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Indigeneity and Climate Change in Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’: A Postcolonial Ecocritical Study

By Tarik Monowar


Climate change has emerged as one of the challenging crises threatening the world today. The study of its impact on the humans as well as the non-humans on earth has mostly been homogenic and ignorant of its diverse consequences on people based on class, caste, gender and other discriminations. Climatic environmental disasters such as flood, drought, wildfire and the like have multiple implications and caused multiple stresses in different sections of society. As per the statement given by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2014), “People who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalized are especially vulnerable to climate change and also to some adaptation and mitigation responses” (54). The IPCC 2014 has also reported, “This heightened vulnerability is rarely due to a single cause. Rather, it is the product of intersecting social processes that result in inequalities in socio-economic status and income, as well as in exposure. Such social processes include, for example, discrimination on the basis of gender, class, ethnicity, age, and (dis)ability” (54). Given the demographic and cultural conditions of the indigenous people, they are drawn at the forefront of the direct impacts of the climate and thereby remain most vulnerable to the calamities. In this regard, this article feels it germane to account for the problematics of the racial, economic, gender and demographic discriminations while discussing the climate crises of the world. Postcolonial ecocriticism, unlike the dominant European ecocritical paradigms, seeks to account for multicultural and cross cultural discourses and therefore aims at resisting and critiquing the homogenisation of spaces, a product of colonialism as well as global capitalism. Having recourse to the theoretical conceptions enunciated by the major postcolonial ecocritical thinkers and historians like Graham Huggan, Helen Tiffin, Upamanyu Pablo Mukherjee, Ramchandra Guha, Madhav Gadgil, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Amitav Ghosh, this article attempts to revisit Shakespeare’s The Tempest to decipher how the indigenous people respond to and resist the anthropogenic climate changes.

Graham Huggan (2004) in his “Greening Postcolonialism: Ecocritical Perspectives” argues how “ecological disruption is coextensive with damage to the social fabric and that environmental issues cannot be separated from questions of social justice and human rights” (704). For Upamanyu Pablo Mukherjee (2010), environment is a complex system “composed of the relationships between human and non-human agents or actors that define the history” of a country (5). This notion of environment as being the “symbiotic network of the entire human and non-human fields of existence” leads him to collapse the boundary walls between history and geography, and brings them under one umbrella term called ‘eco’’ (Mukherjee 19). Amitav Ghosh, who sees climate crisis also as a cultural crisis, believes that the people in underdeveloped countries in South Asia (and so in Africa and America) are more vulnerable to climatic disasters. He observes (2016), “The lack of a transitive connection between political mobilization, on the one hand, and global warming, on the other, is nowhere more evident than in the countries of South Asia, all of which are extraordinarily vulnerable to climate change” (Ghosh 168). Ramachandra Guha and J. Martinez-Alier in their Varieties of Environmentalism (1997) divides people into three basic categories according to their relation to the environment. First, the “ecosystem people” (Guha & Martinez-Alier 12) are those communities who depend very heavily on the natural resources of their own locality. Secondly, these communities constantly struggle with another category of people called “omnivores”, i.e., “individuals and groups with social power to capture, transform, and use natural resources from a much wider catchment area, sometimes, indeed the whole world” (Guha & Martinez-Alier 12). The third ecological class is called “ecological refugees” who are the “peasants turned slum dwellers who eke out a living in the cities on the livings of omnivore prosperity” (Guha & Martinez-Alier 12). These noions, especially Guha and Martinez-Alier’s three-tier categorization will be used as conceptual tools here in analyzing the implications of major discourses, symbols and motifs presented in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

The International Labour Organization (2017a) identifies six characteristics shared by indigenous peoples in the context of climate policies and impacts, which collectively distinguish themselves from any other group, thereby posing unique vulnerability. The first three characteristics talk about their climatic vulnerability, their dependence on nature for livelihood, and their entanglement with the ecosystem:

First, indigenous peoples are among the poorest of the poor, the stratum most vulnerable to climate change. Second, they depend on renewable natural resources most at risk to climate variability and extremes for their economic activities and livelihoods. Third, they live in geographical regions and ecosystems that are most exposed to the impacts of climate change, while also sharing a complex cultural relationship with such ecosystems. (7)

