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Utopia in “The Tempest” by Shakespeare


Literature is an art form that has existed in society for centuries. It serves various purposes depending on the intention of the author of a given work. Some literary works serve solely for entertainment to diminish the stresses of everyday life by clearing the mind through laughter and inspiration. Other forms are solely educational, and thus they impart knowledge above any other aspect. Some authors write books in the form of testimonials that serve as an inspirational aspect through the aid of shared experiences. Others still take the form of descriptive text used to describe the society and its complexities. However, most works combine two or more of the aspects above to appeal to a greater audience with different tastes for literature. Most literary works contain specific themes that contain the ideas that an author wishes to convey. Writers base these themes on life experiences, personal ideas, and imagination. Some of these works focus on a single theme, while others consist of a cocktail of themes to convey different messages. Some of these themes portray ideas that entice the thought process of the reader or audience and suggest that they look at things for more than they appear at face value, as they are not necessarily, as they appear.

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This essay explores the theme of utopia. Some scholars have criticized this theme for being just an expression of mere fantasy. Australian aphorist Gerald Dunkl describes the word as one that is, “…used for something that one is not willing to change” (Mather 111). Scott Maisano, in his essay Reading Underwater, describes it as a fantasy of fluency. These premises raise two questions, viz. is utopia just a mere fantasy, and does it have any use in literature. Utopia is more than just a theme. It stands for something and is applicable in the conveyance of crucial messages that underlie the text. This essay answers these questions through a discussion of what this theme entails, as well as some of the functions it fulfils in literary works. The Tempest, a play written by William Shakespeare, will be the main text in this discussion. Other similar texts that will serve the purpose of providing support and contrast include Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, New Atlantis by Sir Francis Bacon, Prospero’s wife by Stephen Orgel and Scott Maisano’s essay, Reading Underwater.

The tempest: a summary

A summary of the main text is necessary to understand how the theme fits into the story and this discussion in general. The Tempest is a play written by William Shakespeare in the 17th Century, around the year 1610. William was an author and playwright who started his successful career in London in the mid-1980s. The play centres on the character Prospero, a magician whose younger brother, Antonio, deposed with the help of Alonso, the king of Naples. He was the duke of Milan and had a three-year-old daughter, Miranda at the time. Gonzalo, the king’s adviser, loads a boat with plenty of food, water, and Prospero’s most prized books, in which Miranda and her father Prospero sail to a seemingly uninhabited island and stay there for twelve years. According to Shakespeare, Prospero’s magic comes from the deep knowledge that he possesses due to years of reading. The island is also home to an evil magician, Sycorax, who moves after that people banish her years ago while pregnant with her son, Caliban. She dies and leaves Caliban, which is a monstrous-looking creature conjured out of the earth on the island with a spirit, Ariel, who is trapped by Sycorax in a tree for refusing to do her dark biding.

Prospero and Miranda find these two at the island and figure out a way to co-exist, with Prospero claiming title to the island, Miranda playing the ever-obedient daughter, Caliban, as Prospero’s servant and Ariel reluctantly helping Prospero with his magic after Prospero releases him from the tree. Ariel executes his duties with the hope of earning his freedom. On the island, Prospero divines that his brother is close by and on a ship. He uses his magic to conjure up a storm, the tempest, thus causing the ship to capsize and bring his brother Antonio, the king Alonso, his son Ferdinand, his brother Sebastian, and the king’s aide Gonzalo to the island. With the help of a masque created by her father using magic, Miranda falls in love with Ferdinand, the king’s teenage son. Sebastian, the king’s brother, with the help of Antonio, plots to kill the king for Sebastian to inherit Alonso’s kingdom in Naples. Prospero uncovers the plot, forgives Antonio, Sebastian, and Alonso for their acts of betrayal, drowns his books, and as a final task to attain freedom, asks Ariel to create good weather for them all to sail back home for the marriage of his daughter Miranda to Ferdinand.

