4.1 suggests that Prospero has been conducting “trials” — a trial of Ferdinand’s love, maybe a “trial” to determine if his enemies will repent. But he’s still cranky and harsh, almost comic in his father-of-the-bride’s suspicions of Ferdinand’s “blood.” And yet he is about to stage a beautiful masque which celebrates marriage. Again it seems unmotivated. He says he must present it because he has “promised” it and Ferdinand and Miranda “expect” it. I’m not sure I believe that. It’s a “vanity of mine art” — perhaps not just an illusion but something he is proud to show off.
And in the midst of the masque Prospero breaks it off, and the spirits disappear. I suppose this is meant to serve as parallel to the disappearing banquet. But it seems a bit clunky: “I had almost forgot” (reminding us perhaps of “Great thing of us forgot” near the end of “Lear”). Ironically, Prospero, who had everything and everyone under control, is suddenly discombobulated. At 34 he had instructed Ariel to perform a “trick” on the Stephano group, but then perhaps gets caught up in the beauty of the masque and forgets his plan. Now at 139 he remembers the “foul conspiracy” of Cal et al. Ferdinand and Miranda notice that he is upset: “in some strange passion . . .distempered.”
And then unexpectedly comes Prospero’s famous “Our revels now are ended.” It’s not the epilogue to the play, though I think that’s how it is often produced and interpreted: Shakespeare’s “farewell to his art.” In context, it’s Prospero saying to Ferdinand and Miranda that the masque he had conjured is now over. At the same time, it is difficult not to think of this as a meta-theatrical moment when the aging Shakespeare-as-Prospero reflects on the worlds he has conjured in “the great globe [i.e., Globe Theatre].”
I’m not sure it’s always noticed that the speech shifts gears at l. 156. It’s not just that the insubstantial play is over. Our lives too are as insubstantial as dreams and are gently rounded off with sleep. [At this point we should remember Caliban, who in 3.3. had heard “sweet airs” and voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
I’m not sure I understand just what Caliban is saying here, but he is surely blurring the boundary between waking and dreaming. Prospero’s revels are over, but Caliban wants them to continue.]
Prospero’s meditation on “revels”/ “our little life” ends not with sweet resignation but with some distress: he is “vexed . . . troubled . . . by infirmity,” a continuation of the distempered anger Miranda saw before the speech. How does an actor move from distempered anger at 145 to “be cheerful, sir” at 147 to “we are such stuff/ As dreams are made on” at 156 to “Sir, I am vexed” at 158? As he says, it’s not his heart than is “beating” but his mind.
And then another jump cut to low comedy, as Prospero and Ariel respond to the murder plot with another showy “trick.” The villains still seem bumblers, hardly a serious threat. Despite what we have been seeing about Caliban — cheated of his island, responsive to music — Prospero now dismisses him as “born devil” whose low “nature” cannot be improved with Prospero’s “nurture.” Are we supposed to accept Prospero’s view here? We haven’t seen any nurturing. And then Cal et al are driven off by dogs, as if they too are just animals. The purpose of the “trick” has apparently been to punish his enemies physically.
Now all Prospero’s enemies “Lie at my mercy.” Does this hint that he is going to be merciful in the end? Interesting that he here says “Shortly shall all my labors end” — not “revels” but “labors.” And the scene ends, as have many earlier scenes, with a servant bid to “follow” a master.
It’s the strangeness that led me to call it experimental theater, all the magical, unrealistic elements, symbolic or exaggerated characters and scenes. And at the same time, the seeming insistence on the unities, which seems something of a joke. Who really owns the island? And where is the island after all? And who’s in charge? Even Prospero seems to lose the thread of things for a moment, but Ariel takes up the slack.
