Colonialism and cultural hybridity: a postcolonial reading of The Tempest

Raihan Rahman | Published: 00:00, Oct 20,2019 | Updated: 15:16, Oct 27,2019

Raihan Rahman, A Postcolonial Reading of The Tempest, Colonialism and Cultural Hybridity, Columbus, The Tempest, The Tempest


William Shakespeare’s drama, The Tempest, gained immense importance in the school of postcolonial thoughts for its representation of the earliest form of institutionalised colonialism in part-symbolic, part-direct fashion. Raihan Rahman reviews the drama from postcolonial perspective

THE history of human civilisation is incomplete if the history of colonisation is not taken into account. The act of conquering people of other tribes and territories and ruling over them had been very common since the beginning of human existence. However, colonialism as an institutionalised concept began roughly five centuries ago only with Columbus’ discovery of the Caribbean islands and the continent of America. 

Shakespeare was born just within a century of the Columbus phenomenon and in his lifetime, he saw the British East India Company being founded. By that time, and even before Shakespeare was born, the Spaniards already conquered the Aztecs and the Incas in America and Britain also joined the race of conquering overseas land and people. So, Shakespeare did very well see the earliest form of colonialism. His understanding of colonialism with the context of his period is found well represented in one of his most important texts The Tempest.

For its representation of the earliest form of institutionalised colonialism in part-symbolic, part-direct fashion, The Tempest has gained immense importance in the school of postcolonial thoughts. Moreover, from a deconstructionist position, it can be said that the text holds infinite possibilities of interpretation, especially when looked through the lens of colonial and postcolonial discourses. 

The discourse of colonialism is of great significance in the analysis of culture since this phenomenon forever changed the contour of culture not only of the colonised territories but also of the colonisers’ world. The impact of colonisation on the colonised regions was more direct. The colonisers set an organised system of ruling over the colonised. The colonisers were mainly the affluent nations of Western Europe. England, France and Spain were at the vanguard, Portugal and Holland also joined the race. 

In the vast colonised areas of Asia, Africa and America they set up European administrative and judicial systems, introduced their mode of education and knowledge, brought western science and technology, and flaunted their ways of life and living. All of them had a great influence on native people and their cultures. The old ways of life of the natives were disrupted and new ways were exposed to them and most importantly, imposed on them. Thus, the landscape of colonised people’s culture was changed forever and they were put before a complex situation. 

The natives were no longer able to hold onto the culture what was their own and could not totally accept all that was brought to them from outside. There were confrontations of cultures and the people were trapped between them. As a result, a culture, different from each of them but containing elements from both the native and the foreign one was formed. This culture, with a connotation of hybridity defined the cultural being of the colonised people. This phenomenon of cultural hybridity can be read from Shakespeare’s four hundred years old text The Tempest.

Cultural hybridity, in a postcolonial sense according to Bill Ashcroft, refers to ‘the creation of new transcultural forms within the contact zone produced by colonisation’. This hybridisation can take place on multiple levels: linguistic, cultural, political, racial and so on. The theorists of postcolonialism who worked on the concept of cultural hybridity derived their theoretical standing from the works of Mikhail Bakhtin who worked on the transfiguring power of multivocal narratives and polyphony of voices in any social construct. Cultural hybridity in fact is a space of multivocal narratives. 

Homi K Bhabha uses this very term to analyse the coloniser/colonised relations which ‘stresses their interdependence and the mutual construction of their subjectivities’.  Bhaba postulates that when two cultures, one of the colonisers and the other of the colonised, come in contact neither of them sustains as original and pure but a new space is created which he calls ‘Third Space’. 

He stresses that it is in this ‘Third Space’ where all cultural statements and systems are constructed, especially when the culture of the coloniser and the culture of the colonised confront each other. This ‘Third Space’ is a contradictory and ambivalent space where cultural identity emerges. During the hybridisation process, this space of ‘in-betweenness’ by the means of cross-cultural exchanges carries the meaning of culture — becomes the thesis of Bhabha.

In The Tempest, Prospero is the ruler of an island and Caliban is his subject. However, the island originally belonged to Sycorax, Caliban’s mother and hereditarily he claims the ownership of it. Here, Prospero’s role is of a victorious coloniser who conquered territory and rules it while Caliban is a subjugated native. However, he does not willingly accept his servitude but constantly defies him, tries to resist him. 

Ariel and other spirits, on the other hand, are natives of the island too but they have willingly accepted their servitude. They are like a collaborator class of natives. Here, no doubt, Prospero’s culture is a culture of the coloniser and the culture of Caliban seems like the culture of the colonised at a quick glance. Besides, the culture of Ariel looks like a hybrid one with its native origin and acceptance of colonial ways. However, referring to Cuban poet and critic Roberto Fernández Retamar, Edward Said insists that ‘it is Caliban himself, and not Ariel, who is the main symbol of hybridity, with his strange and unpredictable mixture of attributes’.

This claim in fact brought about a whole new way to read both The Tempest and the phenomenon of cultural hybridity. The cross-cultural exchange which makes hybridity possible only takes place when two cultures come in contact or confrontation. Here, in the text, direct confrontation between Prospero’s culture and Caliban’s culture is evident. However, Caliban’s culture as found in the text is not altogether a pure and unaltered native culture as plainly seemed. His culture has already been hybridised. 

The first sign that can be interpreted as an element of hybrid culture is Caliban’s language itself. Reiterating Frantz Fanon, it can be said that, ‘To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture’. Caliban no longer uses his own language. He now speaks in Prospero’s language. He is found to say to Prospero, ‘you taught me language’. A native subject speaking the language of the ruler is a good enough evidence of cultural hybridity. 

In post-Saussurean critical schools, it is generally considered that the human world is linguistically constructed and reality is mediated through language. So is meaning. There is no such thing as meaning outside language. Culture, too, finds and articulates its meaning through language. Lacanian psychoanalysis marks the location of culture in the symbolic order, which is the order of language. So, in that sense, once language is found to be hybrid, the culture automatically acquires a hybrid status.

Caliban’s hybridity not only rests on the macro-level of language but on other micro- factors too. Though they can be considered as a subset of language, they are still very important and needs to be mentioned for clear understanding. Caliban’s acquirement of knowledge gives his culture a hybrid status too. Caliban has indigenous knowledge. He is well-versed about the island. He knows where there are fresh springs and where there are brine-pits. He can identify the fertile and barren parts of the island. It is from his knowledge Prospero becomes able to establish his mastery over the island. He also learns coloniser’s knowledge from Prospero. In Caliban’s own words, ‘Thou… teach me how | To name the bigger light, and how the less, | That burn by day and night’.

So, besides his linguistic world, Caliban’s intellectual world also radiates the aura of hybridity. In the intellectual construct of Caliban which is a hybrid of native and foreign knowledge, a precursor of a later colonial policy can be traced. Colonial education policy engendered this type of intellectual hybridisation which ultimately spurred cultural hybridisation.

The rest of the review will unfold in next week.

Raihan Rahman is a young writer and critic.

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