The Biblical References In Shakespeare The Tempest English Literature Essay

So much concerns, so much has been said, done, or written about William Shakespeare and his works; there are memorials, museums, theaters in his honor, full actors and actresses companies dedicated to perform only Shakespearean drama, there are even lots of “Shakespearean scholars”, biographers, etc. He had been given the title of “The Bard of Avon”, because of the old English word which means “Poet”, and also because of the Avon river which flows through his hometown, Stratford-Upon-Avon, in which he was born and baptized in April 1564. Notwithstanding, Shakespeare’s reputation is nowadays so huge among English poets that he’s often called just The Bard; the one and the only English poet who has transcended so many generations and has served as a source of inspiration for so many writers throughout history.

His life has been subjected to deep research, analysis, and infinite speculations with many different points of view. One of the fields in which one can go through is Shakespeare’s religion, cult, and the influence this could have had into his life and works. So many scholars have dared to give their opinions and make judgments of William’s religion according to his life, his family history, and by analyzing his works as well. Some of them adjudicate him as a Catholic, regarding specially his origins and Catholic backgrounds; According to Peter Ackroyd (2005) in Shakespeare the Biography, Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden, was the member of a noticeable and firmly Catholic family in Warwickshire. Other scholars and biographers say that William Shakespeare was actually a Protestant. The Shakespeare editor and historian A. L. Rowse (1963) firmly assures that Shakespeare was baptized, grew up, married, and buried into the arms of the Orthodox Church. (p.43) And finally, the most common trend among modern scholars is that of Shakespeare’s atheism, based on absence towards two different conceptions; absence of direct references to any sacred book or verse; and absence of Shakespeare himself at the religious services. According to Joseph Pearce (2008), there was a man called John Payne Collier, (a notorious forger of historical documents) who examined the records of St Saviour’s, Southwark Cathedral, and found that Shakespeare, alone among his fellow actors, was not shown as regular attendant to the church. (p.126)

There’s no agreement, and it is hard to think it is going be one on Shakespeare’s exactly cult or religious inclination; however, something that nobody can deny is that Shakespeare was certainly exposed since a very early age to the Christian Scriptures and he had plenty of knowledge about it, as it was used to be in most schools within the Elizabethan period. Regarding this matter, it is also pertinent to make clear which version of the bible Shakespeare may have used.

In order to lead towards a clarification on this issue, Thomas Carter (1905), in his book Shakespeare and Holy Scripture states some logical facts which help a lot into this quest:

The poet was born in 1564, that is, […] four years after the Genevan Bible. He was a lad of four when the Bishops’ Bible was issued, a young man of eighteen when the Rheims New Testament was brought into England, and a middle-aged man when the Douai Bible was published. His literary work [The Tempest] was nearly ended when the Authorised Version was issued in 1611. We may therefore rule the Douai Bible and the Authorised Version out of the discussion, for it is clear that they could not possibly have in fluenced his literary style or furnished a vocabulary, and, as a matter of fact, Wiclif and the Rheims Version usually differ entirely from Shakespeare’s quotation of Biblical words. There remain the Great Bible, the Bishops’, and the Genevan. […]The Genevan Bible, by reason of its size and price, was a home and school Version, […] schoolmasters used the Genevan for the purpose of instructing and catechising the young. […] (p. 2, 3)

This leads to the conclusion that William Shakespeare, in fact, was taught the scriptures from the Geneva Bible. In turn, The Tempest sets itself as the last play written by Shakespeare, being him older, and having retired back into Stratford. Since he had written so many plays and poems, the inspiration may have not be the same as it used to be in his early years, so it is more likely that he used his first sources of inspiration, the lines which gave him great part of his vocabulary. Moreover, Carter keeps aiming the same target; surprisingly, in the very same book Shakespeare and Holy Scripture, after a deep research Carter himself did, a list can be found with over seventy-five parallel references between The Tempest and the Geneva Bible. Finally, he states that “no writer has assimilated the thoughts and reproduced the words of Holy Scripture more copiously than Shakespeare.” (Carter, 1905, p. 3). The following paper is going to give two main examples of the resemblance which The Tempest and The Geneva Bible have altogether, but making special emphasis into one book of The Bible, and in particular, one story, meaning to argue the fact that William Shakespeare’s Biblical knowledge deeply and clearly influenced him in while writing The Tempest, shaping its plot line and the development of the character Prospero, based on the story of Joseph told in the book of Genesis. For this purpose, The Tempest, The Holy Bible (in the Geneva Version, or Geneva Bible), and the comic The Tempest by Gaiman are going to be the resources to be cited, among others.

