The Tempest and Compassion: Decolonizing Shakespeare through Shared Feeling

By Tiffany Hoffman (University of Toronto)

Early revisionist work beginning with the new historicist approach developed by Stephen Greenblatt and others was formative in thinking through the violence of The Tempest, developing a critical approach to the play as a colonial cultural product written from what is assumed to be Shakespeare’s imperialist mentality.[1] Many scholars now agree that the play reflects the troubling history of British imperialism and the Virginia Company’s settling of a colony in Jamestown, where a series of violent backlashes and hostile encounters ensued with the natives residing there. Central to this framework is the ongoing tendency to view Caliban as the abused subject of repressive imperial practices and the forceful colonization of the New World and its Indigenous inhabitants. This is a view that is reflected in the play through the harsh treatment, emotional manipulation, domination, power, and control, that Prospero and Miranda exercise over Caliban. Caliban is rendered a pitiable figure who is brutalized and demeaned, as he is transformed by these colonists into their passive and “abhorred slave” (1.2.354).[2] In accordance with this colonial interpretation it has been difficult to analyse the arrival of the other European colonizers, Stephano and Trinculo, through any other critical perspective, especially since these characters speak some of the most intrusive colonial aphorisms of the entire play. Despite the predominance of this longstanding view, it was my initial belief that Shakespeare embedded in the play compassionate language and action that undercuts the aggressive tone shaping colonial encounters with Caliban.  

Johann Heinrich Ramberg, The tempest, II, 2, Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo on seashore, watercolour, c. 1800s, Wikimedia Commons

The virtue of compassion is an emotional stream that runs through The Tempest, and many analyses over the years have highlighted its relevance to both the characterizations of Miranda and Prospero, especially in terms of their pity and concern for other Christian-European characters in the play (1.2.17).[3] To this extent, it must be noted that there has been very little—if any research at all—which considers how compassion might play out in relation to Caliban and the social ecologies he inhabits. This is an oversight of critical importance, since he is centrally portrayed and visualized by the other characters as a deeply suffering figure.

As a virtual research fellow with the Centre for the History of Emotions I was able to explore these ideas on compassion through collaboration with Dr Brid Phillips and Anna Quercia-Thomas. Together, we planned a series of moved readings to be staged at the New Fortune Theatre at UWA (2.2., 5.1). The scenes were directed and filmed by Anna who staged the scenes to bring out their underlying current of compassion. Afterward, we held a roundtable discussion at the 2022 ANZAMEMS conference, ‘Reception and Emotion’ (June 2022). In approaching the moved readings as a mode of performance-as-research, we engaged in collaborative discussion on how compassion operates as an anti-racist and decolonial tool in The Tempest. By utilizing the space of the stage, and in considering the performative and embodied value of the emotion, our work advanced a mode of decolonization through which we rethought key points of contact with Caliban as informed through an emotional spectrum of compassionate relations.

Compassion has a long history in religious, philosophical, and moral thought—with its essential emotional ontology of entering into or sharing the feelings of another stretching through the affiliative states of pity, fellow-feeling, sympathy, and empathy. Classical Greek notions of sympatheia as a ‘feeling or suffering with’ offer a springboard into thinking about compassion as ‘the quality or state of being affected by the suffering of another; a feeling of commiseration.’[4] This notion is especially prominent in ancient Greek philosophical conceptions of pity, which Aristotle defined as ‘a certain pain occasioned by […] pains occurring to one who does not deserve it, which the pitier might expect to suffer himself.’[5]

In the realm of religion, compassion is largely understood as an attribute of God: ‘for the Lord is full of compassion and mercy, long suffering, and very pitiful’ (Ecclesiastes, 30:33). In one of Augustine’s early sermons, he upholds Christ’s incarnation and death on the cross to redeem mankind from sin as the highest expression of the emotion:

Hear the Apostle wishing to commend His compassion (‘misercordia’) to us, because for our sake he was made weak … as he taught the rest of the disciples, that they themselves might feel compassion (‘compatior’) for the weakness of the weak … The Apostle says to them, “feel this in you, which is also in Christ Jesus.” “See fit,” he says,” to imitate the Son of God through sympathy (‘compassio’) with the little ones.[6]

