December 4, 2020

Grace and The Gospel in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”

prospero.jpgI love my Shakespeare, and I love relating what I teach to my students to the Gospel. Those of you who haven’t read Shakespeare will have to excuse me for indulging my passion for The Bard.

My AP English IV students just finished reading Shakespeare’s, “The Tempest.” The last few years, this play has risen in my personal Shakespeare canon to a favorite place. I’ve come to love it as wonderful prelude to the Gospel, and a longing look at the goals for the second half of life.

I first saw “Tempest” on the stage of Actor’s Theater in Louisville. I didn’t understand the play at the time, and as I came to love other works by the Bard, “Tempest” never made it onto my reading or teaching list.

Then, more recently, my reading about Shakespeare cued me to recall what I was missing. This, according to many Shakespeare scholars, is the play that most embodies the playwright himself, standing at the entrance to his final years, speaking through Prospero to the audience, his family and to all time. And the theme is forgiveness. Reconciliation. Finding peace and moving on.

I read “The Tempest” again, and found that it was a magical play, but the magic wasn’t in Prospero’s books as much as in the heart that was able to forgive terrible evil, unmask and absorb revenge, and be reconciled to the end of life joyfully. Ambitious goals for the second half of life, but Shakespeare has been a dependable teacher down through the years, and I trust him.

“The Tempest” was written late in Shakespeare’s career. The first recorded performance was November 1, 1611. His company had purchased an indoor theater called “The Blackfriars,” and this new venue afforded Shakespeare the opportunity to think more creatively about effects, lighting, sound and music. “The Tempest” may have been written for and performed at the marriage of the daughter of King James I, and the masque that dominates Act 4- a courtly mythic fantasy scene popular with royalty- may have been inserted at the request of King James, perhaps with the intent of giving members of the royal court or family a chance to take the stage in costume. The masque has always seemed to me to be an unwelcome guest in the play, far too showy for Shakespeare, who liked a spare scene and the imagination of the audience.

Prospero, the deposed Duke of Mila turned powerful magician, dominates the play from start to finish. Prospero loved the study of magic more than ruling his city. Handing the administration of the city over to his brother Antonio, Prospero soon finds himself deposed and in a boat with his infant daughter, set out sea to die. A kindly counselor, Gonzalo, stocks the boat with supplies, including Prospero’s magic books, allowing him to survive on the mysterious island that is the only setting of the Tempest.

The usurped duke is transformed from politician to powerful wizard, and takes control of the island and its wild inhabitants, which include the spirit Ariel and the “monster” Caliban, son of the witch that once ruled the island. Devoting himself to the study of magic, Prospero becomes ever more powerful. He raises and educates his beloved daughter Miranda in isolation, waiting for the opportunity for revenge.

The play opens with a ship from Naples returning from a wedding in North Africa. A massive storm assaults the ship, and in fear of sinking, the crew and passengers abandons the vessel. The ship contains, among others, Prospero’s wicked brother, Antonio; Alonso, the King of Naples who now rules Prospero’s Milan, the merciful counselor Gonzago, and the future king of Naples, young prince Ferdinand. Prospero has conjured the storm to drive those who have wronged and replaced him to the island, where he plans revenge on those who have taken his life and place from him.

The passengers survive the wreck, and are cast upon the island in four groups, each unaware of the other, but all under the control of the wizard. Prospero’s spirit servant, Ariel, has been promised freedom if he can bring about Prospero’s will upon those who plotted and acted against him.

At the same time, Prospero has a plan to bring Prince Ferdinand and Miranda together with the certainty they will fall in love and marry. His plan succeeds, and while other characters plot to kill one another and to kill Prospero, the wizard, like a master chess player, moves the personalities to the moment where he can reveal himself, the marriage and the truth to them all.

It is here that the play surprises. Prospero sees the fear and regret of the terrorized passengers, each believing that someone they love is dead or that they will never return home. Some are descending into violence, conspiracy and barbarism toward one another. Others are simply fools. As Prospero’s magic takes over, however, they are terrified and despondent. Prospero is moved with compassion, but everyone knows that no one in the play is truly repentant for what they have done to Prospero. They have no idea he is alive and manipulating reality. At the same time, it becomes rapidly clear that Prospero himself wants, even needs, to forgive these wrongdoers. Even though he has them at his mercy, the way of forgiveness and reconciliation is the better way. Prospero chooses it.

In a wonderful soliloquy, the wizard puts aside his powers of magic and the tools that allowed him to control the fate of others. He sets his spirit servant free, and dons his old clothes. He reveals himself as the long lost Duke Prospero and forgives those who have wronged him. Even the monster Caliban forgives the one he despised as a torturous master, and promises to “seek grace” in the future. In Antonio’s case, Prospero’s forgiveness is not acknowledged, but the audience realizes that makes Prospero’s reconciliation to such a sinner all the more amazing.

As the former enemies discover that Miranda and Ferdinand will marry and become the future rulers of Naples and Milan, forgiveness and reconciliation triumph. The entire fifth act is a sacrament of reconciliation and escalating hope.

In the play’s closing speech, Prospero acknowledges that he also stands in need of forgiveness, and in the audience’s applause, he begs their forgiveness and their prayers.

“The Tempest” is an unusual play not because there is much reconciliation in its conclusion- such is often the case in Shakespeare- but that the reconciliation is initiated and carried through by one who is offended and chooses to announce reconciliation almost unilaterally. In bringing together his daughter and the son of the Kingdom that has swallowed his own, he finds an alternative means of reconciliation and a “new way” for all to live together.