Everything seems finally to come down to a focus on Prospero, who seems to be the one who wants to create something. But what exactly? All of his magic seems in service to his long meditated desire: to take vengeance on his enemies? To try out various experimental scenes, like the disappearing banquet, the masque of Juno and Ceres, the meeting of Miranda and Ferdinand, and the testing of Ferdinand, the playing with Stephano and Trinculo and Caliban, the exploration of the evil of Antonio and Sebastian. His creative powers seem extensive, but he has failed thoroughly with Caliban. And he thinks he has failed dangerously in the plot against his own life, until Ariel unexpectedly steps in.
It seems striking that the seeming culmination of Prospero’s creative art, the masque, runs straight into his apparent forgetting of the danger of Caliban and the possibility of his being killed by him. The dance of “certain Nymphs” with the “certain reapers, properly habited” seems a kind of self-conscious high renaissance moment, with music, rhymed poetry, costumes, as if we’re looking at an animated Raphael painting. I take it the dance almost reaches its conclusion before Prospero suddenly jumps up “and speaks” — maybe shouts –and “a strange, hollow, and confused noise” causes them to “heavily vanish.” In a performance I saw long ago, the dancers suddenly stopped, looked confused, the music raggedly ended, and for a moment everyone on stage looked at one another as if something dreadful had happened in the theater: was someone sick, had a fire broken out backstage? Prospero, or maybe the actor playing Prospero, had to take charge. For a moment — I don’t recall how long — it seemed the play had broken down. Prospero, or the actor, seemed to recover and explain his upset. The dancers and the goddesses were still there, not dancing but puzzled and now just looking at each other and at Prospero. It became a rather powerful metatheatrical moment.
Prospero now shoos them away, with “Well done! Avoid!” But Prospero, now the character again, is terribly upset. And Miranda and Ferdinand are also troubled and puzzled. His lines are not meant, I think, to express the wonder of theater, and while “the great globe itself” may allude to the theater we’re in, I think it also means the world, and the “cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,/ The solemn temples” are the city and the world beyond the theater. More metatheatricality. Prospero has looked at death, his death, and is shaken. There must be a pause before he can summon Ariel and we learn that Ariel has managed it all. But he’s still angry and in despair over Caliban.
The ending of the scene and the beginning of the next seem quite strangely awkward. Prospero and Ariel exit and immediately return, with Prospero now in his magic robes. As Ariel describes the court party, it fulfills what Prospero had just seemed to relish: “At this hour,/ Lies at my mercy all mine enemies.” What follows seems to me the crisis and turning point of the play. Ariel confesses to pity for the confined court party: “Your charm so strongly works ’em, / That if you beheld them, your affections/ Would become tender.” Is there a moment of pause while P. takes this in, and asks, maybe incredulously, “Dost thou think so, spirit?” And is there a longer pause after Ariel says, “Mine would, sir, were I human”? And maybe another pause as P. seems to accept this –but maybe reluctantly? — and to express the strain that acknowledging pity and forgiveness requires. And given Prospero’s irascible nature it must be something of a relief, maybe surprise, to the audience. But what will happen once he restores them and allows them to be themselves?
The metatheatricality is such that I find it difficult not to associate what Prospero describes in “Ye elves of hills . . .” both with the play we’re watching and the career of its creator. And what will it mean to abjure the “rough magic” of art, breaking staff and drowning book? What’s striking in the rest of the scene is the almost complete silence of Antonio; he’s given a throwaway line and a half, but no indication of penitence. Even Caliban gives more reason for hope; Prospero seems to accept some responsibility for “this thing of darkness.” How should Antonio silently be played in the scene? I feel a lot would depend on that.
Miranda’s “O brave new world /That has such people in’t” is met with Prospero’s “Tis new to thee,” which summons up some irony about the characters as we’ve come to know them and counters Gonzalo’s neat summary.
The epilogue “spoken by Prospero” seems to exist in some halfway point between the fiction of the play and its performance. It is, of course, a plea for applause, but put in a way that seems to turn the art and the agency over to the audience in a way seems characteristic of Shakespeare — and counter to Ben Jonson’s usual way of relating to his audiences. The audience’s indulgence will supply the want of the rough magic, the staff and book. Does it seem a strikingly appealing piece of poetic meditation on theater?