In his play The Tempest, Shakespeare uses the stage to present to the audience a microcosm of society. He minimizes the ideologies of his society so that they are represented through the characters and settings of the play. Through the use of dramatic conventions, the playwright examines human behaviour and emotion on a smaller scale. The shipwreck and the island are a world of their own; however, they are both representative of wider ideas. The play reflects how human nature shapes a society. There is continual conflict between the rightful order of things and challenges to it.
The ship demonstrates power struggles and cements the presence of the hierarchical structure that is applied in civilisation. The island explores colonialism and the British impulse to expand the empire. It also addresses religion and the role of women in the early 17th Century era. Aboard the ship in the opening scene, there is a defined social hierarchy. This mirrors the society that was in existence at the time the play was written. Here, the thematic idea of challenging authority arises through the conflict of the Boatswain and the nobles on board.
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The relationship between those of a higher and lower socio-economic class is depicted. The setting of the ship in a tempestuous situation is important in alluding to the significance of practical knowledge in the need for survival. An interpretation of the Boatswain being much more capable in this situation is that Shakespeare places priority over manual and practical skills over status. Regarding the waves the Boatswain rhetorically questions “What cares these roarers for the name of king? ” (Act 1 Scene 1, line 15) The ship is an interesting examination of human nature for all characters are faced with fatality.
Even whilst faced with death the nobles attempt to exert their authority over the lower class. The undermining nature of the Boatswain towards the King of Naples and the other aristocrats criticises the application of rigid social structure. The ship and the island are both surrounded by water and thus isolated from mainland. This provides adequate settings for Shakespeare to develop complex ideas in a world separate from the rest of civilisation. The island also has a hierarchy among the characters and can also be regarded as a model of society.
It is Prospero’s sphere of control and in this way he is symbolic of God. He has ultimate control over the happenings within the island like God apparently does over the human race. There are continuous power struggles that develop on the island. Again, the play mirrors Shakespeare’s patriarchal reality which placed emphasis on the Christian god. When analysing the play as a microcosm of society, the power struggles can be treated as a reflection of the political landscape of the time the play was written. The play shows obvious distinction between those with and without power and those who challenge it.
The relationship between a father and daughter is portrayed in Act 1 Scene 2. Prospero and his daughter, Miranda are introduced to the audience along with their background. Prospero is a dominant character who holds significant power and exerts his control over others, even his own daughter, and is also wise and vengeful. Miranda assumes the ultimate feminine role, has naive, vacuous and empathetic attributes. She is the only female character present in the play in an island of males. Miranda is objectified by Caliban who tries to rape her and she is provided with no power whatsoever.
This depicts the patriarchal society in existence at the time the play was written. A complex idea that is explored through Prospero’s occupation of the island is colonialism. In Shakespeare’s time, there was much exploration by the British of ‘new land’. The island can be thought of as symbolic of New America. The remote setting and exotic landscape of the island mirrors the way the ‘New World’ presented itself to Europeans. Caliban and Ariel represent natives that understand the land and do not exploit it as colonialists do. Caliban’s language is injected with natural imagery to display his love for the island.
Both characters are enslaved and exploited by Prospero who represents a colonial force. However, the different treatment of both of them presents to the audience two varying approaches to slavery of the native folk. Ariel is adopted by Prospero as his personal servant and is valued by him as a “brave spirit” even though his freedom is not granted until the very end. He is repaying a debt to Prospero and is faithful to him, yet displays subtle resentment that he is not free. Ariel is a typical personal servant in his attributes. Caliban symbolises a native that the colonists viewed as savage and enslaved.
Prospero’s harsh and intolerant behaviour towards him mimics what would have actually happened in reality during colonising times. When Prospero fails as an educator in imposing his values of civilisation on Caliban he regards him as a savage. He decides the only way to keep Caliban in order is to give him “stripes”, treating him worse then an animal. He is restricted to hard manual labour and threatened and bullied by Prospero, suffering in a similar way that many New World Natives did. Caliban embodies many aspects of the idea Western society held regarding these natives.
He lived without a rigid social hierarchy unlike ‘advanced’ European countries and worshipped an alternate religion to Christianity. His worship of the Patagonian god Sebetos justifies for Prospero to describe Caliban as a “demi-devil” and a “thing of darkness” (Act 5 Scene 1, line 271-4). The darkness relates to the way that the darkness of the natives’ skin was directly associated with their treacherous nature. His attempt at raping Miranda reinforces his inhumane nature and is used by Prospero as evidence to further justify punishment.
Caliban is depicted to be controlled by instinct whereas the other characters, namely Ferdinand, exercise sexual constraint and thus are viewed as higher beings by that society. Prospero attempts to teach Caliban his language. Caliban addresses the fact that the only benefit is that he can curse, injects the whole scenario with irony. “You taught me language, and my profit on’t Is, I know how to curse. ” (Act 1 Scene 2, line 363). This irony could be interpreted as a statement for the contradictions embedded in colonisation.
In reality many native Americans contracted disease and bad habits from their encounter with the Europeans. Another bad habit that Caliban learned was the excessive consumption of alcohol, from the wine butler Stephano. A connection can be drawn from the humorous drunken characters to the sinister way that Prospero is ‘drunk’ on power. His obsession with power accounts for the emphasis in the play of Prospero’s desire to restore his position. The story line is based on his vengeance through his control over the nobles that banished him and his actions are centered on that.
There is grave focus on the way Prospero was usurped by his brother, Alonso. Prospero reflects human nature by seeking revenge on those that wronged him. His ruling of the island is highly subjective and parallels the nature of rulers of that time. Prospero’s actions are hypocritical because he usurped Caliban from his rightful domain. In the beginning Caliban reveals that; “This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother, Which thou tak’st from me. When thou cam’st first Thou stok’st me and made much of me; wouldst give me Water with berries in’t, and teach me how To name the bigger light, and how the less,
That burn by day and night. ” (Act 1 Scene 2, lines 333-9) This passage shows how Caliban trusted Prospero who at first assumed a teacher role, which was quickly developed into a master role. The power struggles throughout the play are representative of the political landscape of Shakespeare’s time. He addresses two different aspects of usurpation. There is the competitive nature of nobles to usurp each other such as Prospero and Alonso. This is also depicted in Shakespeare’s Macbeth where similar portrayals of human nature such as jealousy and ambition were present.
The other type he explores is the usurpation of natives from their land through Caliban’s oppression. This reinforces how the use of issues being addressed on the stage present a microcosm to the audience. Many issues relevant to that time are dealt with by the characters and their interactions with each other and their approach to their settings. Shakespeare uses theatrical terms such as during Antonio’s speech where he is trying to persuade the murder of Alonso and Gonzalo. Words such as “cast”, “act”, “prologue” and “discharge” are used (Act 2 Scene 1, lines 246-50).
Although this reminds the audience that it is a play, they are continuously positioned to engage with the characters. The characters embody elements of human nature. The way Shakespeare manipulates the script to present them reacting to their situation and interacting with each other is as it is in reality. This relates to the idea of “All the worlds a stage, And all the men and women merely players. ” Societies are shaped by human nature and through their possession of these realistic qualities the characters set up a model of Shakespeare’s society; a microcosm.
The fate and the transformation of the characters represent the values of Shakespeare. He uses the devices of the two settings as a playground to explore human ideologies and communicate his ideas on society. The locations are developed by the playwright as dramatic devices to communicate and explore thematic ideas. The ship conveys the forceful application of status and the power associated with it and the island addresses the issue of colonialism, religion and gender.