all the charms of Sycorax: The Politics of Magic in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest

1.1. “Rise Now and Be Tamed” – A Case for Revisiting Magic in The Tempest


The Tempest has had a curious time in the postcolonial context; something that it shares with William Shakespeare’s own fate in the postcolonial world. Shakespeare’s plays are dissected in almost all the literature departments of postcolonial countries on a regular basis while his relevance cannot be doubted given that four hundred years of Shakespeare’s death were marked as “Shakespeare Lives” by the embassies of the United Kingdom.[1] A hundred years ago, for the tercentenary of his death, this was a very different world. The colonies were still fighting for self-determination and videos like “Dear Mister Shakespeare” could not have been sponsored or supported by the British Government in any context no matter how radical or liberal it was or could be.[2] Across the Atlantic, to mark the tercentenary, the American playwright and poet Percy MacKaye wrote the “masque” Caliban by the Yellow Sands.[3] The author’s preface in the play makes for a telling reading. He introduces the eponymous character as “that passionate child-curious part of us all [whether individual or as races], grovelling close to his aboriginal origins, yet groping and staggering – with almost rhythmic falls and back slidings” (MacKaye p. xvi). Prospero’s entrance in the “masque” is grand and pompous; the stage direction tells us that there is “a glowing, winged throne”, on which Prospero sits with a scroll with one hand and a “miraculous staff” on the other “amid tempestuous song, darkness and thunder” (23-24). With the thunder and lightning, Setebos and Sycorax are promptly killed; the only on left is Caliban who is ordered by Prospero,

“Rise now and be tamed, Howler at Heaven” (25)

This is just after Prospero commands that Caliban (“the wild thing”) has to be “transformed”. The allegory seems to follow the trope of the manner in which the colonial forces come in and take over the territories and “tame” the population and transform according to their own design and need. While one in no way assumes that Shakespeare in his own shared the same sentiments that align with MacKaye’s, one can argue that MacKaye’s interpretation of the character shares its heritage with the Eurocentric worldview that colonised the rest of the world as we know it. In fact, no text can be read or interpreted as though it were a thing created out of context. As Francis Barker and Peter Hulme argue in their 1985 essay “Nymphs and reapers heavily vanish”, “each individual text, rather than a meaningful unit in itself, lies at the intersection of different discourses which are related to each other in a complex but ultimately hierarchical way” (197). The Tempest exists as a work of literature that was created within the world of certain notions of truth, right, wrong etc. and, in its own history of performances, has gone on to reflect the notions relevant to each age. This paper is more interested in the manner in which “development of colonialist paradigms”, in Thomas Cartelli’s words, that develop in Shakespeare have a deeper and older history that has to be dealt with (3). For the scope of this paper, the aspect of The Tempest that will be investigated is magic and how magic functions in the play; in short, what does magic do in the play and how it echoes many historical events and documents that align themselves along the creation of a certain principle of colonialism.

A valid question may be raised at this point of time: why should we be concerned about an aspect of the play that has already been read and written about many times? My contention with this aspect is that one has to understand magic in The Tempest as two contending bodies of knowledge(s); the first kind of magic would have to be made into a thing that restores a political hierarchy which has been disturbed in the play (Prospero’s magic) and the second kind of magic has to be shown as being the wrong/“foul” kind of magic as opposed to the “right” one (Sycorax). This sets us up for the Prospero vs. Sycorax binary that has to be understood, as we will see, as a knowledge problem. The second project, for Shakespeare, would be to make a case for Prospero’s magic as “right” because it something that makes things right. The magic, in this play, has to be examined as a thing which has a certain function. By the end of this essay, I will try to prove that this problematic beginning of the understanding of magic in the play, in many ways, underlines the politics of its “use” – both within the diegetic level of the play and in the politics of what it has come to symbolise in postcolonial age.

1.2. “A True Philosophicall Method” – Magic and the Magus

What defines Prospero’s magic is a good question to begin with. The second act of the play where Prospero tells Miranda (and the audience) about the very source of his magic and about the circumstances how he and Miranda ended up in the island is something that we have to pay heed to.

Of all the world I loved and to him put

The manage of my state; as at that time

Through all the signories it was the first

And Prospero the prime duke, being so reputed

In dignity, and for the liberal arts

Without a parallel; those being all my study,

The government I cast upon my brother

And to my state grew stranger, being transported

And rapt in secret studies.


