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. 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 naïve, 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...
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