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Allusion in The Masque of the Red Death

The Red Death: Though the story can be read as a straightforward tale of a gruesome plague, it is most often read as an allegory for the inevitability of death. By this reading, the Red Death and the masked figure both represent death itself. However, the Red Death has other possible interpretations. The biblical allusions in the story associate the masked figure and the Red Death with the apocalypse, a reading that is supported by the devastation wrought by the disease and the “illimitable dominion” it holds. Alternatively, the description of the Red Death as a “pestilence” opens up a reading where it is a figurative plague of moral decay, particularly amongst the nobility.

Allusion Examples in The Masque of the Red Death:

The Masque of the Red Death

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"And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night...."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

The biblical book of 1 Thessalonians 5:2 reads: “For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night.” 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 focus on the preparation for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, the prophesized apocalypse where all souls will be judged for their sins. By using the phrase “thief in the night,” the narrator casts the coming of the Red Death as both biblical and apocalyptic. Biblical theology states that the Second Coming will be preceded by the arrival of the antichrist and humanity's descent into sin. This allusion offers an interpretation of the story as an apocalyptic event in which Prospero has led his people to sin and folly and the Red Death has arrived to deliver its gruesome judgement.

"out-Heroded Herod..."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

This phrase is taken directly from act III, scene II of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where Prince Hamlet instructs a group of actors. Herod was the king of Judea who plotted to kill the infant Jesus Christ. It was prophesied that Jesus Christ would become the king of the Jewish people, overthrowing Herod. This led to the Massacre of the Innocents, in which Herod ordered the death of every child under the age of two in Bethlehem. The phrase “Out-Heroded Herod” refers to exaggerated portrayals of evil characters in stage performances. For the masked figure to out-Herod Herod means that the costume is so ghastly that it makes the grotesque excess of the rest of the attendees seem tame by comparison.

"there stalked, in fact, a multitude of dreams...."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

In act IV, scene I of The Tempest, Prospero stages a play using spirits conjured with magic. As the play ends and the reality of Caliban’s plot to murder him resurfaces in his mind, Prospero says, “Our revels now are ended. These our actors, / As I foretold you, were all spirits, and / Are melted into air, into thin air.” In “The Masque of the Red Death,” the illusion of safety steadily unravels. The “dreams” stalking around the masquerade are the “hale and lighthearted friends” that Prospero conscripted to join his fantasy. Much like the actors in The Tempest were dispelled when reality set in, so too do these “dreams” dissipate when Prospero’s illusion breaks.

"“Hernani.”..."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

“Hernani” is an 1830 drama by Victor Hugo, a contemporary of Poe. It is known for its elaborate stage productions, which polarized critics with regards to whether it was excessive or spectacular. Poe appreciated the play and uses this allusion to refer to the magnitude and extravagance of Prospero’s masked ball. The final scenes of Hernani and “The Masque of the Red Death” are similar in that they both take place at an extravagant ball and are concerned with the intrusion of a masked stranger.

"Prince Prospero..."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

The name “Prospero” is derived from the adjective “prosperous,” meaning successful and wealthy. Prince Prospero is introduced as “happy,” somehow remaining optimistic in the face of the plague. Prospero is also the name of a character in Shakespeare’s 1610 play, The Tempest. Both are figured as artists with the ability to reshape reality, with Shakespeare’s Prospero wielding magic to shape his surroundings, and Poe’s Prospero using his wealth to create a privileged refuge from the horrors of the plague. Additionally, they are both portrayed as arrogant, viewing themselves as invulnerable and using their power and wealth to shield themselves from consequences or undesirable realities.

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