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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41.2 (2001) 335-355

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The Discourse of Prayer in The Tempest

Tom McAlindon

Ferdinand. My language! Heavens!


Caliban. You taught me language, and my profit on't
Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!



Few critics today would attach special significance to Ferdinand's mildly pious little exclamation. 1 For many, however, Caliban's outburst is highly significant, and its meaning more or less fixed. They see it as the most important utterance in a play whose dominant discourse seeks to euphemize colonialist oppression, yet fails to suppress contradiction. The protest of reality itself, the curse produces a moment of absolute moral victory for the enslaved native of the island and is so potent in its devastating justness that it casts a shadow over the final scene, determining, in effect, our overall conception of the play.

In some of the more persuasive colonialist interpretations, Caliban's curse on his language teacher is taken as proof that language functions in the play in exact accord with the alleged pronouncement of the bishop of Avila in 1492: "Language is the [End Page 335] perfect instrument of empire." 2 Such readings, however, do not consider the play's many other allusions to language and how they might strengthen or weaken the colonialist interpretation of Caliban's curse. These allusions function as part of a specific discourse: the language of prayer; it is to this context, I believe, that Caliban's curse (like Ferdinand's pious exclamation) belongs, and from which we must derive its significance. The discourse of prayer, it must be said, is fairly conspicuous in all the romances: it is interinvolved with their providentialist ideology, their special fondness for the numinous, and an idealist mode of characterization that habitually associates noble characters (the heroines especially) with sainthood and divinity. But, although important in this context, the discourse of prayer as used in Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale differs considerably from its role in The Tempest, where it is distinguished by its paradoxical and dialectical character and its central involvement in the play's meanings. In fact, a more illuminating comparison for The Tempest would be with the contribution made by the discourse of prayer to the dramatic character and thematic bias of King Lear. 3

Through analysis of the way in which prayer functions in The Tempest I hope to challenge not only the claim that language functions on the island as a colonialist tool but also the notion of an essentially egoistic and tyrannical Prospero and a finally unreconciled Caliban; no less controversially, I would also hope to show that instead of legitimizing an intrinsically oppressive hierarchical order, the play, while not dispensing with the hierarchical model of society, advances a leveling, horizontal ethic of interdependence and reciprocity. Although my method is primarily one of close reading, it will entail reference to the way in which the text encodes certain aspects of early modern culture hitherto ignored by critics, and is, in that sense, firmly historicist. Nevertheless, I shall be implicitly endorsing humanist conceptions of The Tempest as a work that is intentionally and effectively of transhistorical as well as contemporary significance. Moreover, although I would not deny that it is deeply engaged with problems of power, authority, and subjectification, my extratextual move will not be toward political but rather toward religious, affective, and rhetorical aspects of Tudor and Jacobean culture. Since politics and religion were so intimately related in the period, this distinction might seem problematic, but I do not accept the assumption that religion should be understood solely in terms of power. [End Page 336]


I shall begin by noting that the root context of Caliban's curse is a conceptual antithesis that runs throughout The Tempest, an antithesis in which the other term is blessing. Curse and blessing are intimately related and unstable opposites, since each is a form of prayer, and since in religious and...


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