Power and Authority in William Shakespeare’s "The Tempest"

Term Paper, 2016

12 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Marcel Draeger

World Will Always Welcome Lovers: Transatlantic Romance in Film and Literature

13 March 2016

Written Essay: Power and Authority in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest

The Tempest, which was probably written in 1611, is one of William Shakespeare’s last works and takes its place alongside all his other plays that are a crucial part of the Elizabethan period. Thus, it is generally stated that its main topics are colonisation and the exploration of the New World, which is certainly true. But a lot of critics have pointed out that The Tempest is more than just a play which deals with colonisation and its effects on the New World. Hence, Stanley Wells, a famous British Shakespeare scholar, says that “The Tempest. . . is a supremely poetic drama . . . because it speaks . . . on many levels, universally relevant . . . and . . . universally effective” (Wells 74).

My goal in this paper is to show that The Tempest is, as described above, such a thematically complex play. Therefore, this work is concerned with such an essential topic, which has not been elaborated on as much as the topics mentioned before, namely the question of power and authority within this play.However, there is one crucial explanation of how power and authority might work. This is the panopticism theory of Michel Foucault, which I examine in this paper in more detail. Hence, the anthology by David Bartholomae and Tony Petrosky is one of my major works of background literature since it provides a good basis for the understanding of Foucault’s theory and its application. Besides, another important work is Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s monograph The Many-Headed Hydra as it explains the background of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which is necessary to understand how power is created here.

Since the topic of this paper is to figure out how power and authority work within The Tempest, I developed the following working thesis: “William Shakespeare’s The Tempest serves as a prime example for Michel Foucault’s theory on disciple and punishment.” I want to emphasise that I do not state that this is the only way of how power and authority function within the play, but it represents the most outstanding way of how power is created. That is why I chose to focus on certain essential events in The Tempest and not the whole play as such. Besides, the limitation of the extent of this paper makes it necessary to emphasise just the most important scenes in the play in order to discuss the topic and the working thesis properly.

To achieve this goal, I have organised my paper into four sections, three of which have sub-sections. In the first section, I provide Michel Foucault’s theory of panopticism which he dealt with in his book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison in more detail.1I summarise it at the end of the first section to put it in more simple terms since Foucault’s panopticism is “difficult reading” (Foucault, Panopticism 225). In the second section, I explain the historical background of The Tempest and I briefly summarise the plot.In addition to that, I analyse the dramatic structure in order to form the basis for the third section, which deals with the application of Foucault’s theory concerning power and authority on The Tempest. I conclude my paper with a fourth section that discusses the working thesis. Before I can examine how Foucault’s theory can be applied on The Tempest, I need to provide his theory of panopticism and it is to this I now turn.


When dealing with discipline and punishment, Foucault states that “control of every aspect of a life can represent a more complete exercise of power than the massive display of a death” (Fillingham 115).This understanding of how power works in a society is essential to grasp the concept of power and authority in The Tempest since the issue of complete control is widely used here.Such concepts of disciplinary power are all realised in a single architectural building which is known as the Panopticon.

Panopticism. Foucault describes this model, that was architecturally inspired by Jeremy Bentham in the late eighteenth century, in his work Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison as the following:

This enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded, in which an uninterrupted work of writing links the centre and periphery, in which power is exercised without division, according to a continuous hierarchical figure, in which each individual is constantly located, examined and distributed among the living beings, the sick and the dead – all this constitutes a compact model of the disciplinary mechanism. (197)

In more simple terms, the idea of the Panopticon is that every single person in this architectural building is separated in a room. All the imprisoned people may be observed at every time by a single person that is in the centre tower. The Panopticon is build in such a way that each prisoner could be seen by the person in the centre tower but not vice versa. Besides, the prisoners cannot see any other people that may be in another small room in the Panopticon. Although Bentham formerly described this architectural building as a pattern for schools, hospitals, factories and especially prisons, this model can be adapted to a concept of power as Foucault did that in the late twentieth century.

So, the major effect of the Panopticon is that there is “a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Foucault, Discipline and Punish 201). However, that does not mean that there is a continuous surveillance. The aim is to arrange a continuous surveillance in its effects and not the action itself since the inmates just think that they are being controlled all the time although they cannot see the observer in the centre tower at any time (201). This whole concept is the basis for any further understanding of its application on The Tempest. That is why I briefly summarise it in more simple terms for a better comprehension.

Summary. To put it in a nutshell, the Panopticon is build in a way that “in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen” (Foucault, Discipline and Punish 202).Whenever one is dealing with a large number of individuals or, as in The Tempest, with little groups of individuals that are isolated from the others, this model can be applied. However, it is important to simplify that notion in order to guarantee a precise application of Foucault’s theory. The most important idea of that model and the basis for the analysis of power mechanisms in The Tempest is the fact that there is a certain person who wields power without being seen and known by the people on whom the power is wielded on and who cannot see any other supervised people. Having this in mind, I now deal with William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest.