The next three features explain how the first three characteristics lead to further complications in their lives such as social and economic vulnerabilities, marginalization and even gender inequality:

Fourth, high levels of exposure and vulnerability to climate change force indigenous peoples to migrate, which in most cases is not a solution and can instead exacerbate social and economic vulnerabilities. Fifth, gender inequality, a key factor in the deprivation suffered by indigenous women, is magnified by climate change. Sixth, and lastly, many indigenous communities continue to face exclusion from decision-making processes, often lacking recognition and institutional support. This limits their access to remedies, increases their vulnerability to climate change, undermines their ability to mitigate and adapt to climate change, and consequently poses a threat to the advances made in securing their rights (ILO 2017a  7).

Prospero, the Omnivore and Geological Agent

In The Tempest, Prospero represents the colonial master who uses his power and black magic to coerce both the climate especially the weather and the indigenous people into behaving in the ways he wants. As per Ramachandra Guha’s categorization he belongs among the “omnivores” who are the “individuals and groups with social power to capture, transform, and use natural resources from a much wider catchment area, sometimes, indeed the whole world” (Guha & Martinez-Alier 12). Prospero controls the climate specially the weather of the sea and the island to serve anthropogenic interest and thereby he changes the fundamental features of the earth and the ecosystem. In this regard, following Dipesh Chakrabarty’s arguments, Prospero also represents the emerging human transformations into “geological force” as Chakrabarty asserts in his seminal essay, “The Climate of History: Four Theses” (2018) that “humans now wield a geological force” changing the most basic physical processes of the earth (171). His arrogant and ecophobic attitude and activities throughout the play reflects how the omnivores or the privileged humans have arbitrarily manipulated the environment as well as the underprivileged aboriginals in various ways. The privileged class has always looked upon natural resources as well as other humans as their slaves which is clearly reflected as Prospero addresses Ariel, the embodiment of air and water, as “Thou my slave”(1.2.270) and coercively orders him to act as he wants. In a similar way, Prospero introduces Caliban, the native, as his slave who is supposed to strictly follow his orders.


                           We’ll visit Caliban, my slave, who never
Yields us kind answers.1.2.308-09

Prospero’s aggressive behavior is reflexive of human attitude towards the natives, the underprivileged who are taken for granted as slaves. Prospero’s order and curse go side by side:


                             We cannot miss him; he does make our fire,
Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices
That profit us. –What ho, slave! Caliban,    1.2.311-14



                            For this, be sure, tonight thou shalt have cramps,
Side-stitches, that shall pen thy breathe up; urchins
Shall forth at vast of night that they may work
All exercise on thee; thou shalt be pinched
As thick as honeycomb, each pinch more stinging
Than bees that that made ‘em. 1.2.326-31.

Prospero’s ecophobic attitude comprised of strong abhorrence for both natural environment and the indigenous people though these environmental as well as indigenous human resources were of utmost service to him. A dominant section of humans equates colonialism of natives and of newly explored lands/ natural resources and treats them as taken for granted for service and enslavement.


                    Thou most lying slave,
Whom stripes may move, not kindness; I have used thee
(Filth as thou art) with human care and lodged thee.1.2. 345-47



                   If thou neglect’st or dost unwillingly
What I command, I’ll rack thee with old cramps
Fill all thy bones with aches, make thee roar,
That beasts shall tremble at thy din.1.2. 269-372 

Caliban, the Indigenous Man, and the Ecosystem People

Caliban is a slave to Prospero and is the original inhabitant of the island that Prospero occupied. Caliban along with his mother Sycorax represents the indigenous people. In Guha and Martinez-Alier’s theorization, Caliban represents the “ecosystem people” who depend heavily on the natural resources of their locality for their livelihood. In the play, Caliban’s reaction to Prospero’s aggressive behavior reflects how the indigenous people across the world have responded to the violent acts of control and manipulation by the geological agents aggravating climate change. At the master-like command of Prospero, Caliban resists in his own way asserting himself for his own identity as his right:

