Elements of context significantly influence the reading of a particular text. The dramatic text, The Tempest (1610) written by the English playwright William Shakespeare explores various themes including betrayal, revenge, magic and family. It depicts an island occupied by the former Duke of Milan, Prospero and his innocent daughter but previously by spirits and inhabited by what Prospero perceived as a savage creature that required his enslavement. Prospero manifests power and thus creates the tempest causing the shipwreck of his enemies to which sets his trail for revenge against his abdication. By utilising aspects of context, I can therefore draw upon different interpretations surrounding the theme of inequality through the certain values and attitudes projected by the text that is represented through Caliban and Miranda. Thus, by understanding that the text was produced during the Jacobean era I can depict that it is representing the dominant attitudes and values of that time. Whereas analysing my own personal context allows me to apply a post-colonial and feminist reading, recognising that the text subtly challenges the dominant ideologies of which it was produced.
The reading of The Tempest can be substantially influenced by the context in which it was produced to convey the minimal tolerance of ethnic minorities and outspoken women that can be evident within the portrayal of certain characters and ideas. The Elizabethan and Jacobean era was a time of increasing exploration, colonisation, political and religious turbulence and high levels of racial resentment and degradation towards women. During the time produced, social stratification was rigid, and white men were those considered superior. And thus, there were prominent ideologies surrounding race and gender, based around the belief of white superiority in which the racial other was deemed chaotic and savage, as well as further discriminatory ideologies placed and sustained on women to be identically mistreated. The original and native inhabitant of the island, Caliban is depicted as the racial other under the oppression and assimilation of Prospero. Within the text he is prevalently described with racially charged language to officialise his inequality to the white men who enter his island, “This is some monster of the isle with four legs, who hath got, as I take it, an ague. Where the devil should he learn our language?…if I can recover him and keep him tame…he’s a present for any emperor that ever trod on neat’s leather.” Stephano is a boisterous and drunken butler of king Alonso who begins to fantasise about becoming a ruler when Caliban self-subjugates himself to escape the slavery of Prospero, “Ban, ban, Ca-Caliban, Freedom, high-day!” Aspects of racism can therefore instantly be recognised, as Stephano when first meeting Caliban already classifies Caliban as sub-human, demonising him and marketing him off lowly as a form of asset to gain power. As already, he is perceived as evil and lower-classed because he is the racial other, being designated as uneducated, a monster, a devil and merely a commodity. The prevailing attitudes of English society towards the racial other can thus be identified as the representation of white supremacy and the ignorance for other races is influenced by the nature of feudal English society and their values and attitudes towards them. Ultimately his self-subjugation emphasises Eurocentrism as he automatically positions himself below white man, not attempting to seize power to gain potential freedom. Furthermore, he is oblivion to the fact that Stephano is foolish and his content with his subjugation further establishes the Jacobean racial attitudes in which the racial other is uneducated and meant to be understanding of their place. Moreover, Prospero’s adored daughter is the only female inhabitant on the island and is constantly situated passively. Throughout The Tempest, Miranda’s desire from men is answered by her virtue as recognised by Caliban’s attempt to rape her for the purpose of repopulation, Prospero commodifying her for personal connections and Ferdinand’s desire for a virtuous and innocent wife, “O, if a virgin, And your affection not gone forth, I’ll make you The Queen of Naples.” Miranda is signified as a prize because she is a virgin and is essentially loved by Ferdinand because she of her considered purity. As her significance is only primarily established when her virginity is of topic. Thus, she is represented as emotional, fragile and weak in the entirety of the text because she accepts the mistreatment and allows herself to appear vulnerable, being aware of the fact that she is prized for her virginity. Thus, she encapsulates the stereotypical attitudes and values that men during that era had and the idea that she is aware of her placement in society by the material value of her innocence reinforces the mindset of most women during the time period. Miranda ultimately portrays the social expectations and stereotypes prevalent in Jacobean society, in which she depicts the ideal woman of that time – being passive and subordinate in society. Therefore, by utilising the context in which The Tempest was produced various interpretations can be made to exaggerate the dominant discriminative values and attitudes of that time.
