Possible Philosophical Influences For Shakespeare
& Essay, Research Paper
In Shakespeare s The Tempest, (Act 2, Scene 1) Gonzalo, the councilor, puts forth his idea of the perfect society. In his utopia, the people would not need to do anything – nature would provide everything. This is a reference to the Golden Age of Man. The Golden Age was a chapter in Greek mythology which took place not long after man was created. In both The Tempest and the mythical description of the Golden Age everything was perfect — there was no need for war, and the earth gave everything that was needed to survive. Greek mythology is only one of the possible sources that Shakespeare could have drawn upon while writing Gonzalo s utopian vision (Lasky, pg. unknown). Many other philosophers, both classical and contemporary (to Shakespeare), had their own views on utopian societies.During Elizabethan England, Latin was the language of choice for the educated people. When Shakespeare was attending Stratford Grammar School (www.werewolf.net, Shakespeare s Early Life ), he studied texts written in Latin by classical authors and philosophers. Plato was one of the earliest philosophers, and Shakespeare must have read his work. The system of government that was being used in Greece at the time was a version of the modern democracy. Plato saw the failure of the democracy and wrote a document detailing his version of the perfectly governed society (Compton s Encyclopedia, Plato ). The document, titled The Republic, outlines the principles that modern republics are based on. The Republic could have prompted Shakespeare to begin thinking about utopias, but The Republic could not have served as a direct influence to Gonzalo s utopia. Gonzalo s society is anarchistic, whereas The Republic s whole purpose is to provide a superior government.Another poet that Shakespeare may have studied in school was the Roman poet Ovid. Ovid wrote Metamorphoses, one of whose earlier chapters was about the Golden Age. Ovid could have been one of the poets that appealed to Shakespeare. The way Ovid tells the story of the Golden Age is very similar to the way Shakespeare describes his utopia in The Tempest. Both describe flowing rivers of honey, ample fruit, and grains growing of their own will. Here, an excerpt from Metamorphoses describes the Golden Age (Metamorphoses, Book 1, Plate 3): The flow’rs unsown, in fields and meadows reign’d:And Western winds immortal spring maintain’d.In following years, the bearded corn ensu’dFrom Earth unask’d, nor was that Earth renew’d.From veins of vallies, milk and nectar broke;And honey sweating through the pores of oak. Again, to show the similarities between The Tempest and Metamorphoses, here is an excerpt from Gonzalo s description of his utopia (Shakespeare, 2.1.175-80): All things in common nature should produceWithout sweat or endeavour: 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. The Metamorphoses wasn t the only influence to Shakespeare. It is likely that Shakespeare also read the work of many of his contemporary theorists and writers.
An English writer who lived slightly before Shakespeare s time was Sir Thomas More. He wrote many things, but his most famous work was probably Utopia. Sir Thomas More was also responsible for inventing the word utopia . If broken down to the Greek roots, it becomes U-topos, meaning nowhere. Utopia is an isolated island where everything is perfect – much like in The Tempest, which also takes place on a completely isolated island. The similarities end there, however. In The Tempest, the population of the perfect state sits idle and everything is provided for them. In Utopia, there is a strict hierarchy of roles and everyone has their place in society. Everyone must work, farm, and contribute to society. For example, the description of marriage rites and rules stretches out over four pages, whereas in The Tempest, the description is summed up in two phrases: No marrying mong his subjects? / None, man, all idle (Shakespeare, 2.1.181-82)Another contributor to Shakespeare s theories could have been the French writer Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne invented the form of writing that we describe today as essays. This may have enticed Shakespeare into reading one of the English translations of Montaigne s work. One of his essays, Of Cannibals, addresses the aspect of thriving societies that are primitive by civilized standards. For example, the cannibals of Montaigne s essays make their swords out of wood. Yet the wood is so strong, and their workmanship so fine, that the swords become as durable and as effective as any metal sword made. The concept of a primitive society that can rival more civilized societies may have appealed to Shakespeare and caused him to use the theme in his play.Many utopias are imagined as being isolated from the rest of the world. This is why the setting of an island is perfect for such a society. When Gonzalo is talking about his island commonwealth, he was referring to the island that the royal party is stranded upon. While Gonzalo s description of the perfect state is not very important in the overall plot of The Tempest, there is a definite reason that Shakespeare decided to take the time to write such a speech. Gonzalo is probably channeling Shakespeare in his description of the utopia. Therefore, it is possible that Shakespeare believed that complex social rules and technology complicate society to an unneeded extent. Essentially, Shakespeare was saying that a return to innocence would form the perfect society.Shakespeare s visions don t completely match any of the works that he could have studied from. It s very possible that Shakespeare had never read Utopia at all. The idea of using an island to house the perfect society could have come to him from stories of Atlantis. Another possibility is that he dreamed the idea up all on his own. However, because it is definitely known that Shakespeare avidly studied Greek and Roman mythology, Ovid s Metamorphoses was the most substantial influence to Shakespeare s description of the perfect society.