The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Tempest: Being “Civilized” or “Uncivilized”


Civilization is one of the most significant achievements of the whole world. However, is it indeed rational to consider people who fail to meet local norms uncivilized? When it comes to a postcolonial analysis, the concepts of “civilized” and “uncivilized” are interpreted differently from their modern meanings. It refers to the fact that when these labels appear in literary works, they represent subjective points of view of characters. At the same time, discovering these phenomena, according to postcolonial theory, requires approaching them as objectively as possible to remove any prejudice that exists within a piece of literature. Thus, The Epic of Gilgamesh and Shakespeare’s The Tempest demonstrate that the application of these labels is relative, implies adverse outcomes, and is used to critique the colonial process.

Civilized” and “Uncivilized” in The Epic of Gilgamesh

In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the “civilized” world is considered superior to the “uncivilized” and the natural world. This idea is reflected by the first description of the city that had a few features “that no later king could ever copy” (George (Trans.), 2000, p. 1). Consequently, when Enkidu comes, he does not belong to this culture, which makes him a barbarian. As a result, he is considered a person to be taught how to be a real human being, meaning that his character should be colonized. However, Enkidu’s image is coined by others, while his actions demonstrate that he has some genuine civilized features. For example, the fact that this character releases wild animals from traps proves that he is familiar with mercifulness that is not typical among savage creatures (George (Trans.), 2000).

Even though Enkidu’s actions demonstrate that he is not a barbarian, he does not oppose being “civilized” according to the local norms. It is so because he yields to temptation and commits coitus with Shamhat ((George (Trans.), 2000). As a result, Enkidu can no longer live with the animals because he is “civilized” and has lost connection with his culture. However, the subjectivity of that term is found in the fact that right after Enkidu becomes a fully-fledged human being, he agrees to participate in the killing of Humbaba ((George (Trans.), 2000). Consequently, The Epic of Gilgamesh shows that making other people “civilized” is a subjective process because no one can label themselves “uncivilized.” Thus, the given piece of literature teaches readers that colonialization is negative since every group of people has their own civilization, and it is not fair to force them to follow a different culture.

Civilized” and “Uncivilized” in The Tempest

At the same time, The Tempest by William Shakespeare shows that the phenomena under consideration are relative because people lose their “civilized” features when they are deprived of their standard living conditions. At first sight, the play implies a distinct division between the “civilized” passengers of the ship and “uncivilized” inhabitants of the island. However, this difference disappears once the passengers also arrive at the island. There, they lose their culture and start acting as real barbarians. On the one hand, it relates to the fact that Sebastian and Antonio agree to kill the King (Shakespeare, 2004). It is challenging to say that betrayal is a characteristic feature of a civilized world. On the other hand, it refers to Gonzalo, who dreams of the perfect country where riches, slavery, poverty, and “learning would be unknown” (Shakespeare, 2004, p. 38). Here, the author questions the necessity and justifiability of the blessings of civilization.

In addition to that, Shakespeare used The Tempest to depict his counter-colonial beliefs. This author stipulates that it is not correct when noble and educated individuals come to new territories and bring their orders. It is so because such actions violate the natural state of things. If this scenario occurs, it is challenging to answer which side is better or more “civilized.” As for The Tempest, the invaders behave as barbarians more than the island inhabitants. It relates to the fact that Prospero and Miranda, his daughter, had lived in peace and harmony before the noblemen arrived (Shakespeare, 2004). At the same time, it is impossible to state that Prospero is more “civilized.” On the one hand, he created a storm to organize a shipwreck. On the other hand, Prospero uses all means to prevent Miranda from falling in love with Ferdinand, one of the invaders (Shakespeare, 2004). Consequently, the playwright demonstrates that colonial actions can result in adverse outcomes for both “civilized” and “uncivilized” individuals.

Concluding Thoughts

The paper has demonstrated that postcolonial theory draws specific attention to the notions of “civilized” and “uncivilized.” It is so because these labels are subjective, and they are either justified or opposed depending on who gives them an appraisal. The two works under analysis, The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Tempest, are similar in the way that they reveal the relativity of these phenomena. On the one hand, it refers to Enkidu, who helped animals when he was “uncivilized,” and who agreed to kill Humbaba once he became “civilized.” On the other hand, Shakespeare shows that all the “civilized” features and benefits disappear when people are in unusual conditions. That is why it is impossible to state that “civilized” individuals are superior to “uncivilized” ones. The postcolonial theory demonstrates that applying these labels hurts people since it leads to appropriate biases that influence relationships among individuals. Consequently, The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Tempest show that colonial relationships are destroying since they bring much harm to both colonizers and colonized individuals.


George, A. (Trans.). (2000). The Epic of Gilgamesh: A new translation. Penguin Classics.

Shakespeare, W. (2004). The Tempest. Saddleback Classics.

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