Utopian Society in Shakespeare's The Tempest

Utopian Society in Shakespeare's The Tempest

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The study of Shakespeare’s The Tempest raises many questions as to its interpretation. Many believe that this play shows Shakespeare’s views on the colonization of the new world whereas others believe that this is a play about the ever elusive “Utopian Society”. I believe that this is a play about the European views of society and savagery at that time. I also believe that, if this is true, the play doesn’t portray a “conventional” view of native peoples. Shakespeare shows this by having Prospero, the rightful duke of Milan and Usurping ruler of the island, call Caliban,
“A devil, a born devil on whose nature nurture can never stick”
but then having Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, say
“I pitied thee, took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour one thing or another.”
Prospero is saying that Caliban is a “savage” who can not be educated, yet we hear that Miranda has taught him to speak, amongst other things. This gives a conflicting view over the character of Caliban. Is he an “uncivilised savage” or is he a “normal” human being?
The treatment of Caliban could be seen as a representation of the colonisation of the new world, (The Americas) and the treatment of the native Americans. However, the critic Meradith Anne Skura believes the opposite,
“We have no external evidence that seventeenth century audiences thought the play referred to the new world.”
This interpretation of the play places more emphasis upon the character of the spirit Ariel, who could also be considered as a native of the island. Prospero frees Ariel from a tree and then enslaves the spirit to do his bidding under the promise of total freedom.
Caliban’s main speech (1.2.331-344) reveals the nature of his enslavement and treatment,
“Here you sty me in this hard rock, whiles you do keep me from the rest o’th’island.”
Though it is not clear, it seems to me as though Prospero has imprisoned Caliban in a cave and is keeping him from the rest of the island. The reason for this treatment is much clearer , as Prospero tells us,
“I have used thee, filth as thou art, with human care, and lodged thee in mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate the honour of my child.”
This tells us that Caliban has tried to rape Miranda at some point and that Prospero treated Caliban much better before the attempted rape occurred.

