How does The Tempest reflect the consequences for various characters of the isolation of the individual from society?

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Daniel Stroud


The Tempest by William Shakespeare

Done by Daniel Stroud


How does The Tempest reflect the consequences for various characters of the isolation of the individual from society?

How do the characters change and adapt to there new surroundings throughout the play? This is the question that will be answered in depth, in this essay. It will explore each individual character and try to explain just how that character is transformed from being in civilisation too being trapped on an isolated island. It will try to explain why they change and whether the change is necessary and good and whether it helps to shape the specific character into a better person.

But for one to start looking at the specific characters one must first understand how they came to be on the island. They came to be because of a powerful wizard by the name of Prospero, who made the tempest, which drove their ship onto the island

Shakespeare’s enchanted island in The Tempest is a restorative pastoral setting, a place where “no man was his own”, and a place that offers endless possibilities to the people that arrive on its shores. It represents “the bounds of things, the remotest shores of the world”. On the boundary of reality, the island partakes of the natural and supernatural, both the imaginative and the real. It allows the exploration of both man’s potential and his limitations, his capacity for reform through art and his affinity for political and social realities. It is in constructing this opposition between art and reality and in giving Shakespeare’s  the freedom to explore mankind free from the concerns of everyday life that the setting of The Tempest is crucial to its overall dramatic design.

The only scene of the play that does not take place on the island is the opening scene. This is in itself an important use of setting. We have the boatswain’s apparently inappropriate thought that there are none aboard the ship that “I love more than myself”. In fact, quite the reverse is true. In the court scene one is presented with the characters Antonio and Sebastian, who are interested in political gain despite the predicament in which they find themselves, in this respect the setting functions to present the idea that our social conditioning is more important than the time or place, in which we are placed. The island setting thus gives Shakespeare the opportunity to present man as an enthusiastic political animal, free from the troubles of everyday life in the real world. The repeated plots of assassination and usurpation show us this notion. Prospero usurped the island’s sovereignty, Sycorax usurped control of the local spirit population, and there are no less than three plots to usurp power during the course of the play. The number of these subplots and the way in which they are presented in a mimetic
 has the effect of giving The Tempest its characteristic density. They would only be possible on the island setting, which has its own history and its own ability to tempt the characters to conspiracy.

The island is also a powerful means of conveying the traits of the characters. This is made possible by the fact that it appears to change depending on who is regarding it. The initial responses of the characters to their arrival on the island illustrate this idea. For Gonzalo it is temperate and full of possibility, he dreams of a commonwealth “t’excell the Golden Age”. For Antonio it is barren and unforgiving, he remarks that it has “everything, save means to live”. The conspirators Antonio and Sebastian mock the advisor’s observation that their clothes are undamaged and cleaner than before, but this is an interesting metaphor for the function of the island setting. The characters have been refreshed rather than hurt by their shipwreck; and, as in all Elizabethan romances, providence offers them the opportunity for a new life. By rejecting this notion and showing themselves to be concerned only with dynastic politics and power, the characters illustrate the pervasiveness of political and social realities in a world ruled by art.

The pervasiveness of dynastic politics is further developed by Ferdinand, who locates his sorrow in a set of political relationships, remarking “My language! Heavens, I am the best of them that speak this speak” and finding political measure for his love of Miranda, declaring “I’ll make you the queen of Naples”. Alonso also mourns for his son by thinking of him in terms of his dynastic position, “Mine heir | Of Naples and Milan”. These situations are all occasions where the true motivations of the characters can be discovered by the use of setting as a means to engineer situations where we can discover more about their characters.

Contrasted with these social realities are the utopian dreams of the play. All of these dreams are located in the context of the characters’ imaginings out the isle. First is Gonzalo’s dream, followed by Caliban’s vision for an island where he has power, riches and peace:

“The isle is full o’noises…
Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not…
… Riches, ready to drop upon me…
I cried to dream again”

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These poetic lines spoken by Caliban in lank verse establish him as a complex, three-dimensional character and largely account for the fact that he has been presented in recent productions of The Tempest as a sympathetic character, rather than the “savage and deformed slave” of the past. His dream of a  is catalysed, of course, by the island setting.

The contrast between the representative characters and the magic art of the island does not resolve itself; rather, it leaves the audience in what Russ McDonald called a “marginal condition between expectation and understanding, affirmation and scepticism, comedy and
”. The setting ...

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