“The birds and the bees” is a sexual euphemism that underlines the connection between sex and pregnancy, and the pollination and fertilization of plants. Indeed, there is something erotic about plants and their growth.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “plantation” as a noun in four main ways: as the action of planting something; as the action of founding something such as a religion or institution: as an institution that was founded; and as an area that was planted.
All definitions of the word depend upon taking earth—whether literal earth for growing things, or land upon which to found an institution—and then adding something (seeds, people, ideas) to it to turn it into something else. Action is required. A plantation is something deliberately planned, and carried out according to the idea of the person doing the planting, whether the planting is literal or figurative. However, what a plantation bears depends a great deal upon what is already there. If there is land present, it must be cleared to make room for the plantation, and if old ideas are present they must make room for new institutions. This is true of plantations that are made of plants in that we could not have a cocoa plantation in New Hampshire, but also of plantations that are founded as ideas.
The parallels to impregnation seem obvious. A seed is needed to create new life, whether human, plant, or intellectual. The offspring of a human union is dependent on the parents, just as plantations are dependent on the land they are made on, and on those who create them. Shakespeare does not make this parallels explicit, but the connotations of pregnancy are very clear the one time that the word “plantation” occurs in the play, in Gonzalo’s speech in Act 2 Scene 1:
Had I plantation of this isle, my lord,–
And were the king on’t, what would I do?
I’ the 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;
All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: 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.
When Gonzalo describes his ideal, anarchic, utopic plantation, he very clearly seems to mean both the area upon which he would found a new institution, the institution itself, and an area that was planted. This use of plantation covers three of the four possible definitions given by the OED, but it skates over the fact that the founding Gonzalo wishes to due requires work. Instead, he specifically says that there will be “no sweat or endeavor” and that “nature should bring forth…all foison and abundance” by itself. Likewise he describes the plantation as having women, but “innocent and pure”. Neither the women nor the land should require any work to become as Gonzalo wishes them to be. In fact, he explicitly denies the erotic potential of the women, just as he explicitly denies actual work of the land, while hoping it will provide it’s own “foison”, which can mean both plentiful crops, and vigorous strength.
The play sets up Gonzalo’s ideal as clearly ridiculous, however. The ellipses present above indicate rude interjections from Gonzalo’s companions, which tear down his ideal. If there is a successful ideal of “plantation” in The Tempest, it lies in the marriage masque for Miranda and Ferdinand. They are explicitly told to abstain from sex until the wedding night, and that if they do so they will have “foison plenty” both in terms of children—who fulfill the plantational ideal of founding an institution—and in terms of plants, which fulfill the vegetational aspect of a plantation (4.1.110). They are granted this by two goddesses: Ceres and Juno, who control harvest and fertility. The erotic potential of Ferdinand and Miranda is explicitly mentioned, and legitimized, but it must occur within the context of marriage. Prospero, Miranda’s father who controls the island specifically tells Ferdinand that if he attempts to sleep with Miranda before they are legitimately married, their union will only yield “weeds” and “discord” (4.1.20-23).
Ferdinand and Miranda are married and blessed, and it is assumed that they will go on to be successful rulers who have large amounts of children and crops. They are accepted by religious leaders and the Patriarch and ruler of the state. The parallel to plantation would be one where there is a great deal of state control and work that goes into the plantation, which makes it much less utopic than Gonzalo’s vision, but also a much more feasible model: controlled, allowed, and ultimately prosperous.
In a similar vein, the link between new land, virginity, and erotic desire is masterfully explored in one of my favorite poems ever written (and also one that I think is really super sexy), John Donne’s “To His Mistress Going to Bed”, where sex is described as the exploration and plantation of a new colony:
“Licence my roving hands, and let them go,
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d,
My Mine of precious stones, My Empirie,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee,
As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must be,
To taste whole joys.”
The Tempest, advocates for “foison plenty” but only within the terms of a heterosexual union, within which abundance of sex and the ensuing children are allowed, as is the tilling and increase of the earth. “To His Mistress Going to Bed”, on the other hand, encourages sexual union before marriage, and revels in the unlawful sexuality that can ensue, that is all the more exciting because it is new and adventurous. In fact, this union of sexuality and “new-found land” was a far more accurate depiction of the actual colonization of the New World, which involved much less sanctioned state control, and far more roving about taking what was wanted, exploration was outside of state control, and Donne argues that sexuality can be too.