In looking at himself as “Prospero the prime duke”, Prospero is his own object of description; his life is unparalleled and as he grows “stranger” to his state, he is “transported” to “secret studies”. The secret study that he is referring to casts a shadow of doubt at this point; what, indeed, is he busy doing that is “secret”? This ambiguity about his “secret studies” is not explained to us and we are given the figure of the wronged Duke of Milan in Prospero. While we shall focus on the political aspect of this act in the next section, the ambiguity of this deserves to be explored. Barbara A. Mowat, in her essay “Prospero, Agrippa, and Hocus Pocus”, has defended Prospero’s magic as a magician who “delights in his magic power”, however it has to be contended that the fact Prospero is seen as the magus is not an unproblematic one (290). In the 2010 adaptation by Julie Taymore, Prospero is made into Prospera, the wife of a duke who is accused of practicing witchcraft when her husband dies which leads to her banishment. It is not a possibility that Prospero’s magic or his elevation from a mortal to someone who can cast spells is without its gender biases. This gender bias would give rise to more complicated problems when we are considering the Sycorax binary; however, the generous justification of Prospero’s craft which has been defended by Mowat as something that is Christian in its “moral world” (290). The comfortable secrecy that is granted to Prospero’s actions as something that does not deserve to be investigated within the speech of the play itself is a marker of an autonomy that becomes hard for us to locate outside the privileged space of a male aristocrat whose position as the magus can co-exist with the position of being a duke. On the other hand, the gender bias becomes a very problematic aspect of the play.

And what exactly is the nature of this magic? The number of times Prospero repeats the word “library” in this act hints at the answer of this very question.[4] His magic, even though it is secret and something that is completely ambiguous, is something that has an edifying value to it. The library which Prospero admits was “dukedom enough” for him is the sanctuary of knowledge and of knowing. The magic that he conjures is, thence, not a foul art that is born out creating something new that is rivalling the Christian theological understanding. What we are given, instead, is a method of knowing that is superior to the normal man. This is a magus like John Dee who writes that magic is the

true philosophicall method and harmony: proceeding and ascending (as it were) gradatim, from thinges visible to consider of thinges bodily, to conceive of thinges spirituali: from & momentānie, to meditate of things permanent

This is a philosophical method which, when represented by Shakespeare in his play, is not only a quest for knowledge but also a kind of endeavor that makes Prospero a hermit who is innocent, only to be betrayed by his brother Antonio. The knowledge question makes it a secular program or “method” that is not different from the twentieth century phenomenon of the self-help book that adorns every bookshop and has spawned the industry of “life coaches” in our own culture. The Christian thought of this secular act of obtaining knowledge comes only insofar as secularism in the seventeenth century cannot be divorced from the realm of right and good in its Christian thought. This method then, is Christian in its morals and calls itself, in Frances Yates’ words, the very “high intellectual and the virtuous magic of the true magus” that is to be contrasted with the foul magic of Sycorax (17).[5] This “true philosophicall method” of Prospero is the one that is not that is free from the manner in which knowledge is produced in any context at all. In fact, it is just as complicit in being party to and perpetuating certain notions of Eurocentric views that create the most apt context for colonial domination.[6] I want to take this argument a step further and compare the function of this knowledge production and what it means for the way in which Shakespeare’s play deals with its own context and our own.



2. Reforming Magic


2.1.Placing Magic in Disorder As An Order: A Restitution Plot

Let us not forget the political context of the play for understanding the setting of the play. The story till the point when the tempest hits the caravan of royalty coming back from a wedding is this: the Duke of Milan, Prospero, has been usurped by his younger brother, Antonio who had promised to pay a handsome annual tribute. The usurping brother, one has to understand, is not only committing a crime against a fellow human but, in case of the Dukedom, it is the “body politic” that is also being violated.[7] While we have established that there is indeed a knowledge problem that we need to explore, dissect and understand in order to understand the play itself, the political circumstances in which the play takes place is also very important to us. In doing so, the charge against Antonio is that he has also orphaned the dukedom of Milan through this act of usurpation. Antonio himself does not contest the charge and actually accepts the charge that is without any morals or “conscience” in the second act. He tells us,

Ay, sir; where lies that? if ’twere a kibe,

‘Twould put me to my slipper: but I feel not

This deity in my bosom: twenty consciences,

That stand ‘twixt me and Milan, candied be they

And melt ere they molest!


That he does not feel the “deity” of conscience in his bosom as he usurps the title of his brother while he also persuades the King’s brother to do the same makes Antonio’s binary standing even starker in contrast with his brother. So, in the second act, we are given more depth into the fact that Prospero is the knowledge seeking good brother while Antonio is the evil usurper who is undoing the social hierarchy that is ‘right’ and ‘moral’. In these circumstances, the knowledge of magic becomes not only a thing that edifies and delights the old Duke but also something that has the potential for restoring the old order. In a world where usurpation threatens the established norms of hereditary system of power, magic is, as Yates identifies it, “an intellectual system of the universe…, as a moral and reforming movement.” (14). Hence, it is not a surprise that Prospero’s elevation to the position of the magus who, with his magic, can cast spells upon the sea coincides curiously with the fact that the political order of the universe of the play needs some restoration.

