Shakespeare lived and wrote in the Elizabethan age, a time when his society was branching out and making itself known throughout the world by colonizing other cultures. Great Britain was reaching for new heights of power. In the play Shakespeare questions the value of this new concept of British imperialism. The Tempest is called Shakespeares American play, because he calls into question Englands right to colonize other nations, much as American colonists did with America 200 years later.
The Tempest was Shakespeares last play. For his entire life he had written plays to please the Queen. For this play it appears he made a controversial statement by challenging the values of his Queen and his country.
Evidence of this is abundant in the play. The story rotates around the fact that Prospero, a European noble, had imposed himself on an island, already inhabited. Prospero is depicted as a worthy man, who was usurped from his throne. The reader has automatic sympathy for the character. This allows him more leeway for wrong doing by creating room for it within the readers mind. Prospero came to the island with his daughter to find it already inhabited by two savages. Upon arrival, Prospero brought his new ideas with him, and began to force them upon these two savages, Sycorax and Caliban. He believed that his new ideas were better, such as slavery opposed to freedom, which he imposed on Caliban.
Dull thing, I say so; he, that Caliban,
Whom now I keep in my service.
(Act. I, Sc. II, Ln. 285,6)
This view of whose ideas were better is an obvious matter of opinion, one of the biggest drawbacks to transforming old ideas into new.
Prospero was the first male that Caliban had seen in his life. As a lower being Caliban worshipped and praised Prospero, as the quote below shows, until Prospero began to mistreat him.
I know it by thy trembling: now Prosper works upon thee
(Act II, Sc. II, Ln. 81-3)
This worship caused Prospero to act as a ruler above him, eventually pushing him to be the tyrant over Caliban, including robbing Caliban of his freedom. Keeping within his worship, Caliban lost his self-confidence and any drive for good deeds. Because Prospero had imposed himself upon Caliban, Calibans life began to decline. Without drive, or freedom for that matter, Caliban turned to a vegetable only working as a slave to Prospero. Again, the act of asserting that your ideas are superior can cause indelible harm to the recipient of that opinion.
Throughout these ordeals, Prospero thought that he was helping Caliban, (again opinion) while actually destroying him. But these supposed helpful teachings to Caliban eventually turned on Prospero. Near the end of the play, Caliban finds Stephano and Trinculo on the island. These men appeared to be much like Prospero in dress, and in speech. Because he had been trained by Prospero to worship and follow, he immediately began to worship Stephano and Trinculo. This is what turned against him. By that time, Caliban had developed a deep hatred for Prospero and sought revenge against him. He discussed killing Prospero in his sleep with Stephano and Trinculo, which they agreed to because they would gain control of the island. Prospero escaped death by a hair, in that he had a sprite, Ariel, to spy on the plotting Englishmen. This was an example of his own imperialistic ideas turned against him, leading almost to his death.
But these wrongs did not stop at Prospero and Caliban. New ideas were imposed also by Ariel, Prosperos servant sprite. Ariel was a lively spirit that was immortal, and therefor capable of much more than any human. Ariel proposed new ideas to the king, Alonso and all of his men, Gonzalo, Antonio, Sebastian, Adrian and Francisco. These men had perceived themselves as almighty as they paraded around the island in fear of nothing. Ariel enlightened them to their fault and may have even shown them their mistakes.
You are three men of sin, whom Destiny,—
That hath to instrument this lower world…….
…Your swords are now too massy for your strengths,
And will not be uplifted….
…that you three From Milan did supplant good Prospero:…
…him and his innocent child…