Shakespeare lived in an ever-expanding world where ‘new’ lands were being discovered. Gold, glory and God were the
three impetuses for the age of exploration: that is to gain wealth from exotic products that were imported, to gain prestige for nations through colonising distant lands and to spread Christianity. In some cases the escape to the ‘new’ country was to
escape religious persecution, as was the case of the Puritans’ move to America.
Shipwrecks were common occurrences which were reported and which Shakespeare would have known about. As well as
products from different places, people were transported to be displayed like objects. Perhaps the most famous of the arrivals was the Princess Pocahontas who saved explorer John Smith in 1607. Curiosity was high and many native people were treated as freak shows to be gawped at.
Shakespeare clearly draws on the tales of travellers that were prevalent in his time. He also reveals the arrogant perceptions about the superiority of the English over native people they encountered.
The World of James I
By 1610, James had stabilised his regime. Religious squabbles had diminished and there was an uneasy peace between England and her traditional enemies France and Spain. The competitiveness of the different countries was realised in the quest to discover new lands over which to extend dominion. As part of this expansion, England had recently founded settlements on the east coast of North America. Contextually therefore discovery was linked to political power.
The succession had been difficult with many opposing factions. James I, as successor to Queen Elizabeth, wrote her eulogy in 1603 in which he used the analogy of David passing
on his wisdom to Solomon to describe his new reign. He liked to describe himself as the English Solomon and he certainly started his reign in the style of a humanist.
James I (James VI of Scotland) had been educated by Scottish poet, dramatist and humanist scholar George Buchanan and received a humanist liberal education (studia humanitatis) in preparation for his public role. This education was both contemplative and active designed to maintain wise governance or power and hence shape the body politic
successfully, controlling the forces of anarchy.
In The Tempest Shakespeare shows himself a master of political finesse through the character of Prospero, where James would see some reflection of his own role as a wise ruler. There are many parallels between James and Prospero and even the name of the main character, “I will prosper”, is a form of flattery of the king.
The Kings Men and Early Performace of the Play
James I was an avid patron of theatre and playwrights. Under royal patent, Shakespeare's troupe, The Chamberlain’s Men
became the King's Men and with the king’s patronage, the company had many opportunities to perform for royalty.
The Tempest was written to suit James’ concerns, its subject matter dealing with conspiracy (James had a few years before survived the Gunpowder Plot), its themes of authority, control and “natural order” and its supernatural elements, which held a long-time fascination for the king. The performance
was repeated a year later at the wedding of James I’s daughter Elizabeth to Frederick, Prince Palatine, an appropriate choice with the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand (in The Tempest) mirroring the royal union and the masque paying homage to connubial harmony. In this play Shakespeare shows himself a master of political finesse through the character of Prospero, where James
would see some reflection of his own role as a wise ruler.
At this time ideas and texts from the classical period (Roman and Greek times) were being rediscovered.
Renaissance authors had knowledge of dramatic traditions and philosophy. It was the beginning of universities. Where previously only the religious had time for reading and contemplation, now these activities were available to more men and even some women.
There was a consequent explosion of knowledge and the search for knowledge with new inventions such as ship
technology enabling people to go further than they had imagined possible.
Within the period of the Renaissance and when Shakespeare composed 'The Tempest' there was a theological shift where humans were rediscovering their spirituality by beginning to move away from seeing themselves as sinners
and instead focusing on their potential and their achievements.
Humanism was a key part of the Renaissance spirit. Humanists are concerned with the possibilities of humanity
and believe that people can achieve spiritual perfection.
This involved the pursuit for knowledge and power.
There was a spirit of discovery and adventure and a quest for discovering new territories.
Humanism is the essence of the Renaissance. Humanist
values are greatly emphasised in this period. Humanism sees human beings as glorious creatures capable of individual development in the direction of perfection, and that the world they inhabited was theirs to question, explore and enjoy. Humanists
believe that man did not only have the right to enjoy
the beauty of this world but had the ability to perfect himself, and to perform wonders.
Renaissance humanism involved the study of the Greek and Roman classics and through them, the arts of rhetoric, history, poetry and philosophy. One element of philosophy was the notion of the Great Chain of Being (developed from the ideas of Aristotle, Plato and Plotinus) which postulated a natural order of things from God at the top down to stones at
Humanism, The Great Chain of Being and The Tempest
Prospero’s discovery – knowledge and learning have provided him with wisdom.
Using his knowledge Prospero orchestrates the action of the play in order to restore the moral balance and injustice of his usurpation.
Prospero therefore seeks truth and perfection – order in the chaos.
Gonzalo is a man who also seeks perfection – in that quest for perfection he also seeks truth and knowledge.
The play can be seen to be about the rediscovery of political truth.
Gonzalo sees beauty and possibility in the island.
Miranda discovers beauty in mankind – “how beauteous mankind is”.
The masque acts a symbol of perfection/unity.
Miranda: “O brave new world/
That has such people in 't!”
Gonzalo: “Here is everything advantageous to life”
Adrian: "The air breathes upon us here most sweetly"
Sebastian: "As if it had lungs and rotten ones."
Antonio: "Or as 'twere perfumed by a fen."
As a literary trope
it allows for the development of action and ideas that cannot happen outside the confined and controlled space of an island. It enables different people to come together and gain new insights outside the normal spheres of influence.
Physical distance allows different spheres of action to take place unbeknown to all the characters. The audience, Ariel and Prospero are the only ones privy to the different spheres of action.
New World Vs Old World
For those from the Old World, the island is not so much the New World but a new world to be explored, a world that poses its challenges, obstacles and uncertainties. It is a world of wonders and marvels where nature seems to have different laws. It is a place where discoveries are different for each person.
Shakespeare often uses lists to convey the breadth and impact of an idea, event, place.
Antithesis operates much like oxymoron suggesting that perspectives can be varied for the same object or discovery.
Antithesis also adds an element of wit and humour in this play.
Sounds signal the entry of magic into the play. These sounds are part of the island, creating fear in many of the newcomers. They can be captured in the onomatopoeia or through the alliterations or assonance.The alliteration and the assonance add to the musicality of the play and also suggest the strangeness of the island to some of the newcomers.
Perhaps more than other Shakespeare’s plays The Tempest is filled with beautiful visual imagery to capture the sense of wonder in encountering a new place.
Part of Prospero’s power is his ability to conjure up spirits who are not from the world of Christianity. His books have been a source of discovery of this world of spirits such as Fortune, Fate, Iris, Ceres, Juno. In terms of discovery this is very much part of the Renaissance learning and the rediscovery of ancient writings. Writers therefore had access to a wide range of
There is frequent use of exclamations in this text which captures the excitement and amazement of finding things anew.
Shakespeare uses many hyphenated words to describe the effect of something new or different. These combinations compress ideas and images as well as lending more verbal musicality to a play that includes many musical sequences.
Given that the characters are constantly finding new information this text is full of questions that arise when encountering the new. The questions can have different functions sometimes serving to:
• ask for more information
• clarify situations or
• act rhetorically.
Prose or Poetry
Shakespeare usually uses blank verse, that is to say verse that doesn’t have a rhyming pattern at the end of each line. Sometimes he adds rhyming couplets and other times he uses prose. In this play prose indicates a lower class and is used by Stephano and Trinculo. Caliban may be a malevolent character but his speeches are lyrical even when he is issuing a curse against Prospero (II ii 1-17).
The wordplay in the play with words sounding close to another word and creating witty connections, reminds us of the process of identification in discovery with new objects being compared to what is known.