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Gonzalo's Big Utopian Speech

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Ever the optimist, Gonzalo's response to being stranded is to make a big speech about how things would be if he ruled the isle:

I' th' commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things, for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all,
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty—
All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavor: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.
(2.1.162-171; 175-180)

Shakespeare (a notorious and unapologetic plagiarist) cribbed Gonzalo's speech from Montaigne's famous essay "Of Cannibals" (1580), where the Brazilian Indians are described as living at one with nature:

[Brazilian Indians have] no kind of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate or politic superiority, no use of service, of riches or of poverty, no contracts, no successions... no occupation but idle, no respect of kindred but common, no apparel but natural, no manuring of lands, no use of wine, corn, or metal. (from John Florio's 1603 English translation)

At a time when Europeans were running around calling natives in the Americas "savages," Montaigne suggests that the Brazilian Indians live a utopian lifestyle while European colonizers are the real barbarians. (This essay, by the way, is where the concept of the "noble savage" comes from.)

So, it's interesting that Shakespeare puts this speech in the mouth of one of his characters, don't you think? Does this mean that Shakespeare endorses Montaigne's ideas about New World inhabitants? Maybe. Gonzalo, after all, is the play's ultimate good guy. On the other hand, Caliban, who is a kind of exotic "other," is portrayed as a complete savage in this play.

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