Two Oracles in Shakespeare's Tempest
The Tempest is Shakespeare’s most mystical play.
One of the oracles of the play is spoken by Gonzalo, not in his image of an ideal realm combining the biblical Eden and the classical Golden Age (II.i.146–69), which closely echoes John Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s paragraph on the new world “cannibals.” That ideal is humanly unattainable—a true desire but a false hope.
His oracular speech comes when, having witnessed “the rest of the story,” Gonzalo summarizes its meaning: “Was Milan thrust from Milan that his issue / Should become kings of Naples?” (V.i.205–213)
Prospero/Man, who placed knowledge above duty, was thrust from Milan/Eden, to be subjected to the tempest made of the perfidy of brothers and the temptations of the Caliban self, in order that his human/moral issue should inherit the kingdom of Naples/heaven through his becoming his true self—knowledge gained through the fall redeemed by participation in the grace of forgiveness—in a voyage on which “all of us” find “ourselves, / When no man was his own.” From the tempest of this our life on the island that is the fallen world, having subdued the enemy, man is redeemed by choosing virtue over vengeance (V.i.28), humbly renouncing superhuman mastery (V.i.50–51), and embracing that forgiveness which embraces us all if we will it (V.i.131–32). Gonzalo voices the mystical purpose of creation.
The other oracle is the epilogue, in which speech becomes sacrament. Shakespeare’s conventional invitation to the audience to applaud at the end of The Tempest becomes a fourfold enactment of the principle of forgiveness dramatized in Prospero (“I do forgive / Thy rankest fault— all of them”):
1. The character Prospero, having renounced his magic, asks to be released by our applause from the imaginary island to his imaginary home and rest.
2. The actor, renouncing his theatrical magic, asks to be released, by our applauded pardon of any flaws in the performance, from his imaginary life to his true natural life and rest.
3. The playwright, having worked his poetic magic upon us for two and a half decades, asks, in this last of his plays written in London, to be released to the most merited rest ever earned by an artist. (The implication that this epilogue was Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage fell on hard times in the last century, but it would be perfectly fitting for the wit of the world’s greatest master of the poetic incarnation of universals in particulars.)
4. And we, the members of the audience, applauding in kindness and gratitude, thereby a) approve the play, b) approve the principle of forgiveness that is its theme, c) express our own hope to be forgiven (“As you from crimes would pardoned be”), and d) enact the forgiveness of others requested by character, actor, playwright, and God.
Note: The four layers of meaning in the epilogue to The Tempest may derive from the fourfold interpretation (literal, allegorical, moral, anagogical) that Christian and Jewish scholars applied to the interpretation of biblical and allegorical texts beginning in the twelfth or thirteenth century and that Dante explicitly invites readers to apply to the reading of his Divine Comedy. Whether or not Shakespeare had this fourfold meaning of allegory explicitly in mind, his fourfold epilogue invites the audience to incarnate in their applause a sacramental fulfillment of the Paternoster’s most difficult challenge: to forgive as we would be forgiven.