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Explore early-seventeenth century attitudes to the 'New World' in The Tempest.

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Introduction

05/03/03 English Literature: The Tempest James Hare Explore early-seventeenth century attitudes to the 'New World' in The Tempest One of the most influential writers in all of English literature, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 to a successful middle-class glove-maker in Stratford-upon-Avon. Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. Around 1590 he left his family behind and travelled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Shakespeare quickly received public and critical acclaim and soon became the most popular playwright in England and a part owner of the Globe Theatre. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. The Tempest is probably the last play Shakespeare wrote, being written around 1610, first performed at Court by the King's Men in the autumn of 1611. It is remarkable for being one of only two plays he wrote in which the plot was entirely original. The Tempest is a play exploring the ethics of the expansions of the British Empire through colonisation. Shakespeare sees colonisation as an expression of power and almost every character in this play ponders how he would rule the island, were he its ruler. The 'New World' was the name given to the newly discovered lands around the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This included the Americas, discovered by Columbus, and much of Africa, which was colonised by Britain and France. Colonisation is the act of discovering a new territory and taking control of the land and its native inhabitants. These new immigrants did not adapt to their new culture, but remained subject to the jurisdiction of their parent state. The acquisition of colonies occurred for a variety of reasons. It was a time of expansion and exploration as sailors built ships to travel around the world. There was also rivalry between European powers and the expansion of commercial interests was a major factor in looking for new resources. ...read more.

Middle

Where Ariel has power, Caliban has brawn and thus Ariel is more of a servant where Caliban is a slave by any other name. Prospero and Caliban share a stormy relationship where Caliban is Prospero's slave. Caliban is constantly resentful of Prospero's orders because he was once free and resents being enslaved. He is always challenging Prospero's power and cursing him in an attempt to gain back his island. Caliban feels hard-done by because he believes Prospero has done him a huge injustice by seizing the isle that was formerly his. "This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother, Which thou tak'st from me." [I.ii.332] Caliban suggests that his situation is much the same as Prospero's, whose brother usurped his dukedom. Caliban's desire for sovereignty of the island mirrors the lust for power that led Antonio to overthrow Prospero. Prospero uses idle treats of curses and violence to scare Caliban into submission, assuming that this is necessary because that is the only way he sees him respond. "...Tonight thou shalt have cramps, Side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up..." [I.ii.325] Caliban argues that he was kind to Prospero, and that Prospero repaid his kindness by imprisoning him. In contrast, Prospero claims that he only stopped being kind to Caliban once Caliban had tried to rape Miranda. Which character the audience decides to believe depends on whether they view Caliban as inherently brutish, or as made brutish by oppression. I do think that on the one hand Prospero as a father is somewhat justified in enslaving Caliban to protect his daughter's safety. He fears that because Caliban is remorseless, he may attempt to do it again. "O ho, O ho, would't had been done! Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else This island with Calibans." [I.ii.349] However, I also believe that Prospero is taking advantage of the situation and using Miranda to justify keeping Caliban as a slave. ...read more.

Conclusion

Further on in the play, Miranda laments with joy "O brave new world / That has such people in't!" [v.i.184] This quote shows a bit of naivety on her part because she does not entirely know what is happening regarding the power struggles and injustice around her. Shakespeare reveals the reality of injustice present in colonisation through The Tempest. The main theme of the play is power and the allure of ruling a colony. Stephano represents the exploitation of natives by colonisers and the trio of Prospero, Stephano and Trinculo personify the greed. In Act IV, scene i, reminded of Caliban's plot, Prospero refers to him as a "devil, a born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick" [IV.i.188]. Miranda and Prospero both have contradictory views of Caliban's humanity. On the one hand, they think that their education of him has lifted him from his originally brutish status. On the other hand, they seem to see him as inherently brutish. His devilish nature can never be overcome by nurture, according to Prospero; Miranda expresses a similar sentiment in Act I, scene ii: "thy vile race, / Though thou didst learn, had that in't which good natures / Could not abide to be with" [I.ii.361]. The inhuman part of Caliban drives out the human part, the "good nature," that is imposed on him. "...This thing of darkness I Acknowledge mine." [V.i.272] This subtle confession shows that Prospero does admit to being unjust toward Caliban, and that it could have been his actions that turned Caliban into a monster. In The Tempest Shakespeare shows that human nature is the same in all societies and in so doing presents a more honest and realistic appraisal of colonisation as a form of exploitation and oppression as much as exploration and expansion. In this way he challenges the common prevailing myth of the 'New World' as places of peace and prosperity. In this he was well ahead of his time, revealing many insights that were only acknowledged by later generations in hindsight. 1 ...read more.

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