I would argue that Andreas Mahler’s assertion that Shakespearean plays have “functional heterotopias” that act as conclaves in terms of creating resolution/restoration also holds true this play as well even though the conclave comes at the cost of a administrative stint on the island which is not far from its colonial mirroring (65).[8] In fact, the banishing of Prospero was to be understood in terms of the political subject who stands for the entire dukedom in the seventeenth century (“alas, poor Milan” 1.2.115) and after the usurpation, shown as a man with knowledge who has to fend for himself in the island. This is where both the creation of the conclave of resolution coincides with the creation of a concave of occupation. Even though the overwhelming construction in the play is that Prospero’s kindness and humanity knows no bounds; he frees Ariel from the tree where Sycorax had trapped him and he, along with Miranda, has a humane relationship with Caliban, Sycorax’s son, in the beginning, the historical evidence of such a case has to be reiterated here. Let us look at the two passages:

This blue-eyed hag was hither brought with child
And here was left by the sailors. Thou, my slave,
As thou report’st thyself, wast then her servant;
And, for thou wast a spirit too delicate
To act her earthy and abhorr’d commands,
Refusing her grand hests, she did confine thee,
By help of her more potent ministers
And in her most unmitigable rage,
Into a cloven pine; within which rift
Imprison’d thou didst painfully remain
A dozen years; within which space she died
And left thee there; where thou didst vent thy groans
As fast as mill-wheels strike. Then was this island–
Save for the son that she did litter here,
A freckled whelp hag-born–not honour’d with
A human shape.


Thou most lying slave,
Whom stripes may move, not kindness! I have used thee,
Filth as thou art, with humane care, and lodged thee
In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate
The honour of my child.


When MacKaye retouches the passage in Caliban in the Yellow Sands that fills in the gap and describes the circumstances in which Ariel is “freed”, Ariel is “a slim, winged figure, half nude” who is “held fettered”. There is a deliberate attempt to show the whole scene as a messianic scene where, before the arrival of Prospero, there was no ‘civilisation’. Cartelli comments that Ariel, in MacKaye’s “masque”, is “a veritable John the Baptist” who awaiting the messiah (68). In Shakespeare, the scene is also hinting at an Ariel who was rescued by the arrival of Prospero out of his own goodwill. This is a very familiar colonial narrative; the colonial ruler who arrives at the shores of a country and develops the country out goodwill only to be betrayed by the natives. In his essay “Hurricane in the Caribbees: The Constitution of the Discourse of English Colonialism”, Peter Hulme hints that the manner in which Caliban is portrayed as a character has a lot to do with this attitude of plantation colonialism which was not always an accurate depiction of the real events. He writes:

…the natives, initially friendly, were made hostile by Spanish behaviour but were never powerful enough to threaten Spanish presence… It was also the mainland of both north and south America that English colonising expeditions visited at the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century, though this did bring the first incidental English contacts with the islands, among them the sixty-seven passengers from the Olive Branch, which put in the Santa Lucia for food in August 1605, who stayed to begin planting, and of whom forty-eight were killed in a fight with the Caribs, the other nineteen ‘escaping’ as the history books put it – although it turns out that the Caribs had to build them a boat.

(Hulme 57)

This narrative is also repeated twice in the play for us. Once when Caliban comments about how he helped Prospero understand all the “all the qualities o’ the isle” (1.2.338) and then the next time when he invites Trinculo and Stephano to help him (“I’ll show thee every fertile inch o’th’island” 2.2.148) The fact that this goodwill of Caliban is later taken advantage of by Prospero hinges on the argument that Prosero could resist Caliban’s hostility only through his magic. Magic, then, is not to be mistaken as just goodwill force that resulted in the emancipation of Ariels and the Calibans. As Hulme puts it, the real cost of Prospero’s magic or the discourse surrounding it is a “space really inhabited in colonial history by gunpowder” (74). This becomes clear when we re-read the passage; Caliban is a “hag-born” who is “honour’d with a human shape” and he is moved only by “stripes” and “not kindness”. Caliban is not seen as a fellow man by the third act of the play.[9] This devolution of Caliban is linked to the way in which the colonized subject is also created and made into an object. In the last scene of the play, Caliban is not only commodified into becoming an object in value (“a thing of darkness that I acknowledge mine” 5.1.278-279) but we must recall that Caliban has also been reified into becoming a thing of novelty (“lazy out ten to see a dead Indian” 2.2.31-32) before. This is where we have to understand magic or the production of knowledge that is magical as something that also determines the manner in which people perceive things politically and socially in the play.

