The island of magic and mystery that Shakespeare creates in The Tempest is an extraordinary symbol of both the political and social realities of his contemporary society, and of the potential for a reformed New World. Shakespeare’s island is a creation which allows the juxtaposition of real and idealised worlds, and shows his audience both what they and what they ought to be. The seventeenth century was a time of ideological upheaval in Europe, with Medieval ideas of a hierarchical and ordered society being challenged by Renaissance thinkers. For the dynastic powers, including England under Elizabeth I, colonialism was an important opportunity to realise territorial ambition and prove religious pre-eminence. To Shakespeare, colonialism was an opportunity for mankind to explore the extraordinary possibilities of the human mind, free from the conflict and prejudice of real life. Just two years before The Tempest was written, British colonists were shipwrecked on a Caribbean island, and their report of the paradise and magic they found there is one of many popular writings of the time that may have had an influence on The Tempest.
In The Tempest, Shakespeare adheres closely to the classical unities of time, place and action. The unity of place required that the scene should remain unchanged throughout the play. The entire action, with the exception of the first scene, is confined to the island. The storm of the first scene symbolizes a transition in the lives of the characters, and establishes their relationships with each other and with a world in a state of disorder. The initial reactions of the characters when arriving on the island are important metaphors for the ideologies they h...
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...neously on many aspects of an audience’s sensibilities. With elements of supernatural music, dance, sound effects and movement in every scene of the play, the audience would never forget that the island is set apart from reality.
As isolated as the island of The Tempest may be, its characters are representative of people in our own society. The social disorder in which they find themselves becomes an exploration of their aspirations – some have unique ideas about a perfect way of life, while others are merely products of a hegemony of political clambering in the imperfect society from which they come. Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest is more than an artist’s farewell; it explores the endless possibility of our minds and our endeavours, as mankind enters a “brave new world”.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.
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