The Tempest

In re-reading Shakespeare’s The Tempest, I have been struck by some of the heterotopic qualities of the play. As the editors of the Arden edition reflect, the whole play teases us with the magic of time and place:

Our sojourn on this enchanted island is akin to a trip to a distant planet, where we find a world dramatically unlike our own …..

The play is a tale of sea journeys. It opens with the arrival of a ship that is seemingly wrecked upon the island and ends with the ship miraculously safely restored, waiting to take most of the play’s characters home. Shakespeare was influenced by many sixteenth century travel narratives that told of dangerous and miraculous sea journeys and discoveries of other lands, people and creatures. The play embraces this age of discovery. Ships of course were Foucault’s heterotopia par excellence, travelling as far as the ‘colonies in search of the most precious treasures they conceal’. Foucault says:

…. you will understand why, from the sixteenth century until the present, the ship has been for our civilisation, not only the greatest instrument of economic development but also the greatest reservoir of imagination.

In The Tempest the island itself takes on the same qualities of a ship as Foucault describes it, allowing Prospero/Shakespeare to release a reservoir of imagination:

… a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is self-enclosed and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea…..


It is this dynamic of being on the one hand self-contained and on the other open and free that drives the play. We are in context of the age of discovery but the island setting provides a restricted geography in which different forms of confinement are played out. For Prospero and his daughter Miranda, the island itself is a prison. We are told that the airy spirit Ariel (now in the service of Prospero) was imprisoned for twelve years in a ‘cloven pine’ by the witch that once controlled the island.  Prospero’s slave Caliban is confined in a cave. Ferdinand is manacled although he reflects that in beholding Miranda: ‘space enough have I in such a prison’.

Magical charms lead the characters onto and through the island, with recurring patterns of sleep, dreams and astonishing wakefulness:  ‘a strange a maze as e’re men trod’.  In this enchanted place that plays on all the senses, Gonzalo muses on an ideal, utopian commonwealth (echoing Montaigne). Ferdinand finds ‘this place paradise’. Miranda discovers a ‘brave new world’. But it is the monster Caliban’s imagination that captures the quality of such a different space:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,

Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices

That, if I then had waked after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again. And then, in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open and show riches

Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked

I cried to dream again.


The Tempest (The Arden Shakespeare) edited by V.M. Vaughan and A. T. Vaughan (1999)


12 July 2017