                  CALIBAN.  I must eat my dinner.
This island’s mine by Sycorax, my mother,
Which thou tak’st from me. When thou cam’st first
Thou strok’st me and made much of me; wouldst give me
Water with berries in’t, and teach me how
To name the bigger light and how the less.1.2. 331-36


                         For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king; and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o’th’ island. 1.2. 341-44

Caliban is a symbol of indigenous people whose identity, history, and culture are being taken away by the white colonization. The setting of the island where Caliban and his mother live takes place somewhere in the Mediterranean. But the non-specificity of the location caters to the endless possibilities for the readers. This island can be anywhere in the world, taken over and ruled by the colonial masters. The aboriginals of any island having been abducted by the white colonizing forces are left with no other choice but to serve their colonizers as slaves. This island is used as a tool with a view to exposing the imperialistic attitude of colonialism. It highlights the significance of colonialism and its impact on the indigenous people and on the earth. Language plays a crucial role here. The language that the natives are taught by the colonial masters becomes itself a tool of resistance for them. Caliban in the play learns the language taught by Prospero, but he also uses the same language to register his protest against his colonial master:


                                    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. 1.2.364-66


Written at the crossroads of pastoral tradition and the wide forthcoming technological prospects, Shakespeare’s The Tempest sheds light on the intermingled relationship between climate change and indigenous culture and values. Through the complex patterns of myth, magic, symbols and motifs, Shakespeare shows how indigenous culture, language, and history across the world are alienated and marginalized to the point of extinction along with mindless manipulation and controlling of environmental resources. Historians and climatologists have recently earmarked the post-Industrial and post-Enlightenment era as the beginning of the Anthropocene. But Shakespeare’s play in the Tudor England had foregrounded the possibility of an impending apocalyptic dystopia when humans would no longer remain simply biological agents; rather, they, by virtue of their capacity to cause massive climatic changes, would soon turn into geological force. Despite the fact that the indigenous values are dedicated to the nurturing of the environment and eco-friendly with the planetary system, it is the aboriginal people who are most affected by the human induced climatic disasters. Therefore, as the play seems to suggest, a rigorous revisiting to the indigenous values which can be the alternative modernity capable of promoting sustainable development remains the most effective possible way at the moment to save the earth and the lives on it from an unimaginable apocalypse. This article is limited mainly to the literary and theoretical representations of the global scenario of colonization and its repercussions, and does not account for the particularized nuances and complexities of indegeneity in terms of time and space. However, this brief work does open up spaces for furthering the research work based on a specific location in a specific period of time in order to make a detour of the once-colonised lands across the world. Therefore, this article triggers the following questions:  How does the complex system of network called environment work in a postcolonial indigenous community? How do they differ inter-temporally and inter-spatially among them?  How do their social/cultural values cater to the ecofriendly nature of human cohabitation with the environment capable of sustainable development? And these questions multiply in line with the depth and specificity of further research works.

Painting: Edgar Piel

Works Cited

Chakrabarty, D. (2018). The Crises of Civilization: Exploring Global and Planetary            Histories. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Ghosh, A. (2016). The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Gurgaon, Haryana: Penguin.

Guha, R., and Martinez-Alier, J. (1997). Varieties of Environmentalism: Essays North and South. London: Earthscan.

Huggan,G.(2004).”Greening” Postcolonialism:Ecocritical Perspectives. Modern Fiction        Studies,50(3),701-733.

International Labour Office (ILO). (2017). Indigenous peoples and climate change: From victims to change agents through decentwork, 2017(a), Geneva, Switzerland.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (2014). Climate change 2014: Synthesis report, (R.K. Pachauri, and L.A. Meyer Eds): Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report, Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of theIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,  Geneva, Switzerland.

Mukherjee, U. P. (2010).  Postcolonial Environments:Nature,Culture and the                 Contemporary Indian Novel in English. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Shakespeare, W. (2011). The Tempest (Arden ed.). London: Bloomsbury.

Tarik Monowar, Assistant Professor, Department of English, Mirik College, University of North Bengal, India,


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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