Prospero invites his enemies (and Shakespeare seems to invite us) to regard the events as “strange” — the word appears repeatedly in Act 5 — on 117, 228, 241, 247, and 290. And you’re right about the tight time scheme: does it all take place in three hours or six hours? (Alonso is rather surprised that his son is now engaged to a woman he has known for less than three hours.)
I suppose Prospero can be said to have “creative power” but all he really does is create illusions, an “insubstantial pageant,” as he himself says. (Of course that is what Shakespeare does.) And is he simply displaying his powers, or are they purposefully deployed in order to gain revenge on his enemies, or to induce them to repent? As we’ve noted, it’s not clear what his game plan is. Even at the end he appears to be uncertain about what to do.
I continue to think that the breaking off of the masque is, as Ferdinand says, very “strange.” Prospero says he had “forgot” that Caliban et al were conspiring to kill him. He apparently forgets other things too. Just a few lines later he asks Ariel where he left Caliban et al, and Ariel says, “I told you, sir, they were red-hot with drinking.” A director could have Ariel emphasize those words — “I told you” — with some mild exasperation. Later Prospero asks where the court group is, and Ariel says they are “Just as you left them.” Would it make a difference if we thought of Prospero as beginning to lose his grip? Ariel seems to think so. He says he was going to remind Prospero of the conspiracy at the beginning of the masque, “but I feared/ Lest I might anger thee” (4.1.168). And Prospero has to keep asking what time it is. Maybe when Prospero refers to his “weakness” and his “infirmity” (4.1.159-60) he signals that he is aware of his declining mental powers.
The conspirators prove to be bumblers and are quickly and comically treated by Ariel more like the Three Stooges than three murderers. Prospero quickly gets over his distress, but he is still troubled by Caliban. I wouldn’t call it “despair.” More like bitterness and disappointment. But is Caliban as bad as a “devil”? (We’ve seen evidence of something more.) As soon as the Caliban group are driven out, Prospero at the end of Act 4 seems to gloat that all his enemies are at his mercy.
Has it been his “project” all along to show mercy, or does it take a nudge from Ariel to show some tender affections? When he invokes his “nobler reason” against his “fury” it would seem that he has already planned, and decided, to choose “virtue” rather than “vengeance.” And that’s because , so he says, his enemies are “penitent.” Well, Alonso and Gonzalo yes. But Shakespeare provides no evidence that Sebastian and Antonio have repented — their brief lines suggest just the opposite. Do we believe Prospero is correct when he tells Antonio and Sebastian that they have suffered from “inward pinches” [of conscience, as opposed to the outward pinches that Caliban suffers] and that therefore he forgives them?
I was surprised at the length of Prospero’s farewell to his “rough magic” (“Ye elves of hills”). He enumerates his several spirits and his powers over them in great detail. Is he bidding farewell with regret and reluctance?
Prospero’s reintroduction of himself to the court party is strange. He tells them who he is at 106 and again at 159. Is that because his audience does not at first believe him? (Alonso seems ready to believe him at 118.)
What does Prospero mean when he “acknowledges” that Caliban is “mine”? Normally that language would signal that a father is acknowledging a natural son. But I think it’s already clear that he is not Caliban’s father. Is he acknowledging that he has made Caliban who he is, had in effect deformed him, and if so what new evidence has appeared since the previous act when Prospero dismissed him as a devil? Or, in context, is Prospero just saying to the court group that Stephano and Trinculo are yours — “you/Must know and own” them — while the third culprit is “mine” — i.e., my servant?
Finally, what’s in Prospero’s future? Maybe, as you suggested, Prospero has been thinking about his death ever since the “our revels now are ended speech.” When I went back to look at it I noted that it’s not just about the power of art to create “visions.” It falls into several parts: 1) what you have witnessed was just an illusion that has melted into air (148-50); 2) just like this insubstantial vision, everything apparently solid (towers, palaces, temples, the globe) will also fade (151-56); 3) our very lives are no more substantial than “dreams,” and will be rounded off with sleep. It would take a skilled actor to deliver that speech in such a way as to suggest the several elements