Once an island isolates man from civilization, the island itself becomes a minuscule society reflecting a larger one. In the play, The Tempest, and the novel, Robinson Crusoe, the islands serve as microcosms of British society. In The Tempest, the microscopic society of Prospero’s island addresses the aspects of morality, the supernatural and politics in the larger, British society. Robinson Crusoe’s island aids his personal physical and spiritual growth. It also reflects aspects of materialism, colonization and religion in the British society. Although both pieces are fiction, they still inform the reader about current social matters in reality because of the uncomplicated island setting and its ability to simplify situations.
The island in Shakespeare’s Tempest is a microcosm of seventeenth century society. Not only does it serve as a microcosm of society, but the island also controls the actions of the characters through its minute and limited environment. In the play, Prospero is once “the duke of Milan and a prince of power” (Shakespeare, I.ii.53) who has control over his kingdom. Now, his powers are insignificant on the island, where only Miranda, Ariel and Caliban live. The island environment limits him to his precious books. It also makes time for teaching a refined education to Miranda.
Special features give the island distinct characteristics, which cater to the matters of the seventeenth century. One of the matters that the island addresses is morality not only during the seventeenth century, but also for the rest of society. There is good and evil on the island represented through Caliban and Ariel. These creatures are an extension of the island: Caliban, whom Prospero addresses as “thou, earth, thou!” and Ariel, who is “but air” (I.v.21). Caliban represents evil, as he is part of the earth, making him nearer to hell. He is a “demi-devil” (V.i.272) whose actions are regarded as “being capable of all ill” (I.ii.353) He even attempts to rape Miranda. Opposite from Caliban, Ariel signifies goodness as a “brave spirit” (I.ii.207) who flies above the earth and closer to the heavens than Caliban. He obeys the orders of Prospero “to every article” (I.ii.195), and makes possible the important tempest. Caliban and Ariel are microscopic representations of evil and good. As parts of the island environment, Prospero is challenged to interact with these symbolic creatures.
Caliban and Ariel also give rise to the Elizabethan curiosity in the supernatural. The creatures are a part of the island, which gives the island its magical motif. Prospero’s wonder mirrors that of Elizabethans in the supernatural world. As time elapses during his stay on the island, he even begins to rely on it. He uses the “magic garment” (I.ii.7), and Ariel’s supernatural powers to perform useful tricks. In one instance, he sends an invisible Ariel to spy on Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo in his cell. Shortly after, Prospero catches them. Similarly, Elizabethans’ interest in the supernatural proved to be as ardent as Prospero’s-wonder cabinets and wonder museums displaying strange objects became a popular activity. Both Prospero and Elizabethans find delight in the supernatural.
The island also magnifies political relations of the seventeenth century. Because of the island’s ability to isolate, conflicting political characters on the island (Prospero, the right Duke of Milan; Alonso, the king of Naples; Ferdinand, the son of Alonso; Miranda, the daughter of Prospero) are forced to confront their situation. When Prospero and Alonso meet for the first time in act five, scene one, he is reminded by Prospero how “most cruelly didst … Alonso, use [him] and [his] daughter” (V.i.71). He immediately asks Prospero to pardon his wrongs. The marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda further gives reason for Prospero and Alonso to reconcile with one another.
In Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the island’s natural environment highlights the theme of man’s individual growth, both spiritually and physically. In other ways, however, this can also be seen as the growth of society. The environment instantly exercises its power and control over man in the tropical storm that leads to the shipwreck of Crusoe’s ship. “The fury of the sea” (Defoe, 39) thrusts Crusoe to the shores of the uninhabited “Island of Despair” (Defoe, 60). Isolated on the island, Crusoe is challenged to use his resourcefulness in order to survive.
Crusoe accepts the challenge to survive. Not only does he survive, but he also expands and discovers new qualities about himself. In the beginning of his time on the island, Crusoe feels extremely isolated. Fearing savages and wild beasts on earth, he stays high up in his “apartment in the tree” (42). Lacking a “weapon to hunt and kill creatures for his sustenance” (Defoe, 41), he is vulnerable. Defoe believed that “the nature of man resides in the capacity for improvement in the context of a material world” (Seidel, 59), and this becomes apparent in his novel. The tools that Crusoe possesses from the ship fulfill this notion, improving his life on the island. He progresses rapidly, no longer feeling isolation on the island. Crusoe uses his tools to build a protective fence and a room inside a cave. He then builds a farm where he raises goats and grows a corn crop. Later, his ambitions take him to the other side of the island where he builds a country home. Also, with the weapons that Crusoe creates with his tools, he saves Friday from cannibals, and makes him his companion. Because of his tools, his supply becomes more than sufficient for survival. Not only has he expanded on the island, but in a way, Defoe also depicts Crusoe’s island as a microcosm of European society. Crusoe’s European values and education are evident: he colonizes the island by building houses, and establishes a new species (his breeding cats and the corn stalks on his farm). His successful expansion on the island parallels that of the British Empire around the eighteenth century. From isolation to expansion, Crusoe converts fear into bravery. Similarly, the island helps Crusoe convert from pagan into God-fearing.
Before his sea adventures begin, religion has little significance to Crusoe. The lack of neither God’s nor his father’s blessing do not concern him when he decides to “board a ship bound for London” (Defoe, 5). It is when the ship, however, encounters a tempest where “wind began to blow and the sea to rise in a most frightful manner” (Defoe, 5) that Crusoe turns to God for guidance: “if it would please God to spare my life this one voyage, […] I would go directly home to my father and never set it into a ship again while I lived” (Defoe, 6). Increasingly, he realizes God’s Providence for him, and he begins to expand spiritually. In Defoe’s Serious Reflections, he defines providence as “the operation of the power, wisdom, justice, and goodness of God, by which he influences, governs and directs not only the means, but the events, of all things which concern us in this world” (Works, 3: 187). On the island, Crusoe realizes the work of Providence while witnessing the barley miraculously grow: “for it was the work of Providence as to me, that should order or appoint, that the ten or twelve grains of corn should remain unspoiled, as if it had been dropped down from Heaven” ( Defoe, 69). Without the island setting, Crusoe would have not notice such an event, as barley grows abundantly in his home country. If he had not noticed this event, he would not have realized “how wonderfully we are delivered, when we know nothing of it” (Defoe, 175).
In general, the significance of the island setting serves to simplify large scale situations. In simplifying the situation, audiences and readers are able to better understand the events of both the novel and society. During the time of The Tempest, issues of morality, the supernatural and political relations were present. These issues are indirectly related to the play. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe also relates current matters to its novel: the island helps the reader understand matters of individual growth, colonization, and religion during the eighteenth century. Although addressed to events of their respective times, the issues that Shakespeare and Defoe cover in their works are so powerful that they continue to have an impact on present society.