The Tempest

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

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Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. (Norton Romances and Poems, 2nd edition, pp. 365-425).

Shakespeare’s Romance Mode

In Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy (U of Toronto Press, 1967, repr. 1985), Northrop Frye writes with precision about the defining characteristics of tragic vision; what underlies this vision, he posits, “… is being in time, the sense of the one-directional quality of life, where everything happens once and for all, where every act brings unavoidable and fateful consequences, and where all experience vanishes, not simply into the past, but into nothingness, annihilation.  In the tragic vision death is … the essential event that gives shape and form to life” (3).  By contrast, in Frye’s schema, the romance pattern is cyclical, not linear; death does not define life but rather the characters in the romance will have a chance to redeem themselves and the order within which they function.  The social order in Shakespeare’s romance plays and comedies borrows from the stability and perpetuity of the great seasonal cycles that literary cultures have envied and invoked for thousands of years.

Shakespearean romance (Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and The Two Noble Kinsmen) clearly differs from the straightforwardly tragic mode of action and perception, but it isn’t identical with comedy, either.  While both comedy and romance depend partly on the renovation of a corrupt social order, often by temporary removal into a green world of nature where magic rules and people can turn things around, romance is to be distinguished from tragedy and comedy is its Janus-like quality, its ambivalence about even the bittersweet endings it supplies.  In The Tempest, for instance, we enjoy a felicitous ending with the expectation of a marriage between Ferdinand and Miranda back in Naples and a return to power for Prospero as Duke of Milan.  The old wizard shows himself a benevolent ruler on his island and, we presume, he will be equally benevolent when he returns to his Italian duchy.  All of that sounds “comic” enough.  Still, it is easy to see that Prospero is potentially a tyrant and could plausibly misuse his powers: death, disorder, and tyranny are real threats in The Tempest, even though things turn out for the best.  To borrow from what I wrote towards the end of my notes for The Winter’s Tale, 

In Shakespeare’s romance plays,What we get is not second chances or “do-overs” in the simplest sense but rather second chances in altered circumstances; events and persons may come full circle, but there is loss and sorrow along the way, leaving even triumphant conclusions with a bittersweet taste.  None of this is to say, however, that the romance plays are anything but ultimately hopeful and mostly uplifting: they offer what may well be the most realistic orientation towards life with its recurrent opportunities and travails—not a proffer of ultimate insight and intense clarity near the point of being crushed by inexorable forces, as in tragedy; not a sunny representation of individual satisfaction and happy communities, as in the lighter of Shakespeare’s comedies; but a kind of wisdom that allows us to abide in uncertainty, accept the changes and loss that time brings, and be thankful for the rare and all but miraculous “second chances” we may receive, however partial the outcome.

Act 1, Scene 1 (374-76, A tempest drives King Alonso and his mariners to abandon ship)

The first thing we see is that authority is the matter in question—as the sea rages and his ship sinks, the Boatswain is not interested in paying homage to King Alonso of Naples at the bidding of counselor Gonzalo; he has more important things to do at the moment: to the imperious suggestion, “remember whom thou hast aboard” (375, 1.1.17), the Boatswain replies only, “if you can command these elements to silence and work / peace of the present, we will not hand a rope more.  Use your / authority” (375, 1.1.19-21).  The storm, therefore, functions as a great leveling influence, at least at this point in the play.  Still, Shakespeare is not about to ratify anarchy; this is a romance play, and the basis of the social order is about to be scrutinized.  The civil order has broken down and the characters have been compelled by Prospero to the island where things will be sorted out.

Act 1, Scene 2 (376-89, Miranda learns who she is, and who Prospero was: his story of secret studies, exile and miraculous survival; Prospero explains that his enemies are on the island now due to fortune and active pursuit of the opportunity it has given him; Prospero’s threats against and use for Ariel, Caliban, and Ferdinand; Ferdinand meets the “wonder” Miranda and both show patience with imperious Prospero)

In this scene, we see that there is need for a movement from ignorance to knowledge on the part of Miranda, Prospero’s fifteen-year-old daughter.  On this island since she was three years old, she does not know that her father was once Duke of Milan.  Miranda possesses sympathetic power of her own—she feels the suffering of those who have been shipwrecked, begging Prospero to keep them safe: “If by your art … you have / Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them” (376, 1.2.1-2).  But Prospero says that no harm has been done and that the shipwreck was arranged for her sake (376, 1.2.15-16).  The question is, how to come by one’s legitimate identity?  Miranda must learn about her former place in the social order and prepare for her future role, so Prospero begins to inform her by way of posing difficult questions, the first of which elicits some remembrance of childhood attendants in Milan and the second of which, “What seest thou else / In the dark backward and abyss of time?” (377, 1.2.49-50), draws no further recollections on Miranda’s part.  Prospero must provide Miranda some key information: namely, that a dozen years previously he was Duke of Milan, only to be exiled by his brother Antonio and Alonso, King of Naples.