However, by utilising aspects of my own context to correlate my own ideologies towards the issue of colonisation and the knowledge I have of the long-lasting implications of post-colonialism a post-colonial reading can be applied to The Tempest. From a contemporary point of view, my understanding of the negative effects of post colonialism essentially challenges the perceived benefits that people during the time in which it produced had on colonisation and exploration. As the result of colonisation for the natives of these newly discovered regions was exploitation and slavery where the original inhabitants of the lands were forced to serve those who overtook the land and fit their standards. Thus, by acknowledging the past colonisation of Indigenous Australians and the horrendous forced assimilation that they experienced, my own contemporary ideologies surrounding the idea of colonisation is negative and therefore I can recognise the wrongfulness displayed within the text. Prospero usurps Sycorax’s land and imposes his own culture to enslave Ariel and Caliban by threatening them and thus he is seen as the European coloniser. Therefore, the post-colonial elements are distinctive within the text as it explores the struggle of the oppressed native Caliban to prevail against the subduction forced by Prospero, “The island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother, Which thou tak’st from me. When thou carn’st first, Thou strok’st me and made much of me…For I am all the subjects that you have…whiles you do keep from me the rest o’th’ island.” The tempest majorly explores the complex and unequal relationship between the European coloniser and the native colonised through Prospero and Caliban’s relationship. Because Caliban fails to achieve genuine freedom and control, the understanding of the repercussions of colonisation on the natives and indigenous is exhibited by the the loss of Caliban’s culture and identity described by his displacement and trauma. Therefore, when analysing my own contemporary attitudes and values towards racial equality I am able to apply a post-colonial reading to identify the wrongful mistreatment and subjection enforced onto characters like Ariel and Caliban by the negative portrayal of Prospero as manipulative and arrogant. As my contemporary ideologies validate that the racial other is not inferior, and the white coloniser is not superior. And therefore, applying a reading clarifies that the playwright’s constant reference to all these dominantly portrayed characters wishing to exploit Caliban was a subtle challenge to the text’s contextual dominant ideologies.
In addition to this, by utilising the contemporary struggle and ideologies of women to contrast against how they are represented allows for a feminist reading to be applied to The Tempest. By applying a feminist perspective, I can thus acknowledge the ongoing problematic existing patriarchal values in contemporary society, as well as take to account the effects of the feminist movement that challenge dominant misconceptions of that time. Women in our current society are still subject to the attitudes and values surrounding gender inequality but fortunately this has lessened as time has passed. As on the contrary to the Jacobean era, they have gained a greater voice and role in comparison to men, and thus have readjusted the typical gender customs placed on them due to society’s increasing acceptance for feminist ideologies and attitudes and values towards equality. The Tempest recurringly portrays women as fragile and pathetic beings who are subordinate to man – Miranda and her clear vulnerability in accepting to how men lower her. Specifically, the issue of female obedience and acceptance can be shown through how the feminist interest tends to centre on Prospero’s dominating role as a father figure over Miranda,”obey and be attentive.” Prospero utilises excessive parental power over her to which she becomes subservient, “my dearest father.” Prospero although loves his daughter dearly subjects her under his control and believes that she is incompetent as a woman. This thus establishes their hierarchal relationship and the representation of women in the text as being of lower class than man. And therefore, the inequal relationship between Miranda and her father undermine the contemporary values and attitudes advancing against the oppression of women in society. Thus, analysing how my own personal context through knowledge of the feminist movement allows me to apply a feminist reading practice, in which concludes that women are not just a delicate wallflowers that requires man to be validated and controlled. As fundamentally, the dominant ideologies represented towards women in The Tempest are subtly challenged when implementing a feminist reading from contemporary feminist ideologies, strongly opposing the idea that woman is lesser than man. And therefore by utilising aspects of my own feminist attitudes and values, I can apply a feminist reading to the text to recognise Shakespeare’s underlying intent to subtly criticise man’s ignorance of equality.
The reading of a text can be greatly shaped by elements of context. The tempest is a play that features multiple issues to do with inequality, highlighting the issue of racial and gender disproportions that can be represented and interpreted depending on the context understood. The context in which the text was produced represent the dominant ideologies surrounding the attitudes and values towards the racial other and women being of lowered status than white man. Whereas by analysing contemporary ideologies to apply specific reading practices, the text can be distinguished to subtly criticise and challenge those dominant racial and gender norms. As ultimately the understanding of the text’s context influences the representations that can be identified whereas the utilisation of a personal context allows for that theme of inequality to be interpreted.