', promotes the view of animal, but Caliban, smelly, like a fish and earthy, like a tortoise, claims to be the island’s true ‘king'.

Caliban curses in prose, but surprises his audience by using iambic pentameter ~ which, as we have seen, was generally used for high-status characters ~ and beautifully eloquent and sensitive vocabulary:

“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,

Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

….'I cried to dream again'."

Thus Shakespeare portrays Caliban as sophisticated ~ and more important than Prospero acknowledges.

'I cried to dream again'


All is not as it seems

In 'The Tempest', all is not as it seems. Ostensibly a Mediterranean adventure, it is an allegory of American colonisation. While magical elements underline travel’s mysteries, Prospero's plan, played by and before real people, in real time, demands the audience ask where illusion ends and reality begins. 'The Tempest', both reflects and influences, reality.

I have deciphered clues to Shakespeare’s sources, providing examples of references to Europeans’ superior attitude to natives. One proof that Shakespeare studied European adventurers, and Native American life, is his reference to ‘Setebos‘, a Patagonian god, recorded by Magellan’s secretary. Shakespeare’s audience might recognise Montaigne, More, Columbus, Gray, Pare and others.

Sources influenced Shakespeare’s opinions and he, in turn, attempts to educate his audience. Shakespeare’s use of blank verse for Caliban is particularly telling; voicing his opinion that Caliban is a character of status. To Miranda’s: 'O, brave new world'. Prospero replies ’Tis new to thee’, indicating that it was not ‘new’ to natives.

'The Tempest' is both entertaining and purposeful. Ania Loomba writes: ‘The Tempest’ is “not just a romance or a tragi-comedy, reflecting .. world-views of the times, it is a real part of that world-view“.

Tempest Epilogue


mif on November 26, 2017:

Thank you so much for the useful hub.

Tricia Mason (author) from The English Midlands on February 23, 2015:

Very pleased that you found it interesting, Sarah :)

Sarah on February 23, 2015:

Amazing! Thank you very much, this was most helpful. :)

Tricia Mason (author) from The English Midlands on November 19, 2011:

Thanks :)

htodd from United States on November 19, 2011:

That's really great

Tricia Mason (author) from The English Midlands on August 03, 2010:

Hello Alberich :)

That's a lovely quote.


Yes, I think that you could be right.

There is so much more that could be said about the meaning behind this play.

alberich on August 03, 2010:

Thanks, this article is just splendid!

Excellent research and really interesting points!!

You mentioned shortly that there was some magical interpretation also. Well, I belive the “magical” meaning of this phrase comes clear in the words that you left out of your quote.

.. “Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices

That, if I then had waked after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,

The clouds me thought would open, and show riches

Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked,

I cried to dream again.”

My interpretation is that: regardless of the worldly power of kings in every land, native or European, the "instruments" and voices of the land in itself speaks and play its tales and music to us. Our worldly aims try to conquer and loot the land and the rule of the profane richness in every land. Although beyond every grip, only glimpsed when our soul enter the dreams, true richness reveals and the true urge within us cries to embrace it, would love to become a part of it.

What do you think?

Tricia Mason (author) from The English Midlands on March 03, 2010:

Thank you for your kind comment, Moulik Mistry :)

Moulik Mistry from Burdwan, West Bengal, India on March 03, 2010:

Very well researched article - well done and thank you...

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