As Prospero goes on to explain, he is not entirely without blame for his own exile—he devoted himself to the liberal arts, and, “rapt in secret studies,” neglected the needs of his dukedom (378, 1.2.77; see 75-78).  That is why he gave his brother Antonio control.  The upshot of it was, says Prospero, that Antonio learned the ropes of governing and began to consider himself the rightful ruler (378-79, 1.2.102-05).  Prospero’s brother is a Machiavellian of the bad sort, but even so he stands for political realism.  One of Shakespeare’s ideals is that a good ruler must be both magnanimous and active.  In consequence, poet-kings such as Richard II must be deposed as surely as evildoers like Richard III.  Prospero wanted to lead the life contemplative or vita contemplativa to the neglect of the active life, or vita activa.  The relative merit of the two was the subject of much debate during the Renaissance, and is well memorialized in Thomas More’s Utopia.  Renaissance education was intended to make a person fit for public life, for a life of active virtue—it was about developing one’s capacities to the fullest extent.  Prospero seems to have sought knowledge for a much more personal and private reason, one not closely allied with the charitable exercise of power.  Antonio at least understands that a ruler cannot simply keep the name of prince or king or duke and expect the authority to remain with it—that was one of King Lear’s mistakes, and it is also Prospero’s.  To keep the title, you must exercise the power and others must know you are exercising it.  To fail in that regard is to encourage disorder and wickedness.  Antonio apparently schemed with Alonso the King of Naples to get rid of Prospero, which was more than enough wickedness to result in Prospero’s loss of authority in Milan.

As for the status of Prospero as a magician, we are being set up for an important consideration: Prospero has been stripped of civil power by his exile, and he has put on a different kind of power signified by his magic robe.  What kind of power is it that he now possesses?  What is the source of that power?  We should not think that this power will ultimately be self-sufficient since a return to the civil order looms beyond the framework of the immediate dramatic situation.  Furthermore, Prospero understands that he is not an independent actor in his own chance at redemption—he admits that divine providence brought him ashore and that Gonzalo charitably furnished him with rich garments and the books he still values above his dukedom (380, 1.2.160-69).  Prospero will need to learn how to wield the knowledge in these books to get himself back to his former state and do some good for the people, just as he has used it to make life tolerable on the island.

Prospero also admits that an accident or fortune has brought his enemies within his power.  With this fortunate accident, he begins to operate on his own under an auspicious star (380-81, 1.2.178-85). As always, “there is a tide in the affairs of men,” as Brutus says in Julius Caesar (Norton Tragedies, ), and Prospero must act now or lose his chance forever.  He is satisfied that the spirit Ariel has done his bidding, appearing as St. Elmo’s Fire (a natural phenomenon) and striking the crew of the King’s ship with madness during the storm.  The aerial spirit has also dispersed the crew about the island, separating them into logical camps.  Ferdinand, the King’s son and the first man to jump ship, is alone, for he above all is to be tested as the future successor to Prospero’s kingdom (381, 1.2.196-225).

For the first time but not for the last, the spirit Ariel chafes to gain his freedom: “Let me remember thee what thou hast promised / Which is not yet performed me” (382, 1.2.244-45).  Prospero testily reminds Ariel that he had been imprisoned for his reluctance to serve the powerful witch Sycorax from Algiers, who died and left him trapped in a pine tree (382-83, 1.2.258-86).  Prospero has made a sort of contract with Ariel to free him from human control at the end of a certain time; that time is very near, says Prospero: there’s just a bit more work to do, and “after two days / I will discharge thee” (383, 1.2.  301-02).  Since Ariel seems to represent imagination or the finer and more sensitive of nature’s powers, we begin to see that the play is in part about how humanity is to maintain control over the natural forces within itself and beyond itself.  Prospero threatens Ariel in a way that suggests potential tyranny: if the spirit does not obey, Prospero lowers, he will “rend an oak, / And peg thee in his knotty entrails till / Thou hast howled away twelve winters” (383, 1.2.296-98).  In other words, he will turn into another Sycorax.  This is not a democratic island.  Ariel is much better (and much better off) than Caliban (Sycorax’s son and therefore the natural heir of this island kingdom), but both feel the power and occasional displeasure of Prospero.

