Shakespeare's Tempest and the American Indian

The evidence is overwhelming that Shakespeare not only set The Tempest on a Caribbean island, but included a native American major character. The play's ambivalent attitude toward this indigenous slave Caliban serves not only as a useful window into 17th century racial attitudes, it also helps us understand our own period as well. The name Caliban, it should be added, is regarded as a form of "Carib," the name of the original inhabitants on the islands invaded by Columbus.

In 1609 a fleet of nine ships set out from England to shore up John Smith's Virginia colony, the first English settlement in the new world. As most people already know from their high-school propaganda, Smith was condemned to death by Powhatan, but was saved at the last minute when his 13 year old daughter Pocahontas interceded on Smith's behalf. The British returned the favor a couple of years later by burning down Indian villages and attempting to enslave them.

One of the nine ships was separated during a violent storm and ended up on Bermuda. Pamphlets were published that gave a highly imaginative account of the shipwrecked crew's experiences. Evidently Shakespeare got the idea for his play from this background material since The Tempest is a tale about shipwrecked Europeans colonizing an American island and enslaving the native population.

The other important influence on the play was Montaigne's "Of Cannibals," an essay that argues that American Indians lived a naturally virtuous life uncorrupted by civilization. Montaigne wrote:

"Now, to return to my subject, I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything that I can gather, excepting, that every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country. As, indeed, we have no other level of truth and reason, than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the place wherein we live: there is always the perfect religion, there the perfect government, there the most exact and accomplished usage of all things. They are savages at the same rate that we say fruit are wild, which nature produces of herself and by her own ordinary progress; whereas in truth, we ought rather to call those wild, whose natures we have changed by our artifice, and diverted from the common order. In those, the genuine, most useful and natural virtues and properties are vigorous and sprightly, which we have helped to degenerate in these, by accommodating them to the pleasure of our own corrupted palate."

Although Montaigne was one of the great writers of the 17th century, he could be longwinded as was so often the case back when people had longer attention spans than they do today in the television age. So allow me to reduce what he was saying into a soundbite: "Frenchmen have no business calling the Indians barbarians, because they live in harmony with nature. If anything, we can learn from them, since our own world is so artificial."

While giving credit to Montaigne as Europe's first multiculturalist, we must at the same time recognize that he was also guilty of a terrible slander against the Indian, committed mainly out of ignorance. Montaigne assumed that the Tupinamba Indians of Brazil were cannibals, when there really is no evidence to support this. A sailor named Hans Standen spent 12 months on the South American coast and wrote a travel book filled with lurid tales about Tupinamba cannibalism that Montaigne accepted at face value.

Standen account is so filled with inconsistencies, that they alone serve to debunk the notion of cannibalism in Brazil. By his own admission, he only spent 12 months in Tupinamba territory but apparently learned their language well enough in this time to record their accounts. I personally have been studying Spanish on and off for 35 years and still don't have it nailed down.

And what accounts they are! He says that when the tribe captures a man from another tribe, their own women force themselves sexually on him. If the woman becomes pregnant, the child is raised as a Tupinamba, but during adulthood "when the mood seizes them, they kill and eat it." That is what we would call a major mood disorder. Standen also said that the Indians could not count past five, which in his mind was sufficient proof of a savagery consistent with cannibalism. (For a full and highly informative discussion of how Europeans got the idea from Standen and other fabulists that cannibalism existed in the New World, I recommend W. Arens' "The Man-Eating Myth Myth: Anthropology and Anthropagy, New York, 1979.)

(One other interesting note on European superstitions about the Tupinamba: They decided to name the newly discovered river the Amazon because their fantasies about fierce Tupinamba women reminded them of the Amazon women of Greek myth. Amazon is the Greek word for "without breast." It was believed that the Amazons cut off their right breasts in order to allow full extension of their bowstrings in combat. It is difficult to explain the irrational notions of the primitive ancient Greeks, who invented all sorts of absurd myths. We must, however, resist the temptation to explain this in terms of some sort of genetic deficiency in the European race, since as we know they are capable of civilization if educated properly.)

Since Shakespeare represents Caliban in a totally unflattering manner--an "ignoble savage" so to speak, one is tempted to conclude that the play is an attempt to answer Montaigne. As might be expected, Shakespeare has a much more complex understanding of his characters which comes through in the drama itself.

When we first meet Caliban, he complains about how he was disenfranchised by the European invader: "This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother, which thou takest from me." We also learn that Sycorax had worshipped the god Setebos, who was known to Shakespeare as the god of the Patagonian Indians through Magellan's account in the "History of Travel."

When Trinculo, a shipwrecked court jester, stumbles across Caliban on the beach, he regards him as some kind of monster. It should be added that Shakespeare's stage directions stipulate that Caliban should appear as some kind of half-man, half-beast. After recoiling in horror from Caliban, Trinculo considers bringing the monster back to England where he can be displayed in a freak show:

"Were I in England now, as once I was, and had but this fish painted, not holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver: there would this monster make a man; any strange beast there makes a man: when they will not give a doit (coin) to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian."

The court jester is referring to the practice of "exhibiting" Indians for a fee in late 16th century England. Such "freak shows" were highly profitable investments and were a regular feature of colonial policy under King James I.

Caliban tries to ingratiate himself with Trinculo, who might liberate him from Prospero, his current master and lord of the island. What services can Caliban offer? Probably the most important need for any shipwrecked sailor or settler is how to find food, and so Caliban tells him:

"I prithee, let me bring thee where crabs grow; And I with my long nails will dig thee pig-nuts; Show thee a jay's nest, and how to snare the nimble marmoset; I'll get thee To clustering filberts and sometimes I'll get thee young scamels from the rock. Wilt thou go with me?"

