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Terrritories and Identities

Checking IDs in The Tempest

Attester l'identité dans La Tempête
Shankar Raman
p. 27-41


This essay explores the problem of identification in Shakespeare’s The Tempest in terms of the pressures on identifying oneself in an increasing global world. It suggests that foreign policy in the age of Shakespeare raises with some insistence the issue of establishing who one is and who one’s interlocutors are, and thus brings under scrutiny the myriad ways—images, actions, signs, clothing, names, corporeal marks, seals—that early modern selves sought to authenticate themselves. The pressure on identification in a play centrally concerned with the transgression and policing of boundaries—be they sexual, cultural, social, or proto-national—is itself a stamp of an historical period in which diplomacy was emerging, in Joanna Craigwood’s phrase, as “a representative art.” Against this ideal, though, I stress instead the instability of the foreign encounter, showing how it unsettles the rhetorical, poetic and dramatic ideals behind early modern diplomatic theory.

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1Let me begin with a curious story recounted in Who Are You?, Valentin Groebner’s fascinating book on the problem of identification in early modern Europe:

In April 1500, Duke Ludovico il Moro of Milan was under siege in Navarra by an overwhelming French army following several failed attempts to defend the city and lacking adequate supplies and means of defense. His situation was desperate, and his Swiss mercenaries had entered into negotiations with the French behind his back. It was agreed that if they handed over the duke, they would be granted safe conduct in return. Yet Ludovico got wind of the plans. Some of his last remaining stalwarts disguised him, and he joined the ranks of the Swiss, who had begun leaving the fortress. He nearly succeeded in escaping, and he managed to remain undetected despite an intense search. As Swiss soldiers later reported […] the duke had stood […] “in the third row”: he hid his long hair, worn according to the courtly fashion of the day, under a cap and wore Swiss clothes […] He managed to pass the first French clerks incognito. Eventually, he was not identified by the victorious besiegers through whose lines the Swiss troops had retreated, but by one of his own Swiss mercenaries. It was not until he was forced to step out of the row of soldiers and stripped of his Swiss jerkin and cap that the French and Milanese recognized Ludovico, standing there with his long hair and without foreign clothing. (Groebner, 2007: 81-2)

  • 1  All citations to Shakespeare’s play are to the Signet Classic edition of The Tempest, ed. Robert L (...)

No Gonzalo here to save the erstwhile Duke of Milan; rather, he is betrayed by his own bought man, one of those “creatures that were mine” now “new created […] Or else new formed” (1.2.82ff)1—as Prospero would complain of his own extirpation—to enable Ludovico’s capture. This anecdote is not, of course, connected to Shakespeare’s play other than contingently—and indeed in part through the coincidence of my encountering a tale about another ousted Milanese duke. But it nonetheless offers a useful entry point, not least by reminding us of the fluctuating conflicts and alliances among Italian city-states—as well as among these and other “foreign” powers (such as the French or the Spanish, to say nothing of roving mercenaries)—that lie behind The Tempest’s own fixation on usurpation, rebellion, and restoration.

2For it has often been observed that the verbal exchanges in the play’s tempestuous opening offer a foretaste of the insurrections, small and large, which ripple all along the play. The elemental forces of the storm exceed—though only apparently, as we soon see—all human control: “What cares these roarers for the name of king?” (1.1.16-17). But the failure of “authority” to “command these elements to silence and work the peace of the present” (see 1.1.21-24) extends to the Boatswain as well, whose disdain for social rank during the present crisis becomes, ironically, the only guarantee of salvation for those superiors whose impotence he derides. It is because the Boatswain’s insurbodination earmarks him for the gallows—and thus “warrant[s]” him against drowning (1.1.47)—that Gonzalo can take hope from the postponement of the sailor’s demise, “mak[ing] the rope of his destiny [their] cable” (1.1.33-34).

3Gonzalo’s choice of the juridically-tinged verb “warrant,” to describe the surety unwittingly provided by the Boatswain, offers yet another kind of rope to lead us through the play. It is the very word that Miranda will echo shortly when she describes her dim memories of “the four or five women once that attended [her]” as a “dream” rather “than an assurance / That [her] remembrance warrants” (1.2.45-46). In these instances, the use of legal discourse signals the desire or need for a kind of water-tight certainty (if I may be excused the pun) that cannot be found either on the tempest-tossed vessel or by peering into “the dark backward and abyss of time” (1.2.30), as Prospero bids Miranda do. What is demanded of memory here—and what Gonzalo’s vision of the Boatswain’s future equally seeks—is a guarantee for the self. Prospero introduces Miranda to us as “my daughter, who / Art ignorant of what thou art,” and memory’s role is in part to bring her to a knowledge of herself—which means, above all, knowing who has fathered her: “naught knowing,” he continues, “Of whence I am, nor that I am more better, / Than Prospero, master of a full poor cell, / And thy no greater father” (1.2.17ff).