When we first meet Caliban, he is at his hostile best, cursing Prospero but submitting to him because, after all, he must eat his dinner.  Caliban has sometimes been seen as a native set upon by white Europeans.  Shakespeare’s was a great age of exploration, and European countries were busily colonizing and exploiting the New World.  The quest motif—a kind of directed adventurism—is very strong in romance generally (consider Spenser’s The Faery Queen, with its heroic Red Crosse Knight in pursuit of his lady through various lands).  A sense of magic, wonder, and strangeness pervades the romance genre, and indeed exploration is itself matter for exploration, which explains why certain critics writing about The Tempest have seen Caliban’s circumstances in terms of colonial discourse and practice.  This isn’t necessarily to say that the play itself comes down in favor of Caliban’s perspective, but there’s little doubt that this romance play catches some of the enthusiasm in the air of Elizabethan / Jacobean England for exploration, and just as little doubt that Shakespeare’s representation of Caliban can plausibly be taken as at least in part a thoughtful consideration of how “natives” might process the approach of European cultures, with their imperious claims of superiority and their demands for subordination.

Caliban says firmly that the island belongs to him: “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother, / Which thou tak’st from me” (384, 1.2.334-35).  Prospero, however, apparently associates him with the devil, or perhaps with the unregenerate natural man, and heaps contempt upon him: “I have used thee, / Filth as thou art, with human care …” (384-85, 1.2.348-49).  All the same, Prospero admits that Caliban is useful as a servant to him and Miranda: “We cannot miss him.  He does make our fire …” (384, 1.2.314).  It is true that Caliban is controlled by his own appetites as much as by Prospero’s threats and magic, but he is not without ability—his complaints at times are eloquent.  In response to Miranda’s reminder, “I pitied thee, / Took pains to make thee speak” (385, 1.2.356-57), Caliban hits back with the unforgettable lines, “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is I know how to curse” (385, 1.2.366-67).  And he was good to Prospero in time of need.  His crime was to try to violate Miranda’s honor—another natural impulse he does not regret: “Would’t had been done!” he exclaims, imagining a race of Calibans got by an unwilling Miranda (385, 1.2.352).  Caliban is not appreciative of the gift of civilization Prospero has supposedly given him.  It’s reasonable to suggest that Prospero is somewhat unfair to Caliban—to say that Caliban is “capable of all ill,” as Miranda does (385, 1.2.356), is to say something of him that is true of humanity in general: everyone is susceptible to all sorts of impulses, be they good or bad.  Caliban is not simply “malice” (385, 1.2.370) as Prospero calls him in allegorical or morality-play fashion.  The things with which Prospero threatens him are entirely natural—pain and suffering—but Caliban is afraid of Prospero because he believes that the old man’s art can control even Sycorax’s male god, Setebos (385, 1.2.375-77).  (Robert Browning’s poem “Caliban upon Setebos” is a fine Victorian character study of Caliban, covering his resentments and religious sentiments as only an eccentric conversation-poet like Browning could do.)

Meanwhile, Ferdinand is enchanted by the music of Ariel and drawn on by it.  Ariel sings that Ferdinand’s father has suffered a sea change into “something rich and strange” (386, 1.2.405).  Of course the song is not true since Alonso has not drowned, but it memorializes the deep transformations wrought by death.  What is the point of bringing up such changes here?  Ferdinand himself says that while he wept for his lost father, the music became audible and calmed both the raging waters and his sorrow (386, 1.2.395-96).  In part, the music is designed to convince the young man that he is alone, that his father is in fact drowned, which of course would make Ferdinand the new king of Naples.  In part, the song seems to distance Ferdinand from his father’s death, perhaps because the trials and transformation he is to undergo on the island leaves him little time to grieve for a royal father lost.

Ferdinand’s central question to Miranda when he meets her is whether she is a virgin: “My prime request, / … is—O you wonder— / If you be maid or no?” (387, 1.2.429-31).  That is certainly a question with institutional significance: he wants to make her his queen.  But Prospero, while inwardly delighted, knows that the prize must not be won too easily and that Ferdinand has not yet earned the right to reenter the social order and partly succeed him in his daughter’s affections.  So he will test Ferdinand, even appearing to threaten him by accusing him of usurpation, something obviously of concern to Prospero since he has been the victim of that particular offense at the hands of a pair of Machiavellian political intriguers.  Aside from stealing the King of Naples’ title, insists Prospero, “Thou … / … hast put thyself / Upon this island as a spy, to win it / From me the lord on’t” (387, 1.2.457-60).

