Rethinking the Discourse of Colonialism in Economic Terms: Shakespeare's the Tempest, Captain John Smith's Virginia Narratives, and the English Response to Vagrancy

By Cefalu, Paul A. | Shakespeare Studies, Annual 2000 | Go to article overview

Rethinking the Discourse of Colonialism in Economic Terms: Shakespeare's the Tempest, Captain John Smith's Virginia Narratives, and the English Response to Vagrancy


Cefalu, Paul A., Shakespeare Studies


The strategy of transition forms the essence of Shakespeare's work.

--Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Toward History

RECENT CRITICISM OF The Tempest and early modern travel narratives has discussed the various ways in which these texts are implicated in a larger discourse of colonialism. Anticolonialist critics have sought to "demystify the national myths"(1) of empire and to write an alternative history of the colonial encounter. Typically, in their desire to delegitimate colonialist self-representation and restore agency to a native countervoice, critics have drawn out moments of textual rupture and contradiction in early modern texts such as The Tempest and John Smith's Virginia narratives.(2) Undoubtedly, recent ideology critiques of early modern texts have done much to unmask Western incorporation of new world, peripheral cultures; however, while anticolonialist critics have paid much attention to the politics of the early modern English-Native American encounter, they have generally overlooked the extent to which some central early modern "colonialist" texts, including Smith's writings and The Tempest, are primarily concerned with describing or allegorizing embattled economic relationships among the European colonists themselves.(3) Much of Smith's concerns in the Virginia narratives, for example, center on issues of English idleness, unproductive labor, and exploitation of the early Virginia labor force by merchant capitalists, economic topics that have been largely passed over in the more sociopolitical, colonialist readings of early modern travel writing.(4)

Because so much effort has been devoted to exposing Western oppression of New World cultures, critics have also neglected to consider the forms of class division prevalent among the early Virginia settlers, particularly the ways in which the English response to vagrancy and "masterlessness" shaped the New World labor force in the short term and inadvertently halted the transition to distinctly capitalist forms of wage-labor in the long term. This neglect is itself the product of the mythologization of the figure of the masterless man by literary critics, who have connected masterlessness with misrule, "topsy-turveydom," and any number of cultural anxieties, often abstracting masterlessness from its socioeconomic origins and connections with the dissolution of feudalism and the long and uninevitable path toward the proletarianization of labor.(5)

In the following pages, taking into account revisionist positions on early modern employment and the so-called doom-and-gloom school of British history, I raise a question that has been often asked, but not sufficiently answered: Why were masterless men subject to such widespread demonization in early modern England? What motivated the Tudor and Stuart regimes to pass the Statute of Artificers (1563) and the Act of Settlement (1662), paternalistic statutes that, in a later age, classical economists were to denounce as neofeudal, "parish serfdom"? The answer that I offer is that Tudor and Stuart orthodoxy reveal a horror of movement, broadly construed, that is projected onto the vagrant underclass: this in turn has a profound but unanticipated effect on the development of capitalism, to the extent that the free circulation of labor is immobilized until the Elizabethan poor laws are repealed on the eve of the industrial revolution.(6)

In the second section of my argument, I show how the English anxieties over unauthorized movement and vagabondage are reproduced in the New World, specifically how the Virginia Company attempts (but fails) to set England's landless poor to productive labor in the Chesapeake. Not simply representations of the manner in which the European "metropole" encounters the native "periphery," the Virginia texts show the extent to which England exports its own, domestic periphery to the colonies, superimposing a drawn-out confrontation between official power and vagabondage onto the European-Native encounter. …

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Rethinking the Discourse of Colonialism in Economic Terms: Shakespeare's the Tempest, Captain John Smith's Virginia Narratives, and the English Response to Vagrancy
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