The Tempest – This Island’s Mine!

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This is part of a series of blogs on Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, blogs will be posted both here and at http://findingshakespeare.co.uk/ on Fridays.

The Tempest is often understood as a parable of colonialism. In this kind of reading Prospero stands for the colonizer of the island and Caliban and Ariel as the victims of Prospero’s colonialist rule. Ownership of the island is contested by several of the characters but let’s have a close look at their various claims

1, Prospero

Prospero the deposed duke of Milan was exiled from Milan in a boat with only his daughter Miranda (then a small child), some meagre provisions and his most precious books. He landed on the island by pure luck Prospero simply says “here in this Island we arrived”. From what one can gather, on the island Prospero found Caliban and Ariel and a number of sprites. He decided to educate but also enslave Caliban and to use the spirit Ariel as a servant. His relationship with Caliban was benign until Caliban and Miranda had some kind of misunderstanding that Prospero at least thinks was an attempted rape. Prospero never questions his claim to the island.

2. Caliban

Caliban was living on the island when Prospero arrived there and he was born on the island. He claims that the island is his because it was his mother’s before him. However his mother was not born on the island she was brought to the island when she was exiled from Algiers for being a witch, She came to this island already pregnant with Caliban. When she arrived on the Island she found Ariel already there. She made Ariel her servant but when Ariel refused to do something he abhorred she punished him by imprisoning him in a tree where he suffered for a dozen years, until Prospero found him there and freed him only to make Ariel his servant.

3. Ariel

Ariel never voices any claim to the Island though he does demand his liberty. Perhaps because he is a spirit, rather than a human he is able to live anywhere without ownership. As he puts it, imagining his freedom,

“Where the bee sucks. there suck I:
In a cowslip’s bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat’s back I do fly”

So if anyone is the native inhabitant of the Island it is Ariel, though we do not know how he came there and whether he enslaved the bat upon whose back he flies he seems to have the strongest claim. And yet he is the only one who seems to feel no need to stake that claim.

So who owns the Island?

Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • cadeskywalker

    Do any of you guys know when and where Prospero was born?

  • Liz Woledge

    Yes I was thinking of that when I was writing about Ariel not having a concept of land ownership. There are also parallels in Caliban being ‘seduced’ by the westerner’s alcohol. Though Caliban see’s though that by the end of the play. ^liz

  • Liz Woledge

    Yes I was thinking of that when I was writing about Ariel not having a concept of land ownership. There are also parallels in Caliban being ‘seduced’ by the westerner’s alcohol. Though Caliban see’s though that by the end of the play. ^liz

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_TIXT6IP5TPICIDPS7ERSFRLYGI Andrew

    Another slant on the colonial metaphor is the English in Australia where the aboriginal people had no concept of land ownership and therefore didn’t assert their rights and the settlers declared the aboriginal people sub-human which made Australia uninhabited and therefore claimable.

  • Liz Woledge

    What an interesting reply – thanks! Several things spring to mind. If these characters were real. the fact that Ariel did not appear to lay claim to the land would not mean he did not have the right to inhabit that land. It may simply be a cultural difference – land ownership may be a notion brought to the Island by Prospero or by Sycorax before him. Ariel may not feel that anyone ‘owns’ nature. I agree that viewed as Thomas More and others might view it Ariel has a poor claim to the land and probably Caliban or Prospero have a stronger claim. This is probably why up until the mid 20th century most readers did not feel the need to debate Prospero’s right to the island. As our own cultural perspective changes and develops so do our views of the characters and their situations. ^liz

  • Liz Woledge

    What an interesting reply – thanks! Several things spring to mind. If these characters were real. the fact that Ariel did not appear to lay claim to the land would not mean he did not have the right to inhabit that land. It may simply be a cultural difference – land ownership may be a notion brought to the Island by Prospero or by Sycorax before him. Ariel may not feel that anyone ‘owns’ nature. I agree that viewed as Thomas More and others might view it Ariel has a poor claim to the land and probably Caliban or Prospero have a stronger claim. This is probably why up until the mid 20th century most readers did not feel the need to debate Prospero’s right to the island. As our own cultural perspective changes and develops so do our views of the characters and their situations. ^liz

  • C.LaPrade

    Your point about Ariel having the strongest claim to the status of native and, by extension, to the island itself is well taken, but weren’t the English, in their dispossession of Indian lands, operating according to the same logic John Locke would later advance as the labour theory of property? That is, as in Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, the appropriation of Indian lands was considered just since the English believed, mistakenly, that the Indians did not “use” the land, but left it “idle and waste.” Similarly, Robert Gray held that “the greater part” of the earth was “possessed and wrongfully usurped by wild beasts…or by brutish savages.” Of course, such a notion of justice and of property relies on the idea that the creation of private property so increases productivity that even those who no longer have the opportunity to acquire land will have more opportunity to acquire what is necessary for life. In Ariel’s case, though, and as the passage quoted above by Liz highlights, the spirit doesn’t seem to intend to use his feedom for agricultural reasons, but rather to relax and live off of the excesses provided by the natural world. According to this somewhat paradoxical logic, then, Ariel’s claim to the island is perhaps the weakest. Historically speaking, the claims of either Prospero or Caliban–since his mother’s claim to the island not only parallels but also predates Propero’s, he can (and does) make a claim that rests on the nature of property as inheritance–would be strongest.

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