Shakespeare, The Tempest, and The Holy Bible

Ariel, the Lion

As said previously, there are many features which can lead one into the assumption that Shakespeare based his works on the Holy Scriptures, or at least, they influenced him in a noticeable way. For example, Ann Slater in Shakespeare Survey 25 dedicated a whole section of the book analyzing the relation between The Tempest, and The Bible’s Isaiah XXIX, which starts: “Woe to a Ariel, to Ariel, the city [where] David dwelt! add ye year to year; let them kill sacrifices.” (Isaiah 29:1 Geneva Bible) This verse has been broadly accepted among critics as the one which inspired the name of Prospero’s servant in The Tempest, Ariel. Some other translations of the bible cite “Altar” instead of “Ariel”, (e.g Bishop’s Bible) but curiously, apart from meaning Altar in Hebrew, Ariel also means Lion of God. No further meaning it has, unless one considers Act 2, Scene 1, when Sebastian and Antonio are about to murder Alonso and Gonzalo, and Ariel, ‘invisible, with music and song’ (Act 2, sc 1,294), swiftly intervenes to wake the sleeping pair just in time. Antonio then says: “O, ’twas a din to fright a monster’s ear,/To make an earthquake. Sure, it was the roar/Of a whole herd of lions.” (Act 2, sc 1, 312-314; italics added). Thus, moving into the book of Proverbs it is stated that: “The King’s wrath is like the roaring of a lion […]” (19:12) Moreover, there’s another supporting verse, this time, in the First Epistle of Peter: “Be sober, and watch, for your adversary the devil as a roaring lion walketh about, seeking whom he may devour;” (5:8) Both of these verses tie in perfectly with the intense dramatic moment of the scene, and “could together enrich the significance of Antonio’s speech considerably with some remarkable twists of dramatic irony.” (Go, 2010)

This is the first example to be given in this paper, however, the second in relevance, between the two chosen ones among the more than seventy-five parallalel references and resemblances.

Joseph & Prospero

The Bible tells us in Genesis 39-47 about the story of Joseph, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, Hebrews living in the land of Canaan. He was the favorite son among his brothers, and they were so jealous because of that, that they plotted to kill him. However, they did not fear to kill him and decided to throw him into a pit, and then sell him to some Midianites merchants on their way to Egypt. The merchants finally sold him to the Egyptians, and once there, even though Joseph went through some distress (getting in jail for example), God’s favor was always with him. This made him able to interpret the Pharaoh’s dreams, and due to that, they could predict and get prepared for seven years of hunger, and Joseph won the Pharaoh’s trust. He finally had the possibility to meet with his brothers again, and forgive them for their betrayal.

Now, in which way can these events and facts be related to the ones which Prospero, in The Tempest had to go through? A step to step analysis is going to be developed.

First of all, both Joseph and Prospero are presented as victims of jealous brothers. Unfavored brothers in both works cannot stand the fact that the protagonists are receiving special privileges and that potentially (in the case of Joseph) or actually (in the case of Prospero) are ruling them.

The narration in Genesis states, “So when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, then they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him.” (37:4 Geneva Bible) They hate Joseph even more after he tells them of dreams suggesting that someday he will rule over them. “[…] shalt thou reign over us, and rule us? Or shalt thou have altogether dominion over us?” (37:8)

In The Tempest, Prospero needed no dream to reign over his brother Antonio; he actually was the original ruler of their home city, Milan. Yet Prospero, as well as Joseph, was somehow a dreamer too, more interested in books rather than in the affairs of the government, giving Antonio the opportunity to plot with Alonso, King of Naples, and overthrow his brother Prospero usurping his the dukedom. (Shakespeare, 1611. Act 1, sc, 2, 66- 132).

