Ecclesiastes and The Tempest: The Preacher’s Influence on Shakespeare

by Mariah Lynch

“Hebel hebelim! All is hebel,” declares the “Preacher” (or “Qohelet,” as termed in the Hebrew) in the opening lines of his great treatise, the book of Ecclesiastes. In this piece, Qohelet presents commentary on life from a primarily horizontal or in his words “under the sun” perspective and declares life to be “hebel,” a term whose meaning encompasses the ideas of brevity, futility, frustration, and emptiness (Scholl, “Ecclesiastes”). Qohelet searches for “yitron,” a Hebrew word denoting the ultimate “telos” (Latin for “end” or “purpose”) of life, but is unable to find it (Scholl, “Ecclesiastes”; Miller).

Instead, he highlights what is “tov,” or good, for people to do in light of God’s ultimate character, purposes, and sovereignty (Scholl, “Ecclesiastes”). Many of the themes evident in Qohelet’s work also emerge in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and it seems clear that in creating The Tempest, Shakespeare was significantly influenced by Qohelet, bringing to life his observations and assessments.

To begin, time is the prevalent theme in Ecclesiastes and The Tempest; it is the gong which Qohelet sounds throughout the whole of Ecclesiastes, the reverberations of which can be heard throughout Shakespeare’s play, sometimes clanging loudly and other times softly chiming. The word used in the play’s very title, “tempest,” comes from the Latin “tempestas,” signifying both the concept of a great storm and of the idea of time (from the related Latin word “tempus”)—thus, the whole play is a time-storm (Miller).

From the moments when the sailors first approach the island, applying all their tricks and skills in an attempt to navigate away and out of the storm, the laws of nature seem to rise up against them and force them to the island’s shores where they will be thrown into a deep sleep that wrenches them away from their consciousness of time’s passing; however, time still passes. As Prospero indicates to the spirit Ariel when he comments, “At least two glasses. The time ‘twixt six and now / Must by us both be spent most preciously,” the clock is ticking, and the two have only four hours to accomplish Prospero’s grand plans (I.ii.240-241). Even Prospero, who orchestrates the play’s events, cannot halt the perpetual forward progression of time.

Hence, Shakespeare’s beginning, in which readers understand how the sailors, passengers, and island inhabitants are all bound by time, echoes Qohelet’s introductory poem on life’s cycles which shackle everything and everyone. Qohelet observes, “A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever… What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (English Standard Version, Eccl., 1:4, 9).  The poem highlights how humanity is imprisoned by the endless cycles of time.

Qohelet demonstrates in the temporal realm, living “under the sun,” there is no escape from the limitations of time—each person’s time on earth begins, progresses, and concludes, just like everyone else’s. This idea is encapsulated by Shakespeare’s concept of the “theatrum mundi”—Latin for “the theater of the world,” or the universal human experience (Miller). Consequently, on Prospero’s island, there is no escape from the limitations of time, the universal human experience.

However, this broad sense of time’s jurisdiction is not the only way in which Shakespeare reflects Qohelet’s claims about time. In Ecclesiastes 3, Qohelet presents another poem containing fourteen opposing pairs of appointed “times” in life. By this point in the book, Qohelet has introduced God as the sovereign above all life’s affairs, and He is the one who has appointed not only the aforementioned cycles of time but also particular moments and seasons of life. As Qohelet asserts, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven”; similarly, Shakespeare appoints multiple times for Prospero, which he astutely recognizes (Eccl. 3:1). First, Prospero recognizes his “time to speak” during his conversation with Miranda near the commencement of the play (Eccl. 3:7). Miranda petitions Prospero to enlighten her as to their history, and Prospero finally responds in the affirmative:

MIRANDA. You have often

Begun to tell me what I am, but stopped

And left me to a bootless inquisition,

Concluding “Stay. Not yet.”

PROSPERO. The hour’s now come.

The very minute bids thee ope thine ear.

