Slavery and Freedom in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest

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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 who enslave others would like to believe that slave and free are natural categories, they seem to be socially constructed.

In his essay “The Ancient Comic Tradition”, Bernard Knox states that “Slave and free were not so much separate classes as separate worlds: Aristotle could go so far as to claim that they were separate natures” (131). While the concept that slave and free are separate worlds is defensible given the vast differences in lifestyle between the two, the idea that they are separate natures is not a logical extension of this fact, but rather a separate idea altogether. Fundamental nature has nothing to do with one’s political or social situation, but rather one’s innate capabilities, motivations, and morality. Our task, then, is to determine the degree of similarity (or lack thereof) in the innate capabilities, motivations, and morality of the masters and slaves in this play.

Through close examination of Prospero and Caliban, it becomes apparent that although Caliban ...

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...hich those who have insight into the situation may affect change, one of the most powerful of which is through fiction. Skilled writers can convey the flaws in the system through their narrative without explicitly stating them, thus engaging the reader to think through the implications of the narrative on their own. This way, any conclusion arrived at feels like the reader’s own insight, making it more plausible than if the conclusion is thrust upon the reader by an overtly didactic text. In “The Tempest”, Shakespeare never explicitly states that enslavement is not logically justified, but instead subtly implies it through his narrative. I believe that it is in part because of writers such as Shakespeare who have—whether intentionally or not—used the medium of fiction to expose the problems in their society that our world is gradually moving towards social justice.
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