Foreign-Founder and Legitimacy in “The Tempest”

I just read Shakespeare’s, “The Tempest” and realized that there are several situations in the play which seem to deal with questions we have discussed in class. Though the play was written over a century before any of the writers we have discussed in class even existed, there still bears a striking comparison between themes on which Shakespeare seems to be commenting in the drama and similar ideas expressed by writers such as Rousseau and Honig.

For those who are not familiar with, “The Tempest”, the story involves a mystical man, Prospero, who used to be former duke of Milan. He summons up a tempest using some type of otherworldly powers which simultaneously traps the king of Naples, Alonso, and several of his subjects on the isle which Prospero inhabits, additionally separating them into different groups. Each group contains a different dynamic, though all of their different conflicts seem to be both acts of free will and influenced by some higher power (I want to avoid spoilers).

Firstly, the issue of the foreign-founder was present in my mind during every scene involving Trinculo, one of Alonso’s servants, Stephano, Alono’s (drunk) butler, and Caliban, slave to Prospero and offspring of Sycorax. At a time when The New World was beginning to be explored, the connections between European explorers and New World natives is depicted quite obviously (Professor Baldo has said that, though we don’t know for sure if this was a commentary on exploration and colonization of The New World, he feels that there are an enormous amount of textual evidence to suggest it). Given this obvious connection, the interactions between Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban appear to me as debunking of the foreign-founder myth in certain aspects. For instance, Caliban knows how to survive on the isle better anyone, arguably even Prospero, and in that respect does not need any help from Trinculo or Stephano. However, Caliban ultimately turns to Trinculo and Stephano for leadership with the idea that they can help him free himself from Prospero’s shackles, mistaking their liquor for some type of magic. (Ok, sorry: have to add a spoiler.) By the end of the play, Caliban realizes the foolishness of his trust in Trinculo and Stephano, seeing them for what they are: a pair of drunks. With this act, we are given another example of the foreign-founder who fails in their effort to do away with the threat posed against a people (I think Caliban is not a single person, but a group of people cast as one) and establish good laws and good people.

Legitimacy is another theme which I think can be seen in many parts of, “The Tempest”, but I would like to focus on the marriage of Ferdinand, Alonso’s son, and Miranda, Prospero’s daughter. Their marriage is undoubtedly arranged by Prospero, who orchestrates every detail from their meeting to the way in which they fall in love. There is a certain amount of vagueness which suggests that Miranda and Ferdinand would have fallen in love together despite Prospero’s intervention, however it becomes increasingly clear that Prospero is not orchestrating this marriage out of their own happiness, but as a means to gain what he lost: his dukedom. In fact, everything in the entire play is orchestrated, some more than others, by Prospero with this goal in mind. He rarely seems to care whether these things will benefit any of their subjects, be it Ferdinand, Miranda, Alonso and his subjects, or even all of Milan, will be good for them in any way. Admittedly, Prospero was originally driven out of Naples by a few of the men he gathers on the isle, surviving only because of the kindness of Gonzalo. Despite this, the way in which Prospero attempts to reclaim his position seems to be illegitimate; none of his decision revolves around anything but his own desires, one that is solely achieved through the use of magic or power.

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