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Biblical themes in shakespeares the tempest

Shakespeare is one of the most prolific and admired writers who ever lived. He certainly knew his craft and was familiar with all of the literature available at the time. One of the greatest books ever written was of course the bible. Written over the course of more than a thousand years it is a miracle in itself that the book exists. Shakespeare knew his bible, and his work often incorporated and examined biblical themes. Shakespeare’s last completed work was The Tempest, and it is as complex and deeply moving as any of his works. Readers of the play respond on a much deeper level than the literal. In and of itself it is actually a very simple tale, it is the characters who are representative of so many differing and stimulating aspects of the human condition that make the work so evocative and interesting.

Prospero is the picture of a man in two different aspects. On one hand, he is made in the image of God and given dominion and control over the world created in The Tempest. On the other hand he represents a fallen man who is in exile from his home. Both of these types can be found in the book of Genesis. God himself is in control of his world, and able to manipulate the world in order to stand back and see how the players will react. God and Prospero are both willing to accomplish their goals through imperfect means. When Jacob steals Esau’s inheritance right, the younger son triumphs over the older son by dishonest means. In the end it accomplishes God’s goal, so it is allowed to happen.

Just as Joseph’s mistreatment by his brothers and his imprisonment because of Potiphar’s wife cause him great anguish, but move him closer to accomplishing God’s plan. Prospero is a scholar who has spent years in his books perfecting his magical powers. Clearly the last twelve years has been spent developing the power to both punish and forgive his enemies. Prospero controls even the inner workings of Caliban’s body. He is able to punish Caliban physically with his power, in order to completely control him and accomplish his means. Prospers also completely controls Ariel.

According to Steven Marx, both the Bible and the Tempest share the form of creation myth. Marx suggests that Genesis’s God and The Tempest’s Prospero share the roles of creator/author, subject/protagonist, and receding ruler. Genesis evolves from “primal myth into longer, more complex, even novelistic units” while The Tempest shows “increasing length and dramatic complexity of scenes as the play proceeds”. As both works move toward concerns of procreation, their creator use “qualifying tests” to determine “the elected” who will be given conditional rewards (1.). At the beginning of Genesis, God creates the world by dividing it into a system of doubles, the sun and the moon, light and dark, the land and the sea and male and female.

It is not long into the story that good and evil, positive and negative and lesser and greater enter the world. The system of doubles or opposites is clearly evident in Shakespeare’s work. The characters of Caliban and Ariel are opposites; both are representative of the master-servant dynamic, which is at the heart of the bible. While both Caliban and Ariel are slaves, their temperament and treatment are opposite. While Ariel is “an airy spirit,” Caliban is of the earth. Ariel serves much more willingly and completely than does Caliban, causing each to achieve a different sort of dignity. God is Master of all and all humans are to be his servants, willing servants if they are to desire “selection” as “good” and therefore allowed to participate in the covenant, which is a place by His side in heaven.

Just as the Bible explores the social dynamics of power relationships throughout, so does The Tempest. Almost every scene of the play, every interaction, with the exception of the scenes between Miranda and Ferdinand, displays a relationship between figures that possess power and a figure that is subject to that power. How power is handled is one of the “qualifying tests” that God of the Bible presents to people in the Bible. Corruption and brutality are “evil” and problematic in the end for the power wielder, as when Pharaoh and all his subjects lose their firstborn children to the wrath of God for their mistreatment of his chosen people.

Gonzalo is representative of the righteous power figure; he helped Prospero and his daughter to escape after Antonio usurped Prospero’s title. Alonso represents the negative, or corruption of power; he aided Antonio in usurping Prospero’s power. Prospero mirrors both in the differing ways he treats Ariel and Caliban. A case can certainly be made that it is precisely because of Prospero’s treatment differs so does the servants willingness to serve differ.

Shakespeare’s Prospero also mirrors Joseph from Genesis. Both characters are betrayed by their brothers and cast out into exile from their homes. Both characters are transformed by their exile. Prospero like all who visit the island is changed by it, and Joseph is transformed from lowliest slave or prisoner to mighty lieutenant of Potiphar or Pharaoh. Lois Feuer states, “self-redemption, so crucial to our understanding of the protagonists, comes as each returns himself to the social context (Milan; the group of brothers and father) from which he has been isolated. (2.)

