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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds So the scene of The Tempest, as the printed text tells us, is an uninhabited island. It’s an island that is simultaneously in the Mediterranean and the New World. It’s a story that simultaneously takes place in the present, of round about 1610, when Shakespeare was writing it, in the past, in that there are references to the classical world, and in the wider world, as voyagers are taking people to the New World.

Skip to 0 minutes and 40 seconds An uninhabited island. Well, of course, it’s not uninhabited, really. If it was uninhabited, you wouldn’t have any actors on stage. Rather, it’s a deserted island that people have come to, people have been exiled to. Prospero landed there, on having been exiled from Milan, when his younger brother, Antonio, took the dukedom from him. Now the King of Naples, who is in league with brother Antonio, and his ship, they have landed there as a result of Prospero’s storm. They are beginning to fill the island. Ariel is, in a sense, the spirit of the island. He’s been there all along. But we learn, as the exposition of the first act unfolds, that there’s also someone who was exiled there before Prospero.

Skip to 1 minute and 33 seconds We learn that a woman in Algiers, called Sycorax, was accused of witchcraft. She was tried. But because she was pregnant, she was sentenced to exile, rather than death. There was a convention that the death penalty would not apply to pregnant women. She was accused of having slept with the devil, and her child was therefore imagined to be, in some senses, the devil’s child. Sycorax was exiled to the island. And she dies there, leaving that child, Caliban. Caliban, then, has been on the island for longer than Prospero. In some senses, the island is his, and Prospero has taken it from him, when he arrives, and sets up his own little empire there.

Skip to 2 minutes and 25 seconds One can see why people have interpreted The Tempest as an allegory of the process of colonisation, or empire-building - have interpreted Caliban as the oppressed native. That’s not exactly what happens. After all, he’s not native to the island. But the way in which Prospero takes control of Caliban - not least by plying him with alcohol, and using him to find out what all the fertile parts of the island are, what fruits can be eaten and what are poisonous, where the water’s good, where the water’s bad. This was the way that indigenous people were treated in early years of empire. Caliban, child of Sycorax. What sort of a figure was he?

Skip to 3 minutes and 13 seconds When Trinculo and Stephano, the steward and jester from the ship, first encounter him, they don’t know what to make of him. He’s hiding underneath a gaberdine. And Trinculo says this, as he flushes Caliban out. Is he “dead or alive? A fish; he smells like a fish; a very ancient and fish-like smell; a kind of not of the newest Poor-John.” Poor-John was a kind of poor-man’s fish. “A strange fish!” So is he a man? Is he a fish? He seems to be scaly. He smells. Then Trinculo says this.

Skip to 3 minutes and 53 seconds “Were I in England now, as once I was -“ And that’s always a good joke, on stage, where you’re putting the play on, in England, in London, but imagining the action to be somewhere else. To say “if I were in England” raises a laugh. The audience suddenly are brought into the action. “Were I in England now, as once I was, and had but this fish painted, not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver; there would this monster make a man; any strange beast there makes a man; when they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.”

Skip to 4 minutes and 32 seconds So what Trinculo is saying is, if he went to England, he would be a made man, in the sense of a wealthy man, by displaying this monster, this fish-like human, displaying him in the marketplace. And he says, the English, they won’t give a doit - that was a very low-value coin - they won’t “give a doit to relieve a lame beggar,” but “they will pay out ten to see a dead Indian.” The English would pay to see Native Americans displayed as a kind of fairground attraction. Well, this remark of Trinculo’s does have historical warrant. The Elizabethan period was, as we’ve seen, a time of voyages and explorations. One of the great voyagers was a man called Martin Frobisher.

Skip to 5 minutes and 24 seconds He set off to try to discover the Northwest Passage, across the north of what is now Canada. And narratives came back of his voyage. I’m holding in my hand this extraordinary little deed box, from the collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust here. Quite a common object. Many people would have had these in order to keep important documents. But what is unique about this one is, when you open it up, it has a lining. And the lining is some pages from a book. It’s the book of Hakluyt’s Voyages, the great collection of the voyages and navigations of the English people.

Skip to 6 minutes and 7 seconds And the particular page is that of M Frobisher - Master Frobisher - M Frobisher’s second voyage “for the discouerie of Cataya.” So the owner of this, or, conceivably, the person who sold it, has taken the pages from Hakluyt’s Journey and lined the deed box with them. That was quite a common thing to do, just to use bits of old books - perhaps books that had fallen to pieces - as lining. But it’s a wonderful coincidence that it happens to be Frobisher’s voyage. Every time this box was opened up, there was a little memory of Frobisher’s voyage. Now what was it that Frobisher brought back from the Northwest Passage? Well, the answer is, it was an Inuk native.

Skip to 6 minutes and 56 seconds An Eskimo, as they would then have said. And he was indeed exhibited, became a fairground attraction. People paid to see him. He died very quickly, almost certainly because he hadn’t been exposed to the germs of Europeans. But it was a very well-known case. And it must be that Trinculo is referring to this when he speaks of the idea of exhibiting Caliban in the marketplace. It’s one of the moments in the play where the context of the brave - or not so brave - new world bears most pressingly upon the action of The Tempest.

Voyages of discovery: the Deed Box

Featured SBT item: Sixteenth-century deed-box

  • Reference no: SBT 1996-33/4

Find more online: Deed box

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