Imagining the Colonial Subject:
The Tempest by William Shakespeare & Oroonoko by Aphra Behn
In the sixteenth century, individuals of Black ancestry or individuals from non-European contexts were often portrayed in British literature, as seen in works such as The Tempest (1610-1611) by William Shakespeare & Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave (1688) by Aphra Behn. Nonwhite individuals were symbolically significant, even in the works of white European authors. However, the portrayal of nonwhite individuals was not always thematically consistent in a positive or negative way, though nonwhite individuals were consistently portrayed as the other, in other words, as non-Christian, non-European, and having a different appearance than the intended audience.
This paper will examine the view of the nonwhite, colonial subject in both texts, one which validates enslavement and subjugation (in the case of The Tempest) and one which attempts to articulate antiracist ideas (Oroonoko). It will also argue that Behns gendered position as a woman author adds additional veracity to her validation of the title character of her short story as noble, versus threatening. Behns work has been called the first literary abolitionist text, according to scholar Moira Ferguson, one in which the narrator admires Oroonokos heroic stance against slavery and deplores his punishment when captured even though it is somewhat ambivalent as an anti-colonialist text (Ferguson 339).
The Tempest and Good and Bad Servants (Slaves)
In the case of The Tempest, even if nonwhite or colonial subjects are represented, their non-whiteness is only represented obliquely. Equally importantly, in Shakespeares drama, the main hero of the play and the storys fundamental struggle takes place within the life of Prospero, an exiled duke who has taught himself magic from books. The play depicts a tropical island with native inhabitants, but with the conceit that they are inhabitants of a magical fairytale world, rather than one subjugated by political acts of colonialism. The magical Prospero is clearly European, but his residency is the result of involuntary exile, rather than a desire for enrichment. Individuals such as his servant Ariel and Caliban represent different facets of the islands character, but they are only portrayed in light of how they reflect upon Prosperos essential struggle to return to civilization and to rehabilitate his reputation, not as subjects worthy of attention themselves. The characters of Caliban and Ariel do articulate their unique points of view, but ultimately their perspectives are peripheral to Prosperos personal struggle.
Furthermore, at least one of the island beings in The TempestCalibanembodies many of the stereotypes Europeans held of non-white, non-European individuals at the time. He is ugly, inarticulate, and violent. This can be seen in one of the very first extended scenes in the play, when Prospero calls upon Caliban, despite his daughter Miranda saying she is afraid. Prospero points out that Caliban is necessary to act as their slave so they may have wood and fire. Prospero explicitly and unapologetically uses the language of slavery in his wording, even calling upon Caliban as a slave.
Caliban is said to lack language until Prospero taught him words. According to Caliban, spitting at Prospero: You taught me language; and my profit ont/ Is, I know how to curse (I.2, 362-363). On a very basic level, this does not even make sense, given presumably Caliban and his mother must have had to communicate with one another before Prosperos arrival. Not having language is said to be synonymous with not speaking English, and Caliban never learns to use language properly (in other words, not to curse).
Secondly, Caliban is explicitly said to have menaced Prosperos daughter Miranda and tried to rape her, again confirming stereotypes that non-Europeans are bestial and wish to have sex with European women. Caliban does not even deny this fact. Prospero says to Caliban that he showed kindness, Filth as thou art, with human care; and lodged thee/In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate/ The honour of my child (I.2. 347-349). Caliban rather gleefully responds that he would have happily peopled the island with little Calibans (I.2.349-350). However, despite Calibans possessive claim the island is his, he quickly falls under the spell of two lower-class English individuals, who ply him with drink, and who he vows to worship as gods. The implication is that the magical islands natives are incapable of governing themselves, and instinctively seek white people to keep them in line.
Only at the very end does Caliban soberly repent of his folly. What a thrice-double ass/Was I, to take this drunkard for a god, /And worship this dull fool! (V.1.296-298). Of course, it could be protested that not all native characters on Prosperos island are brutish like Caliban. Ariel is shown as the good, rather than bad island creature, mainly because he is obedient to Prosperos will. Ariel does occasionally ask Prospero for his freedom, but Prospero only offers this when it is convenient for Prospero, not when Ariel desires it. Until then, when Ariel requests to be free, Prospero reminds Ariel that it was he who saved Ariel from imprisonment by Calibans mother, the evil witch Sycorax.
