Back to: The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Caliban, in the play The Tempest, says, “Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises, Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.” It reminds us of the idea of an island in the Western imagination.
Shakespeare, fully aware of the classical literature around the Mediterranean Sea and its islands, utilize the island motif in his play The Tempest which is fitting to the age of Renaissance.
Renaissance period witnessed European expansion and the beginning of the colonizing history. New discoveries provided new perspectives and literature saw new uses for it.
In this play, the island on which Prospero lands after his exile accommodates the utopian mastery and implication of knowledge. The magic of Prospero looks almost allegorical where a master uses it to manipulate everything towards his causes.
The island, as a territory separated from the mainland, is perfect for the Shakespearean mode of fantasy. Here the unnamed island is a storehouse of fantastic elements.
The way different characters see the island differently reflects the paradox of Prospero himself whose knowledge found a safe haven here but only after a great upheaval i.e. the loss of his dukedom.
Miranda grew up on the island for 12 years without even knowing that her father used to be the Duke of Milan. It tells us how on the island, the whole social order is replaced by a natural one.
It is Gonzalo through whom Shakespeare tells us the possibilities for human beings in an island like situation which is much without the society’s errors.
Gonzalo says that if he “were the king on’t” then in such a “commonwealth I would by contraries execute all things. For no kind of trafﬁc would I admit. No name of magistrate. Letters should not be known. Riches, poverty, and use of service, none. Contract, succession, bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none. No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil. No occupation. All men idle, all. And women too, but innocent and pure. No sovereignty.” This is exactly what Shakespeare must be fantasizing in a utopian mode regarding human settlement.
William Davenant collaborated with John Dryden to rewrite The Tempest as “The Tempest, or The Enchanted Island.” It draws our attention towards how much island actually provides for the whole scheme of actions in the play.
Antonio and Sebastian, the most malicious characters in the play, find the island inhospitable whereas, for Gonzalo, it is a fresh zone full of life and greenery.
At the same time, Caliban, the son of Sycorax, keeps reiterating the true history of the island which actually belonged to his mother. Here the island becomes the center for the contest between “savagery” and culture. Where Caliban claims his legitimacy, Prospero calls him a “bastard son got by the devil himself.”
Overall, the island is a space in the play where humanity may “enforce, art to enchant.” Here, Miranda and Ferdinand fall in love which can be as innocent as naïve.
Prospero, as a father, can fully develop a father-daughter relationship. And Caliban who is otherwise perceived by the outsiders as a “monster” can go and with his “long nails will dig thee pig-nuts, show you a jay’s nest and snare the nimble marmoset.”