this-thing-of-darkness-snipA Summary of Paul Brown’s “‘This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine’: The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism”

In his essay, Paul Brown explains that Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” reaches beyond mere contemplation of colonialism and more toward “intervention in an ambivalent and even contradictory discourse” (205). Brown feels that Shakespeare attempts, in his narrative, to suitably redefine the power relations between classes, gender and cultures, but fails to accomplish this task.

Three connections within complex colonial discourse, according to Brown, are “class discourse (masterlessness), a race discourse (savagism) and a politically and courtly sexual discourse” (209) as illustrated by the desire of John Rolf, a Virginia planter, for Pocahontas, the daughter of Powhatan, chief-of-chiefs. Using Rolf’s letter asking for the Governor’s blessing over their marriage, Brown shows Rolf’s belief that the power of British civility can transform the “other” or American Indian, even if sexual desire may threaten to undermine that mastery. (207) This, in turn, is compared with Prospero’s narrative in which his ruling power is determined by his control over his subjects’ sexuality, particularly Miranda’s and Caliban’s. Brown argues that the colonizer seeks to control, repress and exploit the “other” even as the “other” has beneficial offerings that may erode that civil order.

Moving beyond the American example, Brown examines British counterculture and Irish “others” to illustrate the colossal range of contemporary colonialist discourse. He discusses the perceived threat within England of anti-social man, the masterless who require “surveillance, classification, expulsion and punishment” (210) as Brown believes is embodied in “The Tempest” by Stephano and Trunculo. Their threat of counter-order serves to unify rulers in their authority, channeling a positive civil service. (211) Brown next points out evidence of this within the context of Ireland. It was in need of reordering and of “a colony where the savage other needed to be civilized conquered and dispossessed.” (214) Masterless Irish were especially targeted, and jesters like Trinculo were exemplary of that lot. (210) To further tie Ireland to “The Tempest,” Brown offers the idea that the uninhabited island (of civility) offered not only the opportunity for the expansion of civility, but the undoing of it as well, freedom being a temptation. (216)

Brown says the narrative of the play “is always related to questions of power.” (218) The tempestuous storm was produced by Shakespeare to show Prospero’s mastery over the island. He demonstrates his control over his listeners as he narrates, establishing himself as father and educator of Miranda, rescuer of Ariel, colonizer of Caliban, and corrector of errant aristocrats. Prospero’s function is to divide the characters along gender lines as with the malleable Miranda and irreformable Caliban, and along class lines such as in the usurping aristocrats versus unmastered plebians, conjuring colonial discourse. (221)

This binarism is accompanied by the aesthetic ordering of power through “narrative to maintain social control.” (223) “Euphemistic” use of romantic rhetoric as well as gifts of freedom and education underline the non-exploitive representation of power as when Caliban is taught to speak Prospero’s language. (223) This language is seen by Caliban as linguistic capture and restraint, not a gift. (220) Alternately, to “denigrate the masterless” (225), as with Trinculo and Stephano, Caliban is placed in a more positive light. His eloquence is revealed when describing the island and how its music causes him to dream. This dream, according to Brown, is the apothesis of colonial discourse, a wish for release, a desire for utopian powerlessness. (225)

Prospero too desires to “divest himself of the very power he has so relentlessly sought” (226), as is the plausible threat of freedom to the civilized. After losing his power over his daughter, the play ends not with his resumption of public duty but his retirement. Brown asks, “Is this final distancing from the narrative an unraveling of Prospero’s project?” (227) The disruption of the marriage masque by Caliban’s plot leads to Prospero’s declaration that all representation is illusory, yet he “goes on to meet the threat and triumphs, and thus completes his narrative.” (227) Brown is troubled by the “ambivalence” here between narrative declaration and dramatic struggle. “The threat must be present to validate colonial discourse; yet if present it cannot but impel the narrative to further action. The process is interminable. And yet the play has to end.” (228) It is for this reason, Brown believes, that “The Tempest” declares no triumph for colonialism but simply offers up it’s characteristic operations.


Paul Brown aligns himself with the post-colonial school of criticism. This is demonstrated by his use of intertextuality and his goal to show the oppression of colonized peoples. He talks not only of language as a binding factor in colonization as given to Caliban by Prospero and Miranda, but he also examines the euphemistic manipulation of language by Prospero to establish and maintain dominance. In exploration of the colonized people’s reaction, Brown studies Caliban and in what ways he speaks out against his plight. In the end, he looks for ways to change the system of colonization and finds ambivalent answers in Shakespeare’s interpretation of order.

I am interested in this essay because it supports my initial interpretation of Prospero’s role in “The Tempest.” Paul Brown’s exploration of Prospero’s art of conversation and the power he holds over his fellow characters resonates with my assessment of that power. In addition, I have learned much from Brown’s essay in the context of colonization. This information has influenced me to push beyond my limited interpretation based on New Criticism and complicate it within the context of events occurring at the time the play was written. For me, this legitimizes and expands the themes present in my original assessment of Prospero.

Work Cited:

Brown, Paul. This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine; “The Tempest” as the Discourse of Colonialism; William Shakespeare, “The Tempest;” A Case Study in Critical Controversy, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin?s, 2000, 205-229