The Tempest Act 1 Scene 2

The Tempest Act 1 Scene 2

The Tempest Act 1:2 The first of the play’s sub-plots continues the theme of usurpation introduced in Act I scene 2. There is a clear parallel between Antonio’s coup against his brother Prospero, Sebastian’s pledge to murder his brother, and the plot devised by Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo against Prospero. On the island, natural order seems to have descended into chaos, and man’s natural instinct for power and liberty inspires a series of murderous plans.

The reference to the marriage between Claribel and the King of Tunis allows Shakespeare to explore interracial relations, and acts as an interesting inversion of cultural stereotypes. Instead of dominating a ‘primitive’ foreign kingdom, as Prospero does, Alonso has effectively made his daughter – a ‘fair soul’ – the possession of a dark skinned African. Although it is not clear why he agreed to the match, he may well have done so for political reasons, as a way of opening up trade routes between Europe and Africa. Sebastian’s angry reaction to Claribel’s nuptials certainly suggests that she did not marry for love.

In plot terms, her distance from Naples means that she is now unlikely to succeed to her father’s throne, and that Alonso would have no immediate heir if Ferdinand were to die, as all the characters assume he has done. Gonzalo’s utopian reflections derive from Michel de Montaigne’s ‘Of the Cannibals’, a prose tract which considered the nature of humankind in the light of recent voyages to the New World. Montaigne argued that, contrary to the predominant belief of those conducting the explorations, the indigenous populations of foreign lands need not be considered culturally inferior to the Europeans pioneers.

Gonzalo seems to agree with Montaigne that ‘civilisation’ – or the development of concepts like trade, division of land and law – do not necessarily make man any better than living by more primitive or ‘natural’ laws. This philosophical speech echoes some of the concerns of the Boatswain in Act 1 scene 1, where we are reminded that all human beings are essentially made of the same matter and subject to the same natural dangers as one another, whether kings or servants, nobles or tribesmen. Gonzalo’s philosophical considerations would have been particularly pertinent at a time when English colonies were being set up in the New World.

The barrage of contradictory adjectives used by the courtiers to describe the island tells us more about these characters than the play’s setting. Whether the air breathes ‘sweetly’, or is ‘rotten’, whether the grass is ‘lush and lusty’ or brown and ‘tawny’, is less revealing than the fact that the loyal optimist Gonzalo sees the good in the island, whereas the cynical Sebastian and Antonio sees only its faults. In this sense, the island itself has no definitive nature, and it is simply the respective evil or goodness of the characters which reflected in their view of it.

The quick wordplay between these characters also acts as light comic relief. It is full of trademark Shakespearean with, which defuses the feelings of discomfort evoked in the last scene by Prospero’s severe treatment of Ferdinand. Act Two Overview Act 2 demonstrates Shakespeare’s skill in dramatic construction as he balances the menacing tones of Scene 1 against the comedy of scene 2. The result is a complex theatrical experience in which the comedy reflects and expresses common themes. The issue of rightful authority, so prominent in Act 1, recurs in both scenes.

Antonio and Sebastian concoct their assassination plot to seize power, and Caliban rejects the control of one master only to embrace that of the drunken Stephano. He remains an abject slave. The mood of the play may change but the meaning is cleverly intertwined with what has gone before. In Gonzalo’s ‘commonwealth’ speech Shakespeare provides a radically different view of rightful authority. In that utopian vision it simply disappears: no government is necessary or desired. Gonzalo’s speech also provides a vivid contrast to how Caliban is portrayed.

In the ideal commonwealth there are no savages, only peaceful people who live naturally in harmony. As scene 1 unfolds, that theme of nature versus nurture (or ‘civilisation’) is given a bitingly ironic twist as the ‘civilised’ Antonio and Sebastian prepare to murder their way to power. The episode in which Antonio leads Sebastian into planned bloodshed has been compared with other examples of Shakespeare’s ‘temptation’ scenes: Lady Macbeth spurring on Macbeth to murder Duncan (Macbeth); King John prompting Hubert to murder Arthur (King John).

But Shakespeare is not only drawing upon his own playwriting experience; he also incorporates aspects of the world he knew. Caliban’s encounter with Stephano and Trinculo reflects what happened when Europeans colonised the Americas. The Europeans assumed that they were superior to the native people; tried to make money out of them, drugged them with alcohol, and made them their slaves or servants. Prospero has been absent from the act, but his presence is strongly felt. In Scene 1, through Ariel, he provokes and prevents the murder attempt. In scene 2, his role as tyrannical slave-owner has been declared and rejected by Caliban