All play, no work, all day, an idealized world with no one above the other. These are not images that readily come to mind when I hear the word “plantation”. More readily images of work, whipping, and toil come to mind at the mention of that term. Yet, in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest an old honorable councilor named Gonzalo states “Had I plantation of this isle, my lord-/… All things in common nature should produce/ Without sweat or endeavor” (2.1.138, 155-156). So what does Shakespeare mean when he employs the term “plantation”?
One definition of the noun form of the term “plantation” is anything that is established as an institution of belief. When considered with this definition in mind Gonzalo’s statement above reads like a sales pitch, in which he is trying to sell the idea that a utopia could be established on the island, he is stranded on. However, his depiction is unrealistic no matter how fertile the environment the institution of utopian beliefs is established in. In order to produce “All things” someone must labor and endeavor (2.1.155). Gonzalo also states that there would be total equality, but that he would be king (2.1.141-145). The oxymoronic nature of Gonzalo’s speech when this definition of “plantation” is considered, is pointed out in The Tempest when Antonio states ” ‘Twas you we laugh at” (2.1.173). In fact the term “plantation” was understood in quite differently in Shakespeare’s day than this paradisiac view of “plantation” that Gonzalo professes.
In the early 1600s the term “plantation” was understood to mean the establishment of a colony. This carried with it multiple legal issues of the time, which today may be considered moral issues. One such controversy was the justification of colonizing lands that belonged to others, and thus required conquering. In England at this time this controversy particularly surrounded the English attempts to pacify their Irish neighbors and English colonies in North America (McMullan, Barnes and Noble Shakespeare, 116). In regards to this matter Francis Bacon stated, “unions and plantations are the very nativities and birthdays of kingdoms“. When thought of in this way the term “plantation” greatly alters the meaning of the fragmented speech it appears in within The Tempest.
“Plantation” as “the very nativities” of kingdoms implies that the description of a perfect world with equality for all would indeed is a perfect world with relative equality, but only for some not all. In establishing a colony the native people must are almost always conquered. A French anthropologist named Georges Balandier noted that the expansion of European colonialism caused the subjection and in some cases extinction of all peoples in the world that Europeans considered primitive or backwards. Shakespeare use of the term “plantation” can be interpreted as representing this conquest. If the island Gonzalo finds himself on were indeed conquered and he made the ruler, than he may well have established a near ideal society. However, It is obviously not plausible to live a life of ease unless someone else lives a life of toil on your behalf. Thus, Shakespeare’s use of the term “plantation” can be interpreted as a justification for colonization fro the European perspective.