Obey, and be attentive. (I.ii.33-38)

Shakespeare shows Prospero is aware of both his “time to be silent”—which has lasted twelve years since his initial exile—and his now-arrived “time to speak” (Eccl. 3:7). Prospero also identifies his “time to heal,” telling Miranda:

PROSPERO. (Now my dear lady) hath mine enemies

Brought to this shore; and by my prescience

I find my zenith doth depend upon

A most auspicious star, whose influence

If now I court not, but omit, my fortunes

Will ever after droop. (I.ii.179-184)

Shakespeare allows Prospero to heed Qohelet’s warnings about wondering whether or not a better time will come; as Qohelet direly observes, “He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap” (Eccl. 11:4). Prospero proverbially seizes the day, eschewing the paralyzing fear of negative outcomes in favor of confident action.

Time and memory intertwine to play a significant role in The Tempest; in fact, the role of memory in the play is so important that it may seem as though Shakespeare departs from reflecting Qohelet’s conclusions. Although Miranda was only three years old when she and Prospero were banished from Milan, she retains her memories from before their departure, though details of the actual event are obscured in her mind’s eye.

In fact, the memory of the past comprises the whole grounds for the story, as Prospero recalls his rightful position as the duke of Milan, his betrayal, and his banishment to the island with Miranda, determining to counteract his enemies at last. Not only so, but Prospero employs recollection of events to solidify Ariel’s loyalty, querying, “Dost thou forget / From what a torment I did free thee?” (I.ii.251-252). Additionally, Prospero justifies his treatment of Caliban and his forced labor by referring to how Caliban had spurned Prospero and Miranda’s offers of kindness, even going so far as to attempt to rape Miranda. Therefore, Shakespeare uses memory as an essential launching pad for many of the play’s events and characters’ identities.

On the other hand, for Qohelet memory is almost pointless. He observes at the end of his introductory poem that there is “no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after,” submitting his viewpoint that nothing in life is ultimately remembered, for all is eventually forgotten (Eccl. 1:11). Qohelet develops this stance throughout the book, claiming that “of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten” and that those who have died “have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.

Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun” (Eccl. 2:16; 9:5-6). Qohelet observes that this fate befalls all who walk “under the sun,” regardless of whether they engaged in good or evil—all die, all are forgotten—and so there is no lasting impact.

Nevertheless, Prospero himself rejects the claim that holding to the past, holding to memory, will grant him what is “tov” in the present. At the end of the play, King Alonso begs Miranda to forgive him for his part in exiling her and Prospero; however, Prospero interjects, “There, sir, stop. / Let us not burden our remembrance with / A heaviness that’s gone,” purposefully erasing the memory of the offense (V.i.197-199). He also forgives his brother Antonio and co-conspirator Sebastian for intentionally deposing Prospero, again, releasing that memory. Furthermore, he frees not only Ariel but also Caliban, both of whom he had previously levied the memories of the past as their constraints, and determines not to hold Caliban accountable for seeking to take his life.

Finally, in his closing soliloquy, Prospero renounces his art, relinquishing even the memory of power-giving science and spells. Prospero discerns that forgiveness frees him to live more fully in the moment and that, as Qohelet maintains, “Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind” (Eccl. 4:6). Qohelet’s phrase “striving after the wind” can also be translated “grasping the wind” or “feeding on wind”; Qohelet’s use of this ambiguous phrase allows him to communicate the ideas of running after something that is impossible to catch, trying to hold onto something that constantly slips away, and consuming something that cannot sustain (Scholl, “Ecclesiastes”).

Prospero rejects the option of chasing wind and holds to his handful of happiness; his vision of his future is tranquil as he describes, “And thence retire me to my Milan, where / Every third thought shall be my grave” (V.i.310-311). His decision to rejoice in Miranda and Ferdinand’s future marriage instead of struggling to cling to memory demonstrates that Shakespeare did indeed rely on Qohelet’s observations about the value of memory.

