Importance of Setting in The Tempest
Shakespeare’s enchanted island in The Tempest is a restorative pastoral setting, a place where ‘no man was his own’ and a place that offers endless possibilities to the people that arrive on it’s shores. Although the actual location of the island is not known, the worlds of Seneca aptly describe it’s significance to the play – it represents the ‘bounds of things, the remotest shores of the world’. On the boundary of reality, the island partakes of both the natural and supernatural both the imaginative and the real. It allows the exploration of both man’s potential and his limitations, his capacity for reform through art and his affinity for political and social realities. It is constructing this opposition between art and reality and in giving Shakespeare’s romance the freedom to explore mankind free from the concerns of everyday life that the setting of The Tempest is crucial to it’s overall dramatic design.
The only scene in the play that does not take place on the island is the opening tempest scene. It is in itself an important use of setting. It hints at the fact that the characters social assumptions will capitulate when exposed to adversity – we have the boatswain apparently inappropriately comment none aboard the ship that ‘I love more than myself’. In fact, quite the reverse is true. In the court scene we are presented with the characters Antonio and Sebastian who are interested in political gain despite the predicament in which they find themselves. In this respect the setting functions to present the idea that our social conditioning transcends time and place. The inference is that if political clambering can take place on an enchanted island in the middle of nowhere, it can take place anywhere.
The island setting thus, gives Shakespeare the opportunity to present man as a zealous political animal, free from the façade of everyday life in the real world. The repeated plots of assassination and usurpation foreground this notion. Prospero usurped the island’s sovereignty, Sycorax usurped control of the local spirit population, and there are no less than three plots to usurp power during the course of the play. The sheer number of these subplots and the way in which they are presented in a mimetic style has the affect of giving The Tempest its characteristic density. They would only be possible on the island setting which has its own history and its own ability to tempt the characters to regicide and fratricide.
The island is also a powerful means of conveying the traits of the characters. This is made possible by the fact that it appears to change depending on who is regarding it. The initial responses of the characters to their arrival on the island illustrates this ides. For Gonzalo it is temperate and full of possibility – he dreams of a commonwealth “t’excell the Golden Age”. For Antonio it is barren and unforgiving; he remarks it has “everything, save...