The problem in taking Prospero’s magic as itself is that, then, we also have to take the Caliban that Shakespeare is creating in his play as a subject who has been enslaved through the power of magic. The magic, that is a part of production of knowledge in case of Prospero, is also how the larger punitive/justice system that is built in front of our very eyes on stage. The fact that it echoes many stereotypes of the colonialized natives in the early age of colonization only adds to the demystification of this magic. Therefore, since Prospero uses ‘magic’ to restore order to a context that is not on the stage (Milan is not depicted on the stage) but also uses the island as a colony where magic is the tool while he is a law unto himself, it becomes more a case of understanding magic; magic, here, is a language that produces knowledge (for Prospero) but also is a tool of administration (for Ariel and Caliban). This leads us, therefore, to the narrative of the structure of power in the island and how does Shakespeare reconcile the political choices with the theatrical ones? In fact, this is where the theatrical conclave of resolution, that involves magic, is connected to the manner in which Prospero’s power functions on the narrative of the play (and at that of the island). The theatrical conclave of the magical island is inadvertently also aligned with the hierarchies and subjugations of the political narrative of the island.



2.2. “Deservedly Confined Into This Rock”: Crime and Punishment on the Island

In the introduction of The Tempest published by Yale University in 2006, Burton Raffel writes:

Prospero is neither a colonizer nor an imperialist. He does not choose to land on the island but, rather, saves his and his young daughter’s lives, after they have been abandoned to die at sea, by coming ashore anywhere he can. Until Caliban tries to rape his daughter, Prospero is reasonably gracious and kind. (xxi)

This is a stance that Mowat also takes on this matter. In her essay, Mowat’s last paragraph exonerates much of what Prospero’s actions and celebrates the play as “the story of a man’s personal growth from vengeance to mercy, and from rough magic to deep spirituality; or we can simply enjoy the magician’s struggle to bring about the play’s remarkable happy ending.” (303). The issue at heart when it comes to this kind of reading is that it tends to see the entire project of criticism as something that has to do with, as Barker and Hulme notes in their 1985 essay, creating an ‘autotelic’ text.[10] However, even as we desire the text to have some sort of narratological purity, that texts cannot exist on their own. And in this case, the authority that is given to Prospero’s account is something that cannot be taken as an objective account which free from its own position of power and privilege within the diegetic level of the play. At the extra-diegetic level, as mentioned above, we have some historical contrasts. The shearing of contextual ideas about the manner in which knowledge or narratives produced has to be avoided for the sheer reason that without these interrogations, we risk reading the play merely as a magus’ triumphant return to Milan and not as a text with complex power relations.

For this reason alone, the way in which both Ariel and Caliban are treated in this play becomes a serious question for us. It becomes clear to us that Prospero’s use of magic creates an economy of labor where Caliban is the less privileged one while Ariel, because of his magical powers, is the one who can not only assist the administration of the island but also become a willing partner in the oppression of Caliban. The very first line that we hear from Caliban is that there is “wood enough within” (1.2.315). The context makes it clear while we are never told if the wood has actually finished ‘within’, he has to go and fetch more. This accumulation of surplus wood or surplus labor that is created to profit Prospero at the cost of the labor of Caliban is not unknown in our postcolonial readings of economics. Dr Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, a Scottish surgeon who travelled to the east of India (then, a newly colonial space) to report on the empire wrote this in a note from 1810:

… our Birmingham, Staffordshire and domestic wares have ruined the native artisans of the East, who endeavoured to compete with the accumulation of wealth and steam-power in England…In public works we have done nothing for India; every (sic) thing has been subservient to the imperious necessity of raising £20,000,000 yearly, to meet the expenses of an army of 200,000 men, and a large costly civil establishment. For half a century, we have gone on to draining from two to three and sometimes four million pounds sterling from India, which has been remittable to Great Britain, (…) to invest on England’s soil the accumulated wealth of those whose life has been spent in Hindoostan.  (xxi)

This is also a familiar charge in the play for us. We are told by Caliban in the second act of the play that indeed, he too had “loved” Prospero only to be turned into a ‘subject’ He complains to Prospero:

…and then I loved thee

And show’d thee all the qualities o’ the isle,

The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile:

Cursed be I that did so! All the charms

Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!

For I am all the subjects that you have,

Which first was mine own king: and here you sty me

In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me

The rest o’ the island. (1.2.338-344)

When Caliban talks about a betrayal, the betrayal is in the manner in which he was made “much of” and then transformed into a slave or a reluctant “subject” of Prospero’s kingdom. His labor, as we see in the play, is the one that is material and manual and he does not have the language of magic that can either compete with Prospero who has “magic” or Ariel whose location in this entire structure is crucial to understanding how colonial discourses work. This is an allusion that S. Anand uses in his essay “Sanskrit, English and Dalits” which is quite useful for us here: to paraphrase Anand, in the play, language (and hence, the production of knowledge) are tools of administration that only the Prospero-like administrators (and the Ariel-like elite “natives” who are complicit in the order of things) are able to administer.[11] Magic, then, is the primary tool of administration which is subordinate to established power relations in the play.

