William Shakespeare’s The Tempest and History

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 21 September 2016

William Shakespeare’s The Tempest and History

Literature often reflects the times it is written in. Often, great stories come from the events of the day or some oft-talked about idea or thought. History, society and culture can mostly be studied well through the literature of that specific period. Here, we take a comprehensive look into The Tempest, one of the last plays written by the England’s greatest William Shakespeare. Regarded as a comedy in the beginning, it was later labeled as one of his late romances. The Tempest is arguably said to have been written in the early 17th century (1610-11).

However, this is said to be so because it was entered into the Stationer’s Register in 1623, along with 16 other Shakespeare plays. The first recorded staging of the play was in the autumn of 1611 by the King’s Men. As with many other Shakespeare’s plays, the exact date is hypothetical. However, the comparisons, storyline and the society and situation he draws from are enough to conclude that the play was one his later and finer works, where even the stage commands were perfectly written. There are two interesting facts about the play, which is indicative of the literary supremacy of the play.

The Tempest is said to be probably the last play which Shakespeare wrote alone. Also, it is one of only two plays, which has an original plot. As any other Shakespearean work, The Tempest has attracted the attention of many critics, across centuries. While some argue that the play should be seen as Shakespeare’s swansong and his praise of the theatre and its effects, many others seem to identify colonial strains in the play. Yet others say that it addresses the higher and philosophical questions of life.

While all views are welcome, given that Shakespeare himself offered no explanation for writing the play, it would be enlightening to dwell on some predominant aspects of the play in detail. Shakespeare lived in England but his plays were rarely set in England. They were set mostly in Italy. This one takes place somewhere in the Mediterranean, on an island. Many say that the island in his mind was the Bermudas. Shakespeare is unlikely to have travelled to Italy in his time but he surely knew a lot about life there, thanks to the great classics in which he buried himself.

More than giving us a glimpse into the history of England, his plays give us a sneak peek into the history of Italy. Coming back to The Tempest, it can be safely concluded that the play gives three strong undercurrents: 1) The theme of shipwreck 2) The theme of slavery, and in a broader perspective, the theme of colonialism. 3) The theme of human questions, like, what is man? How much does he govern his life and the lives of others? We will try and analyze each, while trying to place it in a historical context. Shipwrecks A certain history paper available online, presented by Luke Sakowski, reveals a very interesting point.

The period between 1600 and 1700 has been called the Age of Reason. It was the age of new learning. People were becoming more receptive to new ideas. They were accepting the world and thoughts beyond their own society. Here is a quote from Sakowski’s paper. During the period, the explorers from the countries of Europe continue to search for new worlds, and ways to gain wealth. The civilizations of Asia and the Middle East remain within their natural boundaries because they had no reason to leave their countries; they preferred to be separated from the rest of the world.

Thus, shipwrecks were a contemporary event in the 17th century, when there were many expeditions led by individuals and nations. Erasmus’ Naufragium (the Shipwreck- translated into English in 1606), William Strauchey’s True Reportory of the Wracke ( an eye-witness account of the shipwreck at the Bermudas, written in 1610 and Peter Martyr’s De Orbo Novo, translated into English in 1555, are said to have influenced The Tempest. Not only are shipwrecks fodder for storytellers, it is also an event in history. Each century, every 50 years or even a decade is identified by a great tragedy in air, water or otherwise.

The most noted example to anyone in the 20th and 21st centuries is the tragedy of the Titanic. Every ship is compared to it, every anniversary is remembered and similar stories are written. So also, in Shakespeare’s time, shipwrecks, irrespective of whether there was any loss of life or not would have been documents in the efforts of a country to discover or visit other shores. However, the Summer 1996 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter clearly states that even after careful study of the William Strachey’s and Silvester Jourdain’s pamphlets (in Wright’s 1964 A Voyage to Virginia in 1609), they were not particularly impressed with the parallels.

Also, it is important to understand the affectations of the time. It was easy for Shakespeare to write about an island, a shipwreck, magic and a tempest, knowing well that the audience would be able to relate to it. Today, it would seem highly unlikely. The colonial theme In spite of many treating it as a pure work of art, distanced from politics and indicative of the artist and his skill, the dominant colonial theme in The Tempest is most interesting. Professor Thomas Cartelli called The Tempest as “a privileged text in the history of colonialist discourse”. There is a master here, Prospero, and two slaves – Ariel and Caliban.

There is an island, which was captured by Prospero with his magical powers. It is explained in the second scene that when he had first reached the island, Prospero had used Caliban’s knowledge and had learnt about the island. But later, he enslaved Caliban, while even educating and ‘civilizing’ him. So also, Prospero freed Ariel, who was buried in a tree, by a curse from the earlier inhabitant of the island, Sycorax, Caliban’s mother. While most critics tend to see the colonial strain through the character of Caliban, it could be a mistake to overlook the character of Ariel in this context.

