Shakespeare's The Tempest and Utopias of the European Renaissance

Hana Layson with Kasey Evans

What is the historical and literary context for Shakespeare’s representation of Prospero’s island and its inhabitants? How did Renaissance writers and artists portray the European exploration of the Americas? How did that exploration inspire their visions of an ideal society?

Introduction

In The Tempest, the “honest old councilor,” Gonzalo, imagines an ideal commonwealth in which there would be no private property, no magistrate, no labor, and no inequality of rank. Gonzalo’s description of a society in which “All things in common nature should produce” suggests just one of the ways in which Shakespeare adapted contemporary ideas about utopian societies. Although people had imagined ideal societies since at least the classical period, the term utopia first appeared less than one hundred years before Shakespeare wrote The Tempest. The English humanist, Thomas More, introduced the word in 1516 to name a fictional island that was the site of an ideal commonwealth. More devised utopia from Greek terms meaning “not a place” or “nowhere,” but he also provided his Utopia with a specific geography: he locates his fictional island in the New World.

It seemed to many Europeans that anything might be found in this New World, including human societies that were better organized than their own.

More wrote Utopia just 24 years after Columbus’ arrival in the Caribbean, and his narrative suggests how European contact with the Americas provoked the imagination. It seemed to many Europeans that anything might be found in this New World, including human societies that were better organized than their own. More could not publish Utopia in England under the reign of Henry VIII—his imaginary society was too clearly an indictment of Henry’s England. But his book participated in, and helped to initiate, a Renaissance literary tradition that brought together the exploration of the Americas, the critique of European societies, and the desire to create better communities in which to live. The documents that follow demonstrate some of the ways in which Renaissance writers and artists imagined the New World and its utopian possibilities.

Please keep the following questions in mind as you review the documents

  • How does the exploration of the Americas contribute to the European imagination of an ideal society?
  • What qualities do these writers identify as the basis of an ideal society?
  • How do these writers use representations of Native American and utopian societies to critique their own European societies? What social problems do they perceive to be most urgent?
  • Are native people idealized or denigrated in these representations? Do they inhabit a world that is preferable to the Europeans’ world?

More’s Utopia

Thomas More wrote Utopia in Latin in 1516 and published it in Louvain, in present-day Belgium, in order to avoid political persecution in England. It was translated into English and printed in London 25 years later, after the death of Henry VIII. In Utopia, More imagined a member of Amerigo Vespucci’s expedition to the New World who becomes separated from the other Europeans and discovers the island of Utopia. On his return to Europe, he describes a society in which everyone lives for the common good, as determined through natural reason. Utopians are ruled by an elected magistrate. They have no private property or distinction of rank and no war. Everyone works, but only six hours a day. Men and women receive the same education and are free to practice the religion of their choice. In the passage that follows, the explorer contrasts Utopia with England.

Questions to Consider

  1. Why does the narrator consider Utopia the best, indeed the only, true commonwealth in the world?
  2. What problems does he identify in Renaissance England? How have the Utopians solved or avoided those problems?
  3. Would you like to live in the commonwealth that he describes? Do you think such a society is possible? Do you think that More proposes Utopian practices as a serious alternative to existing practices?

Utopia

Thomas More. 1685.

Image of Utopia

More’s Utopia describes an ideal society, in which all members share wealth communally.

Image of Utopia
Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Utopia
Short Title Utopia, 1685
Place of Publication London
Publisher R. Chiswell
Creator Thomas More
Publication Date 1685
Number of Pages pp. 197–199
Call Number Case J 205 .5883
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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Cannibalism in the Americas

André Thevet was a sixteenth-century French explorer, priest, and cosmographer (one who maps the heavens and the earth). The New Found Worlde was first published in Paris in 1557. Thevet described the people, plants, and animals that he encountered in the region of present-day Brazil, where he traveled to help establish a French colony. He used the word antarctike in the title to mean “southern,” not necessarily the South Pole. In portraying the “Americans” or “wilde men,” as he called them, Thevet lingered on the customs that he knew European readers would find most shocking or strange. The passage included here describes the practice of eating prisoners of war and was probably a source for Michel de Montaigne’s essay “Of Cannibals.” At the opening (top left), Thevet has asked a prisoner whether he is not afraid to die this way.

Questions to Consider

  1. Why do you think Thevet includes this detailed description of ritual cannibalism? What is his opinion of this practice?
  2. What does the practice of cannibalism seem to mean to the Native Americans?  

The Newe Founde Worlde, or Antarctike

André Thevet. 1568.