My contention in this matter is that the use of magic is not only one of reformation (as Yates had noted before) but is also used to create a punitive system that includes a very paternalistic approach to justice. In using terms like “kingdom”, “slave” and “hag-born” among others, it is not very hard to see that Prospero’s power in the island is built, in fact, on the hierarchy of a social system which has been displaced from Milan on to the island. In doing so however, Caliban, whose social conditioning is not part of the world of Prospero and his kin, is not seen outside this hierarchy. In fact, in teaching him language, Caliban’s self-worth and his own subjectivity has become an object that can only be described in the language of Prospero.[12] It must be noted here that Caliban is taught language but not language enough to read Prospero’s books and attain the same status as the magus on the island. Indeed, this form of acquisition of language is, as Barker and Hulme call, “the perfect instrument for empire” (197).[13] Miranda’s speech aptly puts it in letter for in the second act of the play.

Abhorred slave,
Which any print of goodness wilt not take,
Being capable of all ill! I pitied thee,
Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour
One thing or other: when thou didst not, savage,
Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish, I endow’d thy purposes
With words that made them known. But thy vile race,
Though thou didst learn, had that in’t which
good natures
Could not abide to be with; therefore wast thou
Deservedly confined into this rock,
Who hadst deserved more than a prison.


Miranda’s pity and her efforts to teach Caliban come with the additional aspect of “purposes”. We are not given any ideas about the ends of this agenda but it is also acting within the limits of the manner in which language, transmitted to a subject who must not challenge the hierarchy, must create a ‘subject’ who can speak a language but not an ‘agent’ that wields the power of interpretation. In fact, his “own meaning” too is defined by the language that is coerced upon him. The fact that Caliban’s “vile race” is the reason why he could not take advantage of the knowledge that was being given to him also has a longer history in the colonial context. For instance, the British famously instituted the Criminal Tribes Act in 1871 in which they legislated that certain tribes were “addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offences” (Simhadri 121).[14] In fact, I would go on to contend that this, along with the ‘hypersexualized native male’ narrative that is given to Caliban’s character, is the reason why we have to compare narratives with actual legislations, documents, and laws that align themselves along ideological and identity politics; in this case, the development of the colonial paradigm becomes clear. This context becomes even more indicative when we refer to Clause 14 of the act that echoes a certain line from Miranda’s speech:

  1. Any tribe, gang or class which has been declared to (sic) criminal, or any part thereof, may, by order of the Local Government, be removed to any part of the residence.

(Simhadri 124)

Miranda’s taunt that Caliban deserved more than a prison and that he is deservedly confined to the rock is, therefore, not only an impassioned cry of anguish of someone who had been violated by Caliban but also has a concrete history of punitive action in the most legal sense of the term in English colonial history. But what I am interested in is not only the development of this colonial narrative in the island but also the fact that Caliban is confined by Prospero with his magic. It is his magic that is the deterrent in terms of criminal offences on the island; it includes both the ‘crime’ that Ariel may desert him or Caliban’s grievances about the manner in which he is treated. The formation of the cramps and other ailments that he can easily put on Caliban’s is part of this punitive strategy and has to be acknowledged to be so. Cartelli contends that “[i]t provides a paternalistic approach to colonial administration that sanctions a variety of enlightened procedures, ranging from the soft word to the closed fist” (96). In case of the play, Prospero’s actions range from threatening Ariel to enslaving Caliban and giving him “cramps” with the power of his magic.

Hence, it can be concluded up to this point that our discussion has led us to understand that magic and language in this play are entwined in creating a nexus of power and knowledge on the island that is only available in full capacity to Prospero who is a law unto himself. We began with understanding how magic is a knowledge acquisition agenda for Prospero and how, should we render solely to be spiritual project as Mowat does, we overlook the relationality of magic to the source of power. We have also seen that the manner in which Caliban’s labor and subject-position is created, vis-à-vis surplus labor and language, echo the manner in which colonial forces tend to look at their own right to occupation and administration of a certain people. Now, the development of the colonial paradigm is complete and we are given a binary between the “hag-born” Caliban and his mother and the others. I want to pose this as a knowledge problem in the next section.

