Cultural Context of The Tempest

England of the early 1600s had undergone a radical change on monarch and was involved in ambitious ventures of discovery and colonial expansion. The new century brought challenges to the Elizabethan world view inherited from the Middle Ages, and this conflict is represented in the drama of the period.
There are a number of contemporary religious beliefs and social attitudes which throw light on the hopes, fears, thoughts and actions of the characters. Shakespeare exploits these contemporary religious beliefs and social attitudes while simultaneously calling them into question.
The Elizabethans inherited from medieval theology the concept of a hierarchical chain of being. This belief in a divine order was used to explain.. …the innate inferiority of women to men, thereby maintaining the unequal status quo in patriarchal societies of Elizabethan and Jacobean England.
The Tempest is philosophically daring in that it opens up important debates about the chain of being. In Act 1 scene 1, the Boatswain declares all men aboard the ship as equal in the face of the storm… …asking: ‘What cares these roarers for the name of king?’. Though a slave, Caliban speaks with greater dignity and beauty in his verse than Stephano or Trinculo’s drunken prose.
Gonzalo’s philosophical reflection on what constitutes a utopian society questions the value of the refinements of culture enjoyed… …by European civilization. Introduction of ‘progressive’ concepts like trade, law and land division are not necessarily improvements in human society.
Gonzalo thus acts as a mouthpiece for relativism, which believes that ideas of right and wrong, truth and falsehood differ from place to place… …and there can be no single reliable method of judging the value of any way of life as objectively superior to another.
Shakespeare seems to suggest that moral sensibility is not purely a product of social class. The island provides a microcosm in which characters from different… …backgrounds – Antonio, Sebastian, Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo – are all willing to attempt a coup against the ruling powers when given the opportunity.
It was believed that the failure to apply reason reduced humans to the animal state of being governed by appetite and instinct. A human who falls below the.. …level of man into the realm of bestiality is labeled a monster. The presence of Caliban – a reasonable monster contrasts to monstrous human characters.
Prospero’s assertion that ‘[Caliban] is as disproportioned in his manners / As in his shape’ is not altogether convincing. Caliban’s sophisticated use of verse, the same language used by nobles, belies his bestial appearance.
In Elizabethan literature, Nature and the imagery has two contradictory aspects: the benevolent and harmonious in contrast to the wild and violent. In Act 2 scene 1, Gonzalo states that ‘nature should bring forth’ and supply his ideal society, thus condemning the artificial livelihood of Europeans.
Shakespeare plays with the paradox of the existence of unnatural monsters and bodily instincts, which could only be bred by Nature and must be natural. The human struggle to impose nurture and refine natural forces is personified in the character of Caliban, a creature that is half devil and half human.
Caliban was befriended and taught to speak by Miranda and Prospero, but is then enslaved after he transgresses their moral laws. Prospero is certainly… …frustrated by what he sees as his lack of success in civilizing Caliban, as he calls him ‘A devil, a born devil, on whose nature/Nurture can never stick’.
It is a matter of debate whether Caliban is an ungrateful beneficiary of Prospero’s colonization of the island, or an oppressed native forced to obey foreign masters. The character of Caliban is important in relation to the European discovery of the New World. The attitude of cultural superiority brought by Europeans often lead to the indigenous peoples being treated cruelly.
The slavery industry was closely linked to colonization, influencing the way we view the play. At a time when world travel was unknown to all but a few, images of the ‘others’ sparked curiosity and fear. As Trinculo notes, the citizens of England ‘will lay out ten to see a dead Indian’ and Sebastian chastises Alonso for letting his ‘fair daughter’ marry the King of Tunis, alluding to Europeans having been attacked and confined while visiting foreign lands.
External appearance (physiognomy) was believed to be an indicator of what lay within (goodness or evil). Beauty and whiteness were associated with what was fair; ugliness and blackness with what was foul.
Caliban is described as a ‘thing of darkness’ while Ferdinand is so handsome that Miranda calls him ‘A thing divine’. A physical deformity was thought to be the devil’s mark. Prosper punishes Caliban’s attempted rape of Miranda…
…perhaps displaying a fear of miscegenation – racial impurity caused by sex of different races. This theme is echoed in Othello, when Brabantio hears of Desdemona’s marriage, ‘O treason of the blood!’.
The tension between appearance and reality is a central issue in the play. In Act 2 scene 1, Gonzalo marvels at the green ‘lush and lusty’ grass while Antonio remarks the ground ‘tawny’. In Act 3 scene 3, the courtiers are baffled by the banquet, ‘I cannot too much muse / Such shapes, such gesture and such sound’.
In Act 5, Alonso and Gonzalo are shocked by the stream of revelations made by Prospero – a man they both took to be dead. Given the magician’s control of magic and illusion, it is no surprise that the imagery of ‘airy charms’ permeates the language of the play.
Prosperous speech where he assets that ‘We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep’ works in combination… …with the Epilogue to highlight the illusory nature of the theatre, and of life itself. He seems to be questioning the very idea of what is real and not real.
The failure of reason was considered to the cause of the Fall of Man, and Elizabethans therefore believed it was dangerous to let reason be dominated by impulse. Characters in Shakespeare who become emotional were headed for a fall, as their intellect is what makes them human (superior to beasts) and keeps them sane.
Stephano and Trinculo submit to the disorientating influence of alcohol before being joined by Caliban. This sub-plot raises questions about which characters are the most bestial of the cast… …given that Caliban later renounces the bottle and the ‘dull fool’ whom he worshipped under its influence. Yet, they are sources of entertainment, mirroring the audience in the theatre that were likely to be drunk.
