Throughout Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ and Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’, the protagonists’ roles as omnipotent rulers change dramatically. In this essay, I aim to compare and contrast Crusoe and Prospero’s roles as rulers, specifically focusing on their relationships with others through which their omnipotence is demonstrated. As much as Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’ is a story of survival against all odds and a spiritually fulfilling life lived in solitude, it also makes clear a person’s need for society, and in Crusoe’s case, the need to be a leader within the societal structure of the 17th Century world.
Defoe clearly defines Crusoe as ruler of his island’s society. However, even before he is shipwrecked, Crusoe exercises power and authority, the tendencies of a ruler, over his fellow men. Most noticeable is Crusoe’s exploitation of slavery. Slavery was a key component of society within the British Empire and is first found in the novel when Crusoe himself is enslaved, “kept by the captain. ” Upon escaping, Crusoe – despite his disgust at his “miserable” enslavement – bends a slave-boy, Xury, to his will by force after briefly considering drowning him. He offers the boy a choice; to either “be faithful” to him or to be thrown over-board.
Crusoe’s immediate assumption of power over Xury tells us three things about rulers within the social hierarchy that Defoe was a component of. Firstly, due to Xury’s foreign descent, Crusoe, an English man, considers himself instantly to be the master. Secondly, Crusoe’s maturity granted him ownership of the boy despite the fact that they were both slaves. Lastly, Crusoe believed the boy to owe him a life-debt due to Crusoe’s planning and initiation of their escape. Crusoe goes as far to consider that Xury may not be deserving of such slavery, calling him a “better counselor” than himself.
Further more, Xury notifies Crusoe of, “a lance”, among the people they spot on their travels. Even though this observation may have prevented a life-threatening situation, Crusoe is proudly omnipotent as never in thought, word or deed gives thanks to Xury; though he recognizes the good advice, and keeps a safe distance. Crusoe, in accustom with his society, treats slaves as little other than possessions, even though a reader would expect sympathy from a man who has experienced slavery first-hand. Even when he is no longer permitted to trade in slaves publicly, he embarks on a secret voyage to kid-nap his “equal share” of “negroes”.
Defoe presents Crusoe as a man who it seems will go to any extent to greaten his rule over others. He possesses a birth-given right to power in Defoe’s society, owned by all white, imperialist peoples as well as those with wealth and seniority. Slavery featured no less in the society in which Shakespeare wrote ‘The Tempest’, thus it is also found within the play. Just as Crusoe is established by Defoe as a master of others, Shakespeare’s play features a protagonist, Prospero, possessing two slaves, Caliban and Ariel. Unlike Crusoe and Xury, it is not entirely through saving their lives however, that Prospero becomes a ruler.
It is by the use of knowledge and also the art of magic that Prospero acquires, and overpowers, his slaves. Undisputedly, Prospero reigns supreme within the social hierarchy of ‘The Tempest’, and although Ariel and Caliban possess a more unique magic then their master, they are in his debt – as Xury is in Crusoe’s – and are his slaves until he sees fit to free them. Neither of them are as seemingly content with their enslavement as Defoe’s Xury is – Ariel begs for his freedom, reminding Prospero of the “worthy service” he has performed, how he has; “Told thee no lies, made thee no mistakings, serv’d
Without or grudge, or grumblings”. Prospero’s response is remarkably similar to one that Crusoe would inevitably give if ever challenged, he reminds Ariel of the way in which he saved and freed him, “from what a torment”, and more terrible previous master, “The foul witch Sycorax”. Caliban’s rebellions are far less pleading and more insulting, cursing Prospero with, “wicked dew”. Prospero responds with punishment – an exertion, demonstration, and reminder of his omnipotent rule – causing Caliban to suffer; “cramps, side-stiches, that shall pen thy breath up … ach pinch more stinging Than bees that made ’em. ”
Although written a century apart, Shakespeare and Defoe’s opinions are synonymous. Both believe that power is held by those who free others for their own prosperity, and this exists in both presentations of their ruling protagonists. Crusoe’s power augments upon being ship-wrecked. He elevates himself from the position of “Master” to “King”, even going as far as to recognize the island as his, “little kingdom”, and his shelter as his, “castle”, he even administers justice upon the birds who threaten his crop!
Although Crusoe is isolated, elements of materialistic society are found in his self-proclaimed ‘wealth’, having, “two plantations in the island; one my little fortification or tent,” and “my country habitation”. Such is Defoe’s description of Crusoe’s surrounding habitat that it seems almost luxurious – it is definitely comfortable. However, no matter how Defoe presents Crusoe’s power and wealth in solitude, the author makes it clear that Crusoe’s omnipotence is meaningless as he is effectively only ruler of himself.
Crusoe recognizes his need for another to represent the lower classes, and/or slavery in his imperialistic ’empire’. He arrogantly fanaticizes that he may be, “able to manage one, nay, two or three savages”, in, “whatever I should direct them”. He rationalizes that acquiring such slaves is his, “only way to go about an attempt for an escape”, but from Defoe’s previous portrayals of his character – specifically his domination of others to fulfill his superciliousness – it is obvious to the reader that a slave would only complete his “kingdom”, giving him subjects to rule over.
