Academic journal article British and American Studies

Renaissance Travel: From Utopia to the New World in Shakespeare's the Tempest

Academic journal article British and American Studies

Renaissance Travel: From Utopia to the New World in Shakespeare's the Tempest

Article excerpt

1. Introduction: travel narratives and the rise of utopia

For an island country like Britain, whose life was organized around seafaring and voyages, travel has been very important and has indeed inspired writers very early. John Mandeville 's Travels (Carter and McRae 2001: 25), published in 1356-67 in Anglo-Norman French, despite its being a fantasy, is one of the earliest books that provided readers with insights about the Orient. When Columbus discovered America in 1492, he could not have imagined that his discovery would mark not only the beginning of expansionism, but it would, most importantly, kindle man's ambition and fantasy about the other world out there. From the political perspective, the period following Columbus's discovery witnessed the growth of Britain as a sea power. During the Elizabethan period, many expeditions were organized to search for new lands, to meet the people who inhabited them and to exploit their riches. The sea became an important milieu for commercial, military, exploratory and technological successes and advances. The British navy would become the pride of the nation, especially after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, which was due not only to the military strength of the British navy, but also to the fact that the British ships were technologically more advanced. This resulted in the leading role of Britain worldwide and accounted for its growing power.

Nevertheless, not all stories were reports of glories. Where there was success, there was also loss, defeat and shipwreck. These would become the subject matter for literature too, reaffirming in this way the fact that Britain was a maritime nation, but also shaping new genres of literature, travel writing among the most relevant ones. Travel books, either written in the form of fantasy writing or of real reports of travels to faraway places, abounded during this period, in a desire to explain in real or fictional terms how the new world was constructed:

As the New World did not provide its own cultural script for Europe to read, no encyclopaedias, histories, plays or books, this space was filled by scripts written by Europe: empirical accounts and fictions. (Brennan 2006: 263)

As a result, travel accounts grew very popular, not only because they informed readers about places and cultures unknown to them, cherished the desire for wealth and power, but also provided a space for understanding, questioning, assessing and reassessing these cultures and their own culture too. It is with regard to one's own culture that travel and travel accounts in particular acquired greater importance, because most often these accounts mirrored the desire for change and for reforming England's political, religious and social systems.

From a wider political perspective, travel writing came to be "increasingly identified with power, specifically with European interests to influence or even control the non-European world" (Mitsi 2005: 2). From a literary perspective:

Travel writing in the sixteenth century is an amalgam of many literary genres, such as autobiography, fiction, journal, memoir, as well as disciplines (cosmography, geography, ethnography, archaeology), unified by the writers' relation to their material. In the Renaissance, it was travel that gave rise to the development of most of those disciplines, as travelers not only presented readers with geographical descriptions and maps but also attempted to understand, and therefore define and control newly discovered, or different, lands and peoples. (Mitsi 2005: 9)

Utopian writing spread around this time as a result of the surge of these accounts. Although the rise of utopian writing is primarily connected with the geographical discoveries and explorations by Columbus and others who later followed him, it should not be seen as their by-product only. The projection and construction of utopias was based on the idea of building ideal cities and societies, rooted in the humanistic impulse of the ancient classics, whose revival inspired and shaped many Renaissance ideas. …

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