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.