The Tempest: Allegorical To The Bible? Essay, Research Paper
Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”: Allegorical to the Bible
The Tempest is not a pure fantasy tale, but a purposeful allegory. The characters in the play are all representative of characters found in the bible. The first, and perhaps most persuasive, arguement would be Prospero symbolizing God. Prospero is seen to be a representative of God for several reasons.
First, he is obviously in control of the actions and has an omnipotent quality. This has been demonstrated by several scenes throughout the play. Consider the power that Prospero possesses, as shown in the Epilogue at the closing of the play:
I have bedimmed
The mooontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,
And ?twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war. . . . The strong-based promontory
Have I made shake, and by the spurs plucked up
The pine and cedar. Graves, at my command,
Have waked their sleepers, oped and let them forth
By my so potent art (V. i. 41-4, 46-50).
These are obviously superhuman works. In fact, Prospero claims quite definitely that he possesses the power of mighty Zeus himself, for not only does he say that he can make lightning, but he declares that he has actually used the god’s own thunderbolt (Still 6):
To the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire, and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt.
Having already established that Prospero is the possessor of superhuman power, why would Shakespeare include this information except solely for alligorical purposes (Still 7)? This information serves no purpose except to establish Prospero as a god.
Prospero is also seen in the play performing several roles that Christianity traditionally assign to God: that of the Omnipotent Judge and the Savior of Man. Prospero is revealed to be the Omnipotent Judge through a speech given by Ariel (Still 7):
. . . . I and my fellows
Are ministers of Fate. . . .
The powers, delaying, not forgetting, have
Incensed the seas and shores, yea, all the creatures
Against your peace. . . and do pronounce by me
Lingering perdition, worse than any death
Can be at one, shall step by step attend
You and your ways; whose wraths to guard you from,
Which here, in the most desolate isle, else falls
Upon your heads, is nothing, but heart’s sorrow,
And a clear life ensuing.
Shakespeare tells us, through Ariel, that Prospero can pass sentance of lingering perdition, but whose mercy can be gained through repentance. This leads into the role of God as the Savior of Man. This is shown through his quote:
They being pentient,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further (V. i. 28-30).
Here, Prosperso states that, since repentance has occurred, there is no more ill will. This reflects the Christian belief that repentance can allow the forgiveness of sins. Also, Prospero is seen as the “master of the island”–that is, the all-powerful force controlling it. He manipulates the elements to produce his desired effects; two excellent examples of this are the tempest he creates in order to trap his brother and his companions, as well as the mock-feast he creates to manipulate them. The parallels to God in these instances are obvious.
A final parallel between Prospero and God can be found in his Epilogue, lines 15- 20.
And my ending is despair
Unless I be relieve’d by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be.
Let your indulgence set me free (Epilogue, 15).
This is as close a paraphrase of Christ’s injunction on prayer in Ther Sermon on the Mount or of the words on forgiveness in His prayer as could be found in literature (Coursen 330).
In addition to Prospero being symbolic of God, Caliban is symbolic of Satan. This is evident for several reasons. He is referred to as Devil by Prospero, and is represented as the “lost sheep” in Prospero’s flock–much the same as Lucifer was once an Angel of God who left the fold. Prospero cannot change the mind of Caliban, he can only read it and hope to thwart his plots. Caliban’s status as an outsider is shown in the following quote:
A devil, a born devil, on whose nature
Nurture can never stick! on whom my pains,
Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost (IV. I. 188-93)!
Caliban’s ethics and morals also help reinforce his representation of Satan. Caliban has a very different sense of morals when compared to the average human. Through his interaction with Propsero and Miranda at the beginning of the play, we learn that Caliban attempted to rape Miranda. However, in their dialogue, the responses given by Caliban show that he has no remorse about the action itself–only that he got caught.
O ho, O ho! Would’t had been done!
Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else
This isle with Calibans (I, ii, 349).
Through this quote, it can be inferred that Caliban has no ethics or conscious as we define them. Another example of Caliban’s distorted values occurs later in the play, when he has aligned himself with Stephano and Trinculo. Here, he humiliates himself by telling Stephano that he will kiss his feet and lick his shoes simply to show his alliance to Stephano and in order to get Stephano and Trinculo to trust him. This shows how Caliban has no pride or loyalty; he manipulates others to serve his own selfish needs, wants, and desires.
A final example of Caliban representing Satan occurs when he attempts to talk Stephano and Trinculo into killing Prospero. In this scene, he lies to Trinculo and Stephano and tells them that he was once master of the island, but Prospero overthrew him. He asks Stephano to take the island back over; in exchange for his freedom, Caliban agrees to serve Stephano, who will be the new ruler of the island. Parallels between this scenerio and the exile from the garden of Eden story in the Bible. Both involve two characters who are tempted with great power and knowlege by an evil being–Satan. Both are successfully tempted by the evil foce; both eventually suffer for their choices.
“The Tempest”, by William Shakespeare, is a very interesting and entertaining story when viewed by its face value. However, when one analyzes the characters, settings, and situations, one realizes the deeper meaning intended by Shakespeare in composing the drama. Through his creation of the island microcosm, which is ruled by Prospero and undermined by Caliban, the Bard creates a masterful work which glorifies a merciful God, who will forgive sins through repentance. In “The Tempest”, Shakespeare creates a story that is valuable for more than just entertainment purposes–he creates a work of art.
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Knight, Wilson G. The Crown of Life: Essays in Interpretation of Shakespeare’s Final Plays. Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1947.
Leech, Clifford. Shakespeare’s Tragedies and Other Studies in Seventeenth Century Drama. Chatto and Windus, 1950.