As for Miranda, she still needs to learn the difference between appearance and reality since she says that the handsome prince Ferdinand could not possibly mean anyone harm (388, 1.2.471-72), even though he has just drawn his sword against Prospero, however ineffectually in despite of the old man’s magic (388, 1.2.469).  She will need to understand this lesson to become a good Neapolitan queen when the time comes.  That she shows promise is obvious from her remark to the remarkably patient Ferdinand just before he is ordered to follow along after Prospero: “Be of comfort. / My father’s of a better nature, sir, / Than he appears by speech” (388, 1.2.499-501). 

Act 2, Scene 1 (389-96, Gonzalo entertains King Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian with his naïve utopia; Antonio suborns Sebastian to attempt usurpation of sleeping brother Alonso’s Neapolitan crown, but Ariel foils the attempt and the party go off in search of Ferdinand)

Neapolitan Gonzalo is an honest old counselor, a quality which shows in his trust in providence.  We must “weigh / Our sorrow with our comfort,” he tells his shipwrecked hearers (389, 2.1.8-9).  Gonzalo is also observant—he has at least noticed that their garments are strangely dry, in fact “as fresh / as when we put them on first in Afric …” (391, 2.1.68-69), and we, who know that the shipwreck is mainly Prospero’s doing, are thereby reminded that a certain wizardry is necessary to the founding and maintenance of the social order. 

Alonso despairs over the loss of his son Ferdinand: “what strange fish / Hath made his meal on thee?” (391, 2.1.112-13) but Francisco tells him that the boy may be alive, recounting his heroic attempt to survive.  Gonzalo’s utopian musings follow and seem meant to cheer the king and others.  What Gonzalo offers up is a silly pre-technological communist fantasy, a place wherein there would be no commerce, no magistrates, and above all, “No occupation, all men idle, all; / And women too—but innocent and pure; / No sovereignty—” (392, 2.1.154-56; see 147-56, 159-64).  Gonzalo would undo the punishments stemming from original sin: no work, no lowering authority figures to deal with.  Sebastian is right to point out the irony that Gonzalo “would be king” of his imaginary utopian isle nonetheless (392, 2.1.157).  His utopian vision is very fine, but it hardly equals Prospero’s magic and foresight.  Gonzalo is perhaps a little too ready to live within the confines of his natural surroundings rather than transforming them into something more civil, so it seems that this little group of stranded Milanese and Neapolitans doesn’t have all the answers.  In any event, Gonzalo is surrounded by people such as Sebastian and Antonio, who do not appreciate his wisdom, such as it is.  Wisdom is separated from rank for the moment, whereas both are required to keep firm order. 

With both Gonzalo and King Alonso fast asleep, the talk between Sebastian and Antonio turns serious and treasonous.  Antonio, who himself usurped Prospero’s dukedom, declares to Sebastian, brother of King Alonso, “My strong imagination sees a crown / Dropping upon thy head” (393, 2.1.204-05).  Sebastian doesn’t quite follow, so Antonio spells it all out for him: both men believe Ferdinand is drowned, and of course Claribel is queen of far-flung Tunis, so she’s in no position to inherit Naples.  These realizations lead to Antonio’s stage-Machiavel conclusion regarding the innocent sleepers they are supposed to be protecting, “Say this were death / That now hath seized them; why, they were no worse / Than now they are” (395, 2.1.256-58).  Antonio openly invites Sebastian to follow his example as usurper of Milan, and the gambit works: Sebastian declares, “As thou got’st Milan, / I’ll come by Naples” (396, 2.1.86-87).  So we have passed from Gonzalo’s false but harmless utopia to potentially lethal political intrigue. 

Antonio, who says to Sebastian of the recent events that saw their shipwreck, “what’s past is prologue” (395, 2.1.249), sees only the operation of random chance in the storm that cause the wreck.  He does not know that Prospero has used Ariel to generate the tempest.  As always, the category of nature is not to be taken simply in Shakespeare.  We are not dealing with an ordinary natural tempest; it is a thing of nature brought on by human and superhuman magic.  It is even associated with providence since Prospero himself, by his lights, was steered after his own shipwreck by divine providence.  Antonio mistakenly sees his friends and potential subjects as passive men just waiting to take orders, but his scheme is foiled by Ariel, who warns Gonzalo to “Shake off slumber, and beware” (396, 2.1.300).  With Gonzalo and King Alonso now awake, they all set off to look for Ferdinand (396, 2.1.318-19).

Act 2, Scene 2 (397-401, Caliban’s fear of Prospero’s spirit-ministers gives way to exuberant worship of Stefano as the prospective new lord of the island: a parodic usurpation to match the more serious plot of Antonio and Sebastian in the previous scene)

The scene opens with Caliban describing his reaction at the torments Prospero’s spirit-agents visit upon him because of his misbehavior: “For every trifle are they set upon me …” (397, 2.2.8).  When he meets up with Stefano and Trinculo, we will get a chance to see how Caliban perceives the island’s order, but for now we are left with his abject fear of punishment at Prospero’s hands: “I’ll fall flat. / Perchance he will not mind me” (397, 2.2.16-17). 

