William Shakespeare’s The Tempest: A Review
Through the years there has been much debate as to whether Shakespeare’s The Tempest is an allegory to European colonization and colonial life, or if it is his “farewell to the stage” with a complete overview of the stage and a compilation of all of his characters into a few, in which the playwright himself being presented as Prospero. Is The Tempest an allegory to European colonization, or is it Shakespeare, presenting his formal farewell to the stage?
Many believe that Shakespeare, personified his character into Prospero, because Prospero ultimately created the entire plot of the play with his magic, which he obtained shortly after being marooned on the island. Because The Tempest was one of only two of Shakespeare’s works that were entirely original, one could see why this would be the easiest position to take; after all, Prospero basically writes the play himself, by creating a complicated plot to regain his dukedom from which he was usurped. He also controls every character in the play, some with loving relationships, some with just the opposite. Watching” Prospero create and work through the play, is almost like watching the playwright write the play, from start to finish. His extremely manipulative control over all characters in the play, and his delicate and sometimes hard to understand strategy in “capturing” the king is symbolized in the end in which Miranda and Ferdinand are revealed playing chess. Because of this, his dukedom is surrendered back to him, for which matter he also surrenders his magic in order to fit in with the world which he is about to rejoin after twelve years.
This play very much does show the magic and ability to create anything in the world of theatre, even a barren theatre like the Globe, before the wonders of technology could create special effects and realistic scenery. This is ironic because the vivid descriptions that the characters give of the island, whether good or bad, are not achievable through primitive scenery as there was in Shakespeare’s day, so therefore are left up to the audience for interpretation.
For instance: Adr: Though this island be desert? Uninhabitable and almost inaccessible? The air breathes upon us here the most Seb: As if it had lungs, and rotten ones Ant: Or as if t’were perfumed by a fen Gon: How lush and lusty the grass looks, How Green! Ant: The ground indeed is tawny (Act II. Scene I. ) This is just one example of how in this play, Shakespeare allows the reader to take a look into the playwright’s mind and how life as a playwright was to Shakespeare.
After all, if every play were written in the magical world of The Tempest, Hamlet would have been reunited with Ophelia, and King Hamlet would have risen from the dead in order to forgive his murder and restore his kingdom (Johnston 6), or Lady Macbeth would have finally washed that “damned spot” out of her hand, with out going crazy, and Duncan would have forgiven Macbeth before he obtained his extreme pessimistic view of life in general, provided that Macbeth surrender his kingdom back to Duncan.
It is a world without real tragedy, only staged tragedy, and it is the world in which Shakespeare is possibly trying to imply that the playwright lives, because his magic, like Prospero’s is only good in his world, or in his case, the stage. One of the main indicators that perhaps this was his final farewell to the stage is Prospero’s epilogue to the play. In it he states that in order to rejoin life outside his isolated island where anything is possible, he must “drown his book” or give up his magic.
This is very significant because to many readers it symbolizes Shakespeare “drowning his book” or preparing to re-enter society without the imagination with which he created plays. Prospero tells the audience that he is a slave to his own magic, and that in order for him to be set free, they must applaud him, so he can leave. This is possibly also symbolic of Shakespeare giving up his play writing and that in order for him to be set free from the imagination and creativity, the audience must applaud him one last time so as to satisfy the insatiable desire for applause that the playwright has.
He also may be trying to show how it was very easy for him to get caught up in his own capabilities as playwright, and forgotten the main purpose of the play, which is not to show off. This is also illustrated by the wedding masque that Prospero performs with his magic, forgetting that there are three men attempting to take his life, while he shows off. When he remembers this, he must force himself back to reality, and focus on accomplishing the goal of stopping this rebellion of Caliban. Johnston 8) Prospero’s surrender of his magic also symbolizes that he has accomplished all there is to accomplish, and he is now going back home to contemplate life and live in peace, as Shakespeare did shortly after he completed this play. (Johnston 9) In any case, it is very tempting to idealize this play as Shakespeare’s formal farewell to the stage, but it isn’t necessarily logical, since he wrote still two plays after The Tempest. This play may have been his last great work, but it was not his last work period. So, perhaps there is another motive behind the writing of this play.
There are a few occurrences in the play that suggest a common bond with early European colonization. For instance, when Prospero arrived on the island originally, he found Caliban, since he was not able to communicate with Caliban, Prospero educated him and enslaved him, but only after he had shown Prospero how to sustain himself and Miranda with food and hunting and trapping. This is very symbolic of the traditional Thanksgiving story, and the Jamestown story as well, both of which were being settled around the time of this play.
The reasoning behind why Caliban was enslaved, and Ariel was set free from the pine tree was that Caliban was a “savage,” a native to the land, and a person that Prospero and Miranda did not know how to handle. He is considered to be a creature of the earth, and Ariel was a beautiful spirit of the air. Caliban is portrayed as indistinguishable whether he is man or monster, and so therefore, he was enslaved. (Mandel, Steward, Phillips 17) Another of the major themes in the play is that of the allure of colonization.
During the race to colonize the New World in the early 15th Century, the three major powers, Spain, France and England were each competing for claims in the New World. (Schmalbach, Newman 32) Concerning the treatment of Natives, Spain was the worst, but Spain backed off of their exploration, in order to pursue other matters. Next in line was England. England was known for her harsh treatment, and enslavement of the Natives, while France was known for having the best relations with them, and even sided with them to try and chase England out of the New World, so they ould stake claims to central locations for trapping and trading. This is illustrated by Caliban’s request to overthrow Prospero, his soon to be former master, and Stephano’s agreement to do so, so that he and Miranda can “rule as king and queen. ” (Act III. Scene II. ) This is an illustration of how the Natives, in order to get out from under the oppressment of their former rulers, the English, they assumed a new “master” by gaining French assistance.
As the party of nobles is looking for Ferdinand, they begin to discuss what they would do if they were given lordship of the island. Their responses are greatly similar to the true occurrences concerning the early English colonies. Even Gonzalo, who wants to have equality among men in his colony, is contradicted as Antonio points out that he would still be ruler over them, and it would be no different than England. Sebastian feels that he would “take it home for his son as an apple” and then “plant the seeds in the sea, bringing forth more islands. (Act II. Scene II) This illustrates the lust for power and conquering that the English had, since they could not just be happy with part of the natives land so they had to take more, and create additional colonies with it. Eventually in history, the English did drive out the natives completely, moving them twice before finally settling them permanently. They then created all of the colonies, which became the states we know today. This particular scene illustrates this very well.
In October of 1996, the archaeologists on Jamestown Island discovered a ring with the signet of William Strachey, a man who wrote a letter to a woman in England in 1610 concerning the islands off the coast of Bermuda. It is believed that this letter may have made it into the hands of Shakespeare, from which he acquired very descriptive information about the islands, and the colonization of them. It described the English treatment of natives, and a shipwreck that Strachey was in that marooned him there. Andrews 1) In this letter, he described in detail a similar shipwreck, as well as an island almost identical to the one Shakespeare chose to maroon his characters on in the play. (Andrews 1) In conclusion, one can clearly see, that although Shakespeare may have used the Tempest as his farewell in a sense, and used it to describe himself as Prospero, the evidence supports the claim much more strongly that he was simply creating a magical, mystical, allusion to the European colonization of the 15th century, and