How Resistance is Shaped by Power in The Tempest and Chronicle of the Narvaez Expedition

How Resistance is Shaped by Power in The Tempest and Chronicle of the Narvaez Expedition

Yu Cao

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Power and resistance are some of the most important themes in both The Tempest and the Chronicle of the Narvaez Expedition. The play tells the story of Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan who settles on a remote island and enslaves two island inhabitants, Ariel and Caliban. The play then follows several plotlines, which show the characters’ resistances are shaped by outer power and force. Although The Tempest is a fictitious work, the various scenes in this play are an allegory of European colonialism, which is the subject of Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative. The loss of power and autonomy leads to resistance of characters. Characters in both works struggle for power, either to regain autonomy or to be freed, especially if they had power before. Caliban shows more disobedience than Aerial toward Prospero as he is reduced to a slave from the king of his island while Aerial has always been enslaved. Similarly, Cabeza de Vaca is determined to be freed as he believed he was once a noble from the civilized world.

The characters in The Tempest are embroiled in a vicious power struggle for the control of the island and their freedom. Prospero is arguably the play’s most crucial power character. Before the play begins, Antonio usurps power and sends Prospero to exile. Not only does Prospero lose his kingship of Milan, but also loses his freedom as he is stuck on the barren island. Because Prospero used to have power as the duke of Milan and the freedom that comes with it, he is extremely determined to take back what he had. Despite being exiled, he keeps his dignity and his control over people around him like Miranda. Prospero wants power by all means. He relies on treachery, magic, spirits, and enchantment to stay in power. Compared to other characters, Prospero comes out as the only character with great brainpower. He is a skillful puppeteer and web weaver. He uses his intellect to choreograph a shipwreck, organize the meeting between Ferdinand and his daughter and mete out reward and punishment. Although Ariel has magic powers too, it is Prospero who ultimately pulls strings. It takes twelve years of studying magic and fighting against the environment for Prospero to take control and the power he once had. Through the resistance and his pursuit of knowledge, Prospero finally restores his status as a leader and takes back what he has.

As the theme of power evolves in the play, it becomes apparent that resistance and desire for autonomy are also at the center of the play’s plot. Whereas loss of independence is expected by Prospero, it is mourned by Ariel and Caliban. Caliban pines for freedom from Prospero and regards service as punishment. Before the arrival of Prospero, Caliban was the one in charge of the island. The whole island is not only home to him but also his personal property. Caliban’s position collapsed as the powerful and dominant Prospero decided to enslave him and take over the control of the island. Caliban despises his master and curses him for having deprived him of his island inheritance. As his first line in the play :

As wicked dew as e’er my mother brushed

With raven’s feature from unwholesome fen

Drop on you both! A southwest blow on ye

And blister you all o’er!

(The Tempest, 1.2)

Although Caliban is severely punished for cursing Prospero, he is not even apologetic and persists with his overt hatred toward Prospero. Caliban continues insulting Prospero because he believes that the island is his property and Prospero is the intruder. The loss of his power and autonomy drives Caliban to enlist the support of Trinculo and Stephano to help him escape from Prospero. Caliban’s desire for freedom from slavery sees him conspire with Trinculo and Stephano to overthrow Prospero. The scheming highlights the extent of power struggles and,  consequently, the desire for freedom that the character once had in The Tempest.

For Ariel, freedom is the breath of his life. Prospero gives some freedom to Ariel, who has no freedom before. Thus, he is grateful to Prospero for freeing him from his torment in the pine tree. Though Ariel longs for eternal liberty and keeps reminding Prospero of his promise to let him free, he never views Prospero with animosity as Caliban does. In return, Prospero assures Ariel that he will be freed once his purpose as a servant is fulfilled. In anticipation of freedom, Ariel serves his master obediently and carries out all commands without complaining. Ariel takes pride in the execution of tasks that are repugnant to him for the sake of securing his freedom from Prospero. Even in the final act, Ariel is still trying to appear pitiful to persuade Prospero to set him free instead of trying to create a confrontation with Prospero “Your charm so strongly works ’em That, if you now beheld them, your affections would become tender.” (The Tempest 5.1) From the beginning of the play where Ariel has no power, freedom, or autonomy, he is now only asking for being free from Prospero. The powerless initial state makes Ariel not greedy about what he desires but makes him submissive toward Prospero and show no resistance to Prospero’s orders and dominance.

