The Tempest has been read by some as a Christian allegory. Examine how Shakespeare explores Christian themes in this late play.

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The Tempest has been read by some as a Christian allegory. Examine how Shakespeare explores Christian themes in this late play.

You should consider:

  • Shakespeare’s use of language, imagery, structure and setting
  • Relevant aspects of the religious, historical and social context of the play

Shakespeare’s The Tempest is distinctly different from the rest of his plays and many have categorised it as an allegory. The seventeenth century was a period where allegory was a popular form of literature, reflected by the immense success of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  Explicit mentions of Christianity are minimal in the Tempest, however, due to a statute passed during May 1606 that declared one could be fined up to £10 for profane use of the name of God, Jesus Christ or the Trinity. Instead Shakespeare injects Christian themes and ideas more subtly, and a good place to find such themes is Act 1, Scene 1 in the middle of the storm, which represents the wrath of God.

Shakespeare often uses storms to symbolise a period of transition from one area of life to another. The stage directions depict, “a storm with thunder and lightning.” The entire scene uses the storm as an extended metaphor for the turmoil that has brought the characters to this point, but there are also plenty of Biblical implications. The dialogue between the anonymous boatswain and the noblemen is significant. The boatswain emphatically orders them with imperatives such as, “Keep your cabins. You do assist the storm,” and, “out of our way, I say.” He delivers a verbal storm that rivals the storm raging around them. In the face of adversity the roles of authorities have been swapped: here the fate of the ship is in the hands of the lowly sailors, and all the education of the noblemen is useless.

This represents a breakdown in the chain of being the Jacobeans so fervently believed in, where each man had his place divinely ordained. When all seems hopeless Shakespeare’s characters ultimately turn to religion: “All lost! To prayers, to prayers!” This use of repetition demonstrates that they are aware of how humanity is powerless against God. And it is not just the mariners, for we are told, “The King and Prince at prayers.” The wrath of God does not distinguish between social classes. We could draw a parallel to the ministry of Jesus, where he literally calmed storms and broke down barriers between social classes. This would be considered radical in Jacobean England.

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Furthermore, the staging of this scene adds to the dramatic impact. This was the scene the play was famed for, complete with primitive sound effects. There is a great deal of activity on stage, with six entrances and five exits. This creates an overwhelming atmosphere, mirroring how the characters are overcome by the powers of the tempest. The similarities between religious ceremony and drama has been noted since the time of the Ancient Greeks. In both the audience is largely passive and distanced from the performers, and speeches similar to sermons are delivered.  The audience would have been familiar with ...

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