Since Prospero was popular with the common people, they did not dare to kill him. Instead, they put him and his daughter Miranda in a boat, and leaving them adrift in the sea, abandoning them and their fate to the mercy of the elements:

In few, they hurried us aboard a barque,

Bore us some leagues to sea, where they prepared

A rotten carcass of a butt, not rigged,

Nor tackle, sail, nor mast-the very rats

Instinctively have quit it. There they hoist us,

To cry to th’ sea that roared to us, to sigh

To th’ winds, whose pity, sighing back again,

Did us but loving wrong. (Act I, sc 2, 144-151)

These harsh conditions can be clearly compared to the ones in Genesis, as something very similar happens to Joseph; when the opportunity is given, his brothers “conspired against him for to slay him.” (37:18) but then they decided to “Shed not blood” (37: 22) and throw him into a pit without any food or water for then selling him to Midianite merchants, leaving his fate to the mercy them (37:23-28).

Later on, in both works, Joseph and Prospero use their ingeniousness to success in an foreign and unknown land. Actually, they both become rulers of their new land, by using their wisdom and abilities combined with supernatural forces (magic, God’s favor) to gain power. On one hand, Joseph is sold again, this time in Egypt, where he is taken into prison on false charges. But “the LORD was with him; for whatsoever he did, the LORD made it to prosper [1] .” (39:23) Joseph was given the ability to interpret dreams, and this talent calls the Pharaoh’s attention; Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams which no other wizard or soothsayer could, foretelling seven years of generous harvests followed by seven years of hunger, and suggesting a plan for crop rationing in order to save food for the famine times.

This impresses the Pharaoh so much, that he gives Joseph domain over the whole land of Egypt (41: 41). On the other hand, Prospero comes ashore on a unknown island, in his own words, “By Providence divine” (Act. I, sc 2, 159) and there, he uses the magic he has learned from books to become ruler of the island (despite the fact that the island is so desolate that as Caliban himself states, “[…] I am all the subjects that you have” (Act 1, sc 2, 344).)

Thus, the situation rapidly changes and now both Joseph and Prospero, through his abilities and wisdom, achieve positions of power over their traitor brothers. In this situation, either of them can and must choose freely what to do next, whether this is to look for revenge, to test them seeking signs of repentance, or to offer them his forgiveness. Eventually, Joseph and Prospero choose the three of them.

When, years after the betrayal, our protagonists are confronted to their betrayers, they happen to be hopeless and helpless, having been humbled, and having been brought apparently just by chance, but truly by willful supernatural forces. In Genesis, since the famine comes, Jacob and his sons are starving, and have no other chance than going to Egypt to buy some food, for they had plenty. They do not recognize Joseph, but he recognizes them, and he realizes that his earlier dreams of having dominion over them have come to reality, (37:6-9, 42:9) as they “bowed their face to the ground before him.” (42:6)

In The Tempest, Prospero, after living twelve years on the island sets his own supernatural forces, when a ship carrying his actual enemies passes near, and it is learned through Prospero’s own words “Hast thou, spirit,/ perform’d to point the tempest that I bade thee.” (Act I, sc 2, 193-194) that he commanded Ariel to create the tempest that gives the play its name, washing his enemies ashore after a shipwreck. Similarly to Joseph, who could recognize his brothers but they couldn’t recognize them, Prospero can watch them all the time, and he realizes, as they struggle before his magic, that his dreams of paying back his betrayers can now come true.

Initially, both of our protagonists make their former enemies regret their past cruelty. Despite the fact that Joseph actually provides his brothers with the corn they ask, he commands subordinates to torment and confuse them by putting money in their sacks, circumstantial evidence that suggests they are thieves (42.25-28). He briefly imprisons them on false charges too, making them suffer a little of what he did suffer in the past, moving the remaining brothers to say to each other, “No doubt we deserve to be punished because of our brother [Joseph], whose suffering we saw; for when he pleaded with us we refused to listen” (42: 9-21).