In early modernity, preachers cultivated compassion as an emotion of virtuous Christian disposition. As we would have ‘pitied our selves for the like cause’, explains Jonathan Day in the Booke of Common Prayer, ‘so we may be moved with pitie toward those whom we see oppressed’.[7] The imitation of Christ’s emotional life as ‘a man of sorrows’ became a hallmark of Reformed virtue and badge of election.[8]  Protestant divines urged the simulation of Christ through the pattern of his own compassion, not only in feeling but in action. For, ‘what is pity?’ asks Augustine, ‘except a kind of fellow-feeling in our hearts for the sufferings of others that in fact impels us to come to their aid as far as our ability allows.’ Christ did not only ‘look upon the wounded man, but … takes care of him.’[9] The biblical figure of Job became a model of Christian virtue—one who imitated Christ well, ‘showed his compassion […] relieved the oppressed, and set at liberty the captives […] And all this out of a fellow-feeling of others wants […] [and] a strong motive for brotherly love.’[10]  

The religious connotations of compassion that had held sway for centuries came to inform the culture of sensibility through the eighteenth-century, itself heavily shaped by the moral-sense philosophy surrounding sympathy during the period. According to Adam Smith, it is ‘through sympathy we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into [the other’s] body, and become in some measure the person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations.’[11] As Katherine Ibbett points out, philosophical inquiry into sympathy ‘addresses not a specific emotion but rather the potential for contagion or communication between selves.’[12] Characterized ‘very often in the eighteenth-century as fellow-feeling, sympathy […] implies a collective or collectivizing response that depends on the perception of shared or reciprocated emotion.’[13]

As these historical definitions and meanings elaborate, compassion is a direct and immediate emotive response to the experience of pain where the beholder comes to imagine, feel and viscerally sense the deep suffering they are witnessing. In this way, compassion and pain are not mutually exclusive affects, but may be thought of as operating as reciprocal affective states comprising two halves of one whole emotional experience.

My project’s initial thinking about the relevance of compassion to a broader understanding of early modern cross-cultural contact has been largely informed by recent work on colonialization and emotion, much of which was produced through scholarship advanced by the ARC Centre for Excellence for the History of Emotions. The series of short essays on The World Beyond Europe in the collection Early Modern Emotions, takes an innovative approach to the study of colonialism. In this collection, for example, Maria Nugent usefully explains that European–Indigenous encounters sustained ‘emotional investments, so often overlooked, involved in making contact and getting intimate with Others.’ The historical representation and documentation of violent colonial encounters often precludes the development of relationships between European and Indigenous persons. Many colonial encounters were emotionally complex and often molded through affective bonds of friendship, sympathy, or romantic love.[14]

Of a piece with research on the affective relations of colonization, is the important function that emotions played in historical processes of conversion and religious expansion through the New World. The work of Jacqueline Van Gent has been useful in illuminating the central role that emotions ‘played in the proselytizing efforts of global Protestant missions in the early modern period.’ In the imperial context, as she argues, ‘emotions became an important part of a wider colonial socialization process, and were indeed tools of social affiliation.’[15] In this way, emotional experience operates spiritually as a gateway to Indigenous conversion. As theologian Lewis Rambo claims, for ‘potential converts, finding someone who loves and cares for them is a potent experience in itself, enabling them to transcend immobilizing conflicts and to utilize the freed energy to build a more productive, more spiritual life.’[16] While ‘violent and hierarchically organized encounters framed as religious encounters have attracted the most interest’, critical discourse surrounding cultural contact and religious exchange has begun to consider the way spiritual identities form within an imperial setting made up of social actors who interact emotively with each other.[17]

Decolonial work on the affective dimensions of imperialism, cultural contact, and conversion thus paves the way for an emotionally and compassionately inflected reading of The Tempest’s representation of colonial interactions with Caliban. Such work also places renewed emphasis on the conversion narrative at the heart of the play, where the illumination of a web of benevolent affective colonial relations opens the possibility of spiritual agency through which Caliban is able to retort to Prospero that he will ‘be wise hereafter and seek for grace’ (5.1.298–99).