Prospero thus adheres to Qohelet’s injunction in chapter nine to enjoy the good and joyful circumstances of life before the day of death arrives and there is no more time to enjoy them (Eccl. 9:7-10). This exhortation is one of Qohelet’s seven pivotal “‘enjoy life’ refrains… [which] clearly command the enjoyment of life” (Fuhr and Köstenberger 126). The refrain also follows on the heels of chapter nine’s lament on the transient nature of memory and legacy. So then, Qohelet, and Shakespeare by extension, implies that from an “under the sun” perspective, even though there is no lasting meaning, no “yitron,” to be found from one’s pursuits and the memory thereof, it is “tov” for man to enjoy life while he can, for this is the lot which God has bestowed upon him.

Qohelet’s book continues to exhibit itself as Shakespeare’s lynchpin for The Tempest in Shakespeare’s elaboration on the “enjoy life” refrains. Qohelet cycles back to this theme seven times, interlacing it with his observations on the “hebelness” of life—both the fact of the recurrence of the theme and the number of repetitions (seven, the number indicating perfection or completion) emphasize the importance Qohelet places on enjoying life (Easton, “Seven”).

Similarly, Shakespeare places a high value on the enjoyment of life. Besides Prospero’s intentions to put aside the past and to enjoy peace in the present, this emphasis is also apparent in Miranda in a myriad of ways. Her very name stems from the Latin “mirari,” which means, “to wonder at,” and she consistently demonstrates deep wonder at and appreciation for all aspects of life (Miller).

From the start as Prospero unfolds his tale of misfortune, Miranda is rapt, uttering such exclamations as, “Your tale, sir, would cure deafness,” and “O the heavens!” (I.ii.106, 116). The story is tragic, but Miranda relishes the telling thereof. Here, she reflects Qohelet’s juxtaposition of misfortune and enjoyment in chapter five. Qohelet details the “hebelness” of toiling for riches, observing that the owner might lose them or find them profitless or injurious, not to mention that the owner cannot take the riches into the next life; in spite of this, Qohelet recommends that people enjoy what they can, observing that it is the “gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with the joy in his heart” (Eccl. 5:19-20). Shakespeare seems to model Miranda’s reaction after this text, showing her acknowledging the distress of their prior circumstances, yet not allowing that distress to rule her while being occupied with the joy of the moment.

Miranda continues to embody the meaning of her name and Qohelet’s emphasis on enjoying life in her pleasure at her first sight of Prince Ferdinand. She exclaims:

MIRANDA. What is’t? a spirit?

Lord, how it looks about! Believe me, sir,

It carries a brave form. But ‘tis a spirit.
…………………

I might call him

A thing divine; for nothing natural

I ever saw so noble. (I.ii.411-413, 417-419)

Miranda is totally delighted with Ferdinand and he returns the sentiments, naming her a “goddess,” and declaring, “O you wonder!” then promptly expressing an impulse to marry her (I.ii.422, 427, 450-451). The two further and deepen their mutual enthrallment in their next interactions. Miranda watches Ferdinand as he works for Prospero to seek his blessing of Ferdinand’s pursuit of Miranda. Ferdinand and Miranda good-naturedly debate each’s desire to do the labor. They proceed to reciprocally praise each other and end the conversation by advancing their relationship to pledge marriage. Their interactions this whole time are overflowing with joy in one another.

Prospero joins and extends their celebration of relational enjoyment by using his magic art to conjure a vision of their future bliss (IV.i.60-138). Through this relationship, Shakespeare shows a clear alignment with Qohelet’s injunction to “[l]et your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your hebel life that he has given you under the sun” (Eccl. 9:8-9). White clothing and putting oil on one’s head both emblemized rejoicing and were often only utilized at “special occasions such as weddings and reunions”; thus, Ferdinand and Miranda’s joy in each other and in their upcoming nuptials harmonizes well with Qohelet’s encouragements to enjoy such circumstances, again demonstrating Qohelet’s influence on The Tempest (Wiersbe, Eccl. 9:8).