The theme of mercy and retribution is developed throughout the bible. Both Joseph and Prospero chose not to take advantage of their power to seek revenge upon their families, who were the cause of their exile. The audience has a tendency to want to see the victim retaliate against his tormentor. When Joseph’s brothers humbly ask Pharaoh’s lieutenant for grain to bring back to their famine starved land, and when Prospero informs Miranda and his audience that the tempest has brought his enemies under his control, the gut reaction of the viewer is “now your going to get yours,” idea of vengeance. Both characters choose instead to forgive and reunite the family.

Restoration of the family is represented in both works through the imagery of harvest and the earth’s fertility. “In Genesis, Joseph is associated throughout with images of plenty, the sheaves of wheat bowing down in his dream at the beginning foreshadowing the grain stored against the famine at the end, with the brothers’ sacksful of grain the image of bounty and preservation, and their shared meal at the end of the tale as the emblem of their renewed family. Ceres’ masque is of course the equivalent image in The Tempest, with its springtime nymphs and harvest reapers hand in hand replacing the disharmony of the disappearing banquet, communion denied.” (3) Food is essential to maintain life as is family harmony seen as essential for redemption of the soul.
Another important connection might be considered purification through suffering.

Prospero’s long exile helped him to atone for his neglecting his subject in favor of his scholarly endeavor with his books. Joseph can also be considered a self-created victim. He brought his brothers’ wrath upon himself through his arrogant recounting of his dream. Also his father participates in the alienation of Joseph from his brothers by favoring him and giving him a fancy coat. Good and evil remember, first entered the biblical world outside the Garden of Paradise, when the father (God) showed preference for one brother over another by being more pleased with one sacrifice than another. The suffering of both Prospero and Joseph made them able to purify themselves of earlier mistakes and learn to accept responsibility and issue forgiveness.

Both Prospero and Joseph put their brothers into a form of purgatory before they forgive them. Ferdinand must suffer through Prospero’s tests before he can have Miranda’s hand. Alonso must undergo the suffering Prospero has designed for him before Prospero can find it in his heart to forgive him. Prospero creates a purgatory for Alonso and his companions on the island, just as Joseph requires his brothers to be imprisoned for a while and then must return with Benjamin (another father’s favorite son.) Forgiveness is attained in both tales, but it is not given easily, rather it is earned. Purgatory is promised in the Bible, it is only the length of internment that most people question.

Prospero tells Miranda that they reached the island “By providence divine,” meaning through the guidance and benevolence of God. The Tempest is a story about a storm, which turns into a blessing. The great flood of the Bible sent by God, just as Prospero sent the tempest. In the Bible, mankind begins again after the flood. Noah and his family live in the newly fertile land and are fruitful and multiply. Their decedents produce nations that fill the earth. The storm turned into a blessing. Prospero and Miranda are able to reclaim their rightful place in society because of the storm. The tempest and the flood both serve to symbolize the frightening and potentially malevolent side of power.

Shakespeare used the greatest stories of the bible throughout his works. It is interesting and informative to look for parallel and reflective storylines. Shakespeare had to have been among the most voracious and intelligent readers ever to have opened a book. Aspects of many of the most scholarly works available in his day can be found in his works. Throughout my research for this paper, several sources mentioned a series of pamphlets concerning the survival of some mariners in the Bermuda Islands after a tempest in 1609. Until then the Bermudas were popularly thought to be inhabited by demons and fairies. Many believe that the idea of survival on a lush, remote and magical island first influenced his conception of The Tempest. That storm certainly turned into a blessing for all of us who so greatly enjoy and appreciate Shakespeare’s works.

1.     Marx, Steven. Shakespeare and the Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
2.     Feuer, Lois. “Happy Families: Repentance and Restoration in “The Tempest” and the Joseph Narrative.” Philological Quarterly 76 (1997): 3-6.00
3.     Feuer, Lois. “Happy Families: Repentance and Restoration in “The Tempest” and the Joseph Narrative.” Philological Quarterly 76 (1997): 22-26.

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