Image of The Newe Founde Worlde, or Antarctike

A French explorer’s account of ritual cannibalism in Brazil.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title The Newe Founde Worlde, or Antarctike
Short Title Newe Founde Worlde, 1568
Place of Publication London
Publisher Henrie Bynneman
Creator André Thevet
Publication Date 1568
Number of Pages p. 62
Call Number VAULT Ayer 109 .T4 1568
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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Montaigne’s “Noble Savage”

Michel de Montaigne’s influential Essays were first published in French in 1580 and were translated into English in 1603. They offered a wide-ranging investigation of institutions, beliefs, and customs. These excerpts from “Of Cannibals” present the classic formulation of the “noble savage.”

Questions to Consider

  1. How does Montaigne redefine the terms barbarous and savage?
  2. What does he mean by the term nature? How is nature related to civilization? Are the laws of nature and the laws of civilization in conflict?
  3. What kind of society does Montaigne imagine that Native Americans live in?
  4. How does Montaigne interpret the practice of cannibalism? How does his treatment of it compare to Thevet’s in The New Found Worlde?
  5. What are Montaigne’s criticisms of European society?

“Of Cannibals”

Michel de Montaigne. From Essays of Michael, Seigneur de Montaigne, 1685.

Image of Of Cannibals

The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne offered a vigorous defense of “savage” customs and an indictment of the practices of “civilized” Europeans.

Image of Of Cannibals
Image of Of Cannibals
Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Of Cannibals
Short Title Of Cannibals, 1685
Book Title Essays of Michael, Seigneur de Montaigne
Place of Publication London
Publisher T. Basset, M. Gilliflower and W. Hensman
Creator Michel de Montaigne
Publication Date 1685
Volume Vol. 1
Pages pp. 366–369 and 375
Call Number Y 762 .M7668
Location General Collections 2nd floor

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The New Found Land of Virginia

Thomas Hariot’s Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia is a promotional tract that first published in 1588. It was designed to encourage Englishmen to finance and to help settle Roanoke, the first English colony in North America. Hariot cataloged the natural produce found in Virginia before turning to the “nature and manners of the people,” whom he described as knowledgeable of the region, but also defenseless. They “are not to be feared,” he wrote, “but they shall have cause to feare and love us, that shall inhabite with them.” The Report was republished two years later, in four languages, with engravings by Theodor de Bry. It forms the first volume of de Bry’s series of books on the European exploration of the New World.

Questions to Consider

  1. Describe the scene portrayed in Their Manner of Fishynge. Does this look like a promising location for fishing? What methods do the Algonkian Indians use to catch fish?
  2. Describe the Secota village. How is it organized? What does the village’s layout suggest about Secota culture?
  3. What impression do these images give you of the natural environment and of American Indian societies? Does Virginia seem like a place where you—or a sixteenth-century English reader—would want to go?

“Their Manner of Fishynge in Virginia”

Theodor de Bry. From A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, by Thomas Hariot. 1590.

Image of Their Manner of Fishynge in Virginia

Theodor de Bry created this engraving of Algonkian fishermen based on a sketch by John White, who accompanied Thomas Hariot to the English settlement of Roanoke in Virginia.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Their Manner of Fishynge in Virginia
Publication Title A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia
Short Title Their Manner of Fishynge, 1590
Book Title A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia
Place of Publication Francoforti ad Moenvm
Publisher T. de Bry
Creator Theodor de Bry
Publication Creator Thomas Hariot
Publication Date 1590
Call Number VAULT folio Ayer 150.5 .V7 H2 1590
Location Special Collections 4th floor

“The Towne of Secota”

Theodor de Bry. From A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, by Thomas Hariot. 1590.

Image of The Towne of Secota

Theodor de Bry created this engraving of an Algonkian Indian village based on a sketch by John White, who accompanied Thomas Hariot to the English settlement of Roanoke in Virginia.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title The Towne of Secota
Publication Title A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia
Short Title The Towne of Secota, 1590
Book Title A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia
Place of Publication Francoforti ad Moenvm
Publisher T. de Bry
Creator Theodor de Bry
Publication Creator Thomas Hariot
Publication Date 1590
Call Number VAULT folio Ayer 150.5 .V7 H2 1590
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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The Spanish Conquest of the Caribbean

Theodor de Bry’s America is the fourth volume of a series titled Grandes Voyages. It was based on Giralamo Benzoni’s eyewitness account of the Spanish in Central and South America. The following engravings portray violence in the Caribbean, or West Indies.

Questions to Consider

  1. Examine and compare these two images. What do they portray? Who is attacking whom in each engraving?
  2. How do the Spanish acts of violence compare to Native Americans’ acts? Does one appear any more cruel than the other?