There is the implication in the portrayal of Ariel that Prosperos needs to restore himself to power and revenge himself are ultimately more important than Ariels desire to be free. Even though Ariel is set free at the end, ultimately the value of exposure to Prosperos colonization and domination improves Ariels life and is better than the situation in which he found himself before, under the rule of Sycorax. It might also be argued that The Tempest is not an inherently pro-colonial play because it is a fantasyland, where magic is real. But even in this portrayal, the displacement of European domination over an island territory into a relatively harmless fantasy struggle, denies the very real suffering felt by individuals who were the victims of colonization. Slavery does not do any material harm, and even when Caliban is portrayed as suffering physically from his bondage, Prospero says he deserves it, and the audience is meant to identify with Prospero
Behn and the Noble Savage
In contrast, Aphra Behns short story Oroonoko very explicitly frames itself as realistic, even though it is fictionalized. Though Behns story does not meet contemporary standards of what is not fictional versus factual, historical testimony, it at least contains a more explicit admission of the suffering that can be generated by colonization. The very first words of the text are: I DO not pretend, in giving you the history of this royal slave, to entertain my reader with adventures of a feignd hero, whose life and fortunes fancy may manage at the poets pleasure (Behn 147).
Behns story takes place in the West Indies and colonial America, or actual, physical locations known to her audience, where colonial subjects were kept in bondage. The beginning of the book, set before the noble Black prince Oroonoko is enslaved, depicts a non-Christian, non-European place that has its own cultural integrity and beauty that is then impinged upon by attempts by Europeans to persecute nonwhites and to enrich themselves through slavery: religion woud here but destroy that tranquillity they possess by ignorance; and laws woud but teach em to know offence, of which now they have no notion (Behn 149-150). Although Behn does use the term ignorance, it is not necessarily in a negative sense, and the implication is that the Europeans should have essentially left the native subjects to their own devices, rather than attempted to colonize and enslave them.
In contrast to the relatively easy servitude of Caliban by Prospero, which largely involves Caliban making fires and carrying wood, and only as punishment after Caliban attempts to rape Miranda, in Behns story, slavery is explicitly for Europan enrichment, to work on sugar plantations. While Caliban is portrayed as hideous and frightful, the female, European narrator of Oroonoko is described as beautiful: The whole proportion and air of his face was so nobly and
exactly formd, that bating his colour, there could be nothing in nature more beautiful,
agreeable and handsome (Behn 154). Behn explicitly denied the European assumptions of beauty that associate fairness with nobility. Behn, writing as a woman, also offers personal testimony from her situation as a woman and author about how common, colonial European assumptions about innate native savagery are wrong. Again, this stands in contrast to Shakespeares association between Calibans darkness, slavery, and savage desire for the lovely European Miranda.
Oroonoko is portrayed as a so-called noble savage, who embodies noble virtues despite the prejudices of those around him and his origin. He also has sensitivity and spirituality in his desires. The story centers around a romance, as the West African prince is in love with the beautiful Imoinda. Imoinda is sold into slavery and Oroonoko is captured by slaver traders. After the two are reunited, Oroonoko attempts to stir up a slave rebellion, which fails. Oroonoko kills his beloved (as the result of a pact made between the two of them) and is then tortured and ultimately killed for his actions. He exhorts his fellow slaves to secure their liberty before he does, however. In themes that will echo in many later slave narratives, Oroonoko and Imoinda are also shown mourning when she becomes pregnant, because of the difficulties in securing not just two, but three individuals from bondage.
Many of the themes present in The Tempest, such as the imposition of language upon nonwhite populations by white ones, are manifest in Oroonoko. But while Shakespeare portrays Prosperos knowledge of books as superior to Caliban and Ariel, as well as beneficial in terms of teaching them the correct names of things, Behn is explicit about the wrongness of attempting to impose language and European names upon native populations. I ought to tell you, that the Christians never buy any slaves but they give em some name of their own, their native ones being likely very barbarous, and hard to pronounce (Behn 186). It is the Christians who struggle with knowing the appropriate names of people in this passage, however, not that the native population lacks language.
