The values of a culture are shaped and strengthened by texts produced within that culture. Explore the ways in which

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The Tempest - Charlie Worsfold

The values of a culture are shaped and strengthened by texts produced within that culture. Explore the ways in which The Tempest, through its use of dramatic conventions, helps to define some of the key ideals of Jacobean England.

[Question 5]
Literature – Research Essay

Charlie Worsfold

Noteworthy literary texts represent and reinforce the cultural values and ideologies of the period in which they are produced. William Shakespeare’s The Tempest was first performed in 1611 in Jacobean England, is believed to be one of Shakespeare’s last individually-produced plays and includes aspects of comedy, romance and tragedy. The experimental play, often described as a tragi-comic romance, is centered around the character of Prospero, a sorcerer and the rightful Duke of Milan, exiled to a desert island with his young daughter. Through his manipulative powers, he aims for vengeance, causing a tempest which strands a ship containing his brother and other Neapolitan noblemen. Shakespeare’s work speaks to and reveals aspects of Jacobean society; particularly the Jacobean values of religion, class and gender. Not only are these ideals represented within the text, but their prominence is strengthened through Shakespeare’s use of dramatic conventions. Religion is illustrated within the play by the apparent Christian ideals of sin and reflection, forgiveness and the celebration of marriage. The romantic aspect of the text; the influence of Masque texts and the style’s prominence within the play, help reinforce these Christian values. Class structure and Jacobean hierarchy is represented through the characters of the play and reinforced through the dramatic conventions of costume and language. The dynamic and balance between the genders within the text is portrayed largely through the interactions of the character of Miranda; the only female within the play. Miranda’s character portrays the treatment of women and their position in English society in the early 17th century.

Religion played a significant role in the society of Jacobean England, and also impacted the works of authors, poets and playwrights. The Reformation of England brought about religious tension that was prominent throughout both the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. Due to Queen Elizabeth’s alignment to the Protestants and her established of the Church, subsequently becoming the Head of the Church, her successor, King James I, assumed the role of the Head of the Church. As a protestant himself, this simply created more tension as he faced opposition in England from the Catholic families who detested the idea of another protestant leader [6]. The English people in Jacobean society can be distinguished as much more God-fearing and exceedingly religious [2]; there was a common belief that all must behave in a proper manner in order to not anger God, as he was in control of everything. Due to the Elizabethan development, the Church had become a dominant entity around the beginning of the Jacobean period, with the Puritans solidifying a strong presence in society [3]. There was a strong emphasis on sin, and the importance of avoiding such an atrocity. With the fear of sin comes to significant value of chastity and self-control. The process of forgiveness also played a major role in the religious landscape of Jacobean England. These values were emphasised in many literary texts produced within the era, particularly in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, advanced by the use of dramatic conventions. The characterization of the protagonist, Prospero, is indicative of Jacobean Christian values. At the beginning of the play, Prospero conjures a tempest in order to strand a passing ship, carrying Neapolitan noblemen and his brother, Antonio. The purpose of the tempest is revealed as the beginning of a process of revenge. Prior to the events of the play, Prospero was usurped and exiled from his position as the Duke of Milan. He explains to his daughter, Miranda, that he was “so reputed” in his studies of “liberal arts” that “thy false uncle” took advantage of his optimism and trust, and conspired with the King of Naples to rid Milan of Prospero. In his recount he uses strong diction to emphasize the act betrayal against him.

‘A treacherous army levied, one midnight Fated th’purpose did Antonio open The gates of Milan, and i’th’dead of darkness The ministers for th’purpose hurried thence Me, and thy crying self.’

His use of the word “treacherous” signifies how Prospero felt about the situation. After twelve years on the island, his desire for vengeance has festered, and at the beginning of the play, his plan to achieve revenge for Antonio’s actions is carried out. However, throughout the play, there is no revenge. The character progression of Prospero sees him embrace forgiveness toward the denouement of the play.

‘Yet, with my nobler reason, ‘gainst my fury Do I take part. The rarer action is In virtue, than in vengeance.’