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The rape supports the theory that Caliban is uncivilised as rape is a very savage crime. But one should take the time to consider the life of Caliban. He lived on the island with his mother until her death some years before Prospero and Miranda came to the island, in which time Caliban had no contact with another human being and he formed his own rules for survival, based on his solitary life. When Prospero and Miranda were wrecked on the island, they brought with them language and laws, which were presumably alien to Caliban. So while Miranda taught him how to speak their language (presumably Italian), it appears that she neglected to teach him their laws and general way of life. So while Caliban’s attempted rape of Miranda seems savage to the “civilised” world, Caliban’s reasoning allowed him to follow natural instincts, and so this raises the question as to whether Caliban’s actions should be seen as right or wrong. We are also asked whether we have the right to judge Caliban, if he has not been told that this action is wrong. I am inclined to think that the rape was more the fault of Prospero’s than Caliban as it was up to Prospero to teach Caliban what is considered to be right and wrong, though I do not think that Caliban is entirely blameless.
This play could also be considered as a criticism of imperialism, as it appears to condemn the ideas of oppression and usurpation, which are common themes throughout The Tempest. This condemnation of usurpation comes mainly from Prospero, who was usurped by his brother Antonio . We hear about this when Prospero tells Miranda that Antonio
“Should extirpate me and mine out of dukedom.”
He then goes on to explain how they were driven out of Milan. I feel that this is an inappropriate interpretation as Prospero has become both an oppressor and a usurper in taking control of the island and enslaving Caliban and Ariel, yet he criticises Antonio fro doing the same thing, as the critic Francis Barker tells us,
“It could be argued that the series of usurpations listed earlier as constituting the dramatic action all belong to that play alone, which is systematically silent about Prospero’s own act of usurpation.”
I am inclined to disagree with this statement as Caliban, in I.2.332, says that,
“This island is mine, by Sycorax my mother,”
So, as this one statement shows, The Tempest is definitely not quiet about Prospero’s act of usurpation, as Barker thought.
Prospero, in his “quest” to become a ruler once more, releases and enslaves the spirit Ariel. This could be interpreted as an upset of the natural balance of the island, which in turn, goes back to a post-colonial interpretation of the play. The only flaw with this interpretation of The Tempest is that, at the time that the play was written, English settlers of the new world were not oppressing the natives as the Spanish had done, rather they were co-existing with and learning from them. The oppression came later. So to make this interpretation plausible, Shakespeare would have to be criticising the way that the Spanish were treating the Native Americans. If this is true, then why write the play to be seen by an English audience? More of an impact could have been made in performing the play before a Spanish audience. Another reason that this interpretation is implausible is that large sections of the text have been overlooked. Viewing the play in this way causes us to overlook the main plot and to focus instead upon the treatment of the natives, Caliban and Ariel. Prospero gains Caliban’s knowledge of the island and then enslaves him and he also freed Ariel and enslaved the spirit in order to use its powers, which could be seen to reflect the way that the English settlers treated the natives, but as I have mentioned, their oppression came after the play was written. I believe that Caliban’s and Ariel’s enslavement is an issue of the play, yet it isn’t the main focus. I believe that the main focus of the play is the issue of society and the role that we all play in it.
Gonzalo gives us a very detailed account of how he would run the society if he could. However, there are a number of contradictions in his speech which I believe are also seen in the entire play. For example, when Gonzalo says
“Use of service, none”
“no sovereignty”
yet his whole speech is concerned with what he would do, which in fact proves Sebastian correct replies
“Yet he would be king on’t”
This is particularly ironic as it turns out that Sebastian is not to be trusted and is about to attempt to kill his brother, the king of Naples, Alonzo. Moreover, later on in the play, Miranda refers to a
“Brave new world that has such people in’t”
Yet this world she has suddenly encountered is full of usurpers and attempted murderers. It is because of this that I believe that Shakespeare was at least partially showing us that a utopian society can not exist.
This now brings around the question of a Utopian Society. Is there such a thing as a utopian society or not? A utopian society is defined as a perfect society, free from crime, violence and discrimination, yet, looking back through history, many attempts at a utopian society have been through violence and discrimination. For example, Hitler’s utopian society was a “perfect race”. The way that this was brought about was through the discrimination and slaughter of the Jewish community. The issue of a utopian society doesn’t go to these extremes in The Tempest, but the plots of murder are still present. Trinculo, Stephano and Caliban all plot to kill Prospero,
“’tis a custom with him I’th’afternoon to sleep. There thou mayst brain him.”
To this Stephano replies
“Monster, I will kill this man.”
However, Ariel hears of their plan and tells Prospero, who lays a trap of clean clothes for them, which they fall for, and then chases them out into the island so that their plan doesn’t come to fruition.
As I mentioned before, a utopian society is free from discrimination, so the treatment of Caliban does not fit this pattern of society as he is referred to as
a “monster”,
a “Freckled whelp”,
a “devil”,
a “hag-seed”
and many more names besides. He is also referred to as many animals, which makes his stage representation difficult, as Constance Benson noted in the 1890’s, when he played the character. Benson played the character as a “monkey-man” who was
“distorted and deformed not in body only, but in mind and heart.”
The character of Caliban is looked down upon by the other characters because he is
“Not honoured with a human shape.” (deformed).
This is discrimination in its clearest form and this alone would completely destroy any thought that this “society” is a perfect one, but when one adds in the plots of murder, usurpation and the acts of enslavement, one can see that this is a less than perfect society, to say the least.
Not all aspects of The play are bad, however. The Tempest is full of songs and dancing, for example, IV.I.62-139 in the stage directions, we are told that, as Iris enters, soft music is to be played and Juno and Ceres sing to each (IV.I.106-117) other to bless Ferdinand and Miranda,
“Juno: Honour, riches, marriage blessing, Long continuance, and increasing, Hourly joys be still upon you! Juno sings her blessings on you.
Ceres:… Spring come to you at the farthest in the very end of the harvest. Scarcity and want shall shun you, Ceres’ blessing so is upon you.”
So this play is not just politics and seriousness, as it could be played as a comedy as well as being a serious political piece.
This play is a very confusing one as far as interpretation and meaning is concerned. Many people favour a post-colonial view of the play, others think that is about society and civilisation. I believe that the play is a mixture of these interpretations as there is evidence to show that each of these views are involved in the creation of the play. My personal interpretation of the play is one of society. It is my belief that Shakespeare was trying to show that society is not as “perfect” as people like to think and that what seems perfect on the outside is usually in a state of turmoil and disruption on the inside, as is the case with this island society. As to the question of a utopian society, I believe that there can be no such thing. My reasons for this belief are that Caliban was living in a state of “perfection” alone, then Prospero and Miranda brought their ideas of perfection with them to the island. These points of view then clashed and instead of the perfection they all desired, Chaos and slavery followed. The addition of more people to the island only increased the amount of ideas of perfection, therefore taking the group further away from a utopian society and closer to a chaotic co-existence.
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