Miranda’s enjoyment of life does not end here, however. At the conclusion of the play, all the characters assemble, the righteous, wicked, and repentant alike, and all receive the blessing of Prospero’s forgiveness and promise of protection on the voyage home. This mirrors Qohelet’s judgment that frequently “there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous” (Eccl. 8:14). The evildoers do not receive the just punishment they deserve, but are permitted to go free. It would be natural for Miranda to object to this injustice; however, she instead breaks into another exclamation of joy:

MIRANDA. O, wonder!

How many goodly creatures are there here!

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world

That has such people in’t! (V.i.179-183)

Miranda delights in the existence of such a wide variety of people, despite the evil she knows many of them have done. To her, there is potential in them all, and she rejoices in this, even though some of them have already squandered their talents and seem poised to do so again (Miller). Her delight in spite of this reflects the joy Qohelet recommends in the verses directly after his lament about the wicked going unpunished. He says, “And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun” (Eccl. 8:15). In spite of life’s injustice, Shakespeare and Qohelet both find reason to rejoice.

Shakespeare’s final character to reveal his echoing of Qohelet’s “enjoy life” refrains is Gonzalo, contrasted strongly with Sebastian, Antonio, and Adrian. The contrast lies fundamentally in how they respond to the circumstances dealt to them. This is displayed in the very first scene, during the chaos of the storm. Gonzalo is remarkably unflustered and even cheerful, going so far as to joke that the boatswain is destined to be hanged (and consequently, must survive the storm in order to reach his appointment with the gallows) (I.i.26-31). He seems determined to consider the events in the most positive light possible. On the other hand, Sebastian and Antonio grumble constantly, with Sebastian grousing, “I am out of patience”; they are looking at their circumstances with a decidedly negative point of view (I.i.51).

Later on the island, the characters’ subjective recreation of the island yet again betrays their dispositions (Miller). Adrian remarks that the island appears to be a desert, launching the three of them into a tirade on the island’s apparent defects and horrors. They observe nothing good or beautiful about the island. In stark contrast, Gonzalo sees the island as a virtual utopia, embarking upon a mini soliloquy of the island’s great potential and declaring, “I would with such perfection govern, sir, / T’ excel the golden age” (II.i.163-164). These examples show the three characters’ inability to enjoy the lot dealt them, while Gonzalo finds enjoyment and composure even in the midst of unpleasant situations.

In these characters, Shakespeare appears to draw upon Qohelet’s “enjoy life” refrain in chapter two. Qohelet commences by remarking to his readers that it is “tov” for them to enjoy life’s simple pleasures, such as food and work. He then continues, “[A]part from [God] who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God” (Eccl. 2:24-26).

Qohelet thus observes that wicked people, fools, cannot enjoy the good in life, for God prevents them from doing so. Gonzalo displays the favor God has bestowed on him by enjoying everything; however, Sebastian, Antonio, and Adrian show their wicked and foolish nature, as described by Qohelet, by their fruitless striving and their inability to enjoy any of the island’s events.

These verses also come alive in the contrast between Ferdinand (along with Miranda) and Caliban, specifically with regard to work. It is even more apt to recognize Qohelet’s influence on these characters—in comparison with Sebastian, Antonio, Adrian, and Gonzalo—because the above-quoted verses in chapter two appear in a section primarily devoted to enjoyment in relation to work. When Prospero assigns Ferdinand to toil for Miranda, Ferdinand initially objects. However, he becomes mollified as he considers the object for which he is working—that is, the ability to seek Miranda’s hand. Ferdinand muses, “But these sweet thoughts do even refresh my labors / Most busy least, when I do it,” showing that the labor has benefit for him (III.i.14-15).