By bringing our initial thinking on emotions and colonialism onto the stage of the New Fortune Theatre at The University of Western Australia, the moved readings illuminated an untapped strain of fellow-feeling by bringing pain into visible bodily expression. By reinterpreting 2.2. through the lens of emotion and bodily sensation, and by highlighting a range of key ‘feeling’ terms, a compassionate sub-text to the scene startlingly emerged wherein the colonizers, Stephano and Trinculo, display compassion toward Caliban’s suffering and deep concern for his well-being.

Screen capture from video of moved reading performance of The Tempest at the New Fortune Theatre
Screen capture from video recording of the moved reading performance of The Tempest (2.2). Used with permission of Anna Quercia-Thomas. Left to right: Trinculo, Caliban, and Stephano

Noticing the visible signs of Caliban’s pain and assuming that he is suffering from an ‘ague’, Stephano asks Caliban: ‘how now mooncalf how does thine ague?’ And then, in line with Christian injunctions to come to another’s aid, provides him with liquor to ‘comfort’ relieve and ‘recover’ him, indeed, to ‘shake his shaking’ (2.2. 115–116, 49, 60, 81). In this way, the imperial language undergirding the colonist’s motivation to inebriate Caliban and ‘keep him tame’ to be passively sold to imperial power became largely undermined and replaced by an ethic of care, Christian caritas, and kindness toward oppressed others in misery (2.2.67–68). Stephano and Trinculo reveal an unexpected emotional response to Caliban’s suffering. The bodily expression of pain through performance of Caliban’s ‘shaking’ ‘fit’ itself appeared to strike an emotional chord in Stephano whose own ‘trembling’ allowed for a dynamic process of shared feeling and compassionate contagion to play out through roundtable discussion on the embodied aspects of performance integral to the moved reading (2.2.70–71). Given the scene’s more overtly aggressive colonial language, what often goes unnoticed in current interpretations is the surprising emphasis on friendship. As when Stephano pours Caliban more drink, he states to him, ‘you cannot tell who is your friend’ (2.2.75). When Trinculo hides beneath Caliban’s gaberdine he enters into a very intimate emotional and physical space of co-suffering with him. Fearing that he should suffer the same misfortune of being hit by a thunderbolt, Trinculo compassionately declares that ‘misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows’ (2.2.35).

Screen capture from video of moved reading performance of The Tempest at the New Fortune Theatre
Screen capture from video recording of the moved reading performance of The Tempest (2.2). Used with permission of Anna Quercia-Thomas. Left to right: Trinculo, Caliban, and Stephano

During the Protestant Reformation the theology of religious violence in the New World had itself become the subject of compassionate critique as violent and disturbing ethnographic accounts of colonial contact with Amerindians, such as that by the Spanish Priest Bartolome de Las Casas, spread rapidly through the period.[18] When Thomas Hariot—himself a leader of the Jamestown expedition—describes his interactions with the natives, his words do not therefore evoke the infliction of pain as the guiding impetus toward fulfilment of the goals of British imperial and religious expansion. As he explains,

By howe much they upon due consideration shall finde our manner of knowledge and craftes to exceede theirs in perfection, and speed for doing or execution, by so much the more it is probable that they should desire our friendship & love, and have the greater respect for pleasing and obeying vs. Whereby may bee hoped, if meanes of good government bee used, that they may in short time be brought to ciuilitie, and the embracing of true religion.[19]

Engraving by Theodor de Bry, 1590 after a John White watercolour,1585: Virginia Indian chief with tattoos
Engraving by Theodor de Bry, 1590 after a John White watercolour, 1585: Virginia Indian chief with tattoos, Wikimedia Commons

The Tempest will always be the subject of fierce debate—the play’s colonial language and determinants are unavoidable. However, by drawing on history of emotions research we can open the play to colonial critique and decolonial speculation, and thereby rehistoricize The Tempest as it comes to reflect less obvious affective processes of friendship and love, compassion and care, over and against the more overtly aggressive and coercive patterns of colonial encounter many scholars have traced in the play. In this way, we may continue to look to emotions research as a way forward in recuperating the elements of beauty, freedom, pathos, and humanitarian sentiment, that are so foundational to the ongoing wonder and enchantment of The Tempest.

Tiffany Hoffman is a Research Fellow with The Centre for Renaissance and Reformation Studies at the University of Toronto, and also serves as a Book Review Editor for Emotions: History, Culture, Society. The results of her virtual research fellowship at the CHE were presented July 6, 2022 in a paper, “Conversion, Colonization, and Compassion in The Tempest.” Conversion, Colonization, and Compassion in The Tempest | ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. The paper will be presented again virtually at the upcoming SHE conference in Florence.