Utopia: the purpose of the theme

Utopia, in its simplistic definition, underscores what an individual or people perceive as a state of perfection. This state of perfection can either be of physical manifestation such as a perfect place or country, or in ideology such as in the behavioural patterns of people. The oxford dictionary defines utopia as “an imaginary place or state of things in which everything is perfect” (Kumar 116). More often than not, utopia as an idea is a resultant conception of society by people based on what the people view as society’s shortcomings. With such insight, utopia is a subjective concept with each individual’s view being different depending on one’s society, the culture he or she is accustomed to, and his or her surrounding environment. Some of the factors that shape people’s perceptions of utopia include, but are not limited to, a society’s moral values, governance, family dynamics, and interactions amongst people of different strata, education, and general observations on normal human behaviour.

As mentioned earlier, the theme has various uses in its application to literature. One such purpose is the general description of the author’s perception of idealism or perfection. In the main text, Shakespeare describes the island as a form of utopia. It is a place of acceptance for all without discrimination. He gives an illustration of the fact that Sycorax seeks solace on the island and lives there peacefully until her death (Shakespeare 12). Her monstrous son, Caliban, also lives on the island peacefully before the arrival of Prospero and Miranda, and they live there for twelve years (Shakespeare 9). Shakespeare also describes his idea of an ideal woman through the character of Miranda. Although Miranda is not a very active character, she serves as a contrast to what the author regards as the real character of women, viz. stained with infidelity. In the play, Prospero provides the audience with evidence of this character from his description of his wife and his mother. He implies that although his wife is virtuous, he only believes Miranda is his daughter because her mother said so (Shakespeare 59). In the essay, Prospero’s Wife by Stephen Orgel, the author explains that women, as a class, are not depicted as virtuous in the play (Orgel 1). He also makes note that this aspect is a resounding perception that Shakespeare depicts in some of his other works (Orgel 2). Miranda’s role is different for she remains chaste, submissive, and obedient to Prospero as her father and as the ruler of the island in the entire play.

Another example of idealism as associated with utopia is Shakespeare’s description of the society on the island as opposed to society in Milan. On the island, everybody knows his or her place, and there is a sense of harmony even in the face of disagreements. For instance, although Caliban does not agree with Prospero for making him a slave, he follows the order set in place by Prospero (Orgel 5). Ariel also plays his part in assisting Prospero with his magic and Miranda stays chaste. In contrast, women are not as virtuous, and those that oppose authority work against it as Antonio does by deposing Prospero and thus betraying him. Lastly, Shakespeare illustrates his idea of an ideal family in his description of the family unit on the island. In his essay, Orgel notes that in the majority of Shakespeare’s works, the family unit only has one parent. It is usually a chiastic relationship consisting of either a mother and her son(s) or a father and her daughter(s), as is the case with Miranda and Prospero (Orgel 6). None of Shakespeare’s works has a two-parent family. Orgel attributes this aspect to a similarity in the author’s life experience. Orgel explains that Shakespeare had a wife and three children. However, a few years after the birth of the last children, which were twins, Shakespeare moved to London and stayed there throughout his life except for the last three years in which he moved back to his family.

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He adds that this experience might have contributed to Shakespeare’s view of the ideal family. A similar idea of idealism and perfection is also evident in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travel, where the main character’s ship capsizes causing the death of some of its crew and throwing Gulliver into the ocean. He swims to shore and arrives in Lilliput, which is a land similar to England, but utopian. It is a peaceful place where everyone is happy and the rule of law if followed strictly, thus bringing order to society just like on the island. However, a notable difference between stories is the idea of an ideal woman. Jonathan Swift portrays a picture of gender equality in the story, by stating that education is important for the boy as well as the girl child and that letting an uneducated woman bear a child and raise that child would be a form of brutality to the child, which is an act that is not tolerable in Lilliput. This perception is different from Shakespeare’s image of a submissive woman who accepts the man as the head of the family and respects the man’s superiority.

