The Tempest as Shakespeare’s Spiritual Play

'Ferdinand Lured by Ariel', by John Everett Millais, 1852

‘Ferdinand Lured by Ariel’, by John Everett Millais, 1852

The Tempest is, arguably, William Shakespeare’s most spiritually-themed play. Widely considered to be Shakespeare’s last play, it is a work of great introspection on the dawning human condition during the renaissance and the coming colonial era. The play calls to mind deep questions of power, justice, discernment, beauty, truth, goodness, the Divine, and that all-encompassing sense of awe at the mystery and magic surrounding us. The author B. J Sokol wrote of the play,

The Tempest has long conveyed to many a feeling of integrity and compactness vastly different from the concocted or pastiched, and yet… this play draws on widely biblical, classical, Romance and Renaissance traditions…. it reflects a wide range of the intellectual concerns of it’s own time. (Sokol 28)

The play is written as if by one who had lived much of his life reflecting on these questions; I attest that The Tempest is but the dream-like dramatization of the inner life of a human being’s quest for wisdom and understanding amongst a glorious but uncertain world.

The play begins with a shipwreck. It is the shipwrecking of everything which we have taken for granted as real. Gonzalo’s crew is tossed about in the storm, but they cannot know while in it that it is Prospero who benevolently controls the winds and waters. They are at the mercy of a power greater than themselves, unexpectedly, and now they have no choice but to trust and see what happens. This severance from reality is commonly found in many of the world’s rite of passage traditions, when a person undertakes a hardship whether knowingly or unknowingly for the purposes of transforming and growing into who they are meant to become. I see a parallel here in the The Tempest: what begins in turmoil ultimately ends in calm, the revelation of harmony and goodness at work; thus is the crew of the ship symbolic of humanity’s spiritual journey into maturity.

Prospero is the wizard of the play. His magic touches everything and everyone around him; he is the catalyst, mysterious, but also agonizingly human. He stands in reverence before equal and greater powers than himself, such as those of the enchanted isle which he interacts with. It is because of Prospero’s role as the magic-maker that I advocate the importance of seeing the other supporting characters more clearly, as they are the ones who will act under his influence. The first and most closest character to Prosper’s life and heart is Miranda, his daughter, who was brought to the isle in infancy with her father’s exile. She does not know of the world beyond her small island, yet the tempest conjured at the play’s opening is a catalyst to change for her as well. If the crew is about to undergo a powerful and poetic awakening, so is she. With compassion for the plight of the ship tossed about in the storm, she cries out to her father to explain what is happening and what is the meaning of their being on this island at all. Miranda is the first awoken to her place as a loved one, that is, a character so vital to the arc of the story that it could not be told without her. She, unknowingly as a small child, could not have known purpose in blessing her frightened father when they were forced away from Naples. Prospero speaks,

O, a cherubim
Thou wast that did preserve me. Thou didst smile.
Infused with a fortitude from heaven,
When I have deck’d the sea with drops full salt,
Under my burthen groan’d; which raised in me
An undergoing stomach, to bear up
Against what should ensue.

Miranda is, in short, the first signifier of the presence of grace. I will here define grace as that unexpected but vitally necessary upwelling of peace, strength and understanding when one needs it most. It is a universal spiritual and human value, one critical to the wellbeing of the mind and lives of people and often found it medicinal doses through famous art and literature. It is this ever-present theme which I find laced through The Tempest in the most heartwarming, hilarious and mysterious ways.

We are next introduced to Ariel, the spritely and playful spirit of the isle who is in servitude to Prospero at the play’s opening, but who is ultimately set free. Ariel’s unfortunate meeting with Sycorax, the wicked mother of the monster Caliban, binds him into the heart of a tree in frozen solitude until he is freed by Prospero. It is after his freeing that he is in service to Prospero, the source of his freedom – or is it reified Freedom itself?

Caliban is a monster, a wretched creature who does not invoke a lot of pity in the audience. He threatened to violate Miranda and he antagonistically curses Prospero. Yet, we may see in him the image of ourselves in their most fallen form, even when that form does, for a moment, stop to wonder at the beauty of what he is a part of.

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

In these words of Caliban’s we see a glimpse of forgivable, even familiar to us, feelings of becoming aware of a transcendent presence at play. Caliban is not entirely irredeemable after all. He is a representation of the lowest and most deranged aspect of ourselves on the spiritual journey, as Stephano and Trinculo are representations of foolishness and lack of awareness, yet even through him we see some beauty.

Ferdinand, the young and noble-hearted shipwrecked prince, was destined from the beginning to be Miranda’s lover. I see in him the theme of the Beloved, much akin to the “loved one” or chosen one of the gospels. This is not so in that Ferdinand is any kind of a prophet or god (though he is royalty), but rather that his role in the story is the fulfillment of Miranda’s longing for union with love in the flesh of reality, much in the way the Christ-figure of Christian cosmology is the fulfillment of all Creation’s longing. It is Miranda’s exclamation of joy at discovering him, and therefore the world at large, which moves me to recognize this important theme.

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

It is my observation that Shakespeare likely wrote The Tempest as a capstone and farewell to the bulk of his work. In such, it stands as a fitting summary and condensation of the major spiritual and humanist themes deeply laced throughout The Bard’s canon. The Tempest is the final unity, the great bringing-together of all the messages which ultimately matter. This idea is not far off from the heart’s hope for the ultimate re-binding together of the broken pieces of the world, a part of Abrahamic cosmology often referred to as The World to Come. It is this shining and unifying theme of ultimate salvation, reunion, revelation, healing, and the anointing of the proper ruler which indicate a deeper river of meaning in The Tempest.

Works Cited

Sokol, B. J. Introduction. A Brave New World of Knowledge: Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Early Modern Epistemology. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2003. 28. Print.
Shakespeare, William. “The Tempest: Entire Play.” The Tempest: Entire Play. MIT: Complete Moby Shakespeare, 1993. Web. 28 May 2014.
O’Toole, Michael. “Shakespeare’s Natives: Ariel and Caliban in The Tempest.” www.columbia.edu. Columbia University, n.d. Web. 28 May 2014.
Cosser, Michael. “Shakespeare’s Mystery Drama: The Tempest.” “Shakespeare’s Mystery Drama: The Tempest” by Michael Cosser. Sunrise Magazine – Theosophical University Press, Dec. 1999. Web. 28 May 2014.

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