Trinculo and Stefano have their own ideas about paradise—they assume everyone else has perished in the storm, so this island is theirs, so far as they know.  Trinculo meets Caliban, even seeking protection under the clothing of this supposed natural man (397, 2.2.35-36) and later joins with Stefano to turn him into a willing subject on the basis of drink, which seems to be the god of this nascent kingdom.  At least, that’s Caliban’s view: “That’s a brave god, and bears celestial liquor. / I will kneel to him” (399, 2.2.109-10).  Liquor provides shelter for Stefano, just as an ordinary garment serves to clothe Trinculo.  On the whole, this section acts as a parody of the previous scene, which was about the misguided intrigue of Antonio and Sebastian against King Alonso of Naples.  Caliban sees the arrival of these two drunkards as a chance for freedom, as he construes his willingness to serve a new master: “‘Ban, ‘ban, Cacaliban / Has a new master.—Get a new man!” (401, 2.2.175-76)  Prospero, that is, can go get himself a new abjectly fearful servant: Caliban has found new lords more to his liking, and he’s positively overjoyed about it.  This so-called monster, whom Stefano sees as a potential exotic present for an emperor (398, 2.2.65-67), promises to uncover for his new masters “every fertile inch o’th’ island” along with “the best springs” and choicest berries (400, 2.2.140,152).

On the whole, the second act has been about a pair of false attempts to set up a new kingdom over the wreck of the old, with Antonio and Sebastian trying to seize the opportunity to make their own “providence,” and Stefano and Trinculo (along with Caliban) trying to set up their own crazy government.

Act 3, Scene 1 (401-03, Courtship of Ferdinand and Miranda advances; Prospero goes to his book to prepare for his triumph over enemies)

The third act transitions to the more legitimate attempts at self-discovery on the part of Ferdinand and Miranda; this focus will, in turn, gesture towards a regenerated dukedom in Milan, even though the play ends with everyone still on the island.  The developing affection between Ferdinand and Miranda is central in this scene.  Ferdinand performs his difficult labors mindful of Miranda and in hopes of better times.  For him, love makes labor redemptive—it is not something to be avoided so one can set up a fool’s paradise: “The mistress which I serve quickens what’s dead, / And makes my labours pleasures” (401, 3.1.6-7).  By his patience, Ferdinand shows the potential for nobility. 

The name “Miranda” means “she who is to be looked upon [with wonder].”  Prospero’s daughter is virtuous, and her virtue is part of the island’s special quality.  Like Adam in Paradise Lost, however, Ferdinand will need some warning not to be overly fond of Miranda’s charms.  The pair have some negotiating to do, and must move from the language of innocent courtship to a permanently enduring union—after all, they are the future of the state, and cannot remain in paradise forever, if indeed one wants to say that’s where they are at present.

Miranda thinks as highly of Ferdinand as he does of her: “I would not wish / Any companion in the world but you” (402, 3.1.54-55).  Prospero blesses the union to himself since he is apparently convinced that Ferdinand and Miranda will prove compatible, but he must not allow premature sexual relations between them to ruin the budding romance.  Language will prove essential to a proper match between the two lovers, and marriage is an institution, not a simple declaration.  Prospero must go back to his books and work up appropriate magic to complete his triumph over his enemies and his own anger towards them for their transgressions.  This will require delaying the courtship he beholds for a little while even as he blesses and furthers it: “I’ll to my book, / For yet ere supper-time must I perform / Much business appertaining” (403, 3.1.95-97).

Act 3, Scene 2 (403-06, Caliban encourages Stefano to murder Prospero as he sleeps; Stefano flatters himself with plans for governing his kingdom; Ariel frustrates the conspiracy)

Caliban, meanwhile, is courting Stefano as his lord and master, and chafing at Trinculo’s bad manners and disrespectful treatment of a faithful servant: “How does thy honour?  Let me lick thy shoe. / I’ll not serve him; he is not valiant” (404, 3.2.21-22).  Caliban is too easily won over to servitude.  To him, government is a protection racket.  We notice that he describes himself rather like Prospero, as someone exiled by a tyrant and cheated of his inheritance by evil powers: “I say by sorcery he got this isle …” (404, 3.2.50).  Caliban’s plan is to surprise Prospero and make away with him: “‘tis a custom with him / I’th’ afternoon to sleep. / There thou mayst brain him …” (405, 3.2.82-83).  Stefano, as usual, is spinning a storyline from his own base desires—once having seized Prospero’s books and murdered the man, he thinks, he will be free to marry Miranda: “Monster, I will kill this man. / His daughter and I will / be king and queen …” (405, 3.2.101-02). They all serve their own base material desires.  Ariel, however, is looking over them even as they devise their plot (406, 3.2.110), and the would-be ruler ends up following the “monster” Caliban (406, 3.2.145).  Well, Caliban does know his island, which is “full of noises, / Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not” (406, 3.2.130-31).

