The Tempest

The Shakespeare Connection

Theweleit comes up with the noteworthy theory that Shakespeare's The Tempest, usually viewed as a play about nature and art, the Golden Age and civilization, is in fact about America and questions of colonization. He reveals that it is a mixture of popular fairy tales that were told by story-tellers in the streets of London and proves that it echoes contemporary events and is indicative of future events in the New World. He assumes that Shakespeare reacted to and elaborated on events in England and America, for instance the marriage-policy of James I concerning his children Prince Henry and Princess Elisabeth and the Bermuda Shipwreeck. Shakespeare was influenced by Plato, Ovid, Virgil and Montaigne. Theweleit sees The Tempest as a juncture of Virgil's epic and the stories of America's founding and as an attempt to anticipate a promising future for free men in an ideal society.

Shakespeare was familiar with Strachey's eye-witness report on the Sea Venture's shipwreck on the Bermudas, which was never published since the Virginia Company had forbidden its publication. Clear references to this event can be detected ("storm-tossed Bermoothes", swamps, hunger). According to Theweleit the two texts (Strachey's report and The Tempest) represent two conflicting models of colonization in the New World and thus two different forms of reign in England. Strachey's report presents a new social order - the shipwrecked were equal because they all had to fight for survival and their social ranking lost its significance. There were mutinies against the (aristocratic) leaders. This was a dangerous vision at a time of social uprise in England where the legitimacy of the ruling classes was questioned and Protestant and Catholic forces fought over the Crown. Therefore the report was not published. Shakespeare on the other hand was working on a solution, his very own utopia. Although the play clearly echoes Montaigne's essay Of Cannibals, which appeared in translation in London in 1603 and which presents a natural Indian state without ruling, Shakespeare dismisses this kind of Golden Age utopia by presenting Caliban who is nothing like the good savage. According to Theweleit he develops the idea of a Kunststaat. Shakespeare alludes to England standing on the verge of a social revolution and foresees a utopic state where profit, business, laws and hunger do not exist, where neither economy nor religion dominate. He depicts a society where a well-read couple (Ferdinand and Miranda) of the same race is on the top of the hierarchy and where there is no place for wild creatures (Caliban). The system portrayed resembles absolute monarchy. It is due to Ariel that open terror does not exist. Ariel listens, informs, projects images, spies, overhears and instigates (like the poet-spies of Shakespeare's time) and seems to embody the role that the media and especially entertainment to divert the masses hold today. He appears to be the forerunner of espionage, secret service and the media and Theweleit calls Shakespeare an author of media technology because of that.

Shakespeare also takes an interesting attitude towards the notion of the New World. Through Miranda he manages to make the audience view Europe, the Old World, represented by the Italian noblemen as the New World: In his vision it is not America, the New World, that is purified but the Old World since Prospero does not want revenge but instead forgives his adversaries who in turn regret their misdeeds. The message is that these purified Europeans are better, more desirable than converted Indians, and thus the Old World becomes the New World. In this sense the play is about the rebirth of people through states:

... die Mutter des zivilisierten Menschen, das ist im Tempest so, ist zweifelsohne der Staat. Der ein besonders guter Hervorbringer dann ist, wenn ein Künstler ihm vorsteht, der als solcher die Politik dirigiert."
(Theweleit, 340)

The Tempest is innovative too because the horizon of action is clearly expanded. It is a pioneering play in many respects and critics still argue whether Shakespeare wrote it as his last piece around 1610 or not. Theweleit speculates that Shakespeare spent his "ten lost years" occupying himself with Catholicism, which found its way into The Tempest somehow, for instance influencing his concept of God free of sin. However, Theweleit is not the first one to see a connection between the settlement of America and Shakespeare's tale. In John Esten Cooke's oevre My Lady Pocahontas of 1885 Shakespeare, John Smith and Pocahontas watch a performance of The Tempest together in The Globe.


Introduction Chronological list of events A Map of Virginia
Pocahontas Captain John Smith
Histo/myth-tory Tobacco and the history of the USA Bibliography