The Tempest vs. Robinson Crusoe- The Ambivalence of Mastery

“Mastery” is a major theme to be discussed in both the novel Robinson Crusoe and the play The Tempest. The term mastery used here does not only refer to all the forms of slavery and servitude encountered in both works but the mastery of man- namely Prospero and Crusoe- over nature, or the island. In both works, man is cast away to wild and uncivilized islands and in both works man is able to exert superiority over the wilderness and mastery over nature. It is worth noting however that unlike Robinson Crusoe, Prospero was not left to undertake the task alone. Even still, both men manage to survive in their desolation and even thrive and live very comfortable lives.

A more negative and complex view of the the theme of mastery applies to the unfair relationships between people in both of the works. In the play The Tempest Prospero takes Caliban as his slave and treats him poorly, telling the reader it is because he attempted to rape  his daughter. Caliban on the other hand says he only tried to rape Prospero’s daughter after he was treated unfairly by Prospero, leaving the reader not knowing who to believe. Furthermore, Prospero has a sort of master-slave relationship with Ariel in return for Prosper’s freeing him from the witch Sycorax. These relationships mirror that of the one between Robinson Crusoe and Friday, who becomes his slave after Crusoe saves him from being eaten by his captors. Much like the relationship between Prospero and Caliban, Crusoe never comes to think of Friday as an equal and often refers to him as “creature”. Crusoe at first is puzzled as to how someone so ‘savage’ can have the same qualities-even better- than good Christians since Friday is so loyal and kind to him. He wonders how God can keep him from the light of His knowledge but immediately dismisses this when he states “… we did not know by what light and law these [the savages] should be condemned … but that if these creatures were all sentenced to absence of Himself it was on account of sinning against the light….” (Defoe, 153-154). In these lines Crusoe dismisses the savages as equals reasoning that they do not know the light of God because God has not willed it so because of their previous sins. Hence, because of these sins they can not be as worthy as the white man. Crusoe then takes it upon himself to “instruct savingly this poor ignorant creature, to receive the light of the knowledge of God in Christ” (Defoe, 161).

In this way both texts show the ambivalence of what is mastery and how it can be both a victory (man dominating over the island) and a shortcoming (unfair relationships between men) of mankind.

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One response to “The Tempest vs. Robinson Crusoe- The Ambivalence of Mastery

  1. I did not originally think of the theme of mastery in the sense of mastering both the island and it’s nature, but now I can really see that. Although Crusoe and Prospero master their island in completely different ways, they have still both found ways to overcome nature and survive on the island. In Crusoe’s case, he works hard every day to overcome the troubles that the island presents. He plants his own crops, builds his own shelter, and overall has to do a lot to protect himself and ensure his survival. However, although Prospero does master the island, like you mentioned, he does not do it without the help of Caliban and Ariel. Crusoe mastered the island all on his own. If it wasn’t for Caliban’s knowledge of the island and Ariel’s magic, Prospero would have had more difficulty in mastering the island in the way that he did. In fact, if it wasn’t for Miranda being there with him, he might have given up all together.

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