Act 3, Scene 3 (407-10, King Alonso’s despair over Ferdinand begins and ends the scene; Prospero nearing the pinnacle of his powers: spirits lay out a banquet for Antonio, Alonso, and Sebastian and Ariel, playing harpy, promptly snatches it away and admonishes these bewitched “men of sin”)

King Alonso is ready to give up the search for his lost son Ferdinand: “Even here I will put off my hope …” (407, 3.2.7).  Nature seems to have won the battle.  As the banquet is brought by Prospero’s spirits, Sebastian sees only “drollery” (407, 3.3.21), but Gonzalo sees the excellence and civility of this strange island: though the inhabitants are monstrous-seeming, he says, “yet note / Their manners are more gentle-kind than of / Our human generation …” (407, 3.3.31-33).  The wonder of exploration is part of romance, and Antonio testifies to his own sense of wonder: “Travellers ne’er did lie, / Though fools at home condemn ‘em” (407, 3.3.26-27).  The banquet itself, and the appearance of Ariel as a harpy, has a classical precedent in Virgil’s Aeneid, Book 3, where the harpies snatch away the Trojan remnant’s feast and Celaeno, the harpies’ chief, warns the beleaguered humans that they will suffer famine before they reach their destined home in Italy.

Ariel has set his victims a fool’s banquet, and as he makes it disappear, he explains sternly to these “three men of sin” (408, 3.3.53), some of whom attending are plotting against King Alonso, that they have been driven here to be punished for their sins in exiling Prospero (409, 3.3.69-75).  For this offense, they are threatened with “Ling’ring perdition” (409, 3.3.77), lest they feel “heart’s sorrow” and demonstrate “a clear life ensuing” (409, 3.3.81-82).   Failure would mean a futile repetition of the romance pattern, one stripped of meaning and redemptive quality.  At present, they still think Ferdinand is dead, and Prospero has no intention of telling them otherwise just now.  This is the first of two high points in Prospero’s wielding of power: as he says, “My high charms work, / And these mine enemies are all knit up / In their distractions.  They now are in my power” (409, 3.3.88-90).  Prospero goes off to see Ferdinand and Miranda.  This decision in itself has a powerful effect—Alonso, hearing the very waves, winds and thunder speak “The name of Prosper” (409, 3.3.99), feels bitter remorse at the loss of his son and wishes for death (409, 3.3.100-02).  Gonzalo sends help to keep the “desperate” three from further harm (410, 3.3.104; see 104-09).

Act 4, Scene 1 (410-17, Prospero urges restraint on Ferdinand, summons spirits to prepare a show for Ferdinand and Miranda: Juno and Ceres bless their coming union; Prospero sums up the vision — “we are such stuff …” and is overcome with thoughts of Caliban’s conspiracy: he is tempted to act tyrannically against them)

Prospero insists that Ferdinand should not behave like Caliban and spoil the honor of his daughter, lest “discord, shall bestrew / The union of your bed with weeds …” (410, 4.1.20-21).  There is much play here about the value of language—Prospero says Miranda will outstrip all praise (410, 4.1.10), and then says that Ferdinand has spoken fairly and will have his daughter (410, 4.1.13-14).  Ceremony is important for the obvious reason: it is necessary to bless this socially and politically significant union.  Marriage is part of the magic of civilization.  Prospero bids Ariel bring the lesser-spirit “rabble” (an important word here in terms of governance: the lower orders amongst the spirits, so to speak, will help bring order from chaos) so that he may give the young couple a demonstration of his powers: “I must / Bestow upon the eyes of this young couple / Some vanity of mine art.  It is my promise …” (411, 4.1.39-41).  Iris, the rainbow-goddess and Juno’s messenger, bids Ceres—the latter a fertility and agriculture goddess—to provide sport with the lovers and offer up her own special gift of abundance in perpetuity and, therefore, a secure future. 

