Historical Contextualization: Violent Imperialism and Damaged Relationships

Violent Imperialism and Damaged Relationships

There are many pieces of history  that may not seem to correlate at first read, but after further close reading and analyzation they do. Some may not realize the historical context that Shakespeare’s Tempest reflects his feelings on colonization in the “New World”. The colonization of American and treatment of Native Americans has been directly correlated to the treatment of Caliban. Ronald Takaki’s “The ‘Tempest in the Wilderness” shines a much needed night on the topic of  imperialism. Ronald Takaki’s “The Tempest in the Wilderness” analyzes Shakespeare’s feelings on how violent imperialism has wounded relationships with Native Americans.

Ronald Takaki had written this selection in his book A Different Mirror. Focussing on the multicultural history of America, starting with the colonization of the New World.  The chapter The “Tempest” in the Wilderness is a piece that pulls a variety of primary and secondary sources to strengthen his claim and relationship between imperialism and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The sources include Christopher Columbus’ and Thomas Jefferson’s  journals as well as a variety of Elizabethan text. The topic of imperialism has been at the forefront of discussion in the last decade due to the reevaluation of our nation’s past, and the treatment of the Native Americans. Imperialism is the action of a nation extending their power to another land, and can be directly linked to colonialism. As England and Spain had extended their powers to the America’s the land soon became colonized though it was inhabited by Native Americans. The imperialist mindset is that of dominance over another group, and is also a sub category or cultural imperialism. Throughout the discovery of America the Native Americans were being enslaved, killed and dehumanized while their land was being taken. This treatment of Native Americans was not the first record of imperialism and would not be the last. Takaki states that “Like Caliban, the native people of America were being viewed as “other”. European culture was delineating the border” (189) This draws direct similarities between the treatment of Caliban  in The  Tempest and the treatment of Native Americans, both the reflection of imperialism.

The takeover of America is similar  to the treatment of Prospero to Caliban and  it is the belief that one is superior to the other. As Prospero had been exiled onto the island him and his daughter come across Caliban as the only living inhabitant. Caliban who is Algerian is then seen as irrelevant in the eyes of Prospero. The dominance and imperialist mindset  of Prospero over Caliban is reflected in a specific scene, as Caliban tries to remind Prospero that it was his rightful land.


Caliban: This Island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,

Which thou take’s from me. When thou cam’s first,

Thou stork’s me and made much of me, wouldst give me

Water with berries in’t and teach me how

To name the bugger light, and how less,

That burn by day and night, And then I loved thee

And showed thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle,

The fresh springs, brine pits, batten place and fertile.

Cursed be I that did so! All the charms

Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!

For I am all the subjects that you have,

Which first was mine own king; and here you sty me

In this hard rock , whiles you do keep from me

The rest o’ th’ island.

Caliban’s had  rightful ownership of the island he feels trapped and unjustly served.  In Calibans opinion, Prospero would’ve died on that island without his help.  Instead of showing gratitude he is now a slave to Prospero. Prospero also decided that Caliban would not be able to survive without their help and disregarded Caliban’s lifestyle. He then attempted to acculturate him to their European lifestyle, but still Caliban was not seen as equal. Though Caliban was the only inhabitant on the island he was considered not fit to claim it as his own. Caliban states that he is the island’s rightful owner in the first line;  “This Island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,Which thou take’s from me.” (190) Columbus came to the Americas and in his journals wrote that the Native people seemed to lack intelligence and all tools for survival. Columbus wrote specifically; “They do not bear arms or know them, for I showed to them swords and they took the blade and cut themselves.” This is a clear imperialist mindset as one group is dominant over the other, and building an empire on already established land. Takaki writes that “Indians seemed to lack everything the English identified as civilized- Christianity, cities, letters clothing and swords.” (189) Caliban’s feelings are similar to how the Native Americans may have felt after being ripped from their land and assimilated into the European culture. Takaki’s writings have analyzed various sources, and The Tempest has reflected Shakespeare’s feelings toward  English colonization of the Americas, that led to  violent imperialism.

Prospero was not the only character that reflected dominance over Caliban. Other scenes including Stephano showed the same feelings. Shakespeare  wrote these scenes to show as Caliban was below their standing because of their race. Hopefully readers would understand how dehumanizing it was to take over land that was never rightfully theirs.


Stephano: He shall taste of my bottle. If he have never drunk

wine afore it will go near to remove his fit. If I can

recover him and keep him tame, I will not take too much

for him. He shall pay for him that hath him, and that

soundly. (2.2.71-75)

Cultural imperialism includes forcing conformation of the “lower” culture into the dominant one. Stephano asserting his English  cultural norms onto Caliban because to him Caliban was never civilized. As Takaki quotes Thomas Jefferson in his book, “Civilizing the Indians was a strategy designed to acquire land for white settlement.” (209) This meaning that by civilizing Native Americans it was an opportunity to take their land since civilizing them was a “favor”. By Prospero and Stephano pressing their cultural norms onto Caliban it was a considered a “favor” and by doing that it was only just to claim Caliban’s land.

Shakespeare’s portrayal of Caliban being a slave to Prospero and Stephano is demonstrating the damaged relationships that occur when taking the land that was already claimed. After Caliban is forced slave to Prospero there is no respect for either party. Prospero has no respect for someone “lower” than him. Caliban has lost respect for the man who enslaved him and disregarded his rightful land. This is an identical situation to English and the Native Americans. The English came to this land in hopes to colonize it but also civilize the inhabitants. After both did not go as planned violent measures were taken to “control” the population and. This had damaged relationships and neither party had trust for each other.

In conclusion there are ties between the imperistic mindset of the English and The Tempest. Takaki wrote direct proof of the English imperialism in the Americas, and its correlation to The Tempest. The colonization of land in both the Americas and The Tempest has caused for reevaluation,  how many nations become imperialistic taking land that was never rightfully theirs.   Shakespeare’s writings may not seem to have expressed those feelings at first read, but after close reading there are many red flags. Red flags regarding  the English’s approach of colonization and ruining relationships between Native Americans.


Takaki, Ronald T., 1939-2009. A Different Mirror : a History of Multicultural America. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1993. Print.

William Shakespeare, The Tempest: A Case Study in Critical Controversy, ed. Graff and Phelan, 2nd ed., 2009.