4But the tribulations of Ludovico, Duke of Milan, in dissimulating his identity also signal the fundamental problem that here confronts our Duke, as he seeks, conversely, to reveal himself: upon what material mechanisms must one depend in order to display (or conceal) who one is? If the borrowed Swiss accoutrements hide the true Ludovico, they do so by identifying him instead, in French eyes, as other than himself. By contrast, his hair, whose “courtly fashion” marks him as different from the Swiss mercenaries, must remain concealed if he is to avoid capture. As Groebner remarks, Ludovico’s experience “reveals that articles of clothing served to identify and camouflage the person at one and the same time. Discussions of dress and attire amounted to discussions of deception” (Groebner, 2007: 82).

5In The Tempest, too, identifying himself to Miranda turns out to be no simple matter for the exiled Duke, for it only begs the further question of who Prospero in fact is. Indeed, the attempt at clarification breeds confusion instead.

Prospero: Twelve year since, Miranda, twelve year since,
Thy father was the Duke of Milan, and
A prince of power.
Miranda: Sir, are you not my father?
Prospero: Thy mother was a piece of virtue, and
She said thou wast my daughter, and thy father
Was Duke of Milan, and his only heir
And princess, no worse issued. (1.2.53-59)

  • 2  This does not mean, however, that a mother’s word suffices. When his right to rule is challenged b (...)

Unable, unsurprisingly, to identify her father with the puissant Duke he names, Miranda can only doubt his identity (and thus his paternity), forcing Prospero into an elaborate joke that depends upon an absent mother to vouchsafe both identity and paternity—a joke that Miranda will wittily echo later when, remarking upon the difference between her father and his treacherous brother Antonio, she absolves her grandmother of any fault: “I should sin / To think but nobly of my grandmother. / Good wombs have born bad sons” (1.2.118-20). It is a wise mother indeed who knows her son (or daughter) and upon that wisdom Prospero depends—even (or especially) when the mother is absent.2

6If we briefly glance ahead to the play’s conclusion, we see that even Gonzalo’s pleasure at the unexpected turn of events—which now compensate for the crimes of the past—cannot but rehearse the basic division that restoration has to overcome: “Was Milan thrust from Milan, that his issue / Should become kings of Naples?” (5.1.205-06). The councillor’s providential reading of the history leading to this point cannot avoid registering a dehiscence within identity, suturing the individual to his social identity by means of the place-name, Milan, that marks both. In fact, Gonzalo’s exultation recalls (even as it brackets) the difficulty that Prospero has had convincing everyone of who he is, despite having them all in his power. Having just addressed the “charmed” Italian noblemen in the guise of a magus, Prospero now faces the challenge of establishing that magician and Duke are one and the same. Himself responsible for “the ignorant fumes that mantle / Their clearer reason” (5.1.67-68), Prospero is forced to admit that “Not one of them / That yet looks on me, or would know me” (5.1.82-83). And so, he calls on Ariel to fetch his hat and rapier, before “uncas[ing] himself to “present” himself instead “[a]s I was sometime Milan” (5.1.85ff).

7But neither the change in clothing nor his “embrac[ing] the body” of the King seems to have the desired effect. Alonso certainly remains in doubt: “Whe’er thou be’st he or no, / Or some enchanted trifle to abuse me, / As late I have been, I not know” (5.1.111-13). And even Gonzalo does not immediately offer confirmation when Prospero in turn “embrace[s] thine age,” demurring, “Whether this be / Or be not, I’ll not swear” (5.1.121ff). For all his evident power, Prospero’s own identity is not his to control; to be all that he wants to be, he needs recognition by others—and that consent cannot be entirely extorted (as Antonio’s pointed silence shows).

  • 3  “’Tis new to thee,” Prospero replies—but in a fundamental sense, the response applies as much to h (...)

