The Tempest and the Origins of Britain

in Critical Survey
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During the last twenty years it has become conventional to read The Tempest in relation to the exploration and colonisation of the New World. The paucity of literal references to America in the play means that this ‘colonial’ reading, however suggestive, is as much an allegorisation of the text as the older idea that Prospero represented Shakespeare himself. A number of critics have expressed strong reservations about this approach and two important, recent articles have pointed out that the insistence on a New World context has ignored equally important European contexts which inform the play. A reading which emphasises questions of power, legitimacy, conquest, colonisation, and slavery need look no further than the Mediterranean world in which the play is literally set, or indeed no further than the British Isles themselves. The importance of Ireland to any ‘colonial’ reading has already been amply demonstrated. What I wish to do is to read The Tempest in the light of myths about the origin of Britain, an approach which takes the play’s questions about legitimate rulership beyond a narrowly conceived version of ‘colonialism’. As Claire McEachern has written, ‘Colonialism is of acknowledged importance to English nationhood in this moment, but to the list of colonial territories that are conventionally supposed to animate English identity – the New World, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales – we must add Britain itself’.