Happy Families: Repentance and Restoration in 'The Tempest' and the Joseph Narrative

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The Tempest seems the fable of choice for our post-modern, post-colonial era, with a formidable amount of critical weaponry trained upon it in recent decades. We celebrate its topicality, setting Caliban at center stage as victim of an imperial aggression our century has learned all too well to perceive. Conversely, source-hunting, what J. P. Brockbank has called "an acceptable mode of conspicuous leisure," is not a terribly fashionable enterprise in Shakespeare studies these days, since them we focus more on reading forward from Shakespeare's text to present-day concerns than on looking back from his text to its predecessors.(1) Yet it may be timely to ask afresh about the play's origin and to consider what we lose, as well as gain, from the privileging of the post-colonial view of Prospero as usurper. To look at Shakespeare's appropriation of the Genesis narrative is to read the Bible through Shakespearean eyes, noting patterns of restoration and redemption more customarily observed in dramatic romances. Such a reading is irreducably intertextual, with the mutually borrowed illumination reshaping our perception of both works.

The critical commonplace has it that Shakespeare departed from his usual practice and used no single identifiable literary source for The Tempest, and the only division has been between those who believe in the existence of such a source, not yet discovered (e.g., Kenneth Muir: "There were, therefore, a number of minor sources of The Tempest, but it is highly probable that there was a main source as yet unidentified"), and those who don't believe that such a source exists.(2) When Frank Kermode cites analogues and discusses possible sources of the play, he focuses on the pastoral or romance elements of the plot or the voyagers' pamphlets which provide details of the storm and fortunate landings; none deals with the family strife that serves as motive for the action and whose resolution is Prospero's goal.(3) For his central focus on Prospero's redeeming himself as he arranges for the redemption of those who wronged him, I believe, Shakespeare found his source in the Joseph narrative of Genesis.

To be sure, the sundering and reuniting of families is Shakespeare's continuing theme from The Comedy of Errors to The Winter's Tale, with such variants as As You Like It, King Lear, and Pericles marking the boundaries of his exploration. So we need no biblical analogue to explain its presence in The Tempest, were that the extent of the comparison. But the "family reunion" label captures only a fraction of the parallel here.

Both Prospero and Joseph take the opportunity Providence offers to arrange the conditions under which their brothers may repent, both thus becoming Providence-like themselves in their structuring of the situation. James Hoyle noticed this relationship a decade and a half ago, seeing the Joseph story as the "narrative archetype" and "ethical context" for The Tempest, but I would suggest that he does not take his insight as seriously as it deserves.(4) Hoyle focuses on Prospero's forgiveness of his enemies, and in fact sees Shakespeare as going beyond the Old Testament spirit of his predecessor to the "more radical spirit of pardon" found only in the New Testament.(5)

Whatever the truth of this stereotypical distinction, Hoyle overlooks the fact that both Joseph and Prospero redeem themselves as they work toward their enemies' regeneration. Examining the ways in which the play resembles -- and departs from -- the pattern of its biblical source, we gain not only an insight into Shakespeare at work, but an intertextual opportunity, so to speak, to read the biblical narrative with Shakespearean eyes.(6)

By so doing, we push at the boundary of what we understand by "source" in a Shakespearean play.(7) Most major sources of Shakespeare have been so long established and so thoroughly digested that we have had insufficient occasion to rethink what it means to call x the source of y in these post-deconstructionist times. …