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Elizabethan play or theatre, also known as English Renaissance theatre, is referred to as the plays written and performed during the reign of Elizabeth I of England from 1558 to 1603 CE. The actors of the play were generally touring troupes and the plays were written in blank verse. The plays, more often than not, are based on non-religious themes. The first permanent theatre ever built in England was in London, in the year 1576 CE. The Queen herself was an admirer of plays. She managed to portray herself as a selfless and kind queen and used theatre as the media to project her own glory and that of the family of Tudors. She enthusiastically sponsored artists and playwrights. Noted playwrights of this period were William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson.

The Tempest is presumed to have been written somewhere between 1610- 1611, does not exactly fit the description in regard to time, but it is considered to be a prominent component of European Renaissance theatre. It was first performed at Court by Shakespeare’s company, better known as the King’s Men, in the year 1611, and again later in 1612-1613 in the marriage of King James’ daughter Elizabeth. This last play of Shakespeare reflects travel literature, referring to accounts of a tempest in Bermuda. It can also be referred to as an English colonial project, drawn on Montaigne’s essay “Of the Cannibals”. Critics also think that Caliban is not just reflecting the oppressed in his character, but also in his name, which might be an anagram derivative of Cannibal.

Since the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods were for most parts bare and simple, the dramatic effects of a play were left almost entirely to the audience’s imagination. For example, in Act II Scene I, where Gonzalo, Sebastian, and Antonio talk about the island, the bare stage allows the audience to imagine both Gonzalo’s version of it and the rest’s dry and parched one. At the same time, The Tempest includes stage directions for quite a lot of elaborate special effects. The many parades and songs accompanied by ornately dolled and dressed figures or stage magic—for example, the banquet in Act III, scene iii, or the wedding celebration for Ferdinand and Miranda in Act IV, scene i—give the play the impression of a masque,- a highly stylized form of dramatic, musical festivity prominent among the aristocracy of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is perhaps the pendulum between simple stage effects and very elaborate and surprising ones that gives the play its uncanny and dreamlike essence, making it seem rich and intricate even though it is one of Shakespeare’s briefest, most simply constructed plays.

Well, the truth is that Elizabethans never saw The Tempest. Elizabeth had died long before the play was written and performed, and James I was the king at the time, so the English of the day is now called Jacobeans. Although there were certainly a few differences between Elizabethan and Jacobean theatres, there are a lot more in common. The Elizabethan period is also loosely referred to as the time period of 1580 to 1625. To be safe, Tempest could be better called an English Renaissance play.

The Tempest is an intriguing, magical play and there are many reasons why it still appeals to modern audiences as much as it would have appealed to Jacobeans: it has remarkable characters, it is filled with mysticism and strange creatures, it has witty and humorous wordplay, it is visually stunning and has a beautiful language. Jacobeans also enjoyed the stagecraft and special effects that were made possible in the newly invented indoor theatre where the play likely premiered. Magic tricks, disappearance, and other illusions that would have been impossible on the traditional outdoor stage were perhaps the key part of this play. Royal performances of the time often incorporated a masque, a detailed fantastical stage show more akin to Cirque du Soleil than a traditional play. They were exceedingly expensive to put on and they had all of the most wonderful theatrical innovations available at the time. Shakespeare actually includes a masque in “The Tempest” and it would have taken advantage of all the eye-catching effects of the new indoor stage.

The play is also extraordinarily topical. It is about travelers being shipwrecked on a magical island and at the time England was beginning to explore what they called the New World – and what we know today as North and South America. There were all kinds of wild tales coming back from people exploring Bermuda and the Caribbean about the outlandish people and creatures that they found there. They riveted the Jacobean dream. It is difficult for someone to comprehend today what it would be like to discover a whole continent full of people and creatures that no one knew was there before; it was almost like discovering a new planet, but one full of life and one you could travel to. The idea that a European nobleman like Prospero could go and become master of this enchanted realm played into Jacobean desires about what a valiant English person could do to conquer the New World; it was fascinating and exciting and a big part of the appeal of the play. Although now we know that this dream that theatre fed to the common was the rose-tinted window overlooking the atrocities, the annihilation, the oppression. To Jacobeans, the new people and creatures were alike in value and were no more than entertainment and new pawns to conquer.