Miranda herself goes even further, imploring Ferdinand to let her take his place and actually do the work on his behalf. She beseeches:

MIRANDA. If you’ll sit down,

I’ll bear your logs the while. Pray give me that:

I’ll carry it to the pile…

It would become me…

for my good will is to it. (25-27, 32, 34)

Far from being resigned to the task, Miranda rejoices in the potential opportunity to lighten Ferdinand’s load. Thus, Shakespeare arranges for them both to demonstrate Qohelet’s description of taking enjoyment in work.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Caliban, the offspring of the wicked witch Sycorax. Prospero has conscripted Caliban into hard labor because without this constant occupation, Caliban works mischief—for example, as Caliban self-attests, he strove to rape Miranda—and so, Prospero sets him to various tasks. However, far from taking any pleasure in his toil, Caliban moans and grumbles, protesting, “There’s wood enough within,” and cursing Miranda and Prospero with the words, “A south-west blow on ye / and blister you all o’er!” (I.ii.315, 323-324). He complies only because he recognizes the power of Prospero’s art admitting, “I must obey. His art is of such pow’r / It would control my dam’s god, Sebetos, / And make a vassal of him” (I.ii.373-375). Hence, Shakespeare seems also to have assigned the evil, foolish Caliban “the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God,” again showing Qohelet’s fingerprints in Shakespeare’s handling of whether or not The Tempest characters enjoy life (Eccl. 2:26).

While certainly exulting in the enjoyment of life, both Shakespeare and Qohelet assert that a person can have “too much of a good thing.” Qohelet spends most of chapter two detailing a variety of common pleasures that he had pursued, ranging from using wine to lift his spirits, to possessing great wealth, to completing expansive building projects. However, at the close of the chapter he concludes, “behold, all was hebel and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Eccl. 2:11). Qohelet thus marks pleasure and enjoyment as being empty and unfulfilling, unfitting pursuits to attain what is “yitron.”

Shakespeare seems to portray these sentiments, displaying them through multiple characters and in multiple situations. Shakespeare’s first specimens of the characters’ excessive pursuit of pleasure are the trio of Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano. Stephano arrives on the island drunk and only becomes more inebriated through the play. Upon inquiries from Trinculo if he possesses any additional alcohol, he replies, “The whole butt, man: my cellar is in a rock by th’ seaside, where my wine is hid” (II.ii.130-131). Stephano’s primary objective is to consume as much alcohol as is possible. Not content to be the only drunk on the island, Stephano introduces Caliban to alcohol and Caliban is instantly captivated by the liquid. He declares, “That’s a brave god and bears celestial liquor. / I will kneel to him” (II.ii.115-116). All three of the fools join together in pursuit of the liquor fest.

Shakespeare shows the inability of alcohol to satisfy in a few ways. First, and most apparent, is the fact that the three must continue to drink. There is no point at which they proclaim they are sated. Instead, they demonstrate Qohelet’s insistence that this is merely “striving after wind” (Eccl. 4:6). Secondly, the trio is not satisfied with their pursuit of drink; alternatively, Caliban proposes to the other two that they murder Prospero and then claim both his daughter and his rule over the island. They readily agree, with Stephano summarizing, “Monster, I will kill this man: his daughter / and I will be king and queen, save our Graces! and / Trinculo and thyself shall be viceroys” (III.ii.103-105). Nevertheless, upon their approach, Stephano and Trinculo become distracted from their pursuit by the possibility of robbing Prospero’s clothing closet. Shakespeare again echoes Qohelet, who declares, “Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the appetite: this also is hebel and a striving after wind” (Eccl. 6:9).

The three cannot even be satisfied with the pleasure that is right in front of their eyes, seeking to overthrow Prospero, but also seek every opportunity to acquire gain. However, the most notable example of Qohelet’s trivialization of the value of pleasure comes at the hands of Caliban. At the close of the play, he seems to realize his folly regarding the whole of his actions, particularly in his treatment of Stephano. Caliban agrees to clean up the mess he made in Prospero’s quarters and exclaims:

CALIBAN. Ay, that I will; and I’ll be wise hereafter,

And seek for grace. What a thrice-double ass

Was I to take this drunkard for a god

And worship this dull fool! (V.i.293-296)

Despite the fact that Caliban previously sought to avoid his responsibilities and to engage in as much pleasure as he could grasp, whether by virtuous or nefarious means, his concluding words indicate a possible repentance of these attitudes. Consequently, Shakespeare uses even his most loathsome character to demonstrate Qohelet’s conviction that a pursuit of pleasure as a means unto itself is ultimately empty and foolish.