3. Absent Presence

3.1.“A Thing Most Brutish”: The Knowledge Problem

Miranda’s speech gives away a telling clue where, it would seem, the knowledge problem that I am referring to in this section is already to be seen. We are told by an exasperated Miranda that she had taught Caliban his own meaning and taught him (her) language when all that he could do was “gabble a thing most brutish”. The relegation of Caliban’s tongue, that we are never given in the text of the play, as “a thing most brutish” is an inherent judgement of the Other’s cultural context. This too, unsurprisingly, has echoes in the colonial paradigm. In 1835 when the Whig politician T. B. Macaulay was asked to prepare a plan for the implementation of education in India, he comes to the gist of his, now infamous, “Minute on Education”, with the simple question, what is the most useful way of employing it? To which, he says:

All parties seem to be agreed on one point, that the dialects commonly spoken among the natives of this part of India contain neither literary nor scientific information, and are moreover so poor and rude that, until they are enriched from some other quarter, it will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them. It seems to be admitted on all sides, that the intellectual improvement of those classes of the people who have the means of pursuing higher studies can at present be affected only by means of some language not vernacular amongst them. [8][15]

I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic. But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanscrit works. I have conversed, both here and at home, with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I am quite ready to take the oriental learning at the valuation of the orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the oriental plan of education. [10]

The gabble that is a “thing so brutish” for Miranda now becomes, in Macaulay’s words, a cluster of dialects that “are so poor and rude”. Macaulay’s belief that “a single shelf of good European literature was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia” is based on the same principle that enables Miranda to reduce Caliban’s language to “gabble”. On a similar note, the employability of the education project of both Caliban and the mid-nineteenth century population of India is based on this judgment that the ‘brutish’ tongue of the Other cannot be redeemed with a claim to any knowledge. This is further compounded by the moment Ferdinand, an equal of Miranda, refers to language in the play as well. The fact that he has access to the same language that Miranda and Prospero and therefore does not have to be coerced into the linguistic field where he has to locate himself plays a large role, I believe, in his finding his “labours” as “pleasures”. In fact, the non-confrontational aspect of his linguistic ability is the reason why Miranda does not have to ‘save’ him by ‘teaching’ him meaning of his own self; instead of a hierarchy, we have two subjects on an equal footing who fall in love.

In fact, this education project in which Miranda (along with Prospero) is the stakeholder and Caliban is her/their subject, the “employability” of the education has largely to do with the “profit” of it. In the very first act, when Prospero is referring to the indispensability of Caliban, we are told:

We cannot miss him: he does make our fire,

Fetch in our wood and serves in offices

That profit us. What, ho! Slave! Caliban!

Thou earth, thou! speak.


The “profit” aspect of language is what defines Caliban’s relation with the language; it is that of labor. Caliban’s labor is the reason why his enslavement is comparable to the manner in which colonial powers also used native/colonized labor for their own “profit”. But, of course, we also have to see this as an occupation that erases Caliban’s own language and with it, his ancestral claim to the island. Caliban’s racialized and sexualized mother Sycorax is also erased from this narrative and her magic is seen as “witchcraft”. The absence of Sycorax herself in this play makes for a binary that is an extension of the knowledge problem of the play. This is the core of the binary that defines both Sycorax and Prospero’s magic in the play as well: while Sycorax’s magic is “foul”, Prospero’s magic is not; while Sycorax’s deeds are so horrific that her “mischiefs manifold and sorceries” are “terrible to enter human hearing”, Prospero’s magic is given the stage and the entire narrative of the play. This absent presence of Sycorax is, on the other hand, the only binary which may have the potential to be a space of resistance in the reading of this play.


3.2.          ‘All the Charms of Sycorax’

It is an interesting thing that the moments where Caliban does invoke the names of Sycorax and Setebos, these are moments where the spells are just either comic relief or abject failures. When Caliban is agitated by Prospero in first act of the play, he says, as mentioned before:

All the charms

Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!

What follows on the stage is nothing that can affect the narrative of the play. Neither Prospero nor Miranda suffers as a result of these “charms”. There are two possibilities that explain this: Caliban is an inept wizard compared to his mother; not having learnt how to use the “charms”, his expertise of the craft is lacking, or Shakespeare shows that Prospero’s art is indeed much more superior to Caliban (and his mother’s by extension). The second reasoning is more plausible because at the end of the scene, Caliban ‘admits’ (as an aside) on stage that Prospero’s “art is of such power, / It could control my dam’s god Setebos, / And make a vassal of him” (1.2.371-372). Such an admission of superiority in the play not only diminishes the stature of his own culture but is also an extra-diegetic nod to the superiority of the Eurocentric knowledge-bound project of Prospero on the English stage. However Sycorax’s magic, which Prospero claims, was “so strong / That could control the moon, make flows and ebbs” (1.2.271-273) is not dissimilar from the “rough magic” of Prospero which “have bedimm’d / The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds, / And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault / Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder” (5.1.41-44). This is, therefore, not the superiority of Prospero’s magic that props him into quelling the magic of Sycorax but a superiority of morality where he is not as “foul” as Sycorax.