At Juno’s behest, she and Ceres celebrate the marriage contract of Miranda and Ferdinand, and Ceres details the beneficence of nature that she brings” Earth’s increase, and foison plenty …” (413, 4.1.110; see 103-17).  Iris herself tells us that while Venus (goddess of love) and her son Cupid had thought to do some mischief to Ferdinand and Miranda by rendering their love somewhat unchaste, they have failed in that mission, and all is well (412, 4.1.94-95).

Breaking in to this celebration is Prospero’s remembrance that Caliban and his new friends are plotting against him.  But we still have unfinished business, so the celebration is a false ending in accordance with classical comic structure.  Consider lines 148 and following—Prospero sums up what his wizardry has accomplished: he has demonstrated that we are “such stuff as dreams are made on.”  This remark has sometimes been taken as Shakespeare’s farewell speech as a dramatist, even though The Tempest isn’t his last play.  In any case, there is clearly a parallel between art and life to be drawn here: art has much to tell us about life; it is a kind of magic that participates in and lends decorous approval to the necessary activities of civic life and to the fulfillment of individual desire: a key purpose of Prospero’s “show,” in fact, is to bless the future union of Miranda and Ferdinand.  The young prince is delighted with the demonstration, exclaiming, “Let me live her ever!” (413, 4.1.22)

At the conclusion of the show, Prospero remembers that he still needs to deal with Caliban’s wicked conspiracy against the good order of the island and that he must, therefore, get Ferdinand and Miranda out of the way for a while.  In concluding one of the most remarkable and aesthetically pleasing passages in Shakespeare’s work, Prospero says to Ferdinand and Miranda, “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” (414, 4.1.156-58).  No sooner does he say this than Prospero professes himself an enfeebled, “vexed” old man (414, 4.1.158).  There are, to borrow from the Frost poem, still a number of “miles to go” before that sleep overtakes Prospero, and his magical island is not paradise after all: the consequences of human error, human fallenness if we want the theological overtones of that word, impend even here.  From here it’s on to taking care of business with that rascal Caliban and his arrogant new master Stefano and second-in-command Trinculo.  This means that Prospero is again somewhat tempted to turn tyrant—a possibility at least hinted at in his pronouncement, “I will plague them all, / Even to roaring” (415, 4.1.192-93). 

The scene ends with Stefano, Trinculo and Caliban being hunted down like animals by Prospero’s spirits, now morphed into vicious canines.  And here we are getting near the high point of Prospero’s demonstration of power, the apex of the ultimately benevolent plot he has stirred up by magic and with a little help from Lady Fortune: “At this hour,” observes Prospero, “Lies at my mercy all mine enemies” (416, 4.1.258-59).

Act 5, Scene 1 and Epilogue (417-25, Prospero forgoes vengeance: both sets of conspirators trapped, faults named, forgiven; King Alonso reunited with Ferdinand; Boatswain reports ship ready; Prospero will voyage to Naples for Miranda’s wedding, then go home to rule Milan and study the art of dying well; Ariel finally set free)

A main point is that in contrast with plays such as King Lear, in The Tempest insight doesn’t come at the cost of the capacity to act in the world.  Prospero ends by appropriately chiding the lesser group of conspirators, in particular Caliban and Stefano, but he isn’t overly harsh with them.  We are let in on the excellent thoughts whereby he makes his decision in favor of exercising genuine authority rather than playing the tyrant with his now hapless enemies: incensed as he is at their deplorable acts, Prospero recognizes inwardly that “… The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance” (417, 5.1.27-28).  Virtue, that is, will always prove productive of still greater good, while vengeance is merely destructive and decreative, tending to chaos instead of order.  The sinful men now in his power will again “be themselves” (417, 5.1.32) that they may receive their just reckoning and a chance at redemption.

Awaiting these sinners’ entrance into the enchanted circle he has drawn, Prospero recounts the wonders he has done on the island (417-18, 5.1.33-50) and pledges once and for all to let go of his magic staff and book and the “rough magic” it has made him capable of wielding (418, 5.1.50).  Casting a spell over the senses of his captive enemies with music, he proceeds to name to them their faults: “Most cruelly / Didst thou, Alonso, use me and my daughter. / Thy brother [Sebastian] was a furtherer in this act” (418, 5.1.71-73); as for Antonio, he stands accused most recently of egging Sebastian on to murder Alonso and thereby repeating by Neapolitan proxy his initial usurpation of Milan (418-19, 5.1.74-79).  But even he is forgiven.

Ariel can hardly contain his glee as he helps dress Prospero in his proper attire as Duke of Milan: “Merrily, merrily shall I live now / Under the blossom that hangs on the bough” (419, 5.1.95-96), sings this innocent, natural creature even as he invests a mortal man in robes of state.  King Alonso promptly agrees to forget his insistence on Milanese tribute for Naples (419-20, 5.1.120-21) and asks forgiveness for his complicity in the exiling of Prospero.  The wizard next demands his state back from his usurping brother Antonio: “I do forgive / Thy rankest fault, all of them, and require / My dukedom of thee …” (420, 5.1.133-35). 