Additionally, while Caliban, even when freed from Prospero, naturally seeks some sort of European master, Oroonoko is a leader himself. Even the European name given to him of Caesar unconsciously reflects his innate nobility. While Prospero claims the right to narrate and shape native experience, Behn herself states that she feels that her pen is unworthy of fully encapsulating the true nature of this wonderful man. But his misfortune was, to fall in an obscure world, that afforded only a female pen to celebrate his fame (Behn 186). Behn, again by drawing attention to her femaleness, also highlights the purity of her subject (worthy of a female pen, and not indecent or unsuitable), and the gentility of the prince. This is in stark contrast to Mirandas fear of Caliban and her unwillingness to even look upon him, much less write about him.
Behns work is also explicitly political and addresses controversies pertinent to her era. Again, while Shakespeare buries these concerns by transposing concerns about colonialism to an island where slavery is of ostensibly magical beings (some of whom are innately wicked, like Caliban and his mother), Behn wrote in a way to challenge the Royal African Company which had a monopoly on the slave trade (Ferguson 341). Behns work is intended to motivate real, political change, rather than turns colonialism into a fantasy story for spectacle and delight. On the other hand, Behn has still been criticized for the ways that her text engages with the questions of freedom and slavery in relationship to monarchy. Oroonoko is a prince, and is shown as having a nobility above and beyond other Black Africans within the text. This seems to endorse European notions of hereditary monarchy. Also, it is grandfather who sells his beloved into slavery, and the complicity of Africans as well as Europeans in slavery is likewise stressed.
Finally, the end of the text specifically states that Oroonoko is destined for a better place in the world to come, in a highly Eurocentric and Christianized vision of heaven. This is in keeping with the notion of the prince as a noble savage, and one above the morals, intelligence, and integrity of his fellow enslaved persons. Behn ultimately endorses a vision of Oroonokos exceptionalism, rather than stressing his connections to others like him. He is a leader among his people, morally, as well as a leader of a rebellion. But it should be noted this may also simply be keeping with the emphasis of many tragedies of the era, which focused upon great men, rather than ordinary individuals.
Still, in considering Behns text in relationship to Shakespeares, the radicalness of her vision is striking, as is her willingness to question colonialism, the assumption of innate Black inferiority, or the idea that nonwhite and non-Christian cultures must be reformed. Additionally, it is Oroonokos struggle which is at the forefront of the prose narrative, and the author mainly draws attention to herself as a writer, not as a subject within the drama. In Shakespeares play, the struggles and conflicts of the Europeans, and the romance of the younger white characters, are more important than either Ariel or Calibans freedom. Slavery in Shakespeare is depicted as relatively benign. Behns story, in contrast, ends tragically, with Oroonoko gaining a moral victory over his captors, even though he is condemned to death.
Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko: or The History of the Royal Slave. 1688.
Ferguson, Moira. Oroonoko: Birth of a Paradigm. New Literary History, vol. 23, no. 2, 1992,
pp. 33959. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/469240. Accessed 27 May 2022.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Project Gutenberg. 1610-1611.
Are you busy and do not have time to handle your assignment? Are you scared that your paper will not make the grade? Do you have responsibilities that may hinder you from turning in your assignment on time? Are you tired and can barely handle your assignment? Are your grades inconsistent?
Whichever your reason is, it is valid! You can get professional academic help from our service at affordable rates. We have a team of professional academic writers who can handle all your assignments.
Students barely have time to read. We got you! Have your literature essay or book review written without having the hassle of reading the book. You can get your literature paper custom-written for you by our literature specialists.
Do you struggle with finance? No need to torture yourself if finance is not your cup of tea. You can order your finance paper from our academic writing service and get 100% original work from competent finance experts.
While psychology may be an interesting subject, you may lack sufficient time to handle your assignments. Don’t despair; by using our academic writing service, you can be assured of perfect grades. Moreover, your grades will be consistent.
Engineering is quite a demanding subject. Students face a lot of pressure and barely have enough time to do what they love to do. Our academic writing service got you covered! Our engineering specialists follow the paper instructions and ensure timely delivery of the paper.
In the nursing course, you may have difficulties with literature reviews, annotated bibliographies, critical essays, and other assignments. Our nursing assignment writers will offer you professional nursing paper help at low prices.
Truth be told, sociology papers can be quite exhausting. Our academic writing service relieves you of fatigue, pressure, and stress. You can relax and have peace of mind as our academic writers handle your sociology assignment.