Catherine Cakebread’s point on this may yet have a valuable re-evaluation of what has been staged as a weak failure up to this point. To paraphrase Cakebread, even though Sycorax’s magic is not brought to fruition, it is the only binary that is a potential to challenging Prospero magic in the play. In fact, she contends, it is Sycorax’s absence on the island serves to undermine the power structure imposed upon the island. The silence of Sycorax, Lara says, gives us a “third transformative space that she represents” (90). While Prospero’s narrative authority is one that simply states “Here in this island we arrived”, and Caliban’s self has been measured, colonized and occupied into erasing his own language, it is Sycorax’s absence in the island that gives us a space of resistance. I argue that instead of reading the criticism of Sycorax’s magic at face-value in the play, we have to read it within the contexts of both gender and colonization. This binary is also seen in Shakespeare’s own treatment of the theme in the play; Sycorax’s racialized and sexualized body seems to put her both in the category of the witch from Algiers and the one who apparently copulated with the devil.[16] Sycorax’s banishment from Algiers is also a socio-political act where a gendered notion of acquisition of knowledge is put into perspective for us. Sycorax does not have the restitutional plot because the social hierarchy that can be restored in Prospero’s character is simply something that is not possible for Sycorax. On the other hand, her actions are erased through language and violence on the island and her version of history remains a silent space.

It is in re-reading the Sycorax’s space on the island (or the erasure of it) and her silence that there is a chance for us to reflect upon the colonial histories of marginalized and oppressed communities whose histories have been erased. Sycorax’s absent magic is an absent marker that has to be read as a signifier that stands for the violence of colonialism. It is not only erroneous to celebrate Prospero as a magus who goes from “vengeance to mercy, and from rough magic to deep spirituality” or to “simply enjoy the magician’s struggle to bring about the play’s remarkable happy ending” (Mowat 303) but also a flawed reading of the text that echoes the colonial project so very thoroughly. The moment when the play is ending, we hear Prospero casually refer to Caliban as “a thing of darkness that I acknowledge mine” (5.1.278-279). By that point, the transformation of Prospero is complete: we have seen him become a wronged duke who becomes a magus who, with his magic, enslaves a native on an island, and at the end claims his ownership. Caliban rues that he would “be pinched to death” and we must imagine the audience of Shakespeare laugh at the audacity of a “vile slave” who dared to mount a mutiny against his all-powerful master. In our own context, this becomes harder. In the postcolonial scenario, the Calibans and the Sycoraxes are the spaces of colonized history which have repercussions even to this day. All charms of Sycorax have to be restituted in order to understand the depth of this silence.





Anand, S. “Sanskrit, English and Dalits.” Economic and Political Weekly 34.30 (1999): 2053-056. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 4 May 2017.

Barker, Francis, and Peter Hulme. “Nymphs and Reapers Heavily Vanish: The Discursive Con-texts of The Tempest.” Ed. John Drakakis. Alternative Shakespeares. London: Methuen, 1985. 191-205. Print.

Buchanan-Hamilton, Francis. The History, Antiquities, Topography, and Statistics of Eastern India. Ed. Montgomery Martin. Vol. V. Delhi: Cosmo Publications, 1976. Print.

Cakebread, Caroline. “Sycorax Speaks: Marina Warner’s Indigo and The Tempest”. Transforming Shakespeare. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Print.

Cartelli, Thomas. Repositioning Shakespeare. 1st ed. London: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Dee, John. “A Letter Containing a Most Briefe Discourse Apologie…” John Dee: A Letter Containing a Most Brief… Twilit Grotto Esoteric Archives, 1999. Web. 26 Jan. 2017.

Hanke, Lewis. Aristotle and the American Indians. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1959. Print.

Hulme, Peter. “Hurricanes in the Caribbees: the constitution of the discourse of English colonialism.” Francis Barker et al. (eds) 1642: Literature and Power in the Seventeenth Century, Proceedings of the Essex Conference on the Sociology of Literature, 1981: 55-83. Print.

Lara, Irene. “Beyond Caliban’s Curses: The Decolonial Feminist Literacy of Sycorax.” Journal of International Women’s Studies 9.1 (2007): 80-98. Print.

Macaulay, Thomas Babington. “Minute on Education (1835).” Courseworks@Columbia. Columbia University, n.d. Web. 04 May 2017.

MacKaye, Percy. Caliban by the Yellow Sands. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1916.

Mahler, Andreas. “As You (Don’t) Like It: In-Between Spaces on the Shakespearean Stage.” Litteraria Pragensia 23.45 (2013): 65-81. Print.

Mowat, Barbara A. “Prospero, Agrippa, and Hocus Pocus.” English Literary Renaissance 11.3 (1981): 281-303. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 4 May 2017.

Kantorowicz, Ernst. The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology. Princeton University Press, 2016. Print.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006. Print.

Simhadri, Yedla C. Denotified tribes: A Sociological Analysis. New Delhi: Classical Publishing Company, 1991. Print.

The Tempest. Dir. Julie Taymor. Buana Vista Home Entertainment Inc., 2011. DVD.

Yates, Frances. “Magic in Shakespeare’s Last Plays.” Encounter 22 (April, 1975): 14-22. Web. 26 Jan. 2017.