8In what follows I draw on the work of such critics as Groebner and Timothy Hampton to suggest that foreign policy in the age of Shakespeare raises with some virulence the issue of establishing who one is and who one’s interlocutors are, and thus brings under scrutiny the myriad ways—through images, actions, signs, clothing, names, corporeal marks, seals, to name but a few—that early modern selves sought to authenticate themselves. The pressure on identification in a play centrally concerned with the policing and transgression of boundaries—be they proto-national, cultural, social or sexual—expresses the stamp of an historical period in which diplomacy was emerging, in Joanna Craigwood’s words, as “a representative art.” She continues: as “[m]edieval diplomatic messengers gradually gave way to ambassadors acting in the interests of sovereign states,” an emergent “understanding of the ambassador as a faithful and persuasive representative of his sovereign in word and deed, placed diplomatic theory in conversation with theories of rhetorical, poetic and dramatic representation” (Craigwood, 2011: 82). But whereas Craigwood sketches an idealised “protestant platonic paradigm” (Craigwood, 2011: 96) in which the diplomatic arts and Sidneyan poesis converge through their mutual reliance on the models of Aristotelian mimesis, I want to stress instead the instability of foreign encounters, to reveal the pressures rebounding upon the self as the consequence of the fact that it lives, ineluctably, in a world of others: “O brave new world / That hath such people in’t!” (5.1.183-84).3


9Let us return to the two embraces in The Tempest’s closing scene. I have suggested above that they signal a hiccup in Prospero’s restoration of himself to himself as he sometime was. However, it was also worth stressing the difference between these corporeal joinings. In embracing Alonso, Prospero explains that he does so “for more assurance that a living prince / Does now speak to thee” (5.1.108ff), an emphasis which suggests that the gesture draws on existing protocols governing the meeting of foreign dignitaries. In other words, the embrace assures Alonso not only that Prospero is alive, but also that his is a body in which early modern conventions of diplomatic encounter have been ingrained; Prospero is, in short, “a living prince,” whose social status is thus roughly equivalent to Alonso’s own. That claim is echoed in the manner of Prospero’s welcome—“This cell’s my court. Here have I few attendants / And subjects none abroad” (5.1.166-67)—wherein the difference between the size of their retinues nonetheless relies on their both being individuals who command retinues to begin with.

10But Prospero’s attempt to authenticate himself through these rituals necessarily remains fraught with uncertainty, for such embraces are usually confirmations or acknowledgements of already authenticated sovereignty rather than the means of producing one’s identity as sovereign. Consequently, the second embrace, of Gonzalo’s “age,” is of a different sort: it acknowledges a debt of gratitude and honours Gonzalo’s own “honour [which] cannot / Be measured or confined” (5.1.121-22). But at the same time it implicitly appeals to Gonzalo’s recognition of Prospero as a person, as the individual whom he claims to be, without which the earlier claim to being the “living” and “wronged Duke of Milan” (5.1.107) cannot be sustained. And both these dimensions of identification are necessary throughout the ensuing scene. Having been gifted back his dukedom by Alonso’s word, Prospero continues to stress his likeness to the Neapolitan ruler by pointing to the “like loss” they have suffered, of son and daughter respectively. Indeed, he remains only too aware of the uphill struggle to make others believe in his identity:

I perceive these lords
At this encounter do so much admire
That they devour their reason and scare think
Their eyes do offices of truth, their words
Are natural breath.
But, howsoever you have
Been jostled from your senses, know for certain
That I am Prospero and that very duke
Which was thrust forth of Milan […] (5.1.153-60)

All Prospero can do here, it seems, is to insist upon himself, asking his listeners to set aside the very scepticism towards their senses that he has spent much of the play producing.

11After all, to the extent that Prospero has victimised his enemies by making them unwitting actors in his elaborately staged drama of Sturm und Drang—so that he might simulate in them the experiences of rejection, abandonment, and loss that he himself had endured—he has succeeded by first shaking their hold on reason and reality. “Who was so firm, so constant, that this coil / Would not infect his reason?,” Prospero demands upon hearing Ariel’s description of his performance on board the hapless ship. And the sprite duly confirms that “[n]ot a soul / But felt a fever of the mad and played some tricks of desperation” (1.2.206ff). Returning as a harpy, who snatches away the banquet tantalisingly displayed before the starving King and his retinue, Ariel says that he has “made [them] mad,” in order to drive them to their voluntary deaths: “And even with suchlike valour men hang and drown / Their proper selves” (3.3.58-60). Applauding Ariel’s performance, Prospero testifies to its efficacy: “these, mine enemies, are all knit up / In their distractions. They are now in my pow’r; / And in these fits I leave them […] (3.3.89-91). Fittingly, it is Ariel’s testimony to their penitence that leads Prospero to withdraw his power:

[…] They being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further. Go, release them, Ariel.
My charms I’ll break, their senses I’ll restore,
And they shall be themselves. (5.1.28-32)

But given the duration of their psychological torture, it is small wonder that his victims find it difficult to believe their eyes and revert to their original selves. Prospero is left no option other than to iterate that he is who he is.

