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The Tempest | Context

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Geographic Exploration

The Tempest was written and performed during an age of geographic exploration. During the 17th century European countries were exploring new territories around the world and establishing colonies. With each new colony European countries expanded their political, economic, and cultural influence.

The primary result of colonization for the natives in these newly "discovered" regions of the world, however, was exploitation and slavery. Families were divided or destroyed, ownership of land and a way of life were surrendered, and people were forced to serve new masters. Additionally the colonists often brought diseases that wiped out native populations and practices that altered the natural world forever. It is within this context of colonization that William Shakespeare explores the budding issues of exploitation that come when one culture dominates another. Prospero's slave Caliban reflects how Europeans considered the natives they encountered in their explorations to be "savages" who must be "educated" and "civilized" in order to be saved.

Utopia and Idealism

Often the new territories in Africa and the Americas were quite different from the homelands of the European colonizers. Exposure to these exotic locations inspired Europeans to imagine more idealistic governments and to develop romanticized notions about the natives of these lands, imagining them as more primitive, "natural" beings living in innocent harmony with the world around them. Some believed that the less developed, less populated locations provided the opportunity to create a new social order—a utopia—where humans could establish a heaven on earth.

In The Tempest the character Gonzalo reveals his vision for an idealistic commonwealth in Act 2, Scene 1, in a speech recognized by scholars as linked to the Frenchman Michel de Montaigne's description of an indigenous South American society in his essay "Of Cannibals." In this essay first published in 1580, Montaigne questions the superiority of his own culture and suggests that in more primitive societies individuals are better able to live in harmony with nature. Also it is likely that Shakespeare was influenced by the writing of the British humanist Sir Thomas More, whose Utopia (1516) uses an exploration of life on the fictional island of Utopia, where a European traveler lands after being separated from his party, to criticize his own culture under the reign of Henry VIII.

Theatrics

The original staging of The Tempest occurred in a time when there was no electricity or sound systems. They kept their stage sets simple because they had to. Yet Shakespeare includes plenty of special effects in the magical world of Prospero's island.

Actors used their bodies, sounds, firecrackers and other pyrotechnics, and props to create the effects of thunder, lightning, and a sinking ship, for example, when staging the terrific storm in the first scene of the play. They had to execute impressions of an elaborate banquet that magically appears and disappears as well as a masque with goddesses singing and dancing, using trapdoors and wires that allowed actors to hover above the stage. A curtain was often used to hide a smaller rear area of the stage so that surprises could be "revealed," as when Ferdinand and Miranda are found playing chess together at the end of the play. Together these theatrics would have captured the audience's imagination in new ways and conveyed a sense of the wonder in the play.

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