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Paradoxical Power


Paradoxical Power:


Demonstrating the Cyclical Spiritual Roots of the Colonial Oppressor


     The Tempest is a play remembered primarily for three reasons: a surprisingly prophetic understanding of colonialism from the colonizer’s perspective, a much more magical approach to storytelling than other Shakespearean plays, and serious ambiguity concerning its authorship. Most analysis concerns the relationship that Prospero has with Caliban, the erasure of feminine presence, and the power of dominant historical narratives. I will be focusing on a different concept entirely: the role of spirit within The Tempest. Specifically, I will be utilizing a close reading of ill-studied scene 4.1 to describe the cyclical nature of religion within the processes of colonization.

     In approximately 70 CE, the Roman Empire conquered Britain, the last of a long line of conquests covering three continents, dozens of regions, and countless cultures (Wikipedia). The British, like most Europeans that were colonized by the Romans, were assimilated into the larger Roman culture, erasing whole swathes of pagan, Celtic, and indigenous history endemic to Britain. For the purposes of this essay, a reader need only understand that Europeans were subject to much of the same conditions of imperialism that they subject other peoples to in the modern day.

     Religion was used prominently to colonize minds and to re-write historical narratives by both the Romans and the modern Europeans, with two different coats of paint. Britons were first expected to worship deities, myths, and rituals of the appropriated Greek religion [1]. The Roman Empire christianized after Emperor Constantine converted, about 100 years after the conquest of Britain. This brought Christianity to the island, forever implanting a foreign, unknown religion over the corpse of the original, nature-based religion. This latent history bubbles in The Tempest as Shakespeare [2] finishes his own canon.


     Scene 4.1 begins with Prospero telling Ferdinand that he has completed many tasks to win the love of Miranda. There is some serious ambiguity and tension here, as Ferdinand has only visibly hauled a single log and complained about it (56, 40). The allusion to trials is no surprise, Ferdinand is the closest thing to a classical mythical hero in the play; however, the text begs the question, “How much of worth/merit is constructed?”. Ferdinand is used by Prospero to bring his own estate back to its status quo. This ambiguity colors the rest of the scene in its celebration of Ferdinand’s “accomplishments”.

     Next, Prospero asks Ariel to prepare “some vanity of mine art” (54). Here, we see a recurring tension of the play between the power of Prospero’s orders/words compared to the seemingly boundless energy demonstrated by Ariel and the island’s invisible mother, Sycorax. This tension shows us the balance of power in the play as well as its hierarchical structure. Prospero never casts a spell without the explicit help of Ariel, appropriating the religion and spirit of the island via spreading a narrative of conquering the femme nature of the land [3].


     The main crux of 4.1 is the celebration of love and marriage via the conjuring of three Goddesses, nymphs, and reapers. Prospero is invoking fertility goddesses of Rome to bring his own hopes of arranging marriage for Miranda and Ferdinand into reality. But why Roman deities? Here, we must understand who Prospero can be.

     Prospero is many people. This paradox colors the whole play as Prospero vacillates from colonizer to exiled to stand-in for the author (73). Prospero represents the ancient colonizer of Britain, the modern colonizer (Britain), and the author’s implicit role in this colonization. Prospero is an Italian colonizing an island that has an old feminine power on it and notably does not want to be there. This is remarkably similar to the way in which the Romans conquered Britannia and abandoned the island only a few hundred years later [4]. The parallels are heavy and omnipresent in 4.1 as Prospero asks Ariel to bring about more spirits than less (54). Ariel brings about the Roman Goddesses, not Prospero, demonstrating the level to which their mind is colonized by Prospero’s influence. Ariel is now creating magic that is related to Prospero’s world, not their own.

     Prospero asks for silence from all the participants of the celebration [5] (54). The goddesses speak of love, marriage, and harvest; clearly telling the crowd (and Prospero) what they want to hear. This tension is repeated when Ferdinand speaks and Prospero hushes him, stating that “Or else our spell is marred” (57). There is an association being made here between language and magic, strengthening this theme throughout the play. However, nowhere else in the play is silence required for Ariel’s magic to work, so why this tension now?

     I posit that the presence of feminine deities tips these scales. The images of Juno, Ceres, and Iris are the Roman equivalent to Sycorax [6]. Like the missionaries of Rome and the missionaries of Britain, Prospero cannot use the true nature of spirit on the island without the veneer of his homeplace. All the language that the goddesses speak is ultimately the word of Prospero. So, when Ferdinand speaks, Prospero’s word is questioned via an invocation of how beautiful the island is (57). It gives a few moments in which the image of the goddesses may flicker into the ancient power of Sycorax, who Prospero cannot acknowledge, despite her obvious similarity to these goddesses’ functions in Roman religion [7]. Prospero cannot let this happen, so he obsesses over others ability to create language.

     This may seem at first like an uninteresting reading, especially due to the lack of action in scene 4.1; however, this opens a massive set of understandings that unify the entire text of The Tempest, fulfilling the goal of New Criticism (Parker 17). Suddenly, all of the actions yield Prospero as an archetypal colonizer that demonstrates the cyclical nature of colonialism itself. The island becomes all the lands colonized over the entirety of history. Thus, we realize that the “telling” of The Tempest becomes an archetypal “tale” of colonization as a whole. The structuralists would not have seen this, as it has nothing to do with narratology; we are dealing with an instance where a combination of tale and telling create a tale of  historical relevance.


     It is clear from my close reading of scene 4.1 that The Tempest is not just about the colonialism present at the time of its writing, but rather about colonialism as a SYSTEM. I have also demonstrated the importance of religion within this context, and how it can often point to the deeper reasons for why this system exists. Colonialism is not something that a culture just does; it is an accumulation of centuries-long buried trauma, abandonment, and memory loss.


      Europeans colonized much of the world, but what led them to do this was an earlier Roman colonization. This doesn’t pardon their actions, but it does allow us to at least attempt to prevent colonialism in the future. We must remember this history in order to move on; we have to take the greatest power of colonization, memory loss via assimilation, and work against it by remembering the history and bringing it out of a suppressed state. Shakespeare did this latently, even sub-consciously, but we have the knowledge to do it intentionally now.




Works Cited


Parker, Robert D. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory

     for Literary and Cultural Studies. Oxford University Press, 2020.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest, edited by Peter Hulme and

     William H. Sherman. 2nd ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 2019.

“Roman conquest of Britain”. Wikipedia,

     Accessed February 28th, 2021.



[1] It is, to this day, unclear whether the Romans are from Greece or Troy, though Virgil’s The Aeneid suggests the latter.

[2] We will not be speculating on the veracity of this works’ attribution to William Shakespeare within this essay.

[3] Freeing Ariel from the tree-prison in this particular case (Freeing someone who will assimilate and condemning that which refuses to [Caliban/Sycorax])

[4] Thus, the character of Caliban is also multi-characterized: Caliban is our modern concept of the racialized slave and the ancient concept of the colonized in Britannia.

[5] Except when he or the goddesses are speaking.

[6] Or any “pagan” figure of Mother Nature.

[7] If Caliban were present in this scene, Sycorax may have appeared in the play.

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