Liberty Matters

Reason and Grace: A Response

Now indeed we’ve entered deep waters. David Urban reminds us that an even greater and much more controversial issue than power corrupting has been the relation between reason and divine grace.
Urban suggests we take the Ariel of The Tempest as some sort of minister of divinegrace. Thus, if I have correctly grasped his argument, he seeks to answer the question I posed at the start of this conversation: to what cause are we to attribute Prospero’s decision to renounce his power (i.e., his magic however interpreted) and return to Milan (the world as we know it with all the attendant hazards thereof). If we follow Urban’s proposal we must go back one step and put the question why does he first forgive his enemies? For the choice to forgive may precede the choice to renounce magic and return to Milan, or so Urban supposes.
With regard to mercy he supposes Prospero had been otherwise inclined previous to his response to Ariel’s intervention on behalf of the two parties of bedazzled wanderers whom Ariel has been hitherto tormenting on Prospero’s instructions. Urban does not specify what form of grace Ariel consults. It would be what theologians of Shakespeare’s time and ours term prevenient. Grace these theologians define as a supernatural help from God which enlightens the mind and clarifies the will to do good. The prevenient version operates during a moment of choice influencing a soul to do good when it may have been inclined to do evil.
I’ll add two items of corroborative evidence for Urban’s contention. First, Prospero replies to Ariel’s suggestion that he forgive in a manner that suggests the notion of pardon has just now occurred to him. This is consistent with a supposition that Shakespeare means us to infer the operation of prevenient grace. Second, Prospero’s decision anticipates the appeal he makes to the audience at the end of the play. Because that appeal makes allusion to “The Lord’s Prayer” (i.e., “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”) it would seem consistent with a prior dispensation of prevenient grace wherein Prospero fulfils a condition for God’s pardoning his transgressions.
Urban then moves from an assertion regarding operative grace in The Tempest tothe more comprehensive claim that divine intervention occurs elsewhere in Shakespeare’s plays, citing Richard III as one example followed by citations of a speech by Henry VI declining to employ force against Parliament and a speech by Angelo of Measure for Measure prompted by his consciousness of his own guilt. Urban’s point, I think, is that I have made too severe a dichotomy between reason and grace, or reason and conscience.
I’ll speak first to matters pertaining to grace in The Tempest,then make a generalremark prompted by Urban’s citations from the other plays.
First, a concession. As Urban has suspected, I do not think there is an opposition between grace and reason. But my statement invited such an inference. I understand the operation of grace to be as Urban conveyed through recalling Aquinas and Calvin: it is a supernatural help that enlightens the intellect through rectifying reason and through acting upon the imagination. So perhaps it would be better to substitute the word nature and to ask whether Shakespeare means for us to think Prospero has made a choice caused by nature or by grace operating upon nature.
Prospero “prays” to Shakespeare’s audience, but not to God. He does not think Ariel a minister of grace. He asserts authority over Ariel and says that a demonic Sycorax had once imprisoned Ariel in a tree. To my mind the two indications of subordination disqualify Ariel for functioning as either an angel or a symbol for divine grace. As for Prospero’s past, he claims to have done what Christians believe only Christ had done. Prospero claims to have raised the dead. (Shakespeare may intend this claim to be adjusted to an allegory that would reduce to a dramatist resurrecting historical personages.) What to make of his claim (5.1.43-44) to have split “Jove’s stout oak/ With [Jove’s] own bolt”? (Again innocuous enough if referred allegorically to theater stage business.)
I had also mentioned in the earlier exchange that Prospero is a mortalist—“our little life/ Is rounded with a sleep”(4.1.157-158)—a position which I assumed, perhaps wrongly, would not be consistent with Christian belief. I grant, however, that Shakespeare need not be in agreement with Prospero.
Prospero seems to say in the speech Urban cites that he has intended for Antonio, Sebastian, and Alonzo something other than indefinitely protracted dementia if they should prove repentant. If we are so to take his remark to Ariel, there would be no need of divine grace to correct him at this point.
Prospero does once mention “providence divine” (I.2.158), but the act to which he refers is an act of foreseeing kindness done by Gonzalo. Elsewhere he attributes present favorable circumstances to “bountiful Fortune” (I.2.159 , repeated 178). Then he attributes to his magic, with its instrument Ariel, the penitential trials inflicted on the noblemen cast up on his island.
Nothing I’ve said here is decisive for the larger question which is whether Shakespeare’s plays convey a vision of man and the world that conveys, or implies, Christian belief on the part not of some of the characters he has imagined but on the part of Shakespeare himself.
I see in the plays nothing that conclusively would deny the idea of Shakespeare’s professing Christian belief, but little to confirm the supposition. It’s worth considering how one might put the matter to a test. Is it dispositive to find that in Henry VI  (5.3.s.d. ) we are given a stage direction presenting demons in attendance upon Joan of Arc? We might argue for another demon (Hecate) in Macbeth if the disputed lines are allowed to be Shakespeare’s (3.5.2-32). The two theophanies which occur in other plays present pagan divinities: Jupiter in Cymbeline (5.4.93-113), Diana in Pericles Prince of Tyre (5.1. 241-250). Of course historians tell us laws forbade theatrical presentations depicting God. But there are no depictions of the Christian deity in Shakespeare’s narrative poetry. Are there references to Christ in the sonnets or to a God who must be understood to be the Supreme Being of Christian belief? 
I have a sense the metaphysical proof texts just mentioned will strike Shakespeareans as a flat-footed way of approaching the question and that a demand will be made instead for a different kind of inquiry on the order of ascertaining Shakespeare’s beliefs by the measure of the poet’s conception of human nature and destiny. Fair enough. What then?