At first glance, there do not seem to be many similarities between Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The characters, plot, and style of writing are completely different, and the only common setting seems to be that of the island the main characters are imprisoned upon. But looking closer, there are obvious similarities between the relationships of Robinson Crusoe and his servant Friday, and Prospero and his servant Caliban. Both relationships are master-to-slave relationships; both interact in very similar ways. However, there are great differences in the way the masters treat their slaves, and the way the slaves obey their masters. Robinson Crusoe’s relationship with Friday is much more friendly than Prospero’s relationship to Caliban, but ultimately it is similar in regard to the class distinctions and mindset of the day.
The most obvious and important similarity between the two relationships is the way Prospero and Crusoe immediately place both Caliban and Friday in servant's positions. From the first time they see them, Prospero and Crusoe are devising ways to use them for their grunt work and make their own lives better. When Crusoe first sees Friday, he says,
It now came very warmly upon my Thoughts , and indeed irresistibly, that now was my Time to get me a Servant, and perhaps a Companion, or Assistant; and that I was call’d plainly by Providence to save this poor Creature’s life.
His thought begins with servant—companion and assistant follow. Nowhere is there a mention of obtaining a friend, and his action of saving Friday is motivated not by the simple rightness of the act, but because he wants a servant and helper. In the same way, when Prospero first came to the island in The Tempest, he began to coax Caliban into doing his servant work.
This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou tak’st from me. When thou cam’st first
Water with berries in’t; and teach me how
To name the bigger light, and how the less,
That burn by day and night. And then I loved thee
And showed thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle,
The fresh spring, brine-pits, barren place and fertile.
(Act I, II, 331-38)
Both masters see their slaves not as fellow men, but as beneath them. Caliban, the offspring of a witch, will never be anything to Prospero but a slave. Friday, a cannibal from a neighboring island, is looked on by Crusoe, and most of British society of that day, as a lower species of man. This is one reason Prospero and Crusoe feel justified in making Caliban and Friday their servants. In Shakespeare’s culture, the servant could never hope to rise above his master. In Defoe’s society, it was the primitive native and cannibal who was thought of as neither having nor being able to cultivate the capabilities necessary to be his own master. Behind Prospero and Crusoe’s mindsets were standard societal beliefs.
The other reason that allowed Prospero and Crusoe to justify their domination over Caliban and Friday was the belief that they alone were supreme rulers of their islands, and therefore had the right to rule their subjects. Crusoe had more justification for this feeling, because he was on the island 25 years before any human beside himself set foot on it. When Friday came, it was natural for Crusoe (but not correct) to assume an authoritative role above Friday. It was only natural that he should be in charge. He had, after all built himself an estate on the island.
Prospero, on the other hand, not only did nothing to make himself a lasting dwelling, but he displaced Caliban from his ownership of the island. Prospero made use of his magic to reduce Caliban to the position of slave, and Caliban never forgot it. It is true that when Prospero came to the island Caliban could not speak, and consequently was no match for Prospero. Prospero usurped the island from Caliban and forced him into a slavery that was uncalled for.
An obvious similarity between the two relationships is the fact that both Prospero and Crusoe taught their new slaves to speak in their language. Prospero immediately taught Caliban, with the help of Miranda, to converse with him, and Crusoe lost no time in teaching Friday his new name, and teaching Friday to refer to him as master. Eventually, Friday and Caliban learned to understand and speak the language fluently.
Teaching their slaves to speak goes beyond Crusoe and Prospero’s needs to communicate with them. By teaching them their language, they are able to instill in them their values and morals. Prospero wastes no time in introducing Caliban to the idea of class distinction, and convincing Caliban that he is from the lower class. Caliban seems obsessed with the fact that his mother was a witch, and this must be attributed to Prospero harping on it again and again to drive home the point of Caliban’s inferiority. Crusoe, on the other hand, immediately begins to teach Friday his religion, and eventually converts him. His lessons of speech are closely related to his lessons on religion, and Friday quickly learns both lessons very well.
Though there are many similarities between the relationships, Crusoe and Friday’s relationship is very different from Prospero and Caliban’s. The most striking difference is the friendly quality of Crusoe and Friday’s relationship. While Prospero and Caliban never cease to toss physical threats at each other, Crusoe and Friday have a close relationship that develops into a friendship, even if it is within the limits of a master-servant relationship. From the moment Crusoe saves Friday, Friday is incredibly submissive and extremely docile. His first action is to place Crusoe’s foot on top of his head, showing that he is willing to serve him. What at first seems to be born of fear (caused mostly by Crusoe’s gun) becomes a sincere character trait in Friday. Even when urged by Crusoe to leave and return to his home, Friday refuses and wishes to stay with his master.