There are hints that Prospero intended to keep the castaways on the island in his power and to punish them severely, but instead he considers a different way to end the chess match. Seeing the fright and the pathetic condition of the castaways, and especially hearing Ariel describe their reaction to the announcement that they are “men of sin” brought to the island for punishment, Prospero decides that a new beginning is better than a bitter ending.

In Prospero’s own request for forgiveness, a reader can see that, though he was wronged severely, he does not want to be guilty of a similar cruelty, even in the name of justice. In renouncing his powers, he admits that as a mortal, he is not suited to play the role of God and carry out a kind of justice that should belong to God alone. In Prospero’s choice, there is wisdom for us all. No amount of power over others can do what simple forgiveness accomplishes.

Shakespeare scholars have long wondered if the great playwright has cast himself into the voice of Prospero. This was near the time when Shakespeare had decided to go back to Stratford, to leave London and the drama company that had been his life; to go home to a wife from whom he had lived apart for more than twenty years, and to two daughters who had grown up largely without a father. It was a time of breaking your staff, drowning your book and abjuring your magic. It was a time of going back to seek reconciliation with family and restoration to a place in community.

Perhaps that is reading too much into the play. James I, for whom the play was likely first performed by the “King’s Men,” was a monarch who hoped for a rule less contentious, more settled, more reconciled and at peace than his predecessor. He was mostly right, Gunpowder plot aside. But a divided England would not be reconciled in its religious and political life for a long time to come. Shakespeare’s play of reconciliation between brothers and enemies would be, as Prospero said, “the stuff that dreams were made of.”

As a Christian, I watch and read “The Tempest” with an appreciation for the Gospel that jumps out from its pages.

Antonio is made steward, but turns betrayer. Prospero is rejected, and exiled from his own world. Now, behind the scenes, but with incredible power, he works his will and his purpose upon the very men who sinned against him. As they go from bad to worse, contemplating more murder and more rebellion, he becomes more gracious. Men become like monsters, and monsters pretend to worship the worst of men, but in the end, a grace that comes freely eschews justice and chooses mercy. Reconciliation is a gift from one who comes in disguise, one who sees a bride and a bridegroom as the hope of the world.

This is reconciliation offered to those who were good, those who were evil, those who seem beyond redemption and those who are silent. It is a kind of reconciliation that comes from deep within the reconciled one himself, and one whose mysteries are never clear to us unless he reveals them.

Behind the plot is the Gospel. “The Tempest” is a wonderful reminder and sign of the presence of the mediator and reconciler of the world to God. Prospero points us to a truly important gift to those of us in the second half of life: the faith and contentment to let all things pass and to be at peace with God and man as we, in his words, come to the time of life when our every third though is of the grave. We have reasons to choose forgiveness, all of us. Most of us have reasons to seek it. We need, in Jesus, a vision of a reconciled world, where a greater magic and greater forgiveness brings us all home again.


  1. The Tempest is my favorite Shakespeare play, maybe for it’s merits, but most likely because it is the first one I saw rather than read. Thanks for this look at it.

  2. steve yates says

    hey michael nice dodge…

  3. steve yates says

    but seriously, i like it too. just for discussion, in your studies have you encountered the colonial critique of the tempest…the idea that prospero can be interpreted as the colonizing opperessor coming into and dominating an already existing culture (prospero does take over the island from caliban’s mom)…just a thought. i’m not sure i buy it (my shakespeare classes never spoke of it) but my studies of post-colonial literature always seem to use it as an example of said’s western orientalism, an inherint oppressive nature in our texts that is accepted rather than offensive.

    for glory…

  4. Oh my. Don’t get me started. Harold Bloom derides these people properly: Having read Shakespeare, they apparently didn’t read him.

  5. really enjoyed this post…more please! 🙂

  6. mistercenac says

    I appreciate your analysis, I also, however, have certain problems with it. I am not entirely certain whether or not there is much if any textual evidence to support the idea that Prospero realized that forgiveness was neccessary on his own. After re-reading the areas in question of ‘The Tempest’ and doing a bit of research, I now think that Ariel’s statements in Act 5 Scene 1 lines 17-20 show how Ariel was actually the reason why Prospero changed his ways. I think that this point is critical in proving or disproving the parrallel you draw between ‘The Tempest’ and the Gospels. For it it is true that Ariel is impetus for Prospero’s change, then it becomes unlikely that anyone can forgive since not everyone has an Ariel.

    Also, I question whether or not Caliban was truly forgiven or if Caliban ever truly forgave Prospero. It is true that Prospero seems to forgive Caliban, however he says it in such a way that Caliban must still submit to Prospero’s will in order to achieve forgivness. That is a limiting factor that would again disprove the idea that everyone can be forgived no matter what (Prospero makes it so that only those whom are subservient are forgiven. This may go in-line with notions that you must accept God and believe in him in order to be forgiven, however I think such a standard devalues the magnitude of the forgiveness). On the issue if Caliban forgives Prospero, it simply seems odd that Caliban would forgive Prospero for no apparent reason. It could be said that the kindness Prospero showed Caliban gave him reason to return the favor, however, the possibility that Prospero did not forgive Caliban and the simple lack of justification for forgiveness makes it unlikely that Caliban truely forgave Prospero.

    Your opinions on this would be greatly appreciated