She wishes to thank the ARC Centre for Excellence for the History of Emotions, the Society for the History of Emotions, and the former ‘Early Modern Conversions’ Project, for their support. She extends her deepest gratitude to Dr Brid Phillips and Anna Quercia-Thomas for their collaboration, generosity, time, and creativity in helping to develop this research, and also wishes to thank Dr Marina Gerzic for arranging the details of her fellowship.

[1] Stephen Greenblatt, ‘Invisible Bullets’, in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. by J. Rivkin and M. Ryan (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 1998), pp. 786–803.

[2] William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed by. J.F. Bernard and P. Yachnin (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2021). All quotes are from this edition.

[3] See for example, Heather Kerr, ‘Sociable Tears in The Tempest’, in Shakespeare and Emotions: Inheritances, Enactments, and Legacies, ed. by R. S. White, M. Houlahan and K. O’Laughlin (New York: Palgrave, 2015), pp. 164–72; Arthur Kirsch, ‘Virtue, Vice, and Compassion in Montaigne and The Tempest’, Studies in English Literature 37.2 (1997): 337–52; Leah Whittington, ‘Shakespeare’s Vergil: Empathy and The Tempest’, in Shakespeare and Renaissance Ethics, ed. by J. Cox and P. Gray (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 98–120.

[4]Marjorie Garber, ‘Compassion’, in Compassion: The Culture and Politics of an Emotion, ed. by Lauren Berlant (New York: Routledge, 2014), p. 23.

[5] Aristotle, The Art of Rhetoric, trans. H.C. Lawson-Tancred (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991), chapter, 2.8, p. 163.

[6] Augustine, Sermon 264, PL 38, 1.213. Also quoted in Susan Wessel, Passion and Compassion in Early Christianity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), p. 123.

[7] Jonathan Day, A Booke of Christian Prayers (London: John Daye, 1578), 50.

[8] Ralph Robinson, Christ, the perfect pattern, of a Christian’s practice, being the substance of severall sermons about the imitation of Christ (London: 1648), pp. 56 –57.

[9] Augustine, City of God, trans. D. S. Weisen, book 9.5, p. 167.

[10] Robinson, pp. 64–65; p. 63; on the links between compassion and Christian ideas of neighborly love, see Katie Barclay, Caritas: Neighbourly Love and the Early Modern Self (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021).

[11] Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), ed. by K. Haakonssen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 13.

[12] Katherine Ibbett, ‘Fellow-feeling’, in Early Modern Emotions: An Introduction, ed. by S. Broomhall (Routledge: New York, 2017), p. 63.

[13] Katrina O’Loughlin, ‘Sociality and Sociability’, in Early Modern Emotions: An Introduction, ed. by S. Broomhall (Routledge: New York, 2017), p. 78.

[14] Maria Nugent, ‘Indigenous/European Encounters’, in Early Modern Emotions: An Introduction, ed. by Susan Broomhall (Routledge: New York, 2017), p. 325.

[15] Jacqueline Van Gent, ‘Protestant Global Missions’, in Early Modern Emotions: An Introduction, ed. By Susan Broomhall(Routledge: New York, 2017), pp.313–14. See also, Jacqueline Van Gent and Spencer Young, eds., Special Issue: ‘Emotions and Conversion’, Journal of Religious History 39.4 (2015); and Claire McLisky, Daniel Midena, and Karen Vallgarda, eds., Emotions and Christian Missions: Historical Perspectives (London: Palgrave Studies in the History of Emotions, 2015).

[16] Lewis Rambo, Understanding Religious Conversion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), p. 84.

[17] Daniela Hacke, Claudia Jarzebowski, Hannes Ziegler, eds., Matters of Engagement: Emotions, Identity, and Cultural Contact in the Premodern World (London: Routledge, 2020).

[18] Bartolome de las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Andes (1552), in Popery Truly Displayed in its Bloody Colors, ed. Thomas Dawson (London, 1689). See Appendix D, The Tempest, Bernard and Yachnin, pp. 174–80.

[19] Thomas Harriot, A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (London, 1588), E2v.

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