He is also bullied and taunted by Prospero and threatened to perform his wishes. He keeps reminding Prospero of the freedom he was promised, to which again the reply is taunting. The major difference between Ariel and Caliban is the approach they take towards Prospero. While one obeys him most willingly, looking forward to the freedom that he is promised, Caliban does so most hatefully. He resents Prospero and makes his resentment known. He even goes to the extent of saying that the language that Prospero taught him has come as a blessing because he can now curse him using it.

The takeover of the island can be taken as a direct reference to the colonization of islands, and the civilizing of Caliban can be the inculcation of Western ideals and education in the natives. But nothing is conclusive. More so, because it is not sure whether the playwright was for or against colonialism. While his protagonist, Prospero, uses his powers for the rightful purposes, Shakespeare has to a certain extent, justified the resentment of Caliban and even Ariel. Many critics have dwelt on the discourse of colonialism in The Tempest in depth.

Reginald Shepherd, author of Orpheus in the Bronx, wrote in his blog that The Tempest, if read in relation to the (evolving and inconsistent) English colonial project in the New World, lays out the real contradictions it will imaginarily (that is, ideologically) resolve with exemplary clarity. By allowing the “Other” to speak and make his case, if only in the ostensible master’s language, the text permits the undermining of the colonialist discourse it not only participates in but in some ways inaugurates, Shepherd wrote.

It is important to understand the position that Shakespeare takes in interpreting the play. In my view, Shakespeare has cleverly incorporated what he thinks of colonialism into the play, enlightening and confusing us at the same time. While he is trying to make a hero of Prospero, he is also trying to evoke sympathy for Caliban and Ariel. Though there is no pardon for what Caliban has done (trying to rape Miranda), Shakespeare presents an idol for him to look up to – Ariel. Some have tried to draw influences of the Crusades in the play.

However, it is a historical fact that the Crusades were fought much earlier in the 12th century. Going at a tangent, I would like to say that seeking Christian themes in the play would be a rather easy task. Almost all of Shakespeare’s plays have good, evil, forgiveness, revenge and repentance. It is a given that Shakespeare lived in an era where he would have been influenced by the Church and its preaching. The human theme This brings me to the third theme of the play. The human aspect. It is said that Shakespeare was also influenced by Montaigne’s essay Of Cannibals, while writing The Tempest.

A striking proof of this is the fact that Caliban is an anagram for cannibal. However, I would like to bring to your notice to the similarities in the names of Caliban and Ariel with Cain and Abel. While there are many characters in the play, these two are in the centre along with Prospero. Most of the human or inhuman characteristics revolve around them. Power is the dominant word in the play. Every man wants to have the power to at least control his own world. His actions are governed by the yearning for this power.

To a certain extent, Prospero is successful in getting the power. His magic gives him the power to govern the island and even the seas. Ariel causes the tempest, on Prospero’s command. However, he failed when in the first place, his throne as duke of Milan was usurped by his younger brother. He was unable to use his power to prevent himself from being banished. In Milan, his magic did not work. Twelve years after his banishment, he wants revenge. And circumstance gives him that opportunity. However, his idea of power and justice is subjective.

We see that on the island, where Prospero is the sole authority, he has no qualms about enslaving Caliban and Ariel. It may seem a little ridiculous to the reader, but one should understand that it is a perspective play. It is seen from the eyes of the protagonist. Public sympathies are always with Prospero, and even more with Miranda. The good-natured Ariel is almost taken for granted and Caliban hardly deserves sympathy. After all, he is a deformed person, hardly human. However, there is justification for all at the end of the play, as in other Shakespeare romances.

Prospero returns to his rightful throne, he forgives his brother and his conspirators, Ferdinand and Miranda get married and more importantly, Caliban and Ariel get their freedom, as promised. But an unexpected development is that Prospero relinquishes his magical powers on the island. There is an underlying message that he may not have to use it ever again. William Shakespeare was a true renaissance writer. He supported the cause of the arts. However, in spite of the new thinking that was setting in, there was the underlying truth that good characteristics were always rewarded in the end.

Society was still in transition and knowledge was up for the grabs. Shakespeare was careful not to make any mistakes in the play. He was mindful of his audience. He met the requirements of the stage. He even went further and brought in a lot of music and effects. His work was certainly ahead of his times. Still, the play is set in the certain period and satisfied the thinking of that period, so much so that it was termed ‘great’ by many. Shakespeare heralded the Renaissance. Humanism – how much humans could accomplish – was prominent in his writings.

He explored colonialism in a way that would out the audience in thought. Expeditions and discoveries of lands were one thing but taking over another’s land was another. If you say Shakespeare and colonialism in the same breath, The Tempest is the only example, though race and color has been also presented in Othello. Concluding this discourse about The Tempest and history, I would like to quote Anne Barton. “The Tempest is an extraordinarily obliging work of art. It will lend itself to almost any interpretation, any set of meanings imposed upon it: it will even make them shine. ”


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 21 September 2016

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