y Tempest essaysRelevance of The Tempest in the Modern World
The Tempest, a pastoral tragicomedy by William Shakespeare, was written in the Renaissance period, around 1611. When the play was written, the particular context that the author intended and that the audience received would be different to the meanings and ideas that we pick up from studying or viewing the play now, nearly 400 years later. For example, the way that women in particular are portrayed in old plays such as The Tempest is quite derogatory and would be unacceptable for a modern play. (Unless it was trying to recreate a historical location.) Various meanings in The Tempest demonstrate this difference in the distinct readings that you can find in the text today, and those meanings that we can try to simulate by looking at the text from a historical context.
One meaning that could have been picked up from the play, both in the seventeenth century and now, is that ‘there are always lessons to be learnt about your true nature, and always ways to improve yourself.’ This meaning is largely picked up from the central character of Prospero, the ruler of the magical island of The Tempest. Prospero, as the self-appointed ‘mentor’ of the people who have landed on his island, must teach everybody a lesson about themselves, and try to make them better people; for example, the socially-constructed and arrogant Ferdinand. It is unclear exactly how much the love between him and Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, was engineered by Prospero and how much was actually love, but by using the love between the young couple, he can make Ferdinand into a upstanding and respectable youth. To do this he gives him some chores to do, such as carrying firewood and other menial tasks. He also freezes him with his magic and keeps him in chains for a while. In doing this, Ferdinand exclaims he would do anything to win Miranda as his wife, “”…Might I but through my prison once a day Behold this maid,”” which secretly pleases Prospero. The others on the island are also taught a lesson: Antonio realizes his guilt for what he has done for the sake of political alliance, after stopping Antonio and Sebastian, they are forgiven (but not repentant.) After punishing Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo, he forgives them and releases them; “”Come hither, spirit. Set Caliban and his companions free. Untie the spell.”” The play ends on a lighter note, with a tone of forgiveness and reconciliation, the meaning which can be divined from the play even now.
When looking at The Tempest from a historical context, one meaning that many analysts seem to have discovered is one that deals with the New World of the Americas and the beginnings of colonialism and the British Empire. Sometimes it is known as ‘fear of the other’ or fear of what is unknown, but in this play it also means more to do with new opportunity and a new beginning on new country. As the new country, the magical isle of The Tempest certainly lets people realize new beginnings, with everyone on the island forgiven as they all travel back to the real world; their home in Italy. Part of the form of pastoral tragicomedy is the status of humanity when compared to nature: Prospero’s forgiveness gives people new life after their old life is scarred. However, the ‘fear of the other’ is also present in this play, in the form of Caliban, the monstrous servant who is not wholly human. Caliban is, in fact, an anagram of canibal (in Old English spelling and definition, ‘canibal’ only meant savage, not necessarily human-eating.) The language that Prospero teaches to Caliban both liberates and enslaves him, he is a beast, known as a ‘monster’ and as a ‘thing of darkness.’ It is not known whether Shakespeare intended for Caliban to be a ugly and vile human, or something stranger and more degenerate. He is not even fit to try to kill Prospero, he has to employ Stephano and Trinculo in a farcical attempt at overthrow by making them his gods:
“”I’ll show thee every fertile inch o’th’island, and I will kiss thy foot. I prithee, be my god.””
In the 400 years since the play was written, attitudes to many different things have changed, including the idea of colonialism and slavery. Caliban, in a contemporary context, represents slavery and the exploitation of natives and their lands when the Western world takes over their continent. For example, Caliban is the son of the powerful witch Sycorax, the former ruler of the island. He was heir apparent, but then Prospero came, and became the leader. Interestingly enough, this is another example of the usurping of power, but since it is a cultured man displacing a ‘monstrous tortoise,’ this is not indicated as wrong in the text, even with Caliban insisting that “”This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother, which thou tak’st from me.”” In a modern meaning, Prospero can be seen as a slave driver (keeping Ariel as a servant, as well) and racist. In addition to this, from a modern perspective Prospero would be seen as a man who was too overprotective of his daughter, and ruled her own life. That is why it is important to keep the context of the time that the play was written in in mind while studying the play, since at the time of writing this would have been normal behavior for a father. (Although Miranda is perhaps closer to the modern picture of a ‘maiden,’ never taught to be quiet and self reserved as women were expected to be, she is quite forthright and expresses her feelings.)
Obviously, not all meanings that could be found in a play when it was first written by the audience and the analysts of the time are completely invisible to those studying the text today, but significant differences in society and cultural codes can change the range of meanings available, especially to those who are not acquainted with information about the historical and social context. In studying a text, the reading of the audience (or student) coming from a contemporary context is important, but reading from a historical context can help to widen the range of readings available, and make it easier to understand certain aspects of the text.