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The Cycle of Slavery in The Tempest Essays

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The Cycle of Slavery in The Tempest  


William Shakespeare’s The Tempest blends elements of adventure and intellectual inquiry. The plot of Shakespeare’s last work contains comedy, romance, and action enough to sustain the interest of his common audience. However, there lies beneath the eloquent language and exciting plot an intelligent political commentary. Shakespeare uses the setting of a virtually uninhabited island as an experimental testing ground for the institution of slavery. Shakespeare shows through his island experiment that subjugation, once instituted, seems to perpetuate itself. While the most automatic explanation of this cyclical nature of slavery would be to say that this political rule is continued by the subjugators, the surprising reality is that it is the victim of colonialism who continues the cycle of slavery. Caliban, the native "islander"(2.2.36), despises his condition as a slave. However, in his attempt to disrupt and overthrow the political order instituted on the island by Prospero, Caliban actually provides evidence of the power of slavery over both man and mind.

Caliban’s initial attempt to defy Prospero’s power via a verbal curse actually gives Prospero more authority as master in that the curse acknowledges the duke’s ultimate power. Caliban begins his speech with the vengeful request that all the evil "infections"(2.2.1) under the sun "fall"(2.2.2) upon the "tyrant"(2.2.160) Prospero. While Caliban wishes for Prospero to be so harmed by sickness, the slave does not have the power to make this happen. Instead, he must request that these evils "fall"(2.2.2) of their own accord upon Prospero. Caliban’s lack of authority because of his condition as a slave is immediately contrasted to that...


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...tly subjugate Trinculo. This brilliant strategic move on Caliban’s part further perpetuates the cycle of subjugation. Once again it is the victim of slavery who acts as the agent in establishing and perpetuating slavery.

In trying to benefit himself by breaking free of slavery, Caliban instead benefits the very practice he so despises. Slavery exerts its power in every aspect of Caliban’s life. In his speech, in his actions, in his thoughts, and even in his attempts to break free of slavery, Caliban cannot escape the powerful effects of subjugation. Caliban does not succeed in breaking the cycle of slavery. Its power and tendency to perpetuate itself are too great. Instead, the slave’s attempt to end his servitude actually propagates rather than abolishes the practice of slavery.

Works Cited:

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Mineloa, NY: Drover, 1999.


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