Friday’s arrival upon the island is eagerly and frightfully anticipated by both Crusoe and the reader. Defoe makes it so through Crusoe’s many years’ deliberation over ‘the footprint in the sand’. In the past, Crusoe has feared sickness and God’s judgment upon his soul, but now he spends years fearing the arrival of men into his domain. It is not only the cannibals’ weapons he is afraid of – for he is armed with seven muskets and made inconspicuous by a self-cultivated forest – he fears opposition to his position of authority.
Crusoe’s unjustified fear undermines his position of power as he is aptly armed to tackle anything other than a small, imperialist army. Crusoe has dreamt that a man would come running towards his hideout and that he would take him in and make him his servant. In reality, Crusoe’s rule falters in his indecision; he procrastinates, not immediately offering Friday safety but instead watching him flee murderous “savages”. A critic has said that “many white-dominated narratives”, such as Robinson Crusoe, “have shaped the cultures and beliefs of the colonized, placing them at the ultimate mercy of the colonizer.
This description exactly matches Defoe’s creation of Friday and Crusoe’s relationship and how Defoe depicts Crusoe’s advantageous use of it to restore his own power and arrogance. Defoe immediately places Crusoe in a position of power over Friday due to the life debt owed by Friday to his new master, similar to Xury’s, Caliban’s, and Ariel’s situations. When naming the slave, Crusoe chooses the name ‘Friday’ as a constant reminder of, “the day I sav’d his life”.
This comparatively effortless saving of Friday’s life on Crusoe’s behalf causes Friday to, “set my foot upon his head… swearing to be my slave for ever. ” This is not an image of service; it is undoubtedly one of slavery. More noticeably, Crusoe teaches Friday to call him “master” before teaching him any other English. Friday’s purpose it seems is as little more than reinforcement to Crusoe’s emerging, omnipotent rule. Crusoe’s intentions, however, are good, if conceited, as his reaction to Friday’s willingness to serve him is: “I took him up… nd encouraged him all I could. ”
The fact that Friday possesses a faith other than Christianity causes Crusoe to call him a “poor savage”. True, as Crusoe’s faith has increased, so has his quality of life, but he dismisses the, “brutish and barbarous”, savage’s own beliefs, referring to his kind as “blinded, ignorant pagans”. Many aspects of Crusoe, beside his language and religion are utterly alien to Friday, and Defoe presents these as instilling uncertainty and fear. In reaction to Crusoe shooting a goat with a musket, Friday, “came and kneeled down to me… o pray me not to kill him. ”
Crusoe, recognizing his fright, chooses to abuse this new found power by loading the gun, “and not let him see me do it”. Although Defoe describes the events with almost a farcical sense of humor, how it caused confused “astonishment”, in, “the poor creature”, the reader is more accustomed to Crusoe’s mannerisms and recognizes how he is exploiting his omnipotence simply for the ‘fun’ of terrifying his only human company. Correspondingly, Prospero also possesses knowledge different to the natives he encounters.
Similarly to Crusoe, he assumes this knowledge to be entirely superior and this creates distinctive parallels between Crusoe and Friday and Prospero and Caliban. Upon enslaving Caliban, Prospero teaches the spirit his language, in this sense, he strengthens his position as ruler, giving himself the means to converse with Caliban, leading to greater domination and control. It is an entirely selfish act, and Caliban describes his only benefit as the following: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t Is I know how to curse. ”
Crusoe and Prospero’s situations of rule are analogous, although, unlike Crusoe’s treatment of Friday, Prospero’s attitude towards Caliban is cruel. He frequently insults Caliban, calling him; “poisonous slave, got by the devil himself”. Soon after, he goes even further, calling him, “a devil”. Caliban, similar to the “negroes” and “savages” Defoe describes, is at the bottom of social hierarchy. Unlike Crusoe’s slaves, however, he is not human, and is therefore considered even lower by his master, functioning to represent native cultures suppressed by European Imperialist societies.
Prospero’s abuse of Caliban leads to extreme paranoia. The spirit, upon noticing Trinculo, believes he is a “spirit” sent to “torment” him. He lies close to the ground, terrified that Trinculo might find him, and when Trinculo begins attempting to speak to Caliban, he apologizes as he would to his ruler, Prospero: “Do not torment me prithee: I’ll bring my wood home faster. ” Further more, Caliban and Ariel, like the slaves found in Defoe’s novel, are natives and it is the white colonialists’ assumptions that they are masters over them.
