Slavery and Freedom in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest Essay

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Slavery and Freedom in William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”

The subtly comedic interactions and juxtapositions between masters and slaves in William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” generate a question which has been the source of much controversy throughout history: are the hierarchical classifications “slave” and “free” reflections of a person’s fundamental nature, or are they social constructions based on bias and self-interest which have nothing to do with absolute truth? This question is crucial because the way that we answer it has the potential to either justify or condemn the widespread practice of enslaving certain individuals. A close look at Shakespeare’s portrayal of masters and slaves in this play suggests that although those
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In the course of their scheming, Caliban advises Stephano and Trinculo to “Remember/ First to possess his books; for without them/ He’s but a sot, as I am; nor Hath one spirit to command: They all do hate him/ As rootedly as I” (3.2: 95-99). Caliban is claiming that Prospero’s power over him is not due to fundamentally superior intellectual capacity, but rather to privileged circumstances which have allowed him to acquire his books on sorcery. The fact that Caliban is under Prospero’s powers would logically give him first-hand information regarding these powers, and because honesty about this information could potentially further his goal of overthrowing Prospero while dishonesty could undermine it, he has no motivation to lie in this instance. For these reasons it seems logical to trust Caliban’s evaluation of Prospero here. This evaluation supports the argument that “slave” and “free” are separate social classifications rather than separate natures, since one’s circumstances are a product of chance and the framework of the social system one was born into rather than fundamental nature.

Earlier in this scene we see that Prospero and Caliban also share very similar motivations. Caliban’s motivations are exposed when he is imploring Stephano to join him in his plot against Prospero: “I say by sorcery he got this isle; / From me he got it. If thy greatness will/
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