Comparing “Robinson Crusoe” and “The Tempest” – SLAVERY

William Shakespeare and Daniel Defoe both center their stories, in part, on slavery. It is very interesting to see how similarly they incorporate such a theme, especially how differently they do so, because over time much has been said on the term “slavery” and has been used in a multitude of fashions. Indeed, it is with this reasoning that an individual can see the different and similar ways slavery can be perceived in works of fiction. With this, the way Shakespeare uses slavery in The Tempest and the way Defoe uses slavery in Robinson Crusoe share many more differences than they share similarities.

In The Tempest, King Alonso, Stephano, Trinculo, and everyone else on the island are unknowingly, with the help of Ariel, under Prospero’s control. The control Prospero has over the group on the island has to do with being mesmerized and tricked into believing they are in control of themselves. His motivation is revenge, a very immoral stance. In Robinson Crusoe, however, Crusoe found comfort in the Word of God, and has thus kept himself from making ill-tempered, rash decisions (ex. killing the barbarians on his island). Unlike Prospero, who has control over everyone on the island, Crusoe must hide at times in order to avoid violent confrontations with foreigners, or “savages”.

In his firm faith in God, Crusoe does not want to hurt anyone, but the idea of a partner on the island appeals to him so much that it drives him to spill blood on behalf of saving “Friday”.  Prospero did something similar, though with negative intent. Although Prospero and Crusoe both state that they wish to have a slave to do their biddings, Prospero wanted to truly put that individual to labor for his venomous plans. Prospero planned the execution of his vindictive scheme over the past 12 years to quench his thirst for revenge, not companionship. Crusoe simply wanted a conversation partner, in addition to someone who would help him do work around the island and possibly help him escape.

Consider the slaves and their relationships with their masters. In the grand scheme of the story, Ariel is Prospero’s ultimate slave, and wishes to obtain her freedom and leave Prospero as soon as possible. Friday, however, who is Crusoe’s “slave”, but is treated as a companion (he is referred to several times as “my man”), wishes to stay by his side no matter what. This is particularly evident when Friday shows the depth of his affection for Crusoe, his master, when Friday is told to get in the boat they made together so that he may return to his homeland, to which he replied “What you send Friday away for? Take kill Friday, no send Friday away” (Defoe 163). Though “slave” holds a negative connotation, Friday finds a greater satisfaction in it than what people believe it should hold, whereas Ariel and Caliban loathe Prospero and wish to be rid of his presence.

Caliban, in The Tempest, appears to be everyone’s slave in that he is a monster, in a class all his own beneath them. Despite lack of territory, Alonso, Stephano, and everyone else of higher social standing on the island, enforce their superiority upon Caliban by putting him to do manual labor for them.

Though this is somewhat similar to Friday, it would seem Friday and Caliban are both taught the native language, but both with completely different purposes. Caliban was not taught to speak as much as he was taught to understand orders and respond accordingly. Friday was taught to speak so that Crusoe would have someone to converse with, but who would also carry out orders (this was secondary). These two characters completely transform the way slavery is perceived in both stories.

Though slavery holds, more or less, the same image for most people, it can be seen how some individuals may choose to perceive it otherwise. In The Tempest, Shakespeare uses slavery to depict the forced assistance of carrying out a plan of bad intentions – otherwise known as the “dirty work” – and in Robinson Crusoe, Defoe depicts slavery as an individual with the freedom to act in their choosing (but with consequence), but not necessarily condemned to the petty work of an immoral creature. Despite the incredibly similar setting and ideas of the centuries in which they were written, Defoe and Shakespeare project almost completely different images of slavery and their primarily perceived form.

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2 responses to “Comparing “Robinson Crusoe” and “The Tempest” – SLAVERY

  1. I really like the way you took the issue of slavery of pointed out how there are different forms of slavery, as seen in The Tempest and in Robinson Crusoe. Previously I have never considered that slavery can vary, I had always just looked at is the person’s complete loss of freedom. Further, I liked how you pointed out that Prospero’s control was done without the others knowing, as opposed to Crusoe whom made it very apparent to Friday, that he was indeed the master of him. You mention, “Crusoe simply wanted a conversation partner”, I am not sure if I agree with this entirely. I think is what important that you noted how the way the slavery was carried out, truly did shape the tone of the story.

  2. We could read “Robinson Crusoe” and the portrayal of Friday’s slavery as a way to soften the harshness of slavery for white readers of the novel. If we all know that slavery is immoral, and there are instances where we can see that even Crusoe (or the author) knows that slavery is not a good thing (to say the least), the treatment of Friday’s enslavement is a bit suspect. By writing/creating Friday as a happy slave, the (white) author can control how bad slavery really is. A way to think about it differently: “Robinson Crusoe” was written by Daniel Defoe, who may share similar feelings with his main character Crusoe, so what if “Robinson Crusoe” had been written from Friday’s perspective?

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