It is hard to disregard the way in which this text associate so closely to the colonial expansionism that had brought the powers of Europe into contact with ‘brave, new worlds’ that had just been ‘discovered’. Historically, these new connections gave European powers the opportunity to exploit and disempower natives, and it is hard not to see a parallel circumstance in both Prospero’s relationship with Caliban and with Ariel. While most, especially Jacobeans, considered Europeans to have a ‘god-given’ right to the colonial power they were embarking to wield, there were a few dissenting voices that suggested that the ‘civilization’ that the European powers were supposedly bringing to these oppressed colonies might not be the most beneficial thing for them. At this time Britain was endeavoring to establish overseas colonies, beginning unsuccessfully, in 1585, while Queen Elizabeth was on the throne, with Roanoke Island in North Carolina, and including, in 1607, and more successfully, Jamestown, in Virginia. This expedition to establish overseas colonies provided the British with access to needed raw materials, but was also justified as what Rudyard Kipling later, in 1899, called ‘The White Man’s Burden.’ In other words, the British, as well as other European countries, most notably Spain, felt justified in claiming foreign soil from indigenous natives because they were apparently civilizing these primitive, barbaric natives. Stories spread in Britain that many of these colonized natives practiced cannibalism.

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The relationship between Prospero and Caliban is therefore of particular interest with respect to this question of colonialism. He is portrayed to be enslaved and ill-treated by people who cold-heartedly use him for their own benefit. Yet at the same time, Caliban himself is shown to be a treacherous character who attempted to rape Miranda and make her bear his children. He laments his failure in this regard:

“Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else

This isle with Caliban.”

He tries to betray Prospero in a laughable attempt by finding a different master in Stephano. Having been taught the language of his oppressors, he now seeks to employ that to overthrow Prospero. In him, therefore, Shakespeare seems to present a very disturbing depiction of colonialism. Was Prospero right to enslave him? Was he right to ‘civilize’ him? Does this system make Caliban happier? These are questions with no simple answers, but ones that reflect the various approaches to colonialism in Shakespeare’s day.

In Shakespeare’s works, the dramatic gaze is not merely admiring; through various devices, a critical perspective is conveyed to bear. The court may be paralleled by a very different world, revealing uncomfortable similarities (for example, Henry’s court and the Boar’s Head tavern, ruled over by Falstaff in Henry IV). Its hypocrisy may be bitterly criticized (for example, in the diatribes of the mad Lear) and its self-seeking ambition depicted disturbingly in the figure of a Machiavellian villain (such as Edmund in King Lear) or a grump (such as Iago in Othello). Shakespeare is fond of supplanting the court to another context, the better to evaluate its assumptions and pretensions and to propose alternatives to the courtly life (for example, in the pastoral atmosphere of the forest of Arden in As You Like It or Prospero’s island in The Tempest). Courtiers are frequently figures of fun whose unmanly sophistication (‘neat and trimly dressed, Fresh as a bridegroom … perfumed like a milliner’, says Hotspur of such a man in 1 Henry IV, I.3.33–6) is contrasted with plain-speaking integrity: Oswald is set against Kent in King Lear.

When reflecting on these matters, it should be remembered that stage plays were subject to censorship, and any criticism had, therefore, to be muted or oblique: direct criticism of the monarch or contemporary English court would not be endured. This has something to do with why Shakespeare’s plays are invariably set either in the past or abroad.

Shakespeare’s drama is innovative and problematic in exactly the way of the Renaissance. It examines and questions the beliefs, inferences, and politics upon which Elizabethan society was founded. Although the plays always conclude with the restoration of order and peace, many critics are inclined to argue that their imaginative energy drives into subverting, rather than reinforcing, traditional values. Frequently, figures of authority are undercut by some comic or parodic figure: against Prospero in The Tempest is set Caliban; against the Duke in Measure for Measure, Lucio; against Henry IV, Falstaff. Despairing, critical, heretic, disillusioned, unstable, defiant, and mocking voices are continual to be heard in the plays, rejecting, resenting, and opposing the established order. They pertain always to marginal, socially distasteful figures, ‘licensed’, as it were, by their situations to announce what would be unacceptable from socially entitled or responsible citizens.

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