Forgiveness and Reconciliation in The Tempest
Many scholars argue that, along with Shakespeare’s other late romances, The Tempest is a play about reconciliation, forgiveness, and faith in future generations to seal such reconciliation. However, while it is clear that the theme of forgiveness is at the heart of the drama, what is up for debate is to what extent the author realizes this forgiveness. An examination of the attitudes and actions of the major characters in the play, specifically Prospero, illustrates that there is little, if any, true forgiveness and reconciliation in The Tempest.
We must first set a standard by which to judge the effectiveness of forgiveness in the play. Undoubtedly, the most important Christian lesson on the true nature of forgiveness can be found in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount:
But I say to unto you which hear, love your
enemies, do good to them which hate you
Bless them that curse you, and pray for them
which despiseth you… For if ye love them
which love you, what thank have ye? For
sinners also do even the same. But love
your enemies, and do good, and lend,
hoping for nothing again… (Luke 6:27-35)
Prospero’s conduct from the moment the play begins seems to contradict the basic tenets of Christian forgiveness. Fortune has brought his enemies within his grasp and Prospero seizes the opportunity for revenge. “Desire for vengeance has apparently lain dormant in Prospero through the years of banishment, and now, with the sudden advent of his foes, the great wrong of twelve years before is stirringly present again, arousing the passions and stimulating the will to action” (Davidson 225). While it is true that Prospero does not intend to harm anyone on the ship, and asks his servant sprite with all sincerity, "But are they, Ariel, safe?" (1.1.218), he does not hesitate to put the men through the agony of what they believe is a horrible disaster resulting in the death of Prince Ferdinand. Prospero insists that those who wronged him suffer for their crimes, before he offers them his forgiveness, even if it means innocent and noble men, like Gonzalo, suffer as well. Later in the drama Ariel tells Prospero that "The good old lord, Gonzalo/His tears run down his beard" (V.i.15-6), and it is Ariel’s plea that convinces Prospero to end their misery: "if you now beheld them / Your affections would become tender" (5.1.19-20).
Some critics believe that, through Ariel’s expression of genuine concern for the shipwrecked men, Prospero undergoes a transformation – that he comes to a "Christ-like" realization (Solomon 232). A close reading of the magician’s response reveals that his newfound regard for the command "love thine enemies" comes after he has achieved his revenge:
…the rarer action is
In virtue than in
vengeance: they being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further.
Prospero feels free to forgive those who sinned against him only after he has...