The Tempest belongs to Shakespeare’s so-called last plays which were produced between 1608 and 1612. Since the play was written in the Elizabethan period which is characterised by some essential changes in society that influenced The Tempest, it is crucial to get into more detail regarding its historical background.

Historical Background. One immense problem during the beginning of the early seventeenth century was the Black Death,which cost many lives since London was overcrowded and “suffered from poor sanitation and too much poverty” (Karmiol 9). Another problem arose from London’s increasing importance as a centre of trade. As there was more wealth among the population, the people who got rich fled from this situation. That is why much more farm land was needed and therefore enclosed. Hence, many rural families were displaced and went to the growing cities which suffered from crowding, unemployment and increasing diseases, e.g. the plague (9). Nonetheless, exploration was another fundamental topic of this time which is another factor that influenced Shakespeare’s work.

It is widely assumed that Shakespeare knew the contemporary pieces of writing which are equivalent in their themes to The Tempest, namely Montaigne’s essay Of Cannibals and the pamphlet A Discovery of the Bermudas’ otherwise called the Ile of Divels, which was published in 1610. Whereas the first essay deals with the intervention of civilised societies with nature and a nature that governs alone, the second work is concerned with the encounter of the people from England with the New World (Pinnington 8-9).Linebaugh and Rediker as well argue that Shakespeare was one of the first people who used this story of the Sea-Venture in his play The Tempest (14). Additionally, they point out that “Shakespeare had long studied the accounts of explorers, traders, and colonizers who were aggressively linking the continents of Europe, Africa, and the Americas through world trade. Moreover, he knew such men personally, and even depended on them for his livelihood” (14).

This might be a good explanation for the fact that Shakespeare not only described the rising interest of England’s ruling class in the New World but also promoted it. In The Tempest, he tries to reflect the situation in England which he succeeded in doing, mostly due to his knowledge and experiences as described above. The people in England considered the New World a “place for ‘irregular youths of no religion,’ for persons dispossessed by ‘ract rents,’ for anyone suffering ‘extream poverty’—in short, for all those ‘who cannot live at home’” (Linebaugh, and Rediker 16). The fitting characters to this notion in The Tempest are Caliban, the savage and deformed slave, and Prospero, the right Duke of Milan, who was exiled with his daughter after his brother seized his title and property. Besides, he plays an essential role concerning the wielding of power in Shakespeare’s play. But the Sea-Venture caused also other themes that Shakespeare dealt with in The Tempest, e.g. alternative ways of life which are offered by Gonzalo and Trinculo (21-22), but I do not deal with here in more detail.

Moreover, the conspiracies that emerged after the shipwreck are the basis for Shakespeare’s conceptions of conspiracies in his play. They are realised, on the one hand, by Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano who plan to kill Prospero and subsequently seize control of the island(26-27).On the other hand, Antonio and Sebastian plan to murder Alonso in order to ascend the throne by Sebastian. Additionally, Shakespeare paid contribution to an arising ruling-class view of popular rebellion that took place in that time. The cooperation between the different characters in The Tempest in order to start an uprising are very similar to those happenings initiated by the rebels of the Sea-Venture. Concerning the insurrections in England, Linebaugh and Rediker state that the “strikes, mutinies, separations, and defiances against the power and authority of the sovereign Virginia Company after the shipwreck on Bermuda would play a major, even determining part in the course of colonization, as the subsequent histories of Bermuda and Virginia would show” (29).

These conflicts and subsequent shifts concerning power and authority can easily be seen in Shakespeare’s play, e.g. during the cooperation between Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano in order to kill Prospero and gain ownership of the island. Since Shakespeare was quite sensitive to the problems of the ruling-class, he considered the themes of power and authority in The Tempest.

In addition to Linebaugh and Rediker, the famous Shakespeare scholar Reginald A. Foakes concludes that this play “is fundamentally concerned with the exercise of power, and keeps reminding us of a range of issues connected with rule, subjection, and freedom, and, to grasp the complexity with which these are treated” (208). So, as I named the wide range of themes in The Tempest among which power and authority shall be dealt with in much more detail in this work, I provide now a short synopsis of the plot of Shakespeare’s TheTempest. It is important to mention that this brief summary only contains the major points needed for further understanding of the analysis that follows.


Excerpt out of 12 pages


Power and Authority in William Shakespeare’s "The Tempest"
University of Potsdam  (Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Seminar: World Will Always Welcome Lovers - Transatlantic Romance in Film and Literature
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power, authority, william, shakespeare’s, tempest
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Marcel Draeger (Author), 2016, Power and Authority in William Shakespeare’s "The Tempest", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/338878


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