Shakespeare also presents a positive aspect of curbing pursuit of pleasure through Ferdinand and Miranda. As they are clearly taken with each other, a possible immoral outcome of their mutual enjoyment would be to engage in premarital sexual activity. Prospero warns Ferdinand against gratifying these urges, insisting:

PROSPERO. If thou dost break her virgin-knot before

All sanctimonious ceremonies may

With full and holy rite be minist’red,

No sweet aspersion shall the heavens let fall

To make this contract grow; but barren hate,

Sour-eyed disdain, and discord shall bestrew

The union of your bed with weeds so loathly

That you shall hate it both… (IV.I.15-22)

Not being foolish characters, Ferdinand and Miranda take this warning to heart. When they are left alone before the play’s concluding reunion, they guard themselves against temptation by playing chess. Thus, Shakespeare displays them as wise characters, appropriately engaging in the enjoyment of life without becoming fools in the process.

On the negative side of folly, Qohelet also spends a fair portion of time advising his audience on wise and foolish employment of words. Although Caliban appears to change at the end of the play, during almost the entire production, he, along with Stephano, Trinculo, Sebastian, and Antony, is used by Shakespeare to display Qohelet’s warnings about foolish use of words. In fact, the five characters seem bent upon embodying Qohelet’s proverbs on being a fool. Qohelet explains his observations on foolish words, pronouncing:

The beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness,

and the end of his talk is evil madness.

A fool multiplies words,

though no man knows what is to be,

and who can tell him what will be after him?” (Eccl. 10:13-14)

Beginning with verse thirteen, Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban exhibit this proverb the most readily, particularly during their initial meeting on the island. Caliban has attempted to hide himself from Trinculo, who, desiring to seek refuge from the storm, crawls under Caliban’s cloak and ironically “hides” with him. Stephano, upon his approach, spots them both and, being drunk, designates them a monster. The ensuing dialogue is profoundly absurd:

CALIBAN. The spirit torments me. O!

…………………………………

TRINCULO. I should know that voice. It should be – but

he is drowned; and these are devils. O, defend me!

STEPHANO. Four legs and two voices – a most delicate

Monster! His forward voice now is to speak well of his

friend; his backward voice is to utter foul speeches… (II.ii.63, 86-90)

The three trade remarks that accord to each’s perceived reality, but none heed actual reality—these utterances align directly with Qohelet’s foolish talk. However, as the three begin to tour the island, the talk turns sinister, with Caliban threatening to attack Trinculo and “bite him to death” and then introducing the idea of killing Prospero (III.ii.33). Indeed, their speech leads them to wicked ends.

The five together embody the message of verse fourteen, for all of them paint grand pictures of what their evil plans will accomplish. Antonio and Sebastian envision Sebastian taking his brother Alonso’s kingship as Antonio supplanted Prospero; Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban imagine all sorts of wonders that will result from their wickedness. Notwithstanding, none of their words are proved to have substance; their words are empty, for the speakers could not accurately foresee the future that was to transpire.

Just a few verses later, Qohelet warns of using words for malicious purposes, admonishing his readers, “Even in your thoughts, do not curse the king, nor in your bedroom curse the rich, for a bird of the air will carry your voice, or some winged creature tell the matter” (Eccl. 10:20). Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano plot to kill Prospero, while Sebastian and Antony plot to kill King Alonso. Ariel, as one who is “seeing unseen,” functions as the proverbial “bird of the air”; he overhears both plots, reports each of the plots to Prospero, and thwarts their plans in both situations (Miller). Altogether, Qohelet’s influence on Shakespeare’s characters’ use of words is quite conspicuous.

The final theme of Qohelet’s that radiates from The Tempest is how chance (or what is perceived to be chance), divine providence, and people’s responses to their circumstances interact with and are incorporated into each other. Qohelet and Shakespeare both speak to the perception that many situations come about which seem unrelated to people’s actions (and are therefore incomprehensible). Qohelet observes this seeming unfairness repeatedly; for example in chapter nine he remarks, “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all” (Eccl. 9:11).

