Examine how Shakespeare explores Christian themes in this late play
The Tempest has been read by some as a Christian allegory. Examine how Shakespeare explores Christian themes in this late play.
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* Shakespeare’s use of language, imagery, structure and setting
* Relevant aspects of the religious, historical and social context of the play
Shakespeare’s The Tempest is distinctly different from the rest of his plays and many have categorised it as an allegory. The seventeenth century was a period where allegory was a popular form of literature, reflected by the immense success of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Explicit mentions of Christianity are minimal in the Tempest, however, due to a statute passed during May 1606 that declared one could be fined up to £10 for profane use of the name of God, Jesus Christ or the Trinity. Instead Shakespeare injects Christian themes and ideas more subtly, and a good place to find such themes is Act 1, Scene 1 in the middle of the storm, which represents the wrath of God.
Shakespeare often uses storms to symbolise a period of transition from one area of life to another. The stage directions depict, “a storm with thunder and lightning.” The entire scene uses the storm as an extended metaphor for the turmoil that has brought the characters to this point, but there are also plenty of Biblical implications. The dialogue between the anonymous boatswain and the noblemen is significant. The boatswain emphatically orders them with imperatives such as, “Keep your cabins. You do assist the storm,” and, “out of our way, I say.” He delivers a verbal storm that rivals the storm raging around them. In the face of adversity the roles of authorities have been swapped: here the fate of the ship is in the hands of the lowly sailors, and all the education of the noblemen is useless.
This represents a breakdown in the chain of being the Jacobeans so fervently believed in, where each man had his place divinely ordained. When all seems hopeless Shakespeare’s characters ultimately turn to religion: “All lost! To prayers, to prayers!” This use of repetition demonstrates that they are aware of how humanity is powerless against God. And it is not just the mariners, for we are told, “The King and Prince at prayers.” The wrath of God does not distinguish between social classes. We could draw a parallel to the ministry of Jesus, where he literally calmed storms and broke down barriers between social classes. This would be considered radical in Jacobean England.
Furthermore, the staging of this scene adds to the dramatic impact. This was the scene the play was famed for, complete with primitive sound effects. There is a great deal of activity on stage, with six entrances and five exits. This creates an overwhelming atmosphere, mirroring how the characters are overcome by the powers of the tempest. The similarities between religious ceremony and drama has been noted since the time of the Ancient Greeks. In both the audience is largely passive and distanced from the performers, and speeches similar to sermons are delivered. The audience would have been familiar with many key tempests in the Bible, including a quote from Psalms: “So persecute them with thy tempest, and make them afraid with thy storm.” This is a direct parallel to what we discover Prospero is doing: Miranda states her father has, “put the wild waters in this roar.” Shakespeare presents Prospero as a wrathful God-figure who punishes sin.
There is a lack of symbolic language in this scene. The play in general is not rich in figurative language. This is because, according to Wilson Knight, the play itself is one immense, extended metaphor, and Shakespeare’s favourite sources of imagery are naturally present in the play, such as the sea. Another way to interpret this lack of complex symbolism could be that Shakespeare was resembling the language of the bible itself. The King James Bible was published in the same year that The Tempest, and thus appeared too late to influence Shakespeare’s writing, but he was undoubtedly deeply influenced by former translations such as the Geneva Bible. The Tempest is literarily similar to the Gospel of Mark in many regards, with a forthright, active and brief style.
Moving on, another area of the play that could be considered allegory is Act 3 Scene 3, which explores the nature of sin. Prospero states, “for some of you there present / are worse than devils,” referencing to Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio and Gonzalo. The fact that Prospero is, “aside,” as he utters these words is significant. In many ways Prospero represents the God figure in the play; hidden, but continuously judging the sins of humanity. Elsewhere in the play Prospero retells how his brother usurped him by stating, “in my false brother / awakened an evil nature.” Perhaps this betrayal is a recasting of the story of Lucifer’s battle against God. In Jacobean society good and evil were absolute and there was strong belief in demonic influence. Sin was not taken lightly.
This idea of man choosing sin was a common idea of the times. The Puritans believed strongly in the doctrine of Total Depravity, the idea that when given the choice between good and evil man will eventually chose sin by default and is not capable of doing good without divine intervention. In John Calvin’s ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’ he explains evil as “a hereditary, depravity and corruption of our nature”.
