November 15

The Tempest,I

Of Rulers and the Ruled

The play is fascinated with power politics and with questions concerning the proper uses and limits of authority. It is written in 1611, at a time of increasing friction between monarch and Parliament during the reign of James I (the first Stuart monarch--he succeeded Queen Elizabeth I in 1603). James was a firm believer in the ruler's absolute prerogative.

(NB: 30 years later the English Civil War will pit the supporters of Charles I, James's son and successor, against Parliamentary forces. Charles I is executed by Parliament in 1649 and the monarchy is not restored until 1660.)

"Where's the Master?"

Prospero's island is disputed territory (just as his dukedom had been) with its past and present plots, rebellions, and attempted usurpations of authority. Note also the play's interest in parallels and analogies, in multiple actions that constantly comment upon one another:

The Island and the New World

Mystery of the island's location: it seems to be in the Mediterranean, but its actual location seems less important than the kind of imaginative space it represents, as an alternative world which is laid open to a series of colonizers. (Note the play's echoes of the pamphlets describing a shipwreck in the Bermudas of settlers traveling to the Virginia colony.)

Caliban and the Narratives/Projects of Colonization

Consider the competing histories we are offered in the play:

The Tempest's language embraces two quite different stories about Europe's relations with the New World: the imaginative space of its action plays around with BOTH these viewpoints simultaneously.

  1. Tendency of colonizing powers to suggest that "natural" man is a savage in need of the (Christian) education provided by European civilization. His primitive & unenlightened state justifies any exploitation of his territory & himself by the colonizing powers.
  2. In contrast, some Renaissance writers imagine the New World not as a place of debased primitivism but as an unspoiled Eden, a golden world, to be contrasted favorably with the corrupt, decadent, artificial "civilization" of Europe.

Michel de Montaigne's "Of the Cannibals" (published in the English translation of his Essays in 1603) offers an instructive parallel. Montaigne speculates that in the New World we can actually see a model of "golden age" existence, in harmony with nature, before its corruption by the so-called arts of civilization.

Gonzalo quotes Montaigne's vision in his fantasies of 2.1.157ff. But even as he posits a Golden Age world without "sovereignty," he can't help imagining himself king of it. The limits of fallen language. The impossibility of the nostalgic vision that seeks to recover Paradise. The island is less an escape from the Old World than a reflection of it: within its space, familiar appetites are pursued & familiar conflicts are played out in a particularly intensified fashion.

Prospero's God-like Omniscience?

Consider his role as onlooker of the various actions in the island. Note also the whole issue of the nature and limits of Prospero's powers (e.g., Caliban's insistence that the plotters must capture his books "For without them / He's but a sot as I am, nor hath not / One spirit to command."

The ruler as god/magician/actor in this play. (The mystification of coercion as a theme in The Tempest.)