One instance of this from The Tempest occurs in the midst of the ship’s “wrecking” on Prospero’s island. The boatswain instructs Gonzalo, since he cannot lend assistance, to “make yourself ready / in your cabin for the mischance of the hour, if it so hap” (I.i.23-24). The boatswain attributes the anticipated wreck to mere chance. Similarly, at the end of the play when Sebastian realizes that everyone has survived, he comments, “Every man shift for all the rest, and let no / man take care for himself, for all is but fortune” (V.i.256-257). He also credits chance as the “orchestrator” of the events.

Both of these examples highlight Qohelet’s observation that life often appears to be directed by random chance, as both men fall prey to an understanding of circumstances from a purely “under the sun” perspective. Casting the idea of a sovereign designer to the side, these men see consequences as being largely haphazard; consequently, they determine to play their cards the best they can, overshadowed by a sense of futility and an impression that all their labors are at the mercy of chance.

However, both Qohelet and Shakespeare ultimately turn away from the notion that circumstances are random, laying responsibility at the feet of a directing power. For Qohelet, this power is always God. In chapter seven, he advises, “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other.” Likewise in chapter nine, he comments on how “the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him” (Eccl. 7:14, 9:1). Qohelet acknowledges that God is the invisible hand shaping all that occurs with an ultimate objective in mind.

As he expounds in chapter three, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Eccl. 3:11). Thus, Qohelet points also to the fact that humans may be unable to comprehend why God allows certain events to happen (and so, may feel like those events are wholly random), but that they can trust in God’s end purposes.

Similarly, in The Tempest, both providence and Prospero (frequently working through Ariel) shape events. In stark contrast to Sebastian, instead of seeing their survival as a random circumstance, Gonzalo regards their survival as being coordinated by a divine hand, adjuring his king:

GONZALO. Beseech you, sir, be merry. You have cause

(So have we all) of joy; for our escape

Is much beyond our loss. Our hint of woe

Is common…

…………………………………

…but for the miracle

I mean our preservation, few in millions

Can speak like us. Ten wisely, good sir, weigh

Our sorrow with our comfort (II.i.1-4, 6-8).

Unlike the boatswain and Sebastian, Gonzalo sees beyond the “under the sun” perspective. He recognizes the special circumstances in which they have found themselves, and he recognizes that such circumstances could not be brought about by chance. Indeed, Gonzalo metaphorically nods his head along with Qohelet’s command, “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other…” (Eccl. 7:14).

In similar fashion, when Miranda raises the question of how they ended up on the island after being expelled from Milan in a leaky rowboat, Prospero responds, “By providence divine” (I.ii.160). Prospero brings together the ideas of chance and predetermination when he tells Miranda, “By accident most strange, bountiful Fortune / (Now, my dear lady) hath mine enemies brought to this shore” (I.ii.178-180).

In a single breath, Prospero admits that the circumstances seem random, but names a higher power (which is merely providence by another name) as the orchestrator. Prospero thus joins Qohelet, acknowledging the “hebelness” of life’s unpredictability, but also acknowledging that it all, the good situations and the ones that seem to be bad, are under the ultimate control of a sovereign God who is working all things together for good.

Prospero himself then takes the wheel and acts as the orchestrator of events in the play. He confesses to Miranda:

PROSPERO. I have with such provision in mine art

So safely ordered that there is no soul—

No, not so much perdition as a hair

Betid to any creature in the vessel. (I.ii.28-31)

The following events, whether it is the meeting of Ferdinand and Miranda or the opportunity for Sebastian and Antonio to kill the king, are all designed by Prospero to create a series of “meet yourself experiences” (Miller). These experiences give the characters the chance to examine the person they are and to respond accordingly—to repent or to blossom. Correspondingly, Qohelet describes how God gives each person a “heleq” (Hebrew for “lot”) in life, including their labor, possessions, success, and ability to enjoy what has been bestowed (Eccl. 3:22; 5:18-19). Neither the play’s characters nor those addressed by Qohelet can choose the cards they have been dealt; however, they all have a choice in how they respond to those cards, whether the circumstances be a storm or a dream (Scholl, “Problem”).

