Discuss the core features of Shakespeare's The Tempest.


The Tempest

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One of the contextual factors that went into the writing of this play was the discovery of far off countries, to all intents and purposes new worlds, in the 16th and early 17th centuries. This is clearly shown through Prospero's island and his relationship with "the natives" in the form of Sycorax and her son, Caliban. Prospero in many ways models the European project of colonisation in the supposed "discovery" of an island and the suppression of its native inhabitants. The island itself is presented as a symbol of unlimited power and unrestricted freedom, as many characters think about ruling it and what they would be able to do, even the more sensible and virtuous characters, such as Gonzalo:

I'th' 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...

Gonzalo paints his own utopian vision of how the island would work if he were in charge of it, even though this is undercut by Sebastian and Antonio's sarcastic remarks. However, they do point towards a rather disrupted vision of people's attitude towards the island. Sebastian and Antonio point out that Gonzalo wants to rule on the island and yet says he would do away with "sovereignty," which is a contradiction in terms. One of the major driving forces that lies at the very centre of this play therefore is the vexed and troublesome issue of colonialism and the many conflicting impulses and motivations that lie as part of this project. A vitally important character to consider in this regard is Caliban himself, who is the colonised subject, oppressed and supposedly "savage," who is taken by critics variously as a symbol of the evil of colonisation or the benefits. Shakespeare in many ways uses this play to open up a debate that is still being held even today about the issue of colonisation.


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