Another purpose that the theme of utopia serves is that it enables the writer to talk about some of the things that society regards as forbidden or taboo. In The Tempest, the issue that is mainly a taboo is magic. In the 1600s, many revered magic as an evil art that went against the laws of Christianity and science. Any form of belief that the people considered religious and unexplainable was thought to be unchristian and thus a form of sorcery or magic (Orgel 8). During the Era of King James I, magic or sorcery was dealt with by the forming of the inquisition, which was an institution set to establish whether a person was indeed practising magic or pure science. However, critics say that most corrupt leaders used that instrument of law to get rid of anyone whose property they had an interest in, and who refused to sell it to them. The society often regarded women as property, with the men in the family marrying them off to other men at their pleasure in exchange for wealth. In the play, there is a portrayal of magic as a form of power.

Prospero employs thaumaturgy to moderate and wangle the environment and situations so that the outcome of an event ends up being in his favour. He manipulates the weather by creating a tempest to bring the people that betrayed him to the island. He also asks Ariel to put everyone except Sebastian and Antonio to sleep, a situation that allows the two to form a conspiracy to assassinate the king. Antonio asks Sebastian to kill his brother Alonso to inherit his brother’s title as king and Sebastian agrees on the condition that he kills Gonzalo. After the discussion, but before anything is done, Ariel awakens Gonzalo to prevent the crime from happening (Swift 66). However, Prospero lets go of his legerdemain as the play closes before returning to his dukedom in Milan for the marriage of his daughter to Ferdinand. The drowning of his prized books depicts evidence of lack of magic.

In contrast to magic as the source of power in the play, science is the source of power in the novel New Atlantis by Sir Francis Bacon. In the story, a storm causes a ship to veer off its course, an event that takes the crew somewhere in Peru. They find the island of Bensalem, where everything about it is perfect from the society’s organization, its moral standing, and education, which is mostly scientific. The people value education and evidence of this observation is the name given to describe the research facility, the Salomon house. The people refer to it as the ‘eye of the kingdom’. The leaders exclusively control the scientific studies and use them for the benefit of society. As it is a perfect society, there exists no corruption among the leaders and thus no conflict necessitating laws that guard against it. The head of Salomon house explains this virtuous nature of the people by stating, “…there is not under heaven so chaste a nation as this of Bensalem” (Bacon 20). He goes further to describe what he knows of Europe to provide a contrast by saying, “…I have read in one of your European books, of a holy hermit amongst you that desired to see the spirit of fornication; and there appeared to him a little foul, ugly Aethiop” (Bacon 20).

Another role of utopia in literature is that it provides an avenue to discuss social and political issues without getting into trouble with the authorities. For instance, in The Tempest, there is the issue of deposition. Prospero is angry with his brother for deposing him even after twelve years. At the time he is deposed, he accepts the situation calmly by saying, “The government I cast upon my brother…to him put the management of my estate” (Orgel 11). Orgel suggests that he might have had a hand in his deposition by being at fault for something that the story does not disclose. This issue has sparked criticism on the aspect of whether the deposition was an act of betrayal or a necessary act for the good of the society. Scott Maisano, in his essay Prospero’s Wife, justifies the deposition as an act that was a result of Prospero’s indulgence in the personal pleasures of reading books of magic at the expense of issues of governance (Maisano 77). Maisano thus implies that the deposition was necessary and not an act of betrayal, as Prospero would lead the reader or audience to believe. Antonio was thus right to take over the dukedom of his brother for the good of society. Another aspect of underscoring this perception hinges on the fact that during the time Shakespeare wrote the play, going against the authority had serious implications, and the state often regarded such a move as an act against the crown, thus a treasonous act, which is an offence punishable by death.

