The Tempest (1611)

  • Shakespeare's last play, set in the New World
  • Shakespeare's comment on a century of European colonization in the New World
  • Shakespeare's farewell to the stage, his comment on a career of playwriting in which he wrote and staged more than thirty-six productions over twenty plus years
  • Shakespeare's farewell to his oldest daughter Susannah, who in 1607 had married Dr. John Hall. (Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway also had two other children, the twins Judith and Hamnet. Judith lived to the ripe old age of 81. Hamnet died when he was eleven.)
  • The Tempest is neither a comedy nor a tragedy; it is a "romance", a form of theatre that had become popular on the Elizabethan stage during the final years of Shakespeare's career. He also drew on the poetic tradition of the pastoral.

romance- a popular story form inherited from the age of chivalry but recently turned into an opportunity for theatrical extravaganzas, in which the scenes and incidents feature fantastic, improbable elements: exotic locales, storms which separate family members, twins reunited after decades apart, grotesque creatures, magical spirits, demons and monsters.

pastoral- a literary genre which goes back to classical Rome in which rural life or the life of shepherds is presented, especially in an idealized or romantic form: the Golden Age is imagined before the terrible problems of civilization beset society.

 English Plans for the New World

  • Protestant English liberate the terrorized slaves of Catholic Spain and lead a rebellion which frees the New World
  • They create a solution for the problem of the homeless, and jobless poor in England: mass emigration to the Colonies where they can start a new life and regain their dignity
  • Create alliances with 'good Indians' willing to help create the English colony and expel (or kill) the 'bad Indians' who refuse to cooperate.
  • Create a commonwealth: a state in which supreme power is invested in the people, not a prince or king
  • Create a 'utopia': a perfect social, legal and political system based on the English conception of liberty for all who earn their citizenship

Problems that doomed the Roanoke Colony in 1586

Mistaken preconceptions about the Native Americans:

  • Good Indians agree to English rule.
  • Good Indians agree to work the land for profit.
  • Good Indians will embrace the English concept of private property.
  • Good Indians will embrace Christianity.
  • In return, the English would grant natives citizenship in their commonwealth and the safeguards of English liberty.
  • Bad Indians are savages who will be pushed off the land by any means necessary.

Montaigne's positive vision of "Cannibals" may have been just as distorted:

  • Indians are noble savages who exist in the state of nature, un-corrupted by civilization. (The Christian conception of original sin has been inverted.)
  • Even cannibals are morally superior to Europeans because they engage in war only to display courage, not to acquire territory or enslave women.

In reality,

  • Indians are just people.
  • Indians wished to rule themselves, not be ruled by the English or be a part of a 'commonwealth'.
  • Indians were skilled hunters, fishers and farmers who survived on a varied diet of fish, game, grain and vegetables (particularly corn)
  • Indians had no concept of private property; they considered land to be communal and moved from place to place according to the season.
  • Indians did not understand the European desire to generate a surplus of crops in order to turn a profit in trade. Indians only grew enough food to feed themselves.
  • Indians get tired of feeding people who know so little about how to hunt and fish and who refuse to work for themselves

Mistaken Preconceptions about the English:

  • The English are demi-gods who possess ocean going sailing vessels, firearms, and steel weapons.
  • The English have no women with them and can therefore reproduce in some godlike fashion.
  • The English possess even more powerful magic: the ability to kill natives with invisible bullets (disease).

In reality,

  • The English colonists are, for the most part, soldiers who have been impressed into service, not farmers, craftsmen and artisans eager for a new opportunity to earn liberty in the New World.
  • As soldiers, they expect to be hungry at times, but they look to their officers to supply them with food through pillage.
  • The soldiers do not expect to work the land for themselves.
  • The officers leading this group of soldiers have had their training in the brutal suppression of the Irish.

In reality,

  • The situation in Roanoke was ripe for disaster, and relations between the English and the Indians had fallen apart by the time Drake arrived in Virginia with his ship full of Africans and Indians recently liberated from Spanish tyranny.
  • And a tempest struck which sank their re-supply ship.