In “The Masque of the Red Death,” Poe’s allusions to each of The Tempest and the Bible have been widely known. Briefly, the allusions to The Tempest embody:
- Poe’s use of “Prospero” for his hero’s title.
- His use of the romance “masque” for his story’s foremost occasion.
- His borrowing of Caliban’s curse of the “red plague” on Miranda for his story’s central thought.
Poe’s allusions to the Bible embody his remarks in regards to the Red Death itself:
- That the Red Death “out-Heroded Herod.”
- That he “came like a thief in the night.”
- That in the end, he has “dominion” overall.
Poe in “The Masque of the Red Death” uses Shakespearean and Biblical allusions to disclose a tragic and ironic reversal of a mythic pattern that The Tempest and the Bible have in widespread. The mythic pattern means The Tempest and the Bible depict man’s victory over sin, death, and time. Poe’s mythic pattern represents the triumph of those agents of destruction over man. In Poe’s “mythic parable” of man’s function within the universe, Prince Prospero turns into an anti-hero, a picture of man misusing his will as he attempts to form reality; and the Red Death turns into an “anti-christ,” an embodiment of the cosmic power conspiring man’s failure.
“In Masque of the Red Death,” Poe’s allusions to The Tempest and the Bible may suggest that he responds to the mythic pattern. Like Shakespeare’s Duke Prospero, Poe’s Prince Prospero uses his will to confront the harsh reality of death, figured in the ghostly apparition of the Red Death itself. But Poe recasts the story so that Prince Prospero’s direct action consists of retreating from the reality of the Red Death—the action of retreat being precisely what Shakespeare takes care to emend. Poe also takes away Prospero’s magic powers, leaving his hero with art the most closely resembles interior decoration—a mere “philosophy of furniture.”
As a consequence, Prince Prospero lacks the supernatural power that enables Shakespeare’s Prospero to succeed. Taking refuge in a “castellated abbey,” Prince Prospero uses his will to create an earthly paradise that parodies the “courageous new world” of The Tempest—a world which, rather than transcending time, embodies the very instrument of time, the sinister “clock of ebony”: Poe’s Prospero, by building time into his abbey, ensures his destruction. The world of Prince Prospero, the governing force, becomes not that of cosmic harmony and love.
Still, that of cosmic “disconcert,” the musical instrument for which turns into the clock itself, that grim “sound” which hourly interrupts the dance. In hiding from death within the bosom of earthly pleasure, Poe’s Prospero is like Shakespeare’s Prospero if he had given up Ariel for Caliban; in a way, Poe’s story embodies Caliban’s wish-fulfillment: “the red plague rid you,” Caliban says to Miranda, “For teaching me your language.”
Poe’s use of Biblical symbolism doesn’t turn out to be notably noteworthy till the final paragraph, where the language, rhythm, and allusion are unmistakably Biblical:
“And now was acknowledge the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”
With its repetition of the phrase “And,” the sentence structure is like that within the Bible. The Red Death, Poe says, comes “like a thief in the night.” The phrase is a direct citation from 1 Thessalonians 5:2 and 2 Peter 3:10, which confer with Christ. In Poe’s mythology, the Red Death replaces Christ because of the reigning power within the universe. Hence, the Red Death is alleged to have “dominion over all.”
Moreover, the halls of Poe’s earthly paradise become “blood-bedewed”—suggesting a conflation of two acquainted Biblical images, blood, and dew: the blood of Christ’s resurrection that redeems man, and the drops of dew that fall from heaven to save lots of man from the harshness of nature. In Poe, the blood and dew of the Red Death substitute the blood of Christ and the dew of heaven.
Poe might consider the Pauline conception of baptism, during which man is baptized into Christ by being baptized into Christ’s death. This conception concludes, considerably, with Paul’s comment that death can have no extra “dominion” due to Christ’s resurrection.
Poe rejects the notion that Christ takes the veil of death away by having his masquer, the Red Death, put on a veil that can’t be taken away:
“a throng of the revellers at once threw themselves into the black apartment, and, seizing the mummer… , gasped in unutterable horror at finding the grave cerements and corpse-like mask which they handled with so violent a rudeness, untenanted by any tangible form.”
The abbey has seven rooms, decked in a distinct color and having a “heavy tripod, bearing a brazier of fire” opposite a window of “stained glass.” Critics have related the seven rooms with the cycle of nature and the seven ages of man in Shakespeare. In the Bible, although seven symbolizes fullness, completeness—man’s oneness with God. The seven colors additionally correspond to the colors of vestments worn in Catholic liturgy and the seven colors of the rainbow.
Hence, within the Red Death’s destruction of the abbey, Poe appears to recommend the inefficacy of man’s use of spiritual ritual to commune with God as a way of transcending time and of triumphing over the law of death.
Poe in “The Masque of the Red Death” reads Shakespeare and the Bible a lot as Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus reads the Bible and Aristotle—out of context. Red Death replaces Christ because of the shaping power of actuality. In Poe’s revision of the mythic pattern outlined within the secular and sacred mythologies, man is imprisoned in a world ruled by the “law” of death.
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