12But insistence does not suffice—Prospero cannot make others “know for certain” simply by asserting what they ought to know. It will in fact require Ferdinand’s identification to seal the gap between “Prospero” and “that very Duke” who had been ousted from Milan. And even that confirmation will rest on Miranda’s status as the daughter of “this famous Duke of Milan,” of whom Ferdinand claims that he has “so often heard renown”—though from whom?—but never seen before (see 5.1.191-96). Only upon the heels of the mutual acquiescence of both fathers in the dynastic joining of their children, does Gonzalo set the seal upon the joyous restorations:

O, rejoice
Beyond a common joy, and set it down
With gold on lasting pillars! In one voyage
Did Claribel her husband find at Tunis,
And Ferdinand, her brother, found a wife
Where he himself was lost; Prospero his dukedom
In a poor isle; and all of us ourselves
When no man was his own. (5.1.206-12)

And yet, even as the scene nears its conclusion and Alonso has approved the union of Miranda with Ferdinand, the arrival of the ship’s crew reawakens his disbelief:

This is as strange a maze as e’er men trod,
And there is in this business more than nature
Was ever conduct of. Some oracle
Must rectify our knowledge. (5.1.241-244)

It is no accident, then, that Gonzalo conceives these momentous events of restitution as reidentifications that overcome self-division, finding “all ourselves” again out of an uncertain, unlocatable world “when no man was his own.”

Prints and Badges

13No matter how powerful he may appear, then, Prospero cannot found his own identity; he cannot produce his singularity from within. He thus remains dependent on ratification from without and thus has to admit, even if implicitly, that he lives in a world of others. In this regard, Prospero is less different than it initially appears from those others in the play who could never be their own and cannot be left to be their own. Caliban and the lower classes (for whom Stefano and Trinculo stand) are presented from the outset as subjects of another from whom their identity ostensibly derives, whose livery, in one sense or another, they bear. When Prospero admits this relationship—“this thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine” (5.1.275-76)—we hear in his grudging words an echo of the earlier admission of dependence that had preceded Caliban’s appearance on the stage:

[…] But as ’tis,
We cannot miss him.
He does make our fire,
Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices
That profit us. (1.2.310-313)

  • 4  As Alain Badiou puts it, “This is the moment in which consciousness removes itself from the pure r (...)

Prospero expresses here the necessity that had bound them together from the play’s opening, a necessity that is coterminous (as in Hegel’s master-slave dialectic) with the appearance of the figure of the other.4 For Prospero to be his singular self—recall, after all, that he lost his dukedom by “neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated / To closeness and the bettering of my mind” (1.2.89-90)—Caliban has to administer to the material world, much as Hegel’s slave occupies himself with the material “thing” for his master’s satisfaction.

14But this reality is quickly covered over in that pivotal moment immediately following, in which we first meet Caliban, where Miranda makes a startling claim: to have brought Caliban to self-knowledge, conferring upon him identity.

I pitied thee,
Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour
One thing or other.When thou didst not, savage,
Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish, I endowed thy purposes
With words that made them known. (1.2.358-61)

  • 5  The closest the play comes to granting Caliban the status of being human is through Miranda’s refe (...)

It is not that there was nothing there before Miranda took her pains, but what was there was formless desire, brute materiality, lacking the selfhood that knowledge of one’s own meaning alone can bring. Out of thingness, language brings forth at least the savage. We should recognise right away that this sovereign power to make and re-make those who serve them is not limited to just the case of the savage; it is implied both in Prospero’s accusation (cited above) that Antonio had “new created / The creatures” that were once his, and in Prospero’s demand, at the play’s end, that Alonso “must know and own” Stephano and Trinculo, just as he acknowledges Caliban. No doubt, as Hampton suggests, Renaissance encounters with non-Europeans exposed the “rhetorical difficulty […] of finding a terminology to describe previously undefined political actors” (Hampton, 2009: 100), a difficulty that repeatedly surfaces in The Tempest as the problem of naming Caliban, which is to say, of identifying what he is. Famously, Caliban is never fully acknowledged as human throughout the play. Act 1, Scene 2 itself offers a panoply of refusals, calling him in turn “a freckled whelp, hagborn” (283), “slave” (307, 309, 344, 351, 374), “villain” (308), “tortoise” (316), “savage” (355), “thing most brutish” (357), and “hagseed” (365).5 But the dynamics of identification revealed so sharply in the foreign encounter cannot be dissevered from how early modern Europe negotiated different forms of the alien and the foreign within itself.