Shakespeare lived during one of the most tumultuous times in world history, and the single greatest issue in his lifetime was the Protestant Reformation. It had begun before Shakespeare was born; it lasted during his entire life; it continued after his death. Shakespeare was born during the reign of Elizabeth I. According to historian GR Elton, “The Elizabethan settlement created a Church protestant in doctrine, traditional in organisation, and subject not to a lay pope but to the queen-governor in parliament.” At the time the Tempest was written, society had rapidly transformed from the centralised Protestantism of Elizabeth I to the staunch fundamentalism of James.
Later on in the scene the withdrawing of the banquet could be likened to the withdrawal of communion. The staging is key here. Featured are, “thunder and lightning,” as a, “quaint device,” removes the table. This cleverly visual portrayal of Prospero’s magic further reinforces the extended divine metaphor. For people in Shakespeare’s time magic and Christianity were linked, despite James’ fervent persecution of occultists. There were not the same distinctions between religion, philosophy and magic as now; the rediscovery of Plato’s dialogues in the Renaissance, and the Latin translation in the fifteenth century, encouraged the idea of philosopher Plato as a proponent of an ancient system of magic, and led to the association of his writings with those of the mystical Hermes Trismegistus, then supposed (wrongly) to be a contemporary of Moses and prophet of Christianity.
Moreover, Shakespeare’s use of pathetic fallacy perfectly accompanies Ariel’s speech, where he seeks to convict the men of their sin. In his speech he alludes to other aspects of Calvinism, namely predestination: “You are three men of sin, whom Destiny – / hath caused to blech you up.” The doctrine of predestination is the belief that God has foreseen and ordained everything that occurs, which fits in with Ariel’s idea of, “destiny.” The men are effected deeply by this speech, as conveyed through Shakespeare’s use of a simile: “Their great guilt / like poison given to work a great time after / Now ‘gins to bite the spirits.” According to Christianity, guilt and conviction are the first steps to repentance.
Finally, the Christian allegory is completed during Act 5, when the sinful noblemen receive their forgiveness. As is typical with romance plays, all characters find themselves drawn together for the final act. It is at this stage that Prospero is prepared to forgive the men for how they have wronged him and Miranda. It is a scene of immense optimism; Sebastian remarks that it is, “a most high miracle.” Even Caliban, the savage, recognises his need for forgiveness: “I’ll be wise hereafter, / And seek for grace.” The grace of God is not reserved for the nobility, it is even available to lowly savages. We find such ideas in Romans: “God so manifests his love towards us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” However Antonio shows no evidence of sharing the sentiment. This could be because he silently accepts his forgiveness, or he could serve to symbolise the unelect of Jacobean theology, the irreclaimably corrupt.
The Christian themes of redemption and grace are evident throughout the Tempest. Prospero would have had every right to execute the men, but instead he responds with the line: “There, sir, stop. / Let us not burden our remembrances with / A heaviness that is gone.” His words ready similarly to Isaiah 43:25: “I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins.” Behind the culmination of the play is the Christian idea of felix culpa, which according to Sandra Clark can be defined as, “the paradox whereby a sinful act may be reversed through the exercise of God’s providence, and result in a happy and blessed outcome.” This encapsulates the overall allegory of the Tempest perfectly.
However, the play can also be interpreted as an allegory for Catholic Christianity, rather than Jacobean. Prospero is a traditionalist thrust from a changing society, before returning in glory. In many ways this mirrors the ever changing nature of English society, the pendulum swinging between Catholicism and Protestantism based on the whims of the current monarch. The mood of Catholics at the time is reflected in the words of Jesuit missionary Robert Persons, who in the early 1580s exhorted all Catholics to “bear out with Christian courage what tempests soever shall storm upon them.” In the epilogue Prospero’s own journey to redemption reaches its conclusion: “Let your indulgence set me free.” This overtly sacramental language hints at a Catholic undertone to the play. Some scholars would even suggest that Shakespeare himself was a secret Catholic. There is no doubt that his family were recusants who refused to conform to state Protestantism. Shakespeare’s father was fined for not attending the Church of England, therefore it is highly likely that these sentiments were passed on to his son and are reflected in the Tempest.
To conclude, there are many aspects of Christian allegory in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. He never explicitly mentions the Christian Trinitarian God, but it is obvious that the Protestant ideas of divine election and predestination govern the play. A parallel could be drawn to the Book of Esther, where God is never mentioned by is apparent in all areas of the story. To quote the scholar James Russel, “If I read it rightly, it is an example of how a great poet should write allegory.”