Powhatan had provided the same services to John Smith's colony and with results that were just as predictable. According to Judith Nies, in "Native American History," (Ballantine, 1996),after half of the colonists died in the first year, Powhatan took pity and "saved them with donations of food and taught them how to fertilize their fields with seaweed; to plant corn, beans pumpkins, squash; to bake clams and beans and corn in a hole in the ground." Once the starving British colonists recovered their strength, they set about the task of enslaving or exterminating their benefactors.

The main conflict in The Tempest is between the exiled Prospero and the men against whom he seeks vengeance. With his magical powers, he torments them with apparitions as a warmup to killing them. When his daughter falls in love with one of them, he has a change of heart and decides to free them, along with Caliban. Shakespeare's plots can sometimes be as simplistic as a Saturday morning cartoon, but he compensates with powerful language, including this speech by his daughter Miranda, who in some sense is Pocahantas to his Powhatan: After receiving a promise from her father that the men will be spared, she expresses her happiness:

"O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in it."

The play ends with Prospero deciding to return to Europe, where his daughter will marry her lover, the son of the man who was responsible for his exile. He also decides to decolonize his island and emancipate the slaves: "Set Caliban and his companions free." His final words are an ode to freedom:

"I'll deliver all; And promise you calm seas, auspicious gales, And sail so expedition, that shall catch Your royal fleet far off. My Ariel, chick, That is your charge: then to the elements Be free, and fare thou well!. . ."

Since we only know Shakespeare through the words in his plays, it is a little difficult to come to any conclusions about his social and political views. One thing we can be clear about, however, and that his compassion for humanity and a desire for justice. The Tempest's happy ending involves setting people free, a rather unambiguous message. In this act, the colonizer sets himself free as well. Prospero not only gives up his island, but relinquishes his magical powers that enabled him to control Caliban. In the epilogue, he states,

"Now my charms are all o'erthrown, And what strength I have's mine own."

His very final words plead for forgiveness from the audience:

"As you from crimes would pardon'd be, Let your indulgence set me free."


It has been said that Melville is to the United States as Shakespeare is to England. Not only are the two the greatest writers their country produced, they are also--for their age--deeply humanitarian and progressive. Shakespeare's call for decolonization and emancipation mirrors Melville's own commitment to the cause of South Sea indigenous peoples, whom he discovered in his early sailing days. His challenge to conventional notions of "civilization" and "savagery" mirror the themes of The Tempest and the Montaigne essay on cannibalism that inspired it.

There were two great influences on Melville's prose. One was the King James Bible, with its beautiful poetry and insights into human nature. The other was Shakespeare. Melville, who hated snobbery of any sort, saw Shakespeare as a kindred spirit. His Shakespeare was not the precious, aristocratic taste-maker of the kind so often found on Mobil's Masterpiece Theater. Melville saw Shakespeare as "one of us." Writing his best friend and editor Evert Duyckinck, Melville said, "I would to God Shakespeare had lived later, & promenaded in Broadway. Not that I might have had the pleasure of leaving my card for him at the Astor, or made merry with him over a bowl of fine Duyckinck punch; but that the muzzle which all men wore on their souls in the Elizabethan day, might not have intercepted Shakespeare's full articulations. For I hold it a verity, that even Shakespeare was not a frank man to the universe. And, indeed, who in this intolerant Universe is, or can be? But the Declaration of Independence makes a difference."

With these words Melville declares that Shakespeare was a progressive artist, even if he was the servant of the Elizabethan aristocracy, who paid his wage and kept him "muzzled." In the United States of Melville's day, the artist suffered no such inhibitions. The American Revolution of 1776 had broken all ties with the English aristocracy and artists could write freely.

Alas, the American Revolution of 1776 had not set the slaves free, nor would it protect the rights of the indigenous peoples. The question that Melville was wrestling with for his entire career as a writer was whether the soul of the American republic could be saved. Moby Dick is an indictment of the country he was growing more and more estranged from. The capitalist whaling-ship which destroyed great whales wantonly, while oppressing the working-class crew, was a symbol of the rot at the heart of American society.

Melville was no social scientist, but his alienation from American capitalism was clearly expressed through his fiction. Moby Dick was written in 1851 and by this time there could be no mistake about the direction of the country. It was becoming wealthy through slave labor, subjugation of the Indian and domination of the world's oceans, just as England had done before it. This would very likely explain why three of Moby Dick's most sympathetic characters are Doggo, an African, Tashtego, an American Indian, and Queequeg, a Polynesian. The final scene in Moby Dick depicts the whaling-ship Pequod, named after the exterminated New England Indian tribe, sinking into the ocean after the white whale has rammed it into oblivion. In an apt symbol for the fate it deserved, we see Tashtego's tomahawk has nailed an American flag into the mast of sinking ship.

People who desire to change American, British or any other repressive society are obliged to consult the great literature of their country, not in order to become "cultured" but in order to get to the living essence of what makes us tick as a people.

Melville's Redburn is one of his lesser-known books, but it comes as close to a conscious expression of the world we are trying to build as will be found in all of his works. He writes:

"There is something in the contemplation of the mode in which America has been settled that, in a noble breast, would forever extinguish the prejudices of national dislikes. Settled by the people of all nations, all nations may claim her for their own. You cannot spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world. . .Our blood is as the flood of the Amazon, made of a thousand noble currents all pouring into one. We are not a nation, so much as a world. . .Our ancestry is lost in the universal pageantry; and Caesar and Alfred, St. Paul and Luther, and Homer and Shakespeare are as much ours as Washington, who is as much the world's as our own. We are the heirs of all time, and with all nations we divide our inheritance. On this Western Hemisphere all tribes and peoples are forming into one federated whole; and there is a future which shall see the estranged children of Adam restored as to the old hearthstone in Eden."