I have just finished rereading Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” I picked it up again because Shakespeare was 50 when he wrote it – his last play – and I only have only two more months to be 50 myself. I love this play because it is about a father and a daughter. I love it because it is about a duke deposed for his books “were dukedom enough.” It is my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays because it is about forgiveness. Really, it is about undeserved forgiveness, and so I guess it would be more accurate to say “The Tempest” is about grace.
“The Tempest” has always reminded me of the book of Ecclesiastes in that it proves even without reward, doing things God’s way is best. In Ecclesiastes the question is asked, “What is profitable for a man to do under the sun?” (1.3). The sphere of exploration is confined to human experience “under the sun.” Of course we know the conclusion of the whole matter – “Fear God and keep his commandments – this applies to everyone.” Only then are we reminded that in the end there will be punishment and reward (12.13-14).
In “The Tempest” Prospero, Duke of Milan is deposed by his brother Antonio in a coup not unlike the one Absalom engineers against David in II Samuel. Prospero and his daughter Miranda are set adrift in a leaky boat, and survive only because a kindly courtier, Gonzalo, gives supplies to them. They reach an island and Prospero subdues those living on it. Years later His brother and his brother’s allies end up on the same island, shipwrecked, and in Prospero’s hands. No one has changed. Antonio is unrepentant – so much so that he plots further betrayals. But in the end Prospero forgives everyone anyway, even though they don’t deserve it. He forgives them not based upon any Godly reasons, but for a variety of very human ones. He cannot secure his daughter’s future and, at the same time, devote himself to revenge. He cannot maintain the energy it takes to even every score. In the end he understands that revenge is ultimately self-destructive, and not worth the effort.
But like Ecclesiastes, in the end, God and His judgments have to enter the equation. In the epilogue, which is my favorite passage in Shakespeare, Prospero asks the audience to set him free and let him go back home. He knows this will not happen Unless I be reliev’d by prayer which pierces so that it assaults Mercy itself and frees all faults. As you from crimes would pardon’d be, let your indulgence set me free.* Prospero understands he has to be forgiven, freed from faults. He also understands that only grace can accomplish this – “if you want to be forgiven and let go, then forgive me and let me go,” he pleads.
But it is that phrase “prayer which pierces so that it assaults Mercy itself,” which I want to address. It seems that he sees prayer as a hammer which breaks down a wall between us and Mercy. But we are God’s children. We call him “Abba” just like Jesus does (Romans 8.15). We don’t need a hammer. Because we are His children He is bound to hear our prayers and to respond with what is best (Matthew 7.7-11). Yes, we are dependent on prayer that “pierces” – but not in that it “assaults” anything. Our prayers naturally pierce the heart of God because we are His children.
We are confident, when we pray, to receive “mercy itself” and that we will find grace to help in our time of need (Hebrews 4.14-16), because Jesus is our High Priest, God is our father, and the Spirit perfects our prayers (Romans 8.26).