We take pride in having some of the best business writers in the industry. Our business writers have a lot of experience in the field. They are reliable, and you can be assured of a high-grade paper. They are able to handle business papers of any subject, length, deadline, and difficulty!
We boast of having some of the most experienced statistics experts in the industry. Our statistics experts have diverse skills, expertise, and knowledge to handle any kind of assignment. They have access to all kinds of software to get your assignment done.
Writing a law essay may prove to be an insurmountable obstacle, especially when you need to know the peculiarities of the legislative framework. Take advantage of our top-notch law specialists and get superb grades and 100% satisfaction.
We have highlighted some of the most popular subjects we handle above. Those are just a tip of the iceberg. We deal in all academic disciplines since our writers are as diverse. They have been drawn from across all disciplines, and orders are assigned to those writers believed to be the best in the field. In a nutshell, there is no task we cannot handle; all you need to do is place your order with us. As long as your instructions are clear, just trust we shall deliver irrespective of the discipline.
Our essay writers are graduates with bachelor's, masters, Ph.D., and doctorate degrees in various subjects. The minimum requirement to be an essay writer with our essay writing service is to have a college degree. All our academic writers have a minimum of two years of academic writing. We have a stringent recruitment process to ensure that we get only the most competent essay writers in the industry. We also ensure that the writers are handsomely compensated for their value. The majority of our writers are native English speakers. As such, the fluency of language and grammar is impeccable.
There is a very low likelihood that you won’t like the paper.
Not at all. All papers are written from scratch. There is no way your tutor or instructor will realize that you did not write the paper yourself. In fact, we recommend using our assignment help services for consistent results.
We check all papers for plagiarism before we submit them. We use powerful plagiarism checking software such as SafeAssign, LopesWrite, and Turnitin. We also upload the plagiarism report so that you can review it. We understand that plagiarism is academic suicide. We would not take the risk of submitting plagiarized work and jeopardize your academic journey. Furthermore, we do not sell or use prewritten papers, and each paper is written from scratch.
You determine when you get the paper by setting the deadline when placing the order. All papers are delivered within the deadline. We are well aware that we operate in a time-sensitive industry. As such, we have laid out strategies to ensure that the client receives the paper on time and they never miss the deadline. We understand that papers that are submitted late have some points deducted. We do not want you to miss any points due to late submission. We work on beating deadlines by huge margins in order to ensure that you have ample time to review the paper before you submit it.
We have a privacy and confidentiality policy that guides our work. We NEVER share any customer information with third parties. Noone will ever know that you used our assignment help services. It’s only between you and us. We are bound by our policies to protect the customer’s identity and information. All your information, such as your names, phone number, email, order information, and so on, are protected. We have robust security systems that ensure that your data is protected. Hacking our systems is close to impossible, and it has never happened.
You fill all the paper instructions in the order form. Make sure you include all the helpful materials so that our academic writers can deliver the perfect paper. It will also help to eliminate unnecessary revisions.
Proceed to pay for the paper so that it can be assigned to one of our expert academic writers. The paper subject is matched with the writer’s area of specialization.
You communicate with the writer and know about the progress of the paper. The client can ask the writer for drafts of the paper. The client can upload extra material and include additional instructions from the lecturer. Receive a paper.
The paper is sent to your email and uploaded to your personal account. You also get a plagiarism report attached to your paper.
PLACE THIS ORDER OR A SIMILAR ORDER WITH US TODAY AND GET A PERFECT SCORE!!!
Delivering a high-quality product at a reasonable price is not enough anymore.
That’s why we have developed 5 beneficial guarantees that will make your experience with our service enjoyable, easy, and safe.
You have to be 100% sure of the quality of your product to give a money-back guarantee. This describes us perfectly. Make sure that this guarantee is totally transparent.Read more
Each paper is composed from scratch, according to your instructions. It is then checked by our plagiarism-detection software. There is no gap where plagiarism could squeeze in.Read more
Thanks to our free revisions, there is no way for you to be unsatisfied. We will work on your paper until you are completely happy with the result.Read more
Your email is safe, as we store it according to international data protection rules. Your bank details are secure, as we use only reliable payment systems.Read more
By sending us your money, you buy the service we provide. Check out our terms and conditions if you prefer business talks to be laid out in official language.Read more