15A trace of that negotiation may be found in Miranda’s lines immediately preceding her more expansive claims: “Abhorred slave, / Which any print of goodness wilt not take, / Being capable of all ill!” (1.2.354-56). The impress of goodness, which Caliban’s native substance resists, is not simply a metaphor but adduces the individual’s duplication of himself through images that were central to late medieval and early modern practices of identification. As Groebner points out, such signs or zaichen were not “immaterial concept[s],” but rather “instance[s] of material embodiment and evidence”; and “[m]onitoring and inspecting these insignia amounted,” he continues, “to the enforcement of official power and authority” (Groebner, 2007: 47-51). Precisely through how he acts—“seek[ing] to violate / The honour” (1.2.347-48) of Prospero’s child and “know[ing] how to curse” (1.2.363)—does Caliban reveal to his European masters that the print has not materially taken, that he cannot be identified as civilised and must therefore be instead the object of authority’s exercise.

16The “entire culture of insignia” whereby “individuals marked, located, attributed, and represented themselves” (Groebner, 2007: 59ff) is recalled again in the play’s final scene, where it significantly expands beyond Caliban to encompass the lower class subjects with whom he has injudiciously allied himself. As Ariel drives in the miscreants clad in stolen apparel, Prospero asks his fellow noblemen to “[m]ark but the badges of these men […] / Then say if they be true” (5.1.267-68). In calling the misappropriated clothing “badges,” Prospero evokes the enormous explosion of such outward signs in the early modern period. As noted by Groebner:

[M]unicipal servants and courtiers wore them conspicuously on their clothes, and pilgrims donned badges on their coats, gowns, or hats to identify themselves. It was common to use a range of locally manufactured signs […] These signs were mass produced and sold in quantities that challenge our understanding of the preindustrial late Middle ages […] (Groebner, 2007: 59)

  • 6  On other uses of badges, see also (Groebner, 2007: 50-52).

Groebner had previosly stated that William Langland’s Piers Ploughman “describes […] a begging pilgrim displaying hundreds of such badges as evidence of his pious pilgrimages […] On the Day of Judgment, sinners would be able to claim these badges as evidence of their devotional pilgrimages—‘I carry a badge’” (Groebner, 2007: 49).6

To such devotional signs we might add the proliferation of official badges that provided evidence for payments of fees and charges, as well those through which towns and cities increasingly sought to survey and discipline their citizens, as well as to distinguish local from non-local paupers.

17Not surprisingly, in The Tempest, the emphasis falls not on how the badge confirms an individual’s identity by reduplicating it, but on the badge’s failure, and the practices of dissimulation that are the very condition of producing authenticity. Rather than“burn[ing] but his books” (3.2.90), as Caliban had advised, the misguided retainers get distracted by the finery of office, the outward signs of what they desire, Prospero’s wardrobe. The ambiguous “they” of Prospero’s appeal for judgment upon these conspirators (see above)—does the pronoun refer to the badges or to the men?—underscores the unstable relationship between the badges and their referents, expressing a gap that is itself turned into the true mark of their infamy. Through their mistaken choices, they reveal themselves as unfit to wear the clothes they have stolen, the badge of office turned now into evidence of an ineffaceable criminality. Like Caliban, the “drunken” (5.1.277) Stephano and the “reeling ripe” (5.1.279) Trinculo are “misshapen knave[s]” (5.1.268), a deformation to be understood not as merely accidental but essential to who they are. Fittingly, Caliban’s other language lesson perversely echoes Miranda’s claim. “Open your mouth,” Stephano commands him, “here is that which will give language to you, cat” (2.2.84-85). New-created by this “celestial liquor” (2.2.122), Caliban’s oath of fealty reveals subjection to be the fundamental condition of his being: “I’ll swear upon that bottle to be thy true subject, for the liquor is not earthly” (2.2.131-132).


