Biblical Themes in Shakespeare's the Tempest

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Biblical Themes in Shakespeare's 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...
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