When colonial and postcolonial perspectives are applied to literature, it is usual that a political view of some kind is taken. This is natural; colonialism itself is based on power conflicts, so degrees of authority and subjugation are important. At the same time, and particularly in regard to literature, other forces are in play and because of the simple reality that any human conflict, ongoing for a time, generates change and some mutual influence. It is in fact not surprising that literature would focus on such changes or hybrid processes, because the most interesting and complex drama is created by them. Two very different works represent this hybridity, and the following explores how the Epic of Gilgamesh and The Tempest each reveals the tensions, potentials, and interactive influences in play when human beings exert control over other beings, and how hybrid identities are created in the process.
That hybridity is strongly linked to identity is seen in Gilgamesh, as well as other ways in which impositions of authority create evolving, and hybrid, realities. Regarding the latter,
hybridity underscores a great deal of Gilgamesh, which is ironic given how the ancient poem recounts worlds that are savage and untamed. The great warrior king is virtually poised to have impact and authority, but the colonial element exists in the form of Enkidu. Once the bond is established between the two gods/men, their power is such that they may transform the literal world. For example, when Enkidu and Gilgamesh destroy Humbaba, the demon of the forest, the natural landscape is destroyed as well. It is reasonable to then see this as a kind of statement, one in which civilized or mighty men conquer the natural and subjugate it to their will (Davis 146). There is as well the sense in the epic that the Sumerian culture was confronting, in literature, its own conflict with altering or civilizing the world and taking on mastery of the natural. Something of this conflict, in fact, exists within the single identity of Gilgamesh. He serves the people as king: “In Uruk he built walls, a great rampart, and the temple of blessed Eanna for the god of the firmament Anu” (Gilgamesh, I). At the same time, however, he abuses the women and is merciless with the men. He is then a hybrid in himself, of the “colonial” effect of kingship contrasted with the primitive.
It is also ironic, moreover, that Enkidu, the wild man, comes to have a civilizing effect on Gilgamesh. This union between the two is highly representative of how great influences, alternately savage and noble, create hybrids of those exchanging the influence. Both Enkidu and Gilgamesh feel a deep need for one another even before they meet, and that this is the beginning of the epic is important; it establishes that a hybrid identity is not necessarily a consequence of random exercise of power, but may be demanded by the lacks within those coming together as opposite forces. Early in the tale, Enkidu, made into a man himself, has an enormous effect on Gilgamesh and softens the king’s brutality: “’But do not abuse this power, deal justly with your servants in the palace, deal justly before Shamash’” (Gilgamesh, I). What is most critical here is that this effect could not be achieved unless Gilgamesh did not have an urgent need to change within himself; the love between the two is reflective of this extremely powerful need in both, as the savage and the civilized come together in both. The poem is of course greatly symbolic and the era primitive, yet the core of the epic seems to lie in how, within men, identities must change because the conflicting natures of the savage and the civilized require one another.
Not unexpectedly, the Renaissance work of Shakespeare more directly addresses the force of colonialism as such, even as The Tempest is very much an allegory. The play itself is colonial in its most basic elements; Prospero asserts absolute rule over the strange and savage island, and by implied right of his great learning and status. Conversely, Caliban represents the untamed native, and the relationship between the two is marked by intense bitterness and mutual resentment. It is important that Caliban’s name is almost a perfect anagram for “cannibal,” which in turn derives from the Latin canis, for dog (Loomba 74), because the identity is then so firmly established. Echoing the outrage of a European “benefactor,” Prospero’s disgust with Caliban is expressed in terms of the advantages he has brought to Caliban: “I pitied thee,/ Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour/ One thing or another” (I, ii). In the same exchange, however, and importantly, Caliban is equally contemptuous of the greater power and its influences: “You taught me language; and my profit on’t/ Is, I know how to curse” (I, ii). Typical of Shakespeare, there are multiple meanings here but what dominates is an individual’s instinctive reflex to resist what will change their nature. Caliban’s unwillingness to conform to the model of civilization is an ongoing form of resistance (Innes 41), but this in itself reflects a hybrid quality or identity. This “savage” is no savage within his natural world but, under Prospero’s control, he has been forced to adapt and develop cunning (Ashcroft 94). That Caliban so resents Prospero’s influence is unseen by Prospero, who can only judge others by the standards he values. There is as well the strong element that, as the play unfolds, both individuals undergo changes of identity triggered to some extent by their anger.
Also, colonialism in its most pure sense impacts on all within the play, and it is clear that it forges identity in new ways. In others, however, the impact is more subtle, as in the case of Miranda. She is as much a victim of colonialism as Ariel or Caliban, in fact, because her isolated world is a consequence of her father’s actions. This allows for an interesting and personal evolution in the girl as her nature, which may be seen as reflecting the primal and natural, remains strong even under the immense influence of Prospero. Miranda, upon encountering Ferdinand, reveals how remarkably ignorant she is of humanity in general: “Nor have I seen/ More that I may call men than you, good friend,/ And my dear father” (III, i). Prospero’s love for, and control of, her is absolute, but it is interesting that the years on the island have not altered her character, except in terms of her being more true to the innermost reality of herself, which is loving. It is then arguable that, under Prospero’s constant supervision, the natural will still assert itself and no power can change this. Miranda’s identity then becomes hybrid because this force within her grows in proportion to the “colonial” circumstances. More significantly, Prospero himself undergoes a radical change of identity because all his years of bitterness and rule of the island have brought him to an understanding regarding power itself. This hybridity is no simple; only after being confronted with the many effects of his authority, as well as by the determination of the “natives,” does he realize that such control is ultimately meaningless and discard his power: “Go release them, Ariel:/ My charms I’ll break, their senses I’ll restore,/ And they shall be themselves” (V, i). It has long been debated if Shakespeare’s intent was to warn England of the injustice of imperialism, but what is clear is that he perceives colonialism as an exercise in futility. His characters in The Tempest undergo changes of identity, but all go to embracing the rights of all to live as their natures direct, and the hybridity then reinforces this.
It is difficult at best to employ only one facet of colonialism to any relevant work of literature, and because any such exertion of power inevitably translates to a range of effects. One of these effects, however, deserves attention, and because the conflict at the heart of colonial activity will trigger reactions changing individual identity. In Gilgamesh, there is the strangely urgent need for both heroes to transform one another within the broader context of reshaping the world; in The Tempest, the colonial force of Prospero generates human change through resistance, the emergence of a stronger and natural character, and his own understanding. Consequently, the Epic of Gilgamesh and The Tempest reveal the conflicts, potentials, and interactive influences inevitable when human beings exercise control over other beings, and how hybrid identities are created in this process.
- Ashcroft, Bill. On Post-Colonial Futures: Transformations of a Colonial Culture. New York: Continuum, 2001. Print.
- Davis, Geoffrey V. (Ed). Towards a Transcultural Future: Literature and Society in a ‘Post’- colonial World, Vol. I. New York: Rodopi, 2004. Print.
- Innes, C. L. The Cambridge Introduction to Postcolonial Literatures in English. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Print.
- Loomba, Ania. Colonialism-postcolonialism. New York: Psychology Press, 1998. Print.
- Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. MIT. 2016. Web. 21 Jan. 2016.
- The Epic of Gilgamesh. Assyrian International News Agency. 2015. Web. 21 Jan. 2016.