18In colonial readings of The Tempest, one pivotal scene has especially garnered interest: the trading of recriminations between Prospero and Miranda, on the one hand, and Caliban, on the other. At the heart of their confrontation is an exchange viewed very differently depending on which side one is on: between names (or perhaps more precisely, language understood as nomenclature) and things. In return for showing Prospero “all the qualities o’ th’ isle / The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile,” Caliban has learnt, he admits, “how to name the bigger light and how the less, / That burn by day and night” (1.2.335ff). But for him, the price of knowing names is the loss of all he had once possessed:

For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king; and here you do sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o’ th’ island. (1.2.341-44)

Indeed, Caliban’s claim to have provided them indigenous knowledge necessary for their survival goes entirely unacknowledged by Prospero and Miranda, for whom the gift of naming is paramount, language being the matrix in which Caliban has come to self-consciousness, rising from the “brutish thing” he once ostensibly was—even if he be arrested ultimately on this side of the human and barred entry into the world that language promised. For them, the name shapes the thing from within, informs it, and so Caliban’s failure to live up to the language he has been endowed—learning instead to curse—marks the fundamental recalcitrance of his native matter.

19But colonial history offers other examples as well, which make visible the instability of names and the countervailing importance of the kind of indigenous knowledge of matter that Caliban had so eagerly yielded to his captors—and indeed continues to, as in his grateful offer to Stephano and Trinculo to bring them “where crabs grow,” and where “I with my long nails will dig thee pig-nuts, / Show thee a jay’s nest, and instruct thee how / To snare the nimble marmoset” (2.2.161-64). Rather than simply empathising with Caliban’s sense of the dispossession he has suffered—“This island’s mine by Sycorax, my mother” (1.2.332)—we might learn more (or, at any rate, differently) by juxtaposing Caliban’s gift with, for instance, Garcia da Orta’s Coloquios dos simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da India, a massively influential medicinal work, first published in Goa in 1563, and written by a Portuguese native who lived much of his life out in India. “Organised on non-European precepts” of Middle Eastern and South Asian ethnobotany, as Richard Grove notes, the text lay at the intersection of European colonial expansion and the diffusion of indigenous botanical knowledge across Europe, knowledge gleaned by Orta from Malayali and Persian doctors in Southwest India (Grove, 1995: 80-90).

  • 7  “Os Gregos nem os Latinos antigos nam conheceram Cardomomo […]”

20One of Orta’s primary concerns throughout the Coloquios is that of the appropriate names for the various South Asian plants and herbs his treatise describes. Discussing cardamom, for instance, Orta emphatically corrects his interlocutor, Ruano, who seeks to trace back the knowledge of this eastern spice to such normative European sources as Galen, Pliny and Discorides. Orta dismisses Ruano’s desire to know the Latin or Greek name for the spice as pointless: that their descriptions of its properties do not match its actual characteristics is evidence enough that “[n]either the ancient Latins nor the Greeks knew the Cardamomo” (Orta, 1563: F7r; my translation).7 Asked by Ruano to account, then, for their using the name, Orta replies:

  • 8  “Porque como diz Terencio, Davo conturbou todas as cousas, e este Davo foy Geraldo Cremonense tras (...)

Because, as Terence says, “Davus [the name of the unscrupulous slave in Terence’s Andria] confuses everything,” and this Davus was Geraldo Cremonense, the translator. Not knowing this drug, by reason of the great distance between countries, and never having navigated, and having no commercial relations with them [that is, these countries], he put the name which seemed to him best. And it would have been much better to have left the name in Arabic, as it was an unknown medicine, and not to have fallen in the error which this Geraldo had done. (Orta, 1563: F7v; my translation)8

  • 9  “Nam vos queria ver tam affeiçoada à estes escritores modernos, q[ue] por louvar muyto aos Gregos (...)
  • 10  “Nestas cousas dos nomes das terras, e mares, e regiões se enganão muitos dos nossos nas suas prop (...)

Nor is Orta particularly complimentary to more recent European authorities. Rebutting Ruano’s criticism of how “these Maumetistas” compound their drugs, Orta accuses him of “seem[ing] very much attached to these modern authors, who, in order to praise the Greeks, speak ill of the Arabs and of some Moors born in Spain, and others of Persia, calling them ‘Maumetistas’ barbarians (which they hold to be the worst epithet there is in the world) […]” (Orta, 1563: A7r; my translation).9 Not only is nomenclature a site of contestation, as Orta’s treatise repeatedly shows, but it is subject to the vagaries of transmission, which often obscures our knowledge of the original referent. “In the matter of names of land and seas and regions are we not a good deal misled,” he asks “from not knowing that the foreign languages give the etymology of the names?” (Orta, 1563: B3r, my translation).10 Far from stabilising identification, names sow confusion, reflecting both the diversity of languages as well as the corrosive effects of time (see, e.g., the discussion from C2v to C5r).

  • 11  “o doutor orta as sabe milhor que nos todos, porq[ue] nos sabemos as dos gentios somente, e elle s (...)