This differs greatly from Prospero and Caliban, who were on the edge of being enemies. Prospero was forced to imprison Caliban in a rock when he tried to rape his daughter, and Caliban’s foremost thought is the destruction of Prospero. His attempt to kill him and take back the island, though futile, shows how badly he wanted to get rid of his master and how much he hated him. Crusoe and Friday, on the other hand, lived in harmony for years. By the end of their time together, we get the impression that Crusoe would be more likely to harm Friday than Friday would be to harm Crusoe.
One of the most important differences between the relationship of Crusoe and Friday and the relationship of Prospero and Caliban is the way Crusoe continues to work even after Friday becomes his servant. Crusoe by no means begins to lay idle and watch Friday do his work for him. Instead, they work side by side to make his farm and house even better and more comfortable. We are given the impression that Prospero never did any work with his hands at all, and left the necessities of life, such as chopping wood, gathering food, and making fire, to Caliban. Crusoe continues to be just as industrious as before. Yet in all his work, and all his equality of spirit with Friday, there is still a master-servant relationship between the two. Crusoe often speaks of how proud he is of his domain and his subjects. Despite his own hard work, he often makes Friday do the work he has no desire to do, such as burying the remains of the victims of cannibalism, and chopping down trees for a boat.
Still, at times it seems like Crusoe and Friday are almost equals during their three-year period of living alone together. After living together for some time, Crusoe says,
The Savage was now a good Christian, a much better than I; though I have reason to hope, and bless God for it, that we were equally penitent, and comforted restor’d Penitents; we had here the Word of God to read, and no farther off from his Spirit to instruct, than if we had been in England.
He seems to respect Friday in a way Prospero never respected Caliban, and he enjoys his company and shares his home with him. Here lies the real difference between the relationships. While both relationships are master/servant relationships, the difference between them is in the way Crusoe thinks of Friday, as opposed to the way Prospero thinks of Caliban. Crusoe respects Friday’s ability to learn and improve. Crusoe lives with Friday as fellow humans, each willing to learn from the other. He is willing to accept that Friday, though he might have inferior knowledge at that moment, has the ability to learn what he does not know, and has the ability to mature spiritually and mentally. Prospero sees none of this. In his interactions with Caliban it becomes plain to the reader that he thinks of Caliban as a monster and brute, unable to raise his intellect to the level of Prospero’s. Crusoe and Friday live in harmony because Crusoe realizes Friday is a human just like himself. Prospero and Caliban live in constant fear and strife because Prospero refuses to accept that Caliban has a mind of his own and is capable of using it to better himself.
Thus the real difference lies not with Caliban and Friday, but with Crusoe and Prospero. The way they interpret the word “savage” makes all the difference in their relationships with their servants. Crusoe’s view of the word is evident by the way he treats Friday; he knows Friday has not the maturity he himself possesses right now, but he also knows that Friday can learn to think and act as he does. He respects the fact that Friday has a soul, and is therefore a human just like himself. Prospero’s understanding of the word “savage”, however, is completely different. He sees no chance of there ever being any common emotions or thoughts between himself and Caliban. He is sure that Caliban has been, is, and always will be nothing more than a monster and an idiot.
The similarities and differences in the two relationships stem mostly from the common societal beliefs of the times they were written in. Both Crusoe and Prospero were acting within the boundaries of what was accepted in their cultures, and no one would have thought to criticize them. Master and slave relationships were simply accepted as the norm. In Shakespeare’s day, a servant was not allowed to rise any higher than his station at birth. A child was, essentially, whom his father or mother was, and any peasant hoping to rise above his station was either mocked (as evidenced by Caliban’s fruitless attempt to overthrow Prospero) or crushed (as evidenced by Caliban’s punishment at the conclusion of the play). Shakespeare’s message was subtle, and yet very clear.
The differences between the relationships (illustrated by Crusoe’s higher view of his servant) have their root in culture too. In Defoe’s culture there were still very strong constraints on servants and lower classes, but times were beginning to change. People were just beginning to question their rote ideas of class distinction; men were wondering why they were forced into a mold when they could have the opportunity to make their own path in life. As the class lines were starting to blur, so were the common conceptions of savages. Instead of writing them off as hopeless, people were starting to accept that they had minds of their own and could learn. Instead of forcing them to stay in their class, society was beginning to educate people they thought of as underprivileged. However, there is no question that a native islander, such as Friday, was considered inferior to a European man, and it was natural for Crusoe to immediately assume Friday as a servant. The notion that men who looked and acted different were inferior was becoming less of a cultural standard and more of an individual belief, but it was still a common idea.Robinson Crusoe was a kinder, better master to Friday than Prospero was to Caliban, and the comparison of relationships gives us a good picture of the differences in societies and the changes taking place in England. But the fact remains that Friday was still a servant to Crusoe. The different societies were still very similar, and it was still accepted to rule another man simply because of his station, his parents, or his culture. Robinson Crusoe and The Tempest illustrate very clearly the similarities between two different time-periods, and show us that some mistaken standards take a long time to change.