In turn, Prospero, in The Tempest, uses and commands spirits to torment and confuse his betrayers, and employs his spiritual servant Ariel to make them look back on their past transgressions against Prospero until Alonso laments that the thunder proclaimed them; transgressions for which he believes he has been punished by his son’s death (Act 3, sc 3, 97-100).

However, Joseph and Prospero torment their traitors not just into repentance; they also test them by replicating the circumstances of the original betrayal, and giving them actually a second chance. Joseph creates a situation in which if one of them can be proven to have stolen from Joseph, he should become Joseph’s slave: “And he said, Now then let it be according unto your words; he with whom it is found, shall be my servant, and ye shall be blameless.”, (44:10) for then to plant evidence in order to inculpate Benjamin. Consequently, the brothers face essentially the same question they faced years earlier when they sold Joseph: Will they be party to the enslavement of their younger brother, their father’s (new) favorite, despite his innocence? They finally purge their faults in Genesis 44:33, by pleading Benjamin’s case, and even Judah offering himself to take Benjamin’s place as slave, “Now therefore, I pray thee, let me thy servant abide for the child, as a servant to my lord, and let the child go up with his brethren.”

The Tempest resembles the Joseph account in replicating the circumstances of the initial betrayal; Prospero causes Alonso and his guards to fall asleep, while Antonio and Alonso’s brother Sebastian remain awake, unaware that Prospero is alive and following their actions.

In this way, the same earlier situation seems to happen; a ruler (Alonso) could be supplanted by a conspiracy between his brother (Sebastian) and the ruler of another Italian city-state (Antonio, Duke of Milan); they even explicitly compare this with Antonio’s earlier overthrow of Prospero as they prepare to carry out the murder (Act 2, sc 1, 271-76, 292-94). Despite Antonio’s unrepentant nature, in both works the protagonists eventually forgive their brothers-although they do so from a position of absolute power

Joseph’s and tests torments to his brothers are finally complete, and he reveals his identity to them (45.1-4). And although his brothers fear further reprisals and beg forgiveness (50.15-18), Joseph magnanimously tells them, “Do not be distressed or take it amiss that you sold me into slavery here . . .” (45.5)-a statement made easier by his brothers’ groveling before him in his role as virtual ruler.

Similarly, Prospero eventually decides to act “in virtue [rather] than in vengeance” (5.1.28) and reveals himself to Antonio and Alonso. He also tells his brother, “I do forgive thy rankest fault”-although he forgives only on the condition that he be restored to his former, and rightful, position as Duke of Milan (5.1.131-34).227Last, in their entire experience with betrayal, exile, redemption, and reconciliation, Joseph and Prospero are instruments of a divine plan to save not only the current generation but also its descendants. Moreover, through forgiving those who betrayed them, Joseph and Prospero not only unite families but also unite states that had been historically unfriendly to each other. Joseph invites all his brothers and their father, Israel-effectively inviting “the twelve tribes of Israel”-to live with him in Egypt, and they accept (45.9-13, 46.1-7).

Joseph explains to his brothers that the reason they should not feel guilty about having sold him into slavery is that if they had not done so, many people would have starved and the “tribes of Israel” would have been wiped out: “[I]t was God who sent me ahead of you to save men’s lives. . . . [and] to ensure that you will have descendants on earth, and to preserve you all, a great band of survivors” (45.5-7). In addition, Joseph has by now married and had sons by the daughter of an Egyptian priest, giving Jews and Egyptians a shared set of descendants (41.45, 50-52). Thus, Joseph’s early misfortunes were part of a divine plan for the future state of Israel.

In The Tempest, Prospero has arranged that his daughter (the rightful Duchess of Milan) and Alonso’s son (the heir to the throne of Naples) should fall in love with each other, and as the play ends, the lovers’ imminent marriage promises to unite the formerly hostile Italian city-states and give them a shared set of descendants. This conclusion supports Prospero’s earlier observation that although he and Miranda were exiled from Milan through foul play, they were “blessedly” helped onto the island (1.2.62-63).

Prospero’s decision to act in “virtue [rather] than in vengeance” (5.1.28).