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The Disenchanted Island: A Political History of The Tempest, 1760–1830


This essay offers a political history of The Tempest from the close of the Seven Years’ War (1762) to the beginning of the reform era (1830). It constructs this history by close readings of several graphic satires that appropriated the play in order to frame and interrogate contemporary politics. First, this essay stresses the remarkable consistency with which Georgian political prints invoked The Tempest’s dramatic elaboration of “islandness” to negotiate a distinct set of ideological concerns. Caricaturists pressed Prospero’s island into service as a proxy Britain at moments when the nation was acutely conscious both of its own territorial borders (threatened invasion, the redrawing of imperial boundaries) and of the contested limits of royal prerogative. Second, the essay reads these caricatures of The Tempest in terms of key shifts in the political coding of the play during a period of domestic and imperial crisis. The first such shift, in the 1780s and 1790s, found the play closely associated with the opposition Whigs led by Charles James Fox. The second, expressed most clearly in the 1820s, involved the increasing obsolescence, even inversion, of a once-secure interpretation of the play as a typology of British monarchical paternalism. The history this essay unfolds—a history entwined with the stage history of The Tempest—is one in which Prospero the father-king is shadowed and finally usurped by Prospero the despot.

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