[1] The website ( to mark this event greets its visitors with “Shakespeare Lives: A Global Celebration of William Shakespeare on the 400th Anniversary of his Death”. Sponsored by the British Council and the GREAT Britain campaign, the website has video and photography from all over the world (i.e., it is not just the former colonies) including Shanghai, Moscow etc.   

[2] A part of the Shakespeare Lives program, “Dear Mister Shakespeare” is a video project by multimedia visual artist Phoebe Boswell. The British Council captioned the short film as: “Multimedia visual artist Phoebe Boswell has written an original piece, ‘Dear Mister Shakespeare’, in which she questions Shakespeare on the inherent racial tensions within his writing of Othello in the 1600s, and how these tensions continue to resonate today.”

[3] MacKaye clarifies in his author’s preface that he has “called this work a Masque, because – like other works so named in the past – it is a dramatic work of symbolism involving, in its structure, pageantry, poetry and the dance.” (p. xviii) A more detailed work on the play titled “Shakespeare 1916” in the book Repositoning Shakespeare by Thomas Cartelli is included in the citations.

[4] To have no screen between this part he play’d/And him he play’d it for, he needs will be/Absolute Milan. Me, poor man, my library/Was dukedom large enough (1.2.107-111)

Knowing I loved my books, he furnished me/From mine own library with volumes that/I prize above my dukedom (1.2.166-168)

[5] Yates also quotes directly from the Arden edition of 1954 where Frank Kermode goes on to traces the magic of Prospero with the magic of Henry Cornelius Agrippa as “an intellect pure and conjoined with the powers of the Gods without which we shall never happily ascend to the scrutiny of secret things, and to the power of wonderful workings.” (17)

[6] For a more engaged review of the terminology and politics of those terms in the colonial context in The Tempest, see Hulme (1981)

[7] For a more detailed reading of medieval notions of the “body politic” and “body natural”, see Kantorowicz (1985)

[8] Mahler, in his essay “As You (Don’t) Like It”, however, argues that functional heterotopic spaces in Shakespearean plays become “less and less successful as time goes by”, but as we will see in this play, this is not the case. The island (and its administration through magic), as we discover, is the restorative space in this context (65).

[9] Hulme notes in his essay that in the beginning of the play Miranda counts Ferdinand as the third man she has ever encountered (Caliban being the second) while by the time we arrive at the first scene of the third act, she has not “seen/More that I may call men than you, good friend,/And my dear father” (3.1.50-52)

[10] I borrow this term from Barker and Hulme’s essay that defines ‘autotelic’, via Hirsch (1967), as “an entity which always remains the same from one moment to the next.” (192)

[11] “William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest anticipates the colonial paradigm where the duke-in-exile. Prospero, ends up in an island that belongs to Sycorax, who is made out to be a witch-figure whose ‘magic’ Prospero learns, only to use the same to colonise the island and enslave Sycorax’s son Caliban, an indigenous inhabitant who is animalised in the play (he ‘smells like a fish’) and referred to as a misshapen monster having no language, no culture, despite which he (Caliban) insists: ‘This island is mine…’. Parallel and in contrast to Caliban, who does not mind swearing at Prospero and his daughter Miranda in the language he learnt from them, is Ariel, a fairy- like creature, also a ‘native’ of the island, who is glad to serve Prospero though he too wants to be set free one day.” (Anand 2056) NOTE: Anand’s points have to be qualified here: while the island is not Sycorax’s (she is also left on the island by sailors), the play’s handling of certain events does anticipate the colonial paradigm as I have mentioned in the essay. Also, there is no clear evidence in the text of the play that Prospero had learnt his magic from Sycorax which forms one of the contending bodies of knowledge in the argument of this paper ahead.

[12] Irene Lara paraphrases Gayatri Spivak on this in her essay “Beyond Caliban’s Curses”: “Yet, it is also possible that when Caliban (or the “native”, subaltern, or other) speaks as Gayatri Spivak suggests, her or his subjectivity is contained and mediated within the language of the colonizer’s tongue as well as the social structures that enforce hegemonic discourses.” (86)

[13] Barker and Hulme quote Antonio de Nebrija who was quoted by Hanke (1959).

[14] For the entire text of the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, see appendix in Simhadri (1991)

[15] The numbers in the references refer to paragraph numbers in the Minute. For the entire text, see Macaulay (1835)

[16] “Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself / Upon thy wicked dam, come forth!” (1.2.320-321) On this point, I believe, an opportunity was missed in The Tempest adaptation where Prospero is made into Prospera. Given that Prospera is also tried for witchcraft and lands on the island in the same condition as Sycorax (a criminal tried for witchcraft with a child), the filmmaker, instead of showing this similarity and creating a feminist tale of solidarity, chooses to emphasize and perpetuate a difference.

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