Article Title

Sacerdotal Vestiges in The Tempest


Robert L. Reid


Possible genres for The Tempest are reviewed in widening import (farcical comedy, magical romance, Virgilian dynastic epic, royal masque, philosophic tragicomedy, religious mystery play), relating each to a Christian sacerdotal interpretation. The play’s scriptural phrasings and spectacular events recall Biblical miracles: purposeful storms, the feast of manna, guardian angels. Presumptuously Prospero even typifies the Trinity: God’s watchfulness, the Messiah’s atoning presence, the Holy Spirit’s providential enactments. His theatrical stagings are sacramental rites to reform the entire ship of state: the tempest a communal Baptism, a “sea-change” not equally received; Ariel’s early songs (“full fathom five”) a Burial Service for the corrupted self; the lovers’ vows an Edenic Marriage, as Prospero watches priestlike; the vanishing banquet a withheld Communion; Ariel’s Commination a means of evoking a king’s Confession; Prospero’s masque a Harvest Blessing; the final gathering of souls an Apocalyptic Judgment. That the latter two rites surpass priestly offices adds to the rationale for Prospero’s finally abjuring his “rough magic.” The book of Isaiah is a subtext for Ariel, Gonzalo’s prophecies, and the play’s messianic message. Though Prospero calls his “Art” trickery and vanity, it imitates high and holy uses of language and dramatic ritual. The play’s symbolic opacity is discussed in relation to the Act of Abuses against stage-mention of the Christian deity, to gospel caution for the “messianic secret,” and to Shakespeare’s preference, even while encouraging religious meaning, to submerge it in universal symbol.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.