This speech, almost a soliloquy, is indicative of the shift in Prospero’s character in contrast to the beginning of the play. It symbolizes Prospero’s eventual return to Christian society. He has enacted the key Christian ideal of forgiveness and prevented himself from engaging in further sin; magic, Paganism. He states that he will “break my staff” and “drown my book”. The process of Prospero abandoning his power within the play highlights how Shakespeare has reinforced Jacobean religious values. To further convey this characterization, costume could be utilized; “garments”. In the stage directions of Act IV, Scene I, it is stated that Ariel helps to attire Prospero prior to releasing the noblemen from his magical trance. His old garments symbolize his sorcery and sin, but within a play, costume could be used to indicate how he has now returned to Christian society.

The strict Elizabethan class system carried over into Jacobean society, and Shakespeare reinforces this rigid system in The Tempest. There was a social “pyramid” that formed the hierarchy of Elizabethan England. This structure was dominated by the Monarchs and the Royal Family, followed by aristocrats and noblemen. Lower down were the ministers, and then the common people; workers and peasants [9]. With the reign of King James I, this basic hierarchy did not change; the rigidity and perceived importance of class remained. Another Elizabethan ideal that transitioned into Jacobean England was the strong belief in the Divine Order, or the Great Chain of Being. The principle of the order was that all existing in the universe, both living and non-living, had a distinct rank in a perceived vertical hierarchical chain, believed to be “divinely planned” [1]. The amount of “spirit” an object or person was composed of dictated its “place” on the chain of being; the more spirit one had, the more perceived power it held [7]. At the peak of this order was God, followed by his angels. Humans were perceived to be the highest and most powerful apart from the divine beings; after humans, there animals, and then plants. At the very bottom of the chain were non-living objects; metals, rocks. Each spiritual category was composed of a secondary hierarchy. For example, humans were ranked with the Monarchs at the top, followed by nobles, merchants and peasants. The Divine Order played a significant role in dictating Jacobean Class due to the society’s close connection and devotion to God and Christianity. There was a strong presence of the fear of disorder within the Chain of Being; it was regarded as a sin toward God if one tried to ascend beyond their place on the order. In The Tempest, Shakespeare uses dramatic conventions to reinforce the rigidity of the Jacobean class system and how the chain of being was a critical aspect of life in society at the time. The plot progression of the play highlights how the foundation of the chain of being will always be restored to dictate society. The opening of the play immediately features a deterioration of the Divine Order. The beginning involves the ship carrying Antonio, Alonso and the other noblemen, on which the boatswain is trying to endure the storm and the tempestuous lightning. The ship’s passengers attempt to interact with the boatswain, who disregards them and orders them to “keep below”. The noblemen take offense to this. Gonzalo reminds the boatswain to “remember whom thou hast aboard”; that the passengers of the ship are of a much greater honour or “rank” on the hierarchical chain of being. To this, the boatswain replies my exclaiming that there are “none that I more love than myself.” This dialogue and interaction between the boatswain and the other noble characters emphasize the disruption of the Jacobean hierarchy due to the tempest; due to Prospero’s sinful use of magic. This disturbance is further highlighted through the comedic aspects of the play. The secondary plot of Stephano, Trinculo and Caliban serves as the comedy component of the “tragi-comic romance”. On the ship, Stephano is a butler and Trinculo is a jester. However, when the two become stranded on the island and meet Caliban, they form a new, miniature society of which Stephano is the leader. These three individuals, all on the bottom of the human hierarchy within the Divine Order, fill the power vacuum created by the storm. This interaction, through comedic dialogue and possible proxemics and stage movement, further develops the disruption of class and spiritual hierarchy. However, through further plot progression, the denouement of the play resolves with this crucial order being restored. As Prospero abandons his magic and his staff, he forgives those he previously aimed for vengeance, and finally gives Ariel his long-desired freedom. With the sinful magic gone, the order of life and class hierarchy is restored.

