How Shakespeare's Final Play, The Tempest, Reflects the Religious, Political and Social Environment of the Jacobean Period

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How Shakespeare’s Final Play, The Tempest, Reflects The Religious, Political And Social Environment Of The Jacobean Period

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In this essay I will be showing how Shakespeare's final play, The Tempest, reflects the religious, political and social environment of the Jacobean period. Nearly every scene in the play portrays a relationship between a figure that possesses power and a figure that is subject to that power. I will explore how the environment of the early 1600s is reflected by the themes in the play; such as colonialization, the importance of the monarchy, belief in God and the Devil, magic and power.


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When Queen Elizabeth died and her Scottish cousin James became King, the plays Shakespeare wrote changed and became a lot darker and violent. This reflected the brutal violence and torture that was happening at the time. This period 'was an age of close proximity to death and decay, in which the goriest of stage spectacles might be outdone on the streets outside by the agonies of a plague victim, or the sight of traitor's head maggot- ridden on its spike at the foot of London bridge. King James I loved the theatre and was a huge fan of Shakespeare. He paid him one of the biggest compliments by bestowing upon its members the title of The King’s Men. Shakespeare would have done all he could to please the monarchy at the time in the same way he previously did for Queen Elizabeth. He included scenes between Prospero and Caliban which involved threats and curses to cause great pain. The play also contains Caliban brutally describing how they should smash Prospero's skull to kill him.

During the Jacobean period the British Empire had begun to colonize The Americas and The Caribbean. Shakespeare shows and examines the relationships that would have been between the white Europeans, who were colonizing many countries including America and the Caribbean, and the people whose countries were being taken over and forced into becoming slaves. In The Tempest, Prospero and Caliban represent these two relationships in that Prospero arrived on the island and override Caliban and Sycorax to become almost King of the island. Shakespeare's The Tempest is a social commentary on the effects of colonialism on the colonized nations. Prospero views Caliban as being lesser then himself and below him and believes that Caliban should be grateful to him for educating Caliban and teaching him his language. Caliban becomes Prospero's slave in effect. This is referring to how the English colonizers would have treated the natives when they arrived at the discovered lands. Caliban represents the innocent native people of countries like St. Lucia and Granada in 1604. Native people like Caliban were stolen from their countries and used as slaves. Shakespeare effectively shows this through the characters in his play.


One of the main themes of The Tempest is power and overthrowing the King. This shows how people were trying to overthrow King James at the time. King James was hated by lots of people because he was Scottish, and they didn’t think he should be the king of England. Nearly every character, from the lord Gonzalo to Stephano, plot how he would rule the island if he were King. The duke of Milan, Antonio, usurps Prospero from his Dukedom at the beginning and multiple times different characters attempt to kill King Alonso. He is nearly killed by Sebastian and Antonio, but they are interrupted by Ariel. Later, Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano plot to kill Prospero who is king of the island, but they are all stopped too. King James would have enjoyed watching this because the only plot that is succeeded in the play is Prospero's. Furthermore, the gunpowder plot was in 1605 where King James nearly got murdered. This play was written six years later in 1611, so King James would have watched this part of the play and been relieved to see that Ariel interrupts (on Prospero's command) and King Alonso is saved.


Shakespeare uses a lot of religious aspects in his play The Tempest because it was such a predominant part of people's everyday life. The Tempest explores religion at the time by comparing Prospero's character to a Godlike figure making it very clear that he views God as vengeful and powerful and as a being who ultimately controls everything. He also includes a lot of language from the bible. For example, when Miranda askes how they got to the island, Prospero answers 'By providence divine'. In the Elizabethan period and through to the Jacobean period 'People believed there was a hierarchy among all things in the world, starting with rocks at the bottom and rising through plants, animals, humans, angels and ultimately god. This is called the great chain of being and is depicted in his plays with Prospero at the top; representing God and Caliban at the bottom. Additionally, in Shakespeare's time, the law said you had to go to church every week and most people believed in Hell as a very real place, and that the Devil was real. Religion was a very important part of life and it influenced a lot of things in the Jacobean period. 'James Stuart arrived in England in 1603 with a well-developed understanding of the role of a King in the religious life of his kingdom. This understanding had two prime sources: the Protestant understanding of the bible as it related to kingship and his experiences as a young king of Scotland'. King James was brought up being a protestant and his mother Mary, Queen of Scots, was a Catholic as backed up by Doalman 'religious life and religious culture continued to be centered in the Catholic Church and its officials, especially the pope'. James was more sympathetic to the Catholic Church then Elizabeth had been so religious tension began again and people were martyred on both sides. They were often burnt at the stake or tortured violently before being killed.

Shakespeare talks about black magic and magic in the play a lot which would also be referring to the witch-hunts that swept across Europe from 1450 to 1750. This was among the most controversial and terrifying phenomena in history. King James 'had had a personal experience with witchcraft in 1590 when a conspiracy of witches had allegedly tried to prevent the arrival of his bride, Princess Anne of Denmark, in Scotland. The witches also allegedly 'tried to use witchcraft to murder him'. Shakespeare reflects this through his spirit character Ariel and through Prospero's use of sorcery. Although Prospero and Ariel's magic are shown to be 'good' magic or 'white magic', the play ends with Prospero giving up his magic powers by throwing his staff into the sea. This is a symbol of how magic has no place in the real world where they are heading back to at the end of the play.

The marriage scene in the Tempest was made to celebrate the Kings daughter's wedding. We can infer from this that it would have been important to write plays that pleased the monarchy. The court would join in on the dancing this was called a masque. The whole of The Tempest play can be seen as a masque, with much of the story told in music and song but there is also a scene at the end where there’s dancing. This showed how personal Shakespeare's plays would have been to King James and how important it would have been to impress the monarchy. Masques were, ‘for the court and about the court... the monarch was at the center, and they provided roles for members of the court within an idealized fiction’. The lavish, private court masque continued throughout the Jacobean period.


Although Shakespeare's play, The Tempest, shows many different aspects of the early 1600s, I think his most powerful portrayal is of the social environment of the early 1600s. The portrayal of Prospero's relationship with Caliban and the fact that soon after they arrived on the small island Prospero took power over Caliban, shows the increasing colonialization of the time. It also effectively depicts how people were being treated across the world by the British Empire and how they were being used as slaves

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