The Tempest

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Themes and Colors
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
Power Theme Icon
Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Theme Icon
Colonization Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Tempest, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Colonization Theme Icon

During the time when The Tempest was written and first performed, both Shakespeare and his audiences would have been very interested in the efforts of English and other European settlers to colonize distant lands around the globe. The Tempest explores the complex and problematic relationship between the European colonizer and the native colonized peoples through the relationship between Prospero and Caliban. Prospero views Caliban as a lesser being than himself. As such, Prospero believes that Caliban should be grateful to him for educating Caliban and lifting him out of "savagery." It simply does not occur to Prospero that he has stolen rulership of the island from Caliban, because Prospero can't imagine Caliban as being fit to rule anything. In contrast, Caliban soon realizes that Prospero views him as a second-class citizen fit only to serve and that by giving up his rulership of the island in return for his education, he has allowed himself to be robbed. As a result, Caliban turns bitter and violent, which only reinforces Prospero's view of him as a "savage." Shakespeare uses Prospero and Caliban's relationship to show how the misunderstandings between the colonizer and the colonized lead to hatred and conflict, with each side thinking that the other is at fault.

In addition to the relationship between the colonizer and colonized, The Tempest also explores the fears and opportunities that colonization creates. Exposure to new and different peoples leads to racism and intolerance, as seen when Sebastian criticizes Alonso for allowing his daughter to marry an African. Exploration and colonization led directly to slavery and the conquering of native peoples. For instance, Stephano and Trinculo both consider capturing Caliban to sell as a curiosity back at home, while Stephano eventually begins to see himself as a potential king of the island. At the same time, the expanded territories established by colonization created new places in which to experiment with alternative societies. Shakespeare conveys this idea in Gonzalo's musings about the perfect civilization he would establish if he could acquire a territory of his own.

Colonization ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Colonization appears in each scene of The Tempest. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Colonization Quotes in The Tempest

Below you will find the important quotes in The Tempest related to the theme of Colonization.
Act 1, scene 2 Quotes
You taught me language, and my profit on't
Is, I know how to curse.
Related Characters: Caliban (speaker), Prospero
Page Number: 1.2.437-438
Explanation and Analysis:

Prospero has thanked Ariel for creating the storm, although he has failed to set Ariel free per his request. Meanwhile, Prospero's "poisonous slave" Caliban enters, who Prospero treats much more cruelly. The two fight, with Prospero arguing that in the past he treated Caliban with care, only to have Caliban retaliate by attempting to rape Miranda. Caliban resentfully responds that he wished he had been successful in his rape attempt. Caliban grumbles that Prospero taught him language, but the only value of this is that now he knows how to curse. This is a key moment that establishes Prospero's paternalistic attitude to Caliban, a feature that signifies their colonial dynamic.

While Prospero considers it a gift that he has taught Caliban language, Caliban refuses to separate this education from Prospero's overall imprisonment of him. Caliban implies that there is little use to having language fluency if he is not treated as an equal by the people he communicates with. Under these circumstances, the only value in being able to speak is to curse his oppression. This tension is symbolically significant when compared to the "education" that European colonizers imposed on colonized populations throughout the New World.

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Act 2, scene 1 Quotes
I'th'commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things. For no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation, all men idle, all;
And women, too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty—
...
All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour. Treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth
Of it own kind, all foison, all abundance
To feed my innocent people.
Related Characters: Gonzalo (speaker)
Page Number: 2.1.163-180
Explanation and Analysis:

Alonso, Gonzalo, Antonio, and others have washed up onto a different part of the island, and Alonso is distraught because he believes his son, Ferdinand, has drowned. Gonzalo has tried to comfort Alonso, and Antonio and Sebastian have mocked Gonzalo for it. Sebastian, meanwhile, has told Alonso he has brought Ferdinand's death upon himself by letting his daughter marry and African. Gonzalo then begins a speech in which he fantasizes about being the ruler of an island like the one they are on. He imagines that everyone would be equal, with no "riches, poverty, and use of service," that no one would have to work, all women would be "innocent and pure," everything would grow in abundance, and there would be no conflict. 

To some extent, this reveals Gonzalo to be a kind, fair, and noble person. Unlike other characters, such as Antonio, Gonzalo is not power-hungry, and seems to believe that, under ideal circumstances, everyone would live a simple and equal life. Similarly, Gonzalo's comment that if he were ruler of the island there would be no "use of service" puts him in contrast to Prospero, who has enslaved Ariel, Caliban, and now Ferdinand. 

On the other hand, Gonzalo's speech is a typical colonial fantasy: he imagines that on an island like this, "nature should bring forth" an abundance of goods. During the age of colonial empires, the reality of this kind of thinking meant that local populations were oppressed and enslaved in order for European colonizers to live out their utopian fantasies. In many ways, Gonzalo's dream of a society without work or conflict seems hopelessly naïve.   

