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New and Old Worlds: The Tempest and early colonial discourse

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Although geographers have begun to critically re-examine the historical imbrication of their discipline within eighteenth- and nineteenth-century colonial discourses and practices, few studies have focused specifically upon the many complex interconnections between colonial and geographical discourses during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. In this paper I attempt to address this deficit via a reading of one of Shakespeare's final plays, The Tempest. Noting its textual and dramatic links to the nascent English colonization of Virginia, numerous literary critics and historians have characterized The Tempest as an instance of early colonial discourse. In resisting an overly simplistic coupling of text and context, however, this paper offers an alternative interpretative frame wherein the play may be situated. It argues that The Tempest's uneasy geographies, its ambivalent mapping of both Mediterranean and Atlantic contexts, may be usefully related to the philosophical and moral problematics which the discovery of the New World occasioned for the imago mundi of Renaissance Europe. From within this context, The Tempest may be seen to mobilize images of elsewhere, of spaces distant from an English centre. What this reading reveals is that both colonial discourses and the colonization process were complex and even hesitant in their formation. Through The Tempest, they may be understood as both emerging from, and relying upon, a series of European theological and classical understandings of the morality of voyaging, and the nature of the geographically distant.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Geography, University of Sheffield, Winter Street, Sheffield S10 2TN, UK

Publication date: 2000-09-01

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