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  • Sacerdotal Vestiges in The Tempest
  • Robert L. Reid

In Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, Geoffrey Bullough observes that The Tempest's "didactic nature," as well as Prospero's "masterful aloofness" and "use of the supernatural,"

have encouraged some critics to treat the play as an allegory. The whole piece, … permeated with Christian feeling, … has been interpreted as a Mystery play in which Prospero, if not the Deity, is "the hierophant or initiating priest" in a rite of purification which the Court party must willy-nilly undergo.… Caliban … becomes the Monster to be overcome, and Miranda Wisdom, the Celestial Bride.

Though wary of such allegorizing, Bullough has "no doubt that in The Tempest, more than in the other 'romances,' Shakespeare was thinking of human life in a cosmic way," eliciting "a moral perfection in which reason and the affections would be united with grace."1 Grace Tiffany notes that in the romances "grace" appears more often and with deepening meaning as Shakespeare moves "away from a dramaturgy emphasizing tragic choice to one focusing on divine rescue."2 Divine activity is, however, complexly portrayed in The Tempest. Certainly Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale show central characters rescued from tyrants or their own tyranny, and innocents resurrected from death, by an intervening deity (Diana, Jupiter, Apollo) as well as by wise counsel or medical-magical ministry (Helicanus and Cerimon in Pericles; Belarius, Pisanio, and Cornelius in Cymbeline; Camillo and Paulina in The Winter's Tale) and by the talismanic power of a chaste maid (Marina, Innogen, Perdita). In The Tempest, however, "divine rescue" occurs with a difference. Unlike previous protagonists (Pericles, Posthumus, Leontes) who steadily decline in moral agency, Prospero is a benevolent magus who uses supernatural power (or a theatrical simulacrum thereof) to redeem an entire ship of state. Though he too has engaged in a neglectful quest, [End Page 493] received aid from a wise counselor, and been inspired by an angelic daughter, he now shows virtuoso control of "spirits" who can alter both settings and to some degree souls by means of magical/theatrical productions.

The opening tempest, with Prospero's choric follow-up, displays the magus's power via the tour-de-force acting and nonillusionist staging at Blackfriars and the Globe.3 An explicit theatricality will make the presentation of divinity (as well as the final resurrection/reunion) quite different from the previous romances—indeed, polar opposite to the miraculous ending of The Winter's Tale. Like Jupiter in Cymbeline (5.4), Juno in The Tempest (4.1) mechanically "descends," and her masque extensively displays the beneficent role of divinity (and implicitly, of royalty) in human life; but since Juno, Ceres, and Iris are emphatically "enacted" by Prospero's spirits, they are far less shrouded in mystery than Diana, Jupiter, and Apollo in the previous plays.4

Spirits, which by mine Art
I have from their confines called to enact
My present fancies
Thou and thy meaner fellows your last service
Did worthily perform; and I must use you
In such another trick.5

As with the tempest and the vanishing banquet, Prospero explicitly creates and controls each spectacle. Implicitly, these ornately clad "Spirits" execute the monarch's power as a viceroy of God, yet in this play their masque-function fails. Instead of banishing vulgarity and evil, these artificial deities are themselves dispelled by the encroaching baseness of Caliban's conspiracy. These events acutely show the gods as artful projections of the magus's mind and "spirits." Accompanied by a "strange, hollow, and confused noise," they "heavily vanish" at Prospero's command: "Avoid; no more!" (4.1.139 s.d., 142).

This dispersal of pagan deities (and of masque elements) in The Tempest makes us question the nature of its supernatural dimension. Is the play, as Colin Still argues in The Timeless Theme, a universal purgatorial allegory that mirrors the visionary rites of both ancient Eleusinian neophytes and medieval Christian pilgrims?6 Or does learned Prospero enact a Neoplatonic quest, as W. C. Curry argues in "Sacerdotal Science in Shakespeare's The Tempest"—with partial approval of Frank Kermode in his masterful Arden introduction?7 Or is The Tempest a [End Page 494] biblical...


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