Act 3, scene 2 Quotes
Be not afeared; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.
Related Characters: Caliban (speaker)
Page Number: 3.2.148-156
Explanation and Analysis:

Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo have been drunkenly singing together. Ariel, who is invisible, has interrupted their singing by making mysterious noises, and Stephano and Trinculo are momentarily disturbed over where the noise is coming from. In response, Caliban reassures them that there is nothing to fear, and delivers a moving, eloquent speech about the sounds and sights of the island.

This is a pivotal moment in terms of the representation of Caliban's character. Whereas up until this point he has been portrayed as brutish, bitter, and foolish, here we witness him speak fondly and poetically about the natural world around him. This shift can be interpreted as a critique of the cruel treatment of colonized populations, although it also seems influenced by the stereotype that indigenous people are more naturally animalistic and closer to nature than Europeans. 

Act 4, scene 1 Quotes
A devil, a born devil, on whose nature
Nurture can never stick...
Related Characters: Prospero (speaker), Caliban
Related Symbols: Prospero's Cloak and Books
Page Number: 4.1.211-212
Explanation and Analysis:

Prospero has suddenly interrupted the masque, having remembered Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban's plot against him. He summons Ariel, who reports that he has led the three drunk men on a treacherous walk, and gives further details about their plans to kill Prospero and steal his cloak and books. Prospero is furious, exclaiming that Caliban is a devil "on whose nature / nurture can never stick." His words reflect a prominent debate among colonizers at the time about the nature of indigenous populations. Some argued that "savage" populations could be educated or "nurtured" to think and behave like Europeans––hence the "civilizing" missions that imposed Christianity and Western culture on colonized populations.

Others believed that it was impossible to "civilize" these populations, as Prospero claims in this passage. Like Prospero, many who held this view claimed that non-white people were not human, comparing their "nature" to animals or "devils." Note that both interpretations were deeply racist in that they cast the non-Europeans were seen as inferior to Europeans, although the second was more likely to be used as justification for enslavement and genocide. 

Act 5, scene 1 Quotes
Mine would, sir, were I human.
Related Characters: Ariel (speaker), Prospero
Page Number: 5.1.26
Explanation and Analysis:

Thanks to Ariel, Prospero has gained control over all his "enemies"; as a result, he has promised Ariel his freedom. When Prospero asks how Alonso and his men are doing, Ariel replies that they are terrified and that if Prospero were to see them now his "affections would become tender," adding, "mine would, sir, were I human." This humble comment reveals the irony of the idea that Ariel is not human. Throughout the play, Ariel has acted with compassion, intelligence, and dignified self-restraint (indeed, these qualities set him apart from many of the human characters on the island!). His advice that Prospero will feel pity for Alonso and the others is accurate, and shows that he has a sophisticated understanding of the depth of human emotions. 

Despite this, Ariel still refuses to claim human status for himself, and obediently acquiesces when Prospero continues to delay his promise of freedom. In this sense, we can interpret Ariel as an ideal colonized subject, passively accepting Prospero's right to rule over him, silently putting up with bad treatment, and never claiming the right to be equal with those who have enslaved him. 

...O brave new world
That has such people in't!
Related Characters: Miranda (speaker)
Page Number: 5.1.217-218
Explanation and Analysis:

Moved to compassion by Ariel, Prospero has ordered Alonso, Gonzalo and the others to be released and brought to him. He has praised Gonzalo and scolded the others, before revealing himself in the old attire of the Duke of Milan. Alonso grieves the presumed loss of Ferdinand, and at first Prospero continues letting him believe Ferdinand is dead, before revealing Ferdinand and Miranda together.

Seeing the new people, Miranda exclaims, "O brave new world!", astonished and delighted by seeing so many new people at once. However, Miranda's joy reveals how naïve she is as a result of having grown up on the island. After all, some of the men she is meeting are selfish, disloyal, and cruel, a fact that Prospero hints at immediately after her excited exclamation. 

...this thing of darkness, I
Acknowledge mine.
Related Characters: Prospero (speaker), Caliban
Page Number: 5.1.330-331
Explanation and Analysis:

Now that everyone has been brought together, Prospero has reclaimed his dukedom, and Miranda and Ferdinand's love has been announced, Prospero asks Ariel to undo the spell placed on Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban. Prospero reveals the plan the three drunk men hatched against him, and asks the other characters if they recognize Stephano and Trinculo. He then claims "this thing of darkness" as his own. Assumedly, "thing of darkness" refers to Caliban; there are many times in the play when Caliban is referred to as a nonhuman "it" rather than as a man, and this description is related to his indigenous status and dark skin.

Such an interpretation confirms the impression that Prospero believes Caliban to be his property, and treats him simultaneously as a child, pet, and inanimate possession. Such a dynamic was typical of this era (bear in mind that The Tempest was written only a few decades before the establishment of the Atlantic slave trade). It is possible that these lines actually consist of Prospero taking partial responsibility for the sinister plot against him, though this is somewhat unlikely considering that after this statement Caliban says "I shall be pinch'd to death."