Machiavelli was an Italian who advocated self-interest as a means of political advancement. This philosophy is adopted by several Shakespeare villains, including Antonio and Sebastian. It is interesting that Prospero rejects such duplicitous political strategies at the end of the play, hoping that he has taught the usurpers an unforgettable lesson.
Critics have debated the wisdom of this judgment, some labeling his actions na├»ve while others magnanimous. Although Prospero forgives ‘[Antonio’s] rankest fault, all of them’, he threatens to turn them in as traitors but ‘at this time, [he] will tell no tales’.
Romance in 1600s was reflected in the genre of courtly love, represented by Ferdinand and Miranda. Ferdinand is a handsome prince, and Miranda is the rightful heir to the throne of Milan.
Their relationship unfolds quickly, but is characterised by Ferdinand’s chivalrous manners and poetic language. He, unlike Caliban, gladly suffers… …carrying wood for Prospero because he can be with her. In turn, Miranda offers to lighten his load, displaying sympathy for the man he loves.
Another traditional motif of the romance is Miranda swearing her fidelity to him, whether or not he decides to marry her… ‘I am your wife if you will marry me. / If not, I’ll die your maid. To be your fellow / You may deny me, but I’ll be your servant’.
The female object of affection was also expected to have rival suitors competing for her hand, which… unconventionally, could be represented in Stephano’s desire to take her as his queen and Caliban’s attempt.
Romance was concerned with exotic tales of magic, superstition and travel to distant places, and brought together the masculine ideals of the soldier and the… …lover, as in the Arthurian legends. By definition, the courtly lover had to be a member of high society and concerned with the notions of honour and reputation.
Ferdinand, on hearing Miranda, exclaims, ‘I am the best of them that speak this speech’. Having found himself on an island, Ferdinand’s tale has the potential to be an Arthurian adventure – rescuing a beautiful damsel from her tyrannical father. Yet, it is Prospero’s tale, being behind the events that unite the dukedoms.
Nowadays, a modern audience might wonder at the insistence on female chastity in many Shakespeare plays. The security of society and peace of mind of… …men was dependent on a woman’s virginity before marriage, making them a bargaining tool for advantageous marriages to benefit a father’s status.
Ferdinand asks Miranda if she is a virgin and loves another man, implying that he cannot marry her if she is unfaithful. In a society which passed inheritance… …down the male line, men needed to ensure that the son was their own and not someone else’s bastard. A man’s honour would be also ruined by unfaithful wife.
Virginity and chastity were linked to religion via the Virgin Mary and not only regarded as the ideal state for women, but as a test of nobility of males, since only… …the higher orders were thought to be able to resist the temptations of flesh. Hence, Prospero’s strictures on the subject to Ferdinand before the masque scene.
However, eldest or only-child daughters in Shakespeare tend to be more rebellious e.g. Juliet (Romeo and Juliet), Katharina (Taming of the Shrew). This may be due to their assuming some masculine roles in the absence of a male hair, as Elizabeth I did when she ascended the throne.
Women were possessions, financially dependent on their fathers, to whom they owed obedience, until they were handed to the rule of their husbands, whom they had to love, honour and obey. The consequences of not performing daughterly and wifely duties were dire – being disowned and deprived of a place in society.
Prospero is an authoritarian father to Miranda, delivering stern lectures and engineering her relationship with Ferdinand. However, there is no… …reason to disbelieve his claim that he has ‘done nothing but in care of thee’, caring for her for twelve years and securing her a future in the dukedom.
Prospero and Miranda are free of the scrutiny of public opinion, having lived on a secluded island. In this sense, it is acceptable that Miranda has grown into a women who is slightly atypical of her time. She breaks her father’s commandment not to tell Ferdinand her name and is the first to raise the idea of marriage, rather than waiting for him to propose.
Miranda also defends Ferdinand from Prospero’s claim that he is a traitor, tugging on Prospero’s clothes in the name of love. Nonetheless, Miranda still finds herself subject to the demands of the men around her, being the sole female with limited autonomy.
Evil spirits are believed to be on the watch for an opportunity to corrupt and snatch a human soul from the path of righteousness. All magic was considered suspicious and there was no clear distinction between ‘white’ and ‘black’ magic. King James even believed magic was a force for evil.
Although Ariel’s spirits initially appear to be good to the courtiers as they present a banquet in Act 3 scene 3, they remove the feast and Sebastian proceeds to run after them to kill ‘one fiend at a time’. Even apparently benevolent magical forces were considered to be evil spirits who had acquired a deceptive outer appearance of goodness.
A Jacobean audience would have a suspicious attitude to Prospero’s magic and it is therefore no surprise that he breaks his staff and discards his magic books by the end of the play. Alchemy was the scientific study of turning base metal into valuable gold, which was still practised in the 17th century. Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson wrote a play based around this pursuit – The Alchemist.
For some alchemists, the practice contained element of mysticism and allowed them to feel that they were changing the fabric of the world. This godlike power reflects Prospero’s relationship with Caliban, as the magician attempts to turn a base man into a ‘civilised’ human being.
Likewise, the magician’s actions at the end of the play suggest that he is hoping to transform ‘evil’ characters into ‘good’ ones by showing them forgiveness. In this sense, Prospero shows the hubris of a character assuming the power of a god to impose his own values and change others.

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