The scenes in The Tempest closely mirror the events chronicled in Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative. The narrative effectively captures the specter of fear and terror that characterized Spain’s conquest of America. Like Prospero’s invasion of the island and the subsequent enslavement of its natives, the Spaniards conquered America and made attempts to enslave the natives. But to the Spaniard’s surprise, the natives put up a strong resistance against the invading colonialists, forcing the latter to be on the defensive. To show how dire the situation was, Cabeza de Vaca compares the hardships and tribulations of Spanish captivity in America to the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula by the Islamic Moors. He explains that the Spanish expedition lacked power over the natives. Essentially, the expedition was subjected to unimaginable cruelties than even Moorish slave masters could impose on the Spaniards. Without food, clothes, and most importantly, the experience to survive in the “new world”, the technologically advanced Spaniard becomes powerless on the American continent. The libra of power tilted as the lives of the “Christian” are in control of the Indians.

Just like Prospero knew that he had to use magic, wit, and cunning to amass power and survive on the island, the Spaniards know, as intruders from a more advanced civilization,  they had to be creative to be in control over the American natives, demonstrating resistance covertly. The Spaniards became shipwrecked, forcing them to depend on the natives for their survival. In the process, the Spaniards lost their autonomy as they were pressed by the natives to serve as medicine men. As Cabeza de Vaca explains, he and his entourage joined in the healing practices of the natives not because doing so was a voluntary decision but because they were under duress. The Spaniards were denied food and other essential supplies until they agreed to participate in the healing practices. As the text puts it, “After crossing to the mainland, they found the inhabitants hostile and the availability of food low” (Cabeza de Vaca, 14). This shows that the natives held more power over the invading Spaniards. Inasmuch as Cabeza de Vaca resented the primitive healing practices, not least because they conflicted with Christianity, he encouraged his team to act as avid shamans to fend off starvation and assure friendly relations with the natives. But Cabeza de Vaca knew that covert resistance was the only means through which his team could eventually defeat the natives and gain freedom. As people who were free and came here to explore and conquer, Cabeza de Vaca shows great resistance even when he and his men are in the harshest environment and vulnerable state.

Depiction of power dynamics in The Tempest was influenced by colonialism. Virtually, both The Tempest and Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative have explored the problematic complicated relationship between European colonizers and the Indians, the newcomers and the natives. Both texts show that power is a necessary tool used by colonialists to achieve their goals. Prospero’s invasion of the island alludes to European powers’ invasion and colonization of America. Without magic powers and shrewdness, Prospero could not have taken control of the island from its prior owner, Caliban. Prospero views Ariel and Caliban as lesser beings than himself. In a similar manner, the Spaniards viewed the American natives as an inferior and uncivilized race. It is for this reason that the Spaniards plotted to enslave the natives and dispossess them of their property. However, when the powered ones lose their power or the characters that were once free lost their autonomy, they demonstrate great resistance toward outer force and restore what they once owned.

It can be argued that Ariel, who was a slave and trapped in a tree before the arrival of Prospero, also demonstrates some degrees of resistance to his destiny.  Though Arel is grateful for Prospero saving him from the cloven pine tree,  he does not plan to serve as Prospero’s slave for the rest of his life. Ariel follows every order from Prospero and executes almost all of them perfectly is his way of fighting for his freedom. He knows only if he pleases Prospero that Prospero will give him eternal freedom. Ariel, with extraordinary abilities, serves Prospero well and helps him accomplish various missions like creating the storm. However, despite Ariel really desires freedom and is trying very hard to perform tasks from Prospero, he never dares once disobeys any order from Prospero. Ariel is grateful toward Prosperal from his heart only because Prospero frees him from a tree and gives him basic freedom. Though Prospero enslaves Ariel, uses him to his advantage from time to time, and seems to forget about the promises he made of setting Ariel free, Ariel only implies it warily and never confronts Prospero in any way or form. “Is there more toil? Since thou dost give me pains, Let me remember thee what thou hast promised, Which is not yet performed me.” (The Tempest, 5.1) In the end, the weakness and lack of resistance against Prospero are caused by the fact that his autonomy has long been deprived; thus he believes it is not justified for him to want a power that he never had.

Everyone longs for freedom, while those who have had the privilege before will fight harder for it than people who never taste freedom. The dramatic changes in power will give characters lust for their lost power and kindle their immense resistance for struggling with external forces. On the contrary, the same resistance is missing for someone who never experiences autonomy before like Aeril as he is too grateful for what he has at the moment. The lack of power all the time makes the person too submissive to form resistance. The level of resistance, discussed in this essay, is proportional to the amount of power lost and deprived autonomy.





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