Historical Context of The Tempest

The ‘Golden Age’ of discovery was at its peak in the 1600s and the play is clearly influenced by some of the remarkable voyages made by European explorers, travellers and seafarers. Enterprising traders realised what profit could be made by shipping goods from abroad, and set off for distant lands with the aim of making fortunes by trading exotic commodities.
The seas represented chance, fortune and fate as sea travel in Shakespeare’s time was not a safe endeavour as it is today. Antonio in The Merchant of Venice gambles his fortune on the waves. Mariana in Measure for Measure is left poor after her brother’s ship is lost at sea.
The increase in international exploration led to the publication of pamphlets documenting the people and countries encountered, providing an insight into the way explorers perceived the New World. Shakespeare certainly read a number of these publications, using many of the images and stories from them as sources for The Tempest.
Christopher Colombus’s journal writes of his adventures, meeting ‘friendly’ and ‘handsomely formed’ indigenous peoples who were fascinated by the European clothing and trinkets. However, their fine quality means that they ‘would be good servants’. Columbus’s attitude reflects the English view of foreign cultures as potential resources rather than as autonomous systems worthy of respect.
One of the main reasons for this superior tone was the difference in religion between the Christian European explorers and ‘heathen’ natives they met. The first English colonies were set up as a means of ‘educating’ foreigners, spreading Christianity. Plantations provided the opportunity to combine missionary devotion with business acumen.
The Tempest was written against a backdrop of nautical adventure, discovery and growing imperialism. Shipwrecks and distant exotic lands captured the public imagination and made the play an instant hit. The increasing colonisation of foreign lands, the cultural and religious arrogance of the colonists and the oppression of natives are all worth considering.
As well as reflecting the political climate of the time, the tensions between Prospero and Caliban, and between all of the characters… …on the island, provide an analogue to historical debates about the morality of occupying foreign territories.
Even today, when European colonies have been dismantled, the play continues to be relevant to the interventionist foreign policies of many states. Michel de Montaigne was a prominent philosopher in 16th century. In his essay, ‘Of the Cannibals’, he writes of his travels in Brazil and his encounters with the natives.
Montaigne was more open-minded than many white Europeans, concluding that ‘there is nothing in that nation, that is either barbarous or savage, unless men class that barbarism, which is not common to them’. These comments form the basis of Montaigne’s concept of the ‘noble savage’, a man who has not been exposed to the ‘civilising’ elements of Western society, but nonetheless retains the nobility of humankind.
Shakespeare’s characterisation of Caliban is clearly informed by Montaigne’s thinking and the audience is invited to explore whether Caliban’s upbringing on a remote island makes him inferior, or just different. Gonzalo remarks that ‘these are people of the island / Who, though they are of monstrous shape, yet their manners are more gentle-kind than of / Our human generation you shall find’.
Ironically, Miranda marvels at the treacherous Europeans, ‘Oh, wonder! / How many goodly creatures are there here! / How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, / That has such people in ‘t!’