Qohelet and Shakespeare both, then, outline a series of possible responses to those circumstances. Qohelet instructs that “there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. The wise person has eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness” (Eccl. 2:13-14). Shakespeare’s aforementioned fools, Sebastian, Antonio, Stephano, and Trinculo, seal their fate as fools, for they refuse to learn when they are faced with the worst aspects of themselves. Instead, they determine to keep their eyes firmly fastened shut, walking in darkness toward evil deeds.

On the other hand, Caliban and King Alonso show themselves to have gained the most wisdom from their allotment, as both repent of their previous misdeeds and set themselves on a path to obtain forgiveness—Caliban by restoring Prospero’s property, and Alonso by actually verbalizing a request to be forgiven. These characters have followed Qohelet’s exhortations of chapter seven, taking to heart the negative circumstances they have endured and the “rebuke of the wise” (Eccl. 7:2, 4).

Qohelet’s admonitions to those who are wise already are founded upon his main premise that life is “hebel”—brief and fleeting, sometimes frustrating and perplexing, and replete with pursuits that are ultimately empty and meaningless. Qohelet summarizes the thrust of his wise counsel in chapter eleven, declaring:   “So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is hebel. Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment” (Eccl. 11:8-9).

His message is to recognize the “hebelness” of life, yet to enjoy life because it is God’s gift; to live as fully as one can, yet to balance enjoyment with wisdom, knowing that there is a judgment coming; to seize the day while one is still alive to do so, before the “dust returns to the earth as it was” and life under the sun is over, with all opportunities terminated (Eccl. 12:7).

Shakespeare’s wise characters live out every aspect of living with a God-minded perspective in Qohelet’s “hebel” world. They act when the appointed time comes, as when Prospero uses the storm to convey the ship to his island. They rejoice in and savor life—Ferdinand and Miranda enjoy the gift of work, Prospero rejects being bogged down by the past, and the lovers are content with the enjoyment of each other’s presence. They refuse to be consumed by the pursuit of pleasure, as when Ferdinand and Miranda refrain from giving full reign to their passions in deference to right conduct. They use words in an uplifting fashion, as with Gonzalo casting aside the clouds of doom on ship or shore. Finally, they acknowledge the hand of God in their affairs, as when Prospero acknowledges the hand of providence orchestrating the island’s events.

The Tempest abundantly demonstrates that Qohelet counseled Shakespeare in painting a picture of the wise path through a “hebel” life. Shakespeare’s wicked characters demonstrate the folly of blundering, blinded by a strictly “under the sun” perspective. His wise characters, on the other hand, claim their “heleq” with gladness and keep their gaze fixed upward, showing the joy and “tov” that can be found even in the midst of pain and confusion. They live life to the fullest in the brief time-storm of The Tempest before the “charms are all o’erthrown” and the curtain closes (Epi.1.).


Works Cited

Easton, M. G. Easton’s Bible Dictionary. Harper, 2014.

The English Standard Version Bible. Crossway, 2019.

Fuhr, Al, and Andreas J. Köstenberger. Inductive Study: Observation, Interpretation, and Application Through the Lenses of History, Literature, and Theology. B&H, 2016.

Miller, Timothy. “The Tempest.” Shakespeare, Millersville University. 10, 17 Sept. 2018, Course handout.

Scholl, Jeffrey. “Ecclesiastes Introduction.” Chasing the Wind, Berean Bible Church. 8 July 2018.

– – -. “The Problem of Pleasure.” Chasing the Wind, Berean Bible Church. 22 July 2018.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, edited by Alfred Harbage, Viking Press, 1977, pp. 1373-1395.

Wiersbe, Warren W. Be Satisfied. Victor Books, 2016.