King Alonso’s chief care is still, of course, for his lost son (and, by implication, the destruction of his dynastic hopes): “I wish / Myself were mudded in that oozy bed / Where my son lies” (420, 5.1.152-54).  For this despairing monarch, Prospero has one last wonder to reveal: Ferdinand and Miranda playing the ancient game of royal strategy, chess (421, 5.1.170-74).  Even Sebastian must admit that this is “A most high miracle” (421, 5.1.180).  The game itself seems to entail some contention between the two lovers, with Miranda accusing Ferdinand of making tricky moves on the chess board: “Sweet lord, you play me false” (421, 5.1.174).  This possible act of cheating would seem to transition Ferdinand out of the play’s dream world (in which he has played the romance quester in a short space) and initiate him into the guileful realm of politics and statecraft, thereby cutting the young fellow down to size somewhat, but King Alonso is nonetheless struck with amazement, exclaiming, “Though the seas threaten, they are merciful” (421, 5.1.181).  He and Ferdinand are reunited, and Miranda’s turn comes to marvel at the sight before her: “O brave new world / That has such people in’t!” (421, 5.1.186-87)  King Alonso is very pleased with the match, and Gonzalo pronounces by way of a question Prospero’s long-ago exile from Milan a dynastic fortunate fall: “Was Milan thrust from Milan, that his issue / Should become kings of Naples?” (422, 5.1.208-09)

Ariel has brought the Boatswain and ship’s Master into Prospero’s presence, and they tell of how they beheld with wonder the ship they thought they had lost forever: “Our royal, good, and gallant ship …” (423, 5.1.240) now stands ready for service as before.  King Alonso’s desire for the particulars of this miraculous affair are brushed aside for the moment by a happy Prospero, for there’s still the matter of Caliban and his wicked overlords to settle. 

Ariel is commanded to set them at liberty to face judgment, and Prospero’s initial move is to admit responsibility for Caliban: “This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine” (423, 5.1.278-79).  Afraid almost for his life, the miscreant admits his error and promises to mend his ways to obedience: “… I’ll be wise hereafter, / And seek for grace” (424, 5.1.298-99).  He now knows what King Alonso knows: Stefano is no god, only a “drunken butler” (423, 5.1.280).  Order at last fully restored, Prospero promises to tell his life’s story to King Alonso and his people on the eve of departure from the island.  The company will voyage first to Naples, where Prospero will witness the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand, and finally Prospero will go home to Milan, where, he tells all assembled, “Every third thought shall be my grave” (424, 5.1.314).

Given the mostly kind temporality and fortune of the romance universe, this magician-ruler Prospero has been able to cast away his wondrous book and bury his miracle-making staff, respectively, without losing his chance to recover the dukedom he lost.  He has learned a costly, lengthy lesson about putting an intensely private and insatiable desire for knowledge in its proper place and showing due regard for his responsibility to maintain the symbolic and material authority that underwrites civil order.  Prospero’s concluding wishes are of interest in that aside from his final island-based act of freeing Ariel to the elements as promised, what the man really desires is not so much to exercise great power again as a younger man might, but instead to practice the art of dying well, or ars moriendi, as it’s called in Latin.

Ariel’s final charge is to provide “calm seas, auspicious gales” for the return voyage (424, 5.1.318), and his master’s last command to him is liberation itself: “Then to the elements / Be free, and fare thou well” (424, 5.1.321-22).  The promise of things to come is this impending marriage between Ferdinand and Miranda, who will, we may presume, carry on in a regenerated social and political environment.  These youngsters’ projected future is important, but the play’s emphasis, most viewers will probably agree, is more firmly on the elder statesman Prospero’s partial recovery of his former glory supplemented by a more mature kind of knowledge, one that more closely honors wisdom than mere intellection or erudition ever could.  Prospero, now an frailer but wiser man than he was when Antonio hustled him out of his dukedom, will decorously divide his time between governing Milan and preparing for his own “rounding off” with a sleep.  All in all, this is a perfect romance play, replete with a bittersweet but magnificent ending: a serious potential for tyranny and harsh judgment have given way to seasoned justice, political order, and the greatest measure of personal satisfaction that old age can afford.  In the epilogue Prospero, leaving his magic behind with the island, dutifully consigns his hopes of reaching Naples and Milan to the justice and imagination of the audience.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake