History Through Literature: William Shakespeare, The Tempest (1610)

European Exploration, Perception of the Other, and the Columbian Exchange

How did Europeans perceive the new people they encountered and how were they in turn perceived?

The Tempest was written in 1610 after the initial voyages to the New World and European reactions to them. It has been described as a literary response “to the enlarged geographical and mental horizons created by European exploration into distant places.” The setting of the play is supposedly a remote island in the Mediterranean but the island and its only native inhabitant, Caliban, are more representative of the New World and the European perception of it. Recent analyses of the play suggest that Caliban represents the indigenous peoples whose unique culture and appearance were of great public interest in the early 1600s and whose treatment by Europeans was also in the news. Even Caliban’s name has been suggested as a derivation of “cannibal,” a practice found amongst the native peoples in Brazil and illustrated by the Belgian artist Theodor de Bry. Other indications of the influence of the age of exploration on the composition of the play include Caliban’s discussion of a Patagonian god called Setebos, a deity that Shakespeare found in the account of Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe published in 1555.

Prospero: Shake it off. Come on, We’ll visit Caliban, my slave, who never Yields us kind answer. . .

Caliban: I must eat my dinner. This island’s mine by Sycorax, my mother, Which thou tak’st from me. When thou cam’st first, Thou strok’st me and made much of me, wouldst give me
Water with berries in ’t, and teach me how To name the bigger light and how the 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, barren 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.

. . . Miranda: Abhorred slave, Which any print of goodness wilt not take, Being capable of all ill! I pitied thee, Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour, One thing or other. 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. But thy vile race, Though thou didst learn, had that in’t which good natures Could not abide to be with. Therefore wast thou Deservedly confined into this rock, Who hadst deserved more than a prison.

Caliban: You taught me language, and my profit on’t is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you for learning me your language!