[Transcript of a reflection given on The Tempest by William Shakespeare on RTM 91.9 on 9 August 2015. Audio is in the youtube video below. It starts approximately a minute into the transcript as the first bit was missed. The audio was recorded off the radio.]
I’d like to begin today’s sharing with an aside about the provenance of the content. I, along with many students, teachers and staff of St Joseph’s Private School, have been working on a production of William Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest for the past months and it’s been at the forefront of my consciousness of late. I’ve always had a soft spot for literature and drama, not just because of the beauty of the language but also because of the ability of the authors and playwrights to hold a mirror up to human nature and give us much material to reflect on. Their intimate understanding of all our human foibles as expressed in their little plays and stories echo our own joys and mirth, gladness and suffering while reminding us that we’re not alone in feeling the various deep emotions that we do in our lives. The characters in plays such as The Tempest, stock or clichéd as they may be, can allow us to reflect on our own lives and give us an additional means to think about how to become a better person and even a better follower of Christ.
The Tempest is a simple story of betrayal, revenge and conversion, told in a fantastical setting filled with fairies, monsters and magic. The main character Prospero was the Duke of Milan who was betrayed and deposed by his own brother, Antonio. He and his daughter Miranda were marooned on an island by Antonio who took over the dukedom of Milan. The island that he found himself on was filled with spirits and other beings that Prospero, a learned man and magician, was able to control to do his bidding. He waited on the island for the right moment to take his revenge on those who betrayed him.
That moment came when his brother and some other nobles and Alonso, King of Naples passed near the island on a ship. With his magic powers, he created a huge tempest or storm that wrecked the ship and sent all the people onto his island. With the help of the spirits and fairies of the island, Prospero was able to confuse and misdirect everyone on the island. The nobles were made to wander aimlessly only to be continuously reminded of their guilt. The servants of the ship found themselves on another part of the island and met with Prospero’s monstrous servant who convinced them to try to kill his master and take over the island.
As all these plots neared their climax and Prospero prepared to exact his final revenge on all those who betrayed him, he was shocked at his own plans and actions. He realised that in his quest for revenge, he was acting as his enemies did. After some deliberation, he famously said, ‘the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance’, deciding that revenge was not for him and beginning a process of reconciliation that allowed him to make peace not just with his betrayers but with himself as well. With the forgiveness of his enemies and the marriage of his daughter to the son of the King of Naples, the conversion was complete and the entire party sailed happily home to Naples and Milan
Prospero’s conversion is slow and difficult and goes through several stages where the bitterness about deeds done to him fade and he rediscovers the possibility of loving others. It’s easy to focus exclusively on how one has been wronged when that happens and it’s natural to do so. If we’re hurt by others, we’re bound to feel resentful and bitter about what’s been done to us. It’s almost impossible not to being human as we are but as the example of Prospero shows us, we can become so consumed with thoughts of revenge that we become the very people whom we seek to take revenge on.
Thoughts of revenge or wanting to inflict harm on the very people who have caused harm can seep into one’s life like a slow-acting poison, taking over all parts of one’s being and making other parts of the self quite imbalanced as well. One’s thoughts get coloured by the thoughts of revenge in a way that most actions are aimed not at giving life to relationships but at harming them. Even worse than that is that the thoughts of revenge can easily turn into a demonisation of the other person, dehumanising him or her in one’s effort in justifying the decision to harm the other. Prospero did this as he saw his enemies as ‘worse than devils’, beings to be tormented and harassed and not people who might also be suffering in their own way. Revenge in any form represents a turning away from the humanity of others and in so doing, turning away from God who created all those around us. By not recognising and treating others as humans to be loved as ourselves, we reject the love of God in the thirst for revenge.
We’re told quite clearly that revenge and retaliation are not things that we should even consider as the Lord said in Matthew 5:38-46 that ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer… Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ Revenge can only lead to an ever deepening cycle of retaliation and further harm and no good can come out of it. Prospero showed that one’s ability to celebrate happy occasions can be spoilt by the thirst for revenge as he interrupted the happy engagement ceremony of his daughter to further his plans for revenge. The one antidote for this poison of revenge is to seek conversion and to turn one’s face back to recognise the humanity of others and to see God’s face in them.
Conversion can mean many things but the conversion that is important here is the conversion of a person away from the quest for revenge and towards reconciliation and love. This conversion is not an easy process and as the Lord mentioned before, it begins when one is able to love one’s enemies and to pray for those who harm one. It helps to remember that though one has been wronged, those who do harm are not the only ones at fault or in the wrong. The Lord reminds us that we should be aware of the logs in our own eyes before judging others about the specks in theirs (Matthew 7:1-6). Being less judgemental means that one is able to bring oneself to see ourselves as fallible humans like others who might have wronged us before. Doing so would lead us to accept their humanity and not see them as things to be harmed.
When this happens, a subtle shift happens. A philosopher once mentioned that when one truly sees the face of others in all their humanity, one has no choice but to treat them with justice and love. It follows our acceptance that we’re all God’s creatures and that seeing the humanity of others allows us a glimpse of the face of our God and creator. Prospero saw this in the suffering that he caused his enemies and knew that their penitence was enough for him. We see this in scripture too as St Peter mentioned something similar in Acts 3:19-20 as he told others outside the temple of Jerusalem that through repentance we may have ‘times of refreshing’ that come from the presence of God. By seeing God in others, we are able to refresh ourselves, free our consciousness from the poison of revenge and start us on the road to reconciliation.
In the last scene of The Tempest, Prospero embraces Alonso, the King of Naples who aided Antonio in betraying him. This was a clear sign of the start of reconciliation between two old enemies and the promise of better times to come. The last stage of turning a person away from revenge is to effect reconciliation, to allow for the love of God to flow back into our lives and relationships. We’re reminded by St Paul in Ephesians 4:32 that we should be kind and forgive each other as Christ himself has forgiven us. Reconciliation with those who have wronged us is akin to turning back to God. By showing love to those who wrong us and by allowing God’s love to flow through us to them, we remind all those around us of the infinite possibility of God’s love as we spread it even to those whom we, by the world’s reckoning, should take revenge on.
Prospero comes on stage in the final scene of the play and addresses the audience saying ‘As you from crimes would pardon’d be, Let your indulgence set me free.’ Just as we see his conversion from an angry vengeful man to a much happier, reflective and loving one, we’re also invited to do the same. The world is not always as simple as the stories that we read or see on stage but we can simplify things by just following the command of the Lord to love one another. By recognising that we’re all humans to be loved and cherished, we will prevent ourselves from forgetting to look upon the humanity of others and will truly become the children of God that the Lord Jesus so earnestly wants us to become.