Perhaps Prospero chooses exile to spare his daughter from such wrath and come up with damning proof of Antonio’s treachery. In Act V, the scene where Prospero forgives Antonio, Orgel notes that Prospero’s utterance of the phrase, “…at this time I will tell no tales” (Shakespeare 128), is perhaps an indication that his forgiveness is conditional. Also, if the need were to arise, he would spill the beans on Antonio’s attempt to kill the king and become the succeeding king’s courtier. He also highlights the fact that Antonio does not ask for his brother’s forgiveness or indicate his acceptance of it, perhaps suggesting that it is not an act that he is happy with and only accepts it for the lack of choice in the matter. This assertion holds mainly due to the implications that arise out of the entire situation.

Similarly, in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, certain crimes attract penalties as serious as death. For instance, the people of Lilliput do not take crimes such as fraud kindly. They consider it as a crime that is worse than theft. They consider contriving to take away the right of a person to his or her honest earning as a grievous crime that is only punishable by death. However, they do allow the person accused to prove his or her innocence. If such proof is sufficient to warrant dismissal, the accuser is likely to be dealt with by the application of the same punishment for wrongly accusing someone of a crime that would cause the loss of his or her life (Swift 67). The effect of such strict rules is that they deter people from committing a crime and keep them from accusing others of grave crimes unless they are very sure about the facts.

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There is also the issue of Shakespeare’s depiction of women in society as inferior and lacking virtue. This topic is likely to attract uproar if discussed in the open or expressed openly in literal works. The idealism created by utopia is thus a witty way of providing contrast by the description of both an example of a woman in society and one in the utopian ideology. For instance, in the play, it is easy to note the depiction of Sycorax as an evil and manipulative woman whom the people banish into the island and has a monstrous fatherless child. In contrast, the author gives Miranda, a girl who grows up on the island and away from the society in Milan, which is the description of a chaste and obedient woman who would make a good wife for Ferdinand. The issue of the age of marriage is also evident in the play. During the 1600s, people who married their children off during their teenage were mainly from royal families. The custom for the rest of the population was to get married at an older age. For instance, Shakespeare’s wife was twenty-four when they got married, and his two daughters were in their twenties when they tied the knot. However, Shakespeare was eighteen when he married, which is perhaps an indication of why he considers teenage as the ideal age for marriage. Also, the only woman in the play is Miranda. The author only includes the rest of the female cast by brief reference, which is a depiction of the inferior role that they play both in the play and the author’s idea of their societal role (Orgel 6).

The fourth purpose of utopia as a theme in literature is that it acts as a suggestive tool for the changes that the author thinks are necessary for society. Shakespeare’s depiction of an ideal society and his description of utopia is as his way of suggesting what would make society a better place. An example of such instance is the scene where Prospero and Caliban argue over who has the rightful claim over the island. Caliban believes that he owns the island by inheritance from his late mother. Orgel sees this stand as evidence of Caliban’s dimwittedness as an intelligent person would argue on the aspect of first possession. Caliban was on the island first and thus had a rightful claim over the island (Shakespeare 58). However, his argument over inheritance causes him to lose his claim to Prospero, thus making Prospero the new owner and leader of the island. Prospero argues that Caliban’s claim based on inheritance is bogus as he is fatherless and an inheritance from a mother is a weak claim. This assertion would suggest that women were not at the time allowed to own land, thus further giving evidence of their inferiority in the eyes of society. Prospero was a former duke, and according to him still the rightful duke of Milan and thus had a better claim to the land by leadership and authority. Orgel believes that according to Shakespeare, power and the authority it commands is confident and not due to inheritance. Orgel says, “It is an extension of mental power and self-knowledge…the authority for legitimizing it comes from God” (8).