Jacobean society was very much a patriarchal one, and this issue gender imbalance is further strengthened within The Tempest. A patriarchal society is characterized as a social system in which the male holds authority over social organization, and where the father holds the power of their family and property. Patriarchy establishes the basis of male rule privilege and authority, and also develops female inferiority [4]. This gender principle was a significant ideal within Jacobean society, and also linked to the Divine Order; men were perceived to have a higher position on the chain than women, more spiritual power. In Renaissance England, the father-family relationship dynamic was developed around the fifth commandment, which focused on the principle to “honour thy father”. This created a strong contrasting father-daughter relationship; “daughters are perhaps the greatest victims of a patriarchal family and Elizabethan daughters were no exception” [8]. Sons were raised to inherit the father’s land and lead a family, whereas daughters were taught to answer to their father until they were married off to please their husbands, confined to the household [5]. This is represented in The Tempest through the relationship between the characters of Prospero and his daughter, Miranda. At the beginning of the play, Prospero exhibits a more humanist relationship with his daughter, as compared to the traditional family dynamics in society at the time. He demonstrates natural love and care for his daughter.

‘I have done nothing but in care of thee - Of thee my dear one, thee my daughter’

Prospero’s relationship with his daughter is developed in a way that would seem out of place in Renaissance and Jacobean England. However, as the play progresses, these traditional societal values are strengthened. Despite the genuine love for Miranda, Prospero holds a sense of superiority in his dialogue with his daughter. This superiority could be further enhanced in a play with proxemics and stage movement. He orders her to “pluck my magic garment from me”, highlighting how this relationship is still very much a patriarchal one. Patriarchy also holds presence in the text in Miranda and Prospero’s interaction with Ferdinand. Ferdinand and Miranda immediately fall in love. This section of the play highlights the importance of marriage in Jacobean England, more in terms of its patriarchal elements. Ferdinand, son of Alonso, the King of Naples, if married to Miranda, would increase Prospero’s social status significantly upon his return to Milan. Prospero chooses who Miranda shall marry; a key patriarchal component of father-daughter relationships in Jacobean society.

Through his use of dramatic conventions, Shakespeare prompts a reinforced understanding of the key Jacobean ideals, such as religion, class and patriarchy. Christianity played a significant role in Shakespeare’s society; the Christian values of forgiveness and sin are prominent in The Tempest. The characterization of Prospero from the beginning of the play to the denouement is indicative of the overarching importance and power of religion. Class hierarchy in Jacobean England was strongly based upon the Divine Order. The society was described as “a hierarchically ordered culture”, by English Professor Emily Stockard. This is represented in the text through the plot progression of the play; how the spiritual hierarchy is dissolved until the denouement, when it is restored. The comedic elements of the play; the character group of Stephano, Trinculo and Caliban, help reinforce this hierarchical disturbance. The ideal of patriarchy and the position of women in Jacobean society is prominent within the play. Women were regarded as inferior to men, and family principles centered around the father holding authority over the family. This patriarchal system is emphasised through the relationship between the characters of Prospero and Miranda; how he decides who she is to marry. The Tempest serves as a text that demonstrates how the ideals of the culture it is produced within are reinforced and strengthened through the use of dramatic conventions.


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[2] (2017). Stuart monarchy, Jacobean society, Religious initiatives. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Mar. 2019].

[3] Elizabethan Era England Life: History and Facts. (n.d.). Jacobean Religion. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Mar. 2019].

[4] Literature Review - Patriarchy as an Ideology. (n.d.). [ebook] pp.10-12. Available at: [Accessed 27 Mar. 2019].

[5] Martin, K. (2010). Fathers and Daughters in Renaissance England. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Mar. 2019].

[6] New World Encyclopedia. (2018). Jacobean era. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Mar. 2019].

[7] Shakespeare Fun Facts. (n.d.). The Divine Order - The Great Chain of Being - Shakespeare. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Mar. 2019].

[8] Singh, S. (1983). Family relationships in Shakespeare and the Restoration comedy of manners. London, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[9] (n.d.). Jacobean Era Society, Fashion & Clothing. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Mar. 2019].
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