“Some of the Indians Are Killed, Others Die in the Fire”

Theodor de Bry. From [America. pt. 4. Latin] Americae pars Qvarta. Sive, Insignis & Admiranda Historia de Reperta Primùm Occidentali India à Christophoro Columbo Anno M.CCCCXCII, 1594.

Image of Some of the Indians Are Killed, Others Die in the Fire

Indorum alij occiduntur, alij incendio pereunt. Theodor de Bry’s America was based on an eyewitness account of the Spanish conquest. This engraving portrays the Spanish attacking an Indian village in the Caribbean.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Some of the Indians Are Killed, Others Die in the Fire
Short Title Indians Are Killed, Others Die in Fire, 1594
Book Title [America. pt. 4. Latin] Americae pars Qvarta. Sive, Insignis & Admiranda Historia de Reperta Primùm Occidentali India à Christophoro Columbo Anno M.CCCCXCII
Place of Publication Francofvrti ad Moenvm
Publisher T. de Bry
Creator Theodor de Bry
Publication Date 1594
Volume Vol. 4
Pages Plate 18
Language Latin
Call Number VAULT Ayer 110 .B9 1590 v. 4
Location Special Collections 4th floor

“Because the Spanish Thirst for Gold, the Indians Pour Liquid Gold into Them”

Theodor de Bry. From [America. pt. 4. Latin] Americae pars Qvarta. Sive, Insignis & Admiranda Historia de Reperta Primùm Occidentali India à Christophoro Columbo Anno M.CCCCXCII, 1594.

Image of Because the Spanish Thirst for Gold, the Indians Pour Liquid Gold into Them

Indi Hispanis aurum sitientibus, aurum lique-factum infundunt. Theodor de Bry’s America was based on an eyewitness account of the Spanish conquest. This engraving portrays Indians torturing Spanish soldiers.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Because the Spanish Thirst for Gold, the Indians Pour Liquid Gold into Them
Short Title Because the Spanish Thirst for Gold, 1594
Book Title [America. pt. 4. Latin] Americae pars Qvarta. Sive, Insignis & Admiranda Historia de Reperta Primùm Occidentali India à Christophoro Columbo Anno M.CCCCXCII
Place of Publication Francofvrti ad Moenvm
Publisher T. de Bry
Creator Theodor de Bry
Publication Date 1594
Volume Vol. 4
Pages Plate 20
Language Latin
Call Number VAULT Ayer 110 .B9 1590 v. 4
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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Prospero’s Island

In the late eighteenth century, the London printer and engraver, John Boydell, commissioned artists to create paintings illustrating the works of Shakespeare. He then produced engravings based on their paintings and published them together with Shakespeare’s plays. This plate is based on a work by the Swiss-born Romantic painter Henry Fuseli. It depicts Miranda, Prospero, Ariel, and Caliban in Act I, scene ii, of The Tempest. In the text at the bottom, Prospero curses Caliban with cramps for his disobedience.

Questions to Consider

  1. Examine each of the figures in the engraving. How does each figure appear? How do they relate to each other?
  2. Is this how you imagine Caliban, in particular? How would your interpretation of the play as a whole change if you thought of Caliban as he appears here?
  3. Does Prospero’s island appear utopian in this image? Why or why not?
  4. How does this image of Prospero’s island compare to Renaissance representations of the New World?

“The Enchanted Island before the Cell of Prospero”

P. Simon and Henry Fuseli. From A Collection of Prints, from Pictures Painted for the Purpose of Illustrating the Dramatic Works of Shakspeare, by John Boydell. 1803.

Image of The Enchanted Island before the Cell of Prospero

Miranda, Prospero, Ariel, and Caliban in Act I, scene ii, of The Tempest. This engraving is based on a painting by Henry Fuseli.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title The Enchanted Island before the Cell of Prospero
Publication Title A Collection of Prints from Pictures Painted for the Purpose of Illustrating the Dramatic Works of Shakspeare
Short Title Prospero’s Enchanted Island, 1803
Book Title A Collection of Prints, from Pictures Painted for the Purpose of Illustrating the Dramatic Works of Shakspeare
Place of Publication London
Publisher John and Josiah Boydell
Creator P. Simon and Henry Fuseli
Publication Creator John Boydell
Publication Date 1803
Volume Vol. 1
Pages Plate 4
Call Number Case oversize YS 65 .11
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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Selected Sources

Aldous Huxley. Brave New World, 1932. http://huxley.net/bnw/

Michel de Montaigne. “Of Cannibals,” trans. 1603.

William Shakespeare. The Tempest, 1611.

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Digital collection produced in conjunction with Kasey Evans' Teachers as Scholars seminar, “Utopias of the European Renaissance,” on May 20, 2011.

This collection was last updated