The Tempest, written by Shakespeare, deals with colonialism and post-colonialism in a topical manner. The protagonist Prospero and his relation with his slave Caliban offers a case of such an interrogation.
Prospero exiled from his dukedom in Milan arrives at an unnamed island. Through his expansive learning, he knows how to use magic and it enables him to rule over the island.
His relation with Caliban provides us an understanding of how this play may address issues of racial identity and equality.
One may notice how it also reflects the social conventions by which Europeans of that age defined non-European people whom they encountered while establishing themselves as colonial powers.
This play can be considered as one of those texts which shows the way of seeing new places and situating one’s mother nation historically. Prospero outrightly from the very beginning shows his masterly indulgence and disappointment with Caliban.
While talking to his daughter, Prospero talks of Caliban as ‘my slave, who never yield us kind answer.” Most of the conversation between him and Caliban shows that for him Prospero has no regard, he is a “poisonous slave, got by the Devil himself.”
The legitimacy of power is questioned when Caliban answers to Prospero that the “island’s mine by Sycorax my mother.” Prospero has enslaved Caliban and Caliban revoltingly says that “I am all the subjects that you have, which first was mine own king. And here you sty (confine) me in this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me the rest o’th’island.”
Prospero while ruling, as a colonialist, also imposes his own culture upon Caliban. Miranda addresses Caliban as a “savage” who didn’t know his “own meaning” before she (with Prospero) “endowed his purposes with words that made them known.”
Here, Caliban’s character dramatizes a form of colonial otherness. Just like colonists, characters like Trinculo and others who came from outside, keep seeing Caliban as a “monster.” He evokes an exoticism for them.
His otherness is further reiterated when they are consistently unable to sense any humanity in him and keep calling him as “mooncalf,” or “servant monster.”
In the post-colonial context, Caliban’s verbal abuse against Prospero can be celebrated. Caliban understands Prospero has control over his language because, with her daughter, he taught him that language.
Caliban denies that such an imposed language has provided him no profit and he can only use it to curse them. It clearly means that he is in unease with this alien language.
Every time Prospero shows his disappointment with Caliban’s “savagery,” it shows his colonial paternalism. Prospero clarifies that “with human care” he has attempted to humanize Caliban until he tried dishonoring Miranda.
The post-colonial critic can strongly challenge when Miranda accuses that the “vile race” of Caliban can’t sustain any goodness in it.
The play provides enough content for a post-colonial criticism by hinting at the legitimacy of Caliban’s claims upon the island.