A Dystopian Utopia

An essay using Shakespeare’s The Tempest to analyze the meaning of “utopia”

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines the word “utopia” with three definitions, but the most often applied meaning of the word is “a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions.” Everyone talks about their ideal world in which they dream to live, and for as long as the human imagination has existed, the concept of utopia has always been shaping itself somewhere in the mind of every being with an ounce of creativity.  Now, just as much as ever, a “perfection” is sought after by most, and it shows through today’s media, whether it’s literature, television, film, or drama.  But is a true utopia perfect for all or does it vary between each individual?  William Shakespeare’s The Tempest presents the concept of utopia as a singular ideal held by each individual rather than a unified idea held by the majority.

Of the characters in this play, the first inhabitant of the island is the son of the witch Sycorax known as Caliban.  Before Prospero arrived on the island, Sycorax and her son were the only intelligent beings known to have thrived on the island, save for Ariel, who was encased in a tree due to Sycorax’s magic.  She eventually passed away, leaving the entire island to Caliban, and until Prospero and Miranda landed there, he was content to live alone with no other interaction.  However, he was educated by the two and ultimately became their servant:

This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,

Which thou takest from me. When thou camest first,

Thou strokedst me, and madest much of me;

For I am all the subjects that you have,

Which first was mine own king: and here you sty me

In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me

The rest o’ th’ island (I.ii.331-344)

Caliban reflects on how before Prospero and Miranda, he was his “own king,” left to live as he pleased, and most importantly, able to roam the island freely instead of being confined to his hole.  With little perspective on what life away from his island is like, Caliban’s utopia is simple in desire: the return to the way things were.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are the men that crashed on the island due to Prospero’s storm.  Each of these men arrive on the island with an outside perspective looking into a new world.  Unlike Caliban, who was able to live content with no economy of which to be concerned or people to bother him, these men come from a place of dissatisfaction and eagerly seek to start fresh.  Upon exploring the island, one man, Gonzalo, talks of the kind of utopia he would build on the island if he could:

I’ th’ commonwealth I would, by contraries,
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation, all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty — (II.i.148-157)

Sebastian and Antonio point out just how hypocritical his ideal utopia is.  He talks of building a world of equality, yet he would rule it.  Even beyond that, his ideal world consists of no labor or economy, and while it is a romantic concept that many desire, even today, it is entirely impractical.  Gonzalo, however, continues, claiming that perfection cannot be obtained by a unity but must be spearheaded by a man with a clear idea:

All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavor: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.
. . .
I would with such perfection govern, sir,
T’ excel the golden age. (II.i.160-169)

Gonzalo’s idea of a perfect world is one provided to him entirely by nature where he is able to sit back and enjoy the bounty of the earth as part of his rights.  It is the lackadaisical dream of the ignorant, unlike the simpler and more practical ideal held by the protagonist Prospero.

Before living on the island, Prospero was Duke of Milan.  However, his title was revoked due to having neglected his duties as Duke, choosing to close himself off from the rest of the world to study sorcery.  Throughout the play, Prospero demonstrates skill with the sorcery he has dedicated himself to by exhibiting power over others.  Both Caliban and Ariel are enslaved to him, Miranda is little more than a pawn in his plans, and the men that betrayed him in his past are subjected to his power by the storm that he brewed.  There is no question of Prospero’s desire for control and being left to his own devices, and he was able to find it on the island.  Even when he abandons the utopia he found and drowns his books, the source of his power, his position of power is restored in Milan, thus providing him with some form of control.

Each individual has a distinct idea for a perfect world, but the similarities between them are few and far between.  Each ideal collides with the next: Caliban wishes he were the only living thing on his island once again, Gonzalo desires to rule over a populace that does not have to work, and Prospero seeks for control and solitude.  What makes a true utopia unattainable is the fact that it means something different from one person to the next and no one idea for a perfect world can be agreed upon by a majority.

Works Cited:

Shakespeare, illiam, and Rex Gibson. The Tempest. Cambridge Univ Pr, 2006.

“utopia.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2011. Web. 5 December 2011.

(c) Morgan Lea Davis, 2011


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