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Historical and Cultural Context of The Tempest

The Tempest was written around 1610 – 1611, during the reign of King James I. It was first performed in 1611 at the court by the King’s Men.

It is thought to be the final play that Shakespeare wrote independently. The Tempest is one of only two plays for which Shakespeare created an original plot, as he typically adapted existing stories. This has led many to view it as a personal play for him. Prospero’s retirement from magic at the end of the play could mirror Shakespeare’s own retirement from playwriting.

British Colonialism

Colonialism involves a country taking control of other territories, usually with a more powerful and wealthy nation dominating smaller regions.

The late 1500s saw the beginnings of British colonialism under Queen Elizabeth I. In 1585, Sir Walter Raleigh established a British colony on Roanoke Island, now part of the USA. This venture aimed to profit from the New World’s resources (as the Americas were then known) and to challenge Spanish ships in the region. When the British settlers first arrived on this island, the indigenous people (original inhabitants) helped them with food and water. However, growing distrust led to violence between the two groups.

The relationship between Prospero and Caliban mirrors the hostility between European colonisers and indigenous peoples. Shakespeare arguably critiques colonisation through their conflict and Caliban’s dehumanisation. Prospero’s eventual decision to leave the island might represent a call for respect for the autonomy and rights of native peoples.


In Act 2, Scene 1 of the play, Gonzalo imagines creating a utopia on the island. A utopia is an idealised paradise, a term first coined in the 1500s by Sir Thomas More. Gonzalo’s utopian vision involves abolishing business, judges, money, servants, private ownership, employment and even the monarchy.

Some scholars suggest that Shakespeare was reflecting a growing idea among many in Britain that more harmonious societies could be established in newly found lands. There was a famous essay by Frenchman Michel de Montaigne, written in 1580, titled “Of Cannibals”. Montaigne had visited a South American society and wondered whether simpler societies enabled people to live happier lives, closer to nature.

However, Antonio, Alonso, and Sebastian’s mockery of Gonzalo’s vision reflects scepticism about whether idealised forms of government could genuinely improve lives. Shakespeare presents the debates prevalent in Britain about the optimal way to establish colonies.

Contemporary Beliefs about Magic and the Supernatural

Jacobean society was fascinated by the supernatural and the occult. Many believed in magic, witches and spirits. King James I, the reigning monarch when The Tempest was written, published a book on witchcraft in 1597. During this era, magic and science were given equal respect.

The Tempest reflects these beliefs through characters like Prospero (a powerful magician) and Sycorax (a witch). Sycorax is portrayed as a ‘bad witch’ and Prospero as a ‘good magician’. Both use their powers to manipulate and control others; however, Prospero uses his magic to right a past wrong, then gives it up after, recognising its potential dangers. In contrast, Sycorax appears to have wielded her magic to cause harm until her death.

Many speculate that Shakespeare modelled the character Prospero on John Dee (1527-1609). He was a celebrated intellectual of Tudor England with expertise in various fields, including mathematics, astrology, history and magic. He claimed to communicate with angels and spirits, further blurring the lines between the scientific and the mystical.

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