21And Orta’s treatise seeks to resist such confusion in part by tracing (or inventing) etymologies in order to restore the connections between things and their various names. This task requires him to resist the European imposition of names and histories, and remain open instead to indigenous knowledge and practices, revealing in the process how native sciences of plant life in fact shaped European knowledge. “[A]lmost all […] substantial ‘European’ texts subsequent to the Coloquios and to the comparable Hortus indicus malabaricus by the Dutchman Hendrik van Reede […] retained essentially indigenous structures of Arabic and South Asian classifications of affinities, rather than adopting available European models” (Grove, 1995: 80). “Dr. Orta knows better than all of us,” the Portuguese physician boasts of himself through the voice of an interlocutor, “for we only know the Gentios [that is, the Indian Brahmins], but he knows Christians, Moors and Gentios better than us all” (Orta, 1563: CC4r, my translation).11 Orta’s authority comes from combining these different strands of knowledge, but “given the choice between Christian and Arab authorities” he nonetheless “unhesitatingly chooses the latter” (Grove, 1995: 82). Prospero may respond to Caliban’s assertion by calling him a “most lying slave” (1.2.345), but set alongside Orta’s botanical text that response itself reveals what Shakespeare’s play set on an unnamed island cannot quite bring itself to admit: an anti-colonial flow of knowledge, whose impact is no less significant for being ignored or denied. And in that flow, names, especially European names, are continually deceptive, and have to be turned against themselves, purified or even replaced if one is to discover the true natures of things.

  • 12  According to Craigwood, Alberico Gentili’s 1585 De Legationibus, one of the most important early m (...)

22For even if The Tempest here refuses to ratify Caliban’s insistence that naming does not so much fix and identify as create an internal fissure that can never be fully overcome, the duplicity of naming remains very much the issue in the relationship between Prospero and his European rivals too. According to the Spanish diplomat Echevarria Bacigalupe, a good ambassador was “the spy’s twin brother” [es ermano gemalo del espìa] (cited in Groebner, 2007: 167). As I have suggested above, Ferdinand ultimately becomes Prospero’s ambassador, functioning before his father and the other lords as the representative of Prospero’s claim to sovereignty,12 restoring him to his status as Alonso’s peer by acknowledging him as a second father.

23But it was not ever thus. Anxious of where the overly “swift business” (1.2.454) between Ferdinand and Miranda may lead, Prospero enforces the bounds upon desire by accusing the young man of a different transgression:

Thou dost here usurp
The name thou ow’st not, and hast put thyself
Upon this island as a spy, to win it
From me, the lord on’t. (1.2.456-59)

The charge derives from Ferdinand’s claim to a new name: “Myself am Naples” (1.2.439). But with that name also comes self-division—we know, as does Prospero, that Ferdinand is not the “single thing, as I am now” (1.2.436) that he believes himself to be. Taking a name wrongfully is here to usurp sovereign authority, and be turned thereby from ambassador to spy. To make foreign policy in the age of Shakespeare is inseparable, The Tempest suggests, from policing the foreign, an enterprise that turns on how to name the alien within.

24As Caliban well understands through his own experience of an unequal exchange, to be endowed with a name is potentially also to be subject to division and usurpation. If names—and by extension, language—have been the matrix in which Caliban has come to self-consciousness (as the Europeans insist), that emergence is itself marked by an internal fissure which can never be overcome. Caliban can imitate humanity, can dissimulate being human—but ultimately he cannot be allowed to be human. A difference needs to be produced that will separate the true copy from the simulacrum, the would-be suitor from the would-be rapist who “had peopled else / This isle with Calibans” (1.2-350-51). At the end of the fifteenth century, Groebner notes, the word contraffare shifted from “its older medieval sense—duplication as the process of producing something quite fake (quite like the meaning of ‘counterfeit’ in contemporary English)—to the notion of duplicating an image as the process of producing what is authentic, of making a ‘natural’ copy” (a sense in which Sidney continues to use the word). In the contrast between Ferdinand and Caliban the two senses of the word resonate, differentiating the true pretender from the false—with the attendant irony that it is the new foreigner who will embody the former, while the native inhabitant has been transformed into the unassimilable alien.

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BADIOU, A. (2017): “Hegel’s Master and Slave,” in Crisis & Critique 4.1.

CRAIGWOOD, J. (2011): “Sidney, Gentili, and the Poetics of Embassy,” in Diplomacy and Early Modern Culture, in ADAMS, R. & COX, R. (eds.), New York, Palgrave Macmillan.

