Historical Context in The Tempest

Historical Context Examples in The Tempest:

Act I - Scene I 1

"his complexion is perfect(25) gallows..."   (Act I - Scene I)

Since Gonzalo comments on the Boatswain’s “complexion,” he is referring to the man’s skin and any marks that may be present. A birthmark in a certain position was believed to predict a person's death—for instance through drowning. A well-known proverb in Shakespeare's time was, “He that is born to be hanged will never be drowned.” “Gallows” were structures that were used for hanging criminals. Gonzalo’s comment might also suggest that the Boatswain looks like he was born to be a criminal, and thus, to have a criminal’s death by hanging rather than drowning.

"I'th’ commonwealth I would by contraries Execute all things..."   (Act II - Scene I)

Gonzalo imagines a kind of utopian society in which everyone is equal, no one has to work, and there is no conflict. On the one hand, Gonzalo’s ideal world highlights his fair and honorable nature: Gonzalo is not hungry for power and does not wish to enslave people, unlike many other characters in the play. However, Gonzalo’s vision is reminiscent of the larger colonial narrative of the time: to discover a rich, abundant island and govern it as one sees best. European colonizers had a similar way of thinking, which ultimately meant that the native populations were oppressed and enslaved, as the colonizers attempted to create their ideal nations. Gonzalo’s dream society may seem wonderful, but the reality of it is problematic.

"Do you put tricks upon's with savages and men of Ind, ha?..."   (Act II - Scene II)

“Men of Ind” in this context means men of the Indies, though Stephano does not specify whether he means the East or West Indies. Stephano’s line here echoes the prejudiced colonial assumption that all native populations were “savage” and uncivilized in comparison to the Europeans.

"There(30) would this monster make a man. Any strange beast there makes a man...."   (Act II - Scene II)

Being the fool in the play, Trinculo’s actions and words often provide comic relief from the plots that take place in The Tempest. However, in this moment we see that Triculo’s words reflect the colonial mindset of the Europeans at the time and the notion that one can venture to exotic lands, take what they want, and profit off of it in Europe.

"We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life(175) Is rounded with a sleep...."   (Act IV)

In addition to demonstrating his power, Prospero orchestrates the play to celebrate Miranda and Ferdinand’s love. When Prospero starts acting strangely after remembering the murder plot, Ferdinand expresses concern. Prospero’s response is an odd way to reassure someone–pointing out that life is transient–so we can read it as applying on a more general and introspective level to the audience instead of to Ferdinand. Since many believe The Tempest to be the last play Shakespeare wrote, the play within a play here has significant meaning, paralleling Shakespeare’s own retirement from the theater. Prospero’s words can then be read as Shakespeare speaking through his character whose words “our little life” and the “insubstantial pageant” present to the audience a sense of humility on the part of the playwright. Of course, Shakespeare’s legacy proved to be more lasting than any other English writer in history, making such claims somewhat ironic.

"With foreheads villanous low..."   (Act IV)

Caliban worries that should he and his fellow conspirators be found out, Prospero will transform them into horrible things. The idea of being turned into an ape with a very low forehead, even a villainous one, reveals a belief at the time that physical appearance equated to moral character. Therefore, a large, low, ape-like forehead would have not only been ugly, but it would also have been sign of evil. This belief persisted into the 19th century with the advent of the pseudoscience phrenology, which claimed character could be determined by skull shape. No evidence supports any claims that physical appearance is a manifestation of internal character.

"Now my charms are all o'erthrown, And what strength I have's mine own, Which is most faint...."   (Epilogue)

Prospero has freed Ariel, forgiven those who betrayed him, given up his magic, and even set conditions for Caliban to earn his own freedom. Now, in this final scene, he humbly asks the audience for his own freedom, which is curious considering that he has been the one who controlled and enslaved others. If this speech is meant to serve as Shakespeare’s own farewell to theater (as many believe), then the desire for release from the audience is more understandable: the “charms” serve as a playwright’s skill and “with the help of your good hands” refers to the applause of the audience. As it applies to Prospero and the play, the speech serves as a declaration of the restoration of the natural order and hierarchy of power and the dissolution of any remaining plots.