Caliban’s claim that the island is his own, “by Sycorax my mother”, is met with insults from Prospero who calls him a, “lying slave”, showing 16th Century English society’s attitude to foreign slaves, that they are permitted to possess only what is granted to them by their colonizing masters. However, Prospero’s words and deeds as ruler over Caliban are not entirely unjustified. Shakespeare reveals that in the past, Caliban attempted to rape Miranda: “In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate The honour of my child”
Prospero’s insults and treatment of the spirit are consequence of horrific intentions in the past. Further more, Caliban is presented by Shakespeare as a naturally subservient character as shortly after meeting Stephano and Trinculo; he begs to serve them. As a native, he possesses greater knowledge than them, and yet he immediately begins to “kneel to him [Stephano]”, calling him a “god”. Caliban’s willingness to serve a new master shows extreme imprudence as Stephano could treat him far worse then his current ruler, Prospero – his rationality destroyed by Stephano’s “celestial liquor”.
Once again, Caliban is shown to be dominated by those possessing knowledge unknown, or property ‘alien’ to him. In this sense, Prospero’s rule of Caliban is not as imposed as it is sometimes shown, as Caliban naturally conforms to such dominance. Just as Crusoe’s role as “King” becomes one of “Master” with Defoe’s introduction of Friday; with the arrival of even more people, whom he also rescues from savages, his status of “King” is restored: “My island now peopled, and I thought myself very rich in subjects… how like a king I look’d”.
With his power, and, “undoubted right of dominion”, Crusoe has found supplementation to his haughtiness, and an almost capitalist existence – things worlds away from his previous despair upon being ship wrecked. Crusoe’s status on the island is elevated even further when he frees the English Captain from the mutineers. At first, the captain believes Crusoe to be a God-sent angel. Upon realizing his mistake, the Captain and his crew choose to serve Crusoe, recognizing him as an English sailor, and calling him “Governour”.
Once again, others feel obliged to serve Crusoe, his omnipotent rule relies on their willingness to repay the debt they owe. In contrast to Friday, his father, and the Spaniard, the Captain – as a leader of men himself – questions Crusoe’s authority, challenging Crusoe’s ‘ownership’ of members of the mutinous crew. Throughout all the situations in which Defoe places Crusoe as a ruler, no one has ever disagreed with him. It is the pair’s striking similarities which cause the Captain to challenge Crusoe’s rule.
They are both English, middle-class, merchant sailors, who, by no fault of their own, have found themselves in situations of grave peril. Unlike the “savages”, the Captain is not scared by Crusoe’s weapons. I would even go as far as to suggest that he recognizes Crusoe’s arrogant manner, as that of 17th Century England. Crusoe’s restrained anger does little to quell what could be seen as subtle rebellion against his rapidly fading omnipotence, as upon witnessing two prisoners begging the Captain to spare their lives, “the Captain pretended to have no power without” Crusoe.
The Captain’s authority over his mutinous crew has been restored whereas Crusoe’s power, over his people, has diminished. With the arrival of others on Prospero’s island, the ruler’s status, opposite to Crusoe’s, increases. Prospero is in control of everyone who happens to visit, intentionally or otherwise, and he acknowledges this, using it to shape the direction of the play towards his will and overarching aim. Shakespeare presents Prospero less as a character but more as a divine, inventive force behind the plot, the most obvious example of this being his forming of the Tempest.
Prospero’s role as a director blossoms towards the end of the play. Like Crusoe’s slaughter of the ‘savages’, he exercises judgment upon others, acting Godlike when he prevents Antonio and Sebastian from committing murder – he protects the innocent. In a reversal of power, Prospero is even in control of his mutinous brother Antonio. As Prospero explains to Miranda, Antonio’s actions, and “evil nature”, forced them to leave Milan, reducing Prospero to (in his own words) an, “incapable… poor man”. Conversely, away from Italy and ship-wrecked on his brother’s island, Antonio’s control is lessened to the same level as his fellow voyagers.
Even Alonso, the King of Naples, is powerless when plunged into Prospero’s magical domain, shown in his fearful words in Act II, scene iii; “O, it is monstrous: monstrous: Methought the bellows spoke, and told me of it, The winds did sing to me: and the thunder (That deep and dreadful organ pipe) pronounc’d The name of Prosper”. The elaborate and powerful language that Shakespeare uses to describe the King’s fear is reflected in Prospero’s own elaborateness as ruler and he simply, but terrifyingly, sums up his position of complete omnipotence in Act IV, scene i: “… t this hour lies at my mercy all mine enemies: Shortly shall my labors end, and thou Shalt have the air at freedom”.
Prospero is Shakespeare, in control of the characters’ lives and ultimately, the plot. In no other Shakespearean play is one single character given such omnipotent rule, and in the Epilogue, Prospero likens himself to a playwright, asking the audience for their applause of his creation: “Let your indulgence set me free. ” In conclusion, both Defoe’s character Robinson Crusoe and Shakespeare’s Prospero are at times, if not permanently, omnipotent rulers over their fellows.
Prospero differs from Crusoe in his conscious decision to end his rule whereas Crusoe cannot help but leave his “subjects” on his island to continue his legacy. Both their rules originate and increase due to possession of knowledge alien to the natives they come into contact with, and by saving lives in selfish acts of apparent chivalry. However, the protagonists’ acts seem more significant, questionable even, to modern audiences and readers, who view the characters as racist or presumptuous when they are merely adhering to the society into which they were created.