A similar idea is discernible in Sir Francis Bacon’s novel, where the head of the Salomon house explains how Christianity came into being as the religion of the people on the island of Bensalem. He says that one day a column of light appeared in the water reaching toward the sky with a cross forming at the top of the column. Some wise men from Salomon House went towards it in boats, but could not reach it as some mysterious power bound their boats. One of the wise men of the Society of Salomon House made a prayer to God, and his boat was unbound and was able to move toward the light. However, as he got closer, the column of light disappeared, and a chest of cedar appeared. The man took in from the water and placed it on his boat where it unlocked itself to reveal the bible and a letter from Apostle Bartholomew stating that he had written the letter and that the chest would appear to people chosen by God (Bacon 52). Therefore, this aspect qualifies the leaders from the Salomon House as having authentic power according to Shakespeare’s criteria as they legitimize their claim of leadership as originating from God and they possess extensive mental power and self-knowledge as is evident from the scientific studies. Prospero’s mental power manifests due to his extensive reading, which results in his ability to perform magic. In the play, the words used by Shakespeare instead of God, as noted by Orgel, are fortune and destiny. The absence of female characters except for Miranda in the play would suggest what he thought a woman’s role in society should ideally be. Also, Miranda serves to provide an alternative chaste depiction as earlier noted, seemingly suggesting that Shakespeare would prefer that women were more virtuous in their character.

Lastly, the theme of utopia provides a means of entertainment and a form of escape from reality. The majority of the imagery created by authors in the conception of the theme triggers the imagination of the audience and the reader. For instance, Scott Maisano makes note that in The Tempest, the author makes the audience and readers of the play to imagine the titles of the books that Prospero could have read and during most of the play, the books only appear in a few scenes. This aspect enables the audience to focus and connect with the character instead of focusing on the book. The physical absence of most female characters also allows the audience to create these characters in their minds. For instance, Sycorax does not physically appear in any scene, but the author incorporates her in the play through discussions between Ariel and Prospero (Shakespeare 22). Detailed descriptions of the island and the characters in the play also allow actors to create representations of the characters from their imagination through costumes and their demeanour during the play. Jonathan Swift describes the people of Lilliput as human beings that are barely six inches in height. This assertion would require the reader’s imagination, especially in the absence of illustrations in the book. The image of a perfect society in the novel New Atlantis by Sir Francis Bacon also depends upon the reader’s imagination for its conception for no society that would be so pure as to warrant a description such as “…the virgin of the world” (Bacon 51). This type of imagery provides a pleasant escape from reality and gives a sense of uniqueness to each storyline. The play, as well as the supporting texts used in this paper, display literature contrived in a manner that provides entertainment through comic relief. For instance, Caliban curses Prospero through utterances such as, “…a southwest wind blow on ye and blister ye all o’er” (Shakespeare 22). There is also the use of music in the play, a good example being the song Full Fathom Five. Scholars believe that most plays have used the song since the first productions of the play in the late 1650s, which gives a sense of authenticity to the play and lightens the mood for the audience. Jonathan Swift also assimilates comic relief in his work, as is evident in the description of Gulliver’s first encounter with the people of Lilliput (Swift 15).


The play, The Tempest, provides a good example of the role the theme of utopia plays in most literary works, proving that it is more than just a display of mere fantasy. It serves as a means of entertainment and escapes from reality for the readers and audiences. It is also a means by which authors of literary works such as William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Sir Francis Bacon, Scott Maisano, and Stephen Orgel express their perceptions of perfection and idealism. It provides a subtle means by which authors suggest changes to societal dynamics that they deem necessary and acts as an avenue for discussing issues that society would be reluctant in addressing as they are considered taboo. Therefore, utopia as a theme is a very important literary tool whose application is dynamic and engaging.

Works Cited

Bacon, Francis. New Atlantis, Montana: Kessinger Publishing Company, 2001. Print

Kumar, Krishan. Utopia and Anti-utopia in Modern Times, Oxford: Blackwell, 1987. Print.

Mather, Matthew. Complete utopia chronicles, Canada: PhutureNews Publishing, 2013. Print.

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Masiano, Scott. “Reading underwater; or, fantasies of fluency from Shakespeare to Mieville and Emshwiller.” Exploration 45.1 (2004): 76-88. Print.

Orgel, Stephen. “Prospero’s Wife.” Representations 8.1 (984): 1-13. Print.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest, London: Yale University Press, 2011. Print.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels, Texas: Plain Label Books, 2011. Print.

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