The Tempest as Shakespeare’s Spiritual Play

The Tempest may be William Shakespeare’s most spiritually-themed play. Widely considered to be his last play, it is a work of great introspection on the dawning human condition during the Renaissance and the coming Enlightenment era. The play calls to mind the questions of discernment, beauty, truth, the nature of 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. The Tempest is the dream-like dramatization of the inner life’s quest for wisdom and understanding within our glorious and uncertain world.

Prospero and Miranda from a painting by William Maw Egley; ca. 1850

The play begins with a shipwreck. It is the shipwrecking of everything which we have heretofore known to be real. Gonzalo’s crew is tossed about in the storm, but they cannot  while enduring it that it is Prospero who benevolently controls the winds and waters. They are at the mercy of a power greater than themselves. This severance from reality is commonly found in many of the world’s rite of passage traditions, when a person undertakes a given hardship, whether knowingly or unknowingly, for the purposes of transforming into who they are to become. There is 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 wonder-worker 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, those of the enchanted isle he lives among. The first and 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 great change for her as well. As the crew is about to undergo a powerful and prophetic awakening, so is she. With compassion for the plight of the crew 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 the archetypal beloved, that is, a character so vitally a protagonist to her story that it arcs toward God’s beauty because of her. Unknowingly as a small child, she could not have known the seed of purpose in blessing her frightened father by her presence 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 the first signifier of the presence of grace, that unexpected upwelling of peace, strength and understanding when one needs it most. This grace is crucial to the hearts of human creatures, and how it comes to visit us; in lighted wings or shaded whispers, in these heart-aching 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 core of a tree in frozen solitude until he is unbound by Prospero.

Caliban, the wretched monster, threatens to violate Miranda. He hatefully curses Prospero. In him we see the monstrous mutilation of the human creature lost in evil. But he encounters prophetic moments of clarity, stopping to wonder at the beauty of what grand stage, the world, he plays a part in.

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 are compelled to surprising empathy for his sudden awareness 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 simple foolishness and lack of awareness.

Ferdinand, the young and noble-hearted shipwrecked prince, was destined from the beginning to be Miranda’s lover. He, too, emerges as the archetypal Beloved. This is not so in that Ferdinand is any kind of a prophet or god (though he is royalty, and indicates a heart after the King’s own), but rather that his role in the story is the fulfillment of Miranda’s longing for union with love in the body of blessed 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, the Beloved, that through him she newly sees the glory and beauty of the living world-stage.

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

Shakespeare likely wrote The Tempest as a capstone and farewell to 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 represents the final unity, the loving sum of 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, repair, and the anointing of the Beloved –in the Lord, and in each of us– 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.” Columbia University, n.d. Web. 28 May 2014.

Cosser, Michael. “Shakespeare’s Mystery Drama: The Tempest” by Michael Cosser. Sunrise Magazine – Theosophical University Press, Dec. 1999. Web. 28 May 2014.

Author’s note: This essay has been re-edited and re-released from an older version I first wrote in college in 2014.

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