427. Brave New World: Shakespeare’s Tempest and Colonialism

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Can Shakespeare’s Tempest be read as a reflection on the English encounter with the peoples of the Americas?



Further Reading

• P. Brown, “‘This Thing of Darkness I acknowledge Mine’: the Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism,” in J. Dollimore and A. Sinfield (eds), Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism (Ithaca: 1985), 48-71.

• S. Davies, Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of the Human: New Worlds, Maps and Monsters (Cambridge: 2016).

• L. Engle, P. Gray, and M. Hamlin (eds), Shakespeare and Montaigne. (Edinburgh: 2022).

• A. Hadfield, Literature, Travel, and Colonial Writing in the English Renaissance, 1545-1625 (Oxford: 2001).

• P.C. Mancall, Hakluyt’s Promise: an Elizabethan’s Obsession for an English America (New Haven: 2007).

• M.A. Skura, “Discourse and the Individual: the Case of Colonialism in The Tempest,” Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989) 42-69.

• D. Willis, “Shakespeare’s Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism,” Studies in English Literature 29 (1989), 277-89.


John Briggs-Hully on 3 September 2023

The wreck of the Sea Venture

In the account of historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Tempest “both described and promoted the rising interest of England’s ruling class in the settlement and exploitation of the New World”: Shakespeare himself, “like many of his patrons and benefactors”, invested in the “spearhead of English colonisation”, the Virginia Company.

Converting savages to Christianity, battling Catholic enemies abroad, and extending English Dominican were arguments for colonisation, but to Linebaugh and Rediker the most insistent and resonant argument was to remove “the swarmes of idle persons” (as Hakluyt had long argued); “swarmes” that had been created by the enclosure of land, the removal of people from the commons, the plantation of Ireland, and the end of the putting-out system.

Some of these dispossessed may well have been amongst the colonists on board the Sea-Venture, a Virginia Company ship which in 1609 was driven onto Bermuda by a hurricane en route to the colony. Shakespeare, it is proposed, would have read the account of this shipwreck, and what followed: mutiny and marronage, met with capital punishment; a struggle between Gonzalo’s vision of a Commonwealth, and the Company’s vision of profits from exploitation.

Linebaugh and Rediker also investigate in The Many-Headed Hydra a work of Francis Bacon, published a decade after The Tempest was written, which, they argue, gave colonisers battling armed resistance from natives ”something better than revenge”: a theory of genocide. 






In reply to by John Briggs-Hully

John Briggs-Hully on 4 September 2023

Communalism in England

[ correction … “English domination” ]

Coincidentally, the next episode of HOPWaT I listened to was HAP20 on communalism in African ethics and politics; and Peter’s challenge as to whether communalism as interpreted by African thinkers could be transferable to the West.

It is certainly possible to see a form of communalism in the record of the Sea-Venture, and Linebaugh and Rediker draw this forward through to the Levellers and other communal visionaries of the Putney Debates; and to a history of rebellion and counter-revolution around the Atlantic. 

They are unusual and far from mainstream, but there are arguments for direct democracy, “citizens assembles”, and (more) local political decision making being put forward now, in the UK: though “I am because we are” is not really a driver as much as exasperation with - despair of - national government.

Perhaps Kwai Wiredu’s plea for a non-party politics would resonate here, in the UK, and now. Next on my reading list.


Andrew on 4 September 2023

I don't think you have ever…

I don't think you have ever appended to the podcast number in the title before "HoP". Is there a reason why?

In reply to by Andrew

Peter Adamson on 4 September 2023

Too much HoPping

Oh that was a mistake, the HoP goes on the title for the version on the feed but I always delete it for the title here on the site, just overlooked that in this case. I fixed it, thanks for noticing!

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