GROEBNER, V. (2007): Who are You? Identification, Deception, and Surveillance in Early Modern Europe, NewYork, Zone Books.

GROVE, R.H. (1995): Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens, and the Origins of Environmentalism 1600-1860, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

HAMPTON, T. (2009): Fictions of Embassy: Literature and Diplomacy in Early Modern Europe, Ithaca, Cornell University Press.

ORTA, G. (1563): Coloquios dos simples, e drogas he cousas mediçinais da India, Goa.

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1  All citations to Shakespeare’s play are to the Signet Classic edition of The Tempest, ed. Robert Langbaum (New York: New American Library, 1987).

2  This does not mean, however, that a mother’s word suffices. When his right to rule is challenged by Caliban, Prospero’s reply does not so much as acknowledge hearing the latter’s claim that “[t]his island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother, / Which thou tak’st from me” (1.2.141-42). The foreclosure suggests that beyond the mother’s knowledge of who her child is lies the further requirement that she guarantee the father’s legitimacy (in short, that she be a “piece of virtue”). Not for nothing does the preceding altercation, in which Prospero summarily quashes the slightest hint of rebellion in Ariel, link the exile of the “foul witch Sycorax” to her pregnancy, of which her blue eyelids are taken to be a sign. Naturally, Caliban’s father goes unmentioned.

3  “’Tis new to thee,” Prospero replies—but in a fundamental sense, the response applies as much to himself.” It is significant that Prospero’s turn from revenge to forgiveness is prompted by Ariel’s empathy for the sufferings of the Neapolitans:

Ariel: […] if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.
Prospero: Dost thou think so, spirit?
Ariel: Mine would, sir, were I human.
Prospero: And mine shall.
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art? (5.1.18-24)

It is the alterity of Ariel that brings Prospero back to his own kind, indeed enables the recognition of his kindness in both senses of the word. That Ariel can occupy a subject-position utterly alien to his essence, to feel as humans feel, constitutes the condition for Prospero’s seeing, as if for the first time, the human in himself—and thereby being able to cross again the border between other and self.

4  As Alain Badiou puts it, “This is the moment in which consciousness removes itself from the pure relation to itself, from its solitude, its solipsism, and realizes that it is partially dominated by the existence of other consciousnesses.” (Badiou, 2017: 36).

5  The closest the play comes to granting Caliban the status of being human is through Miranda’s reference to Ferdinand as “the third man that e’er I saw” (1.2.456)—but even this indirect concession is gainsaid by her soon after when she tells him that she has never seen ”[m]ore that I may call men than you, good friend, / And my dear father” (3.1.50-51).

6  On other uses of badges, see also (Groebner, 2007: 50-52).

7  “Os Gregos nem os Latinos antigos nam conheceram Cardomomo […]”

8  “Porque como diz Terencio, Davo conturbou todas as cousas, e este Davo foy Geraldo Cremonense traslador, que por nam conhecer este simple por ha muyta distancia destas terras, e não haver navegaçam ne[m] commercio pera ellas pos lhe nome que milhor lhe pareceo, e fora milhor deixar o nome em Arabio, pois era meezinha não conhecida, e não foy soo ho erro que deste modo tive este Geraldo.”

9  “Nam vos queria ver tam affeiçoada à estes escritores modernos, q[ue] por louvar muyto aos Gregos dizem mal dos Arabio, e dalgu[n]s Mouros naçidos na Espanha, e de outros da Persia, chamãdolhes Maumatistas Barbaros (que elles tem por pior epetito que quantos ha no mundo) […]”

10  “Nestas cousas dos nomes das terras, e mares, e regiões se enganão muitos dos nossos nas suas proprias terras, como quereis que em as lingoas estranhas saiba dar razam das etimologias dos nomes?”

11  “o doutor orta as sabe milhor que nos todos, porq[ue] nos sabemos as dos gentios somente, e elle sabe as dos cristãos, e mouros et gentios milhor que nos todos […]”

12  According to Craigwood, Alberico Gentili’s 1585 De Legationibus, one of the most important early modern treatises on diplomacy, defines the ideal ambassador as “the representative of sovereignty” and embassy as “a true representation of sovereign truths.” See Craigwood, 2011: 88-89.

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Bibliographical reference

Shankar Raman, “Checking IDs in The TempestRecherches anglaises et nord-américaines, 57 | 2023, 27-41.

Electronic reference

Shankar Raman, “Checking IDs in The TempestRecherches anglaises et nord-américaines [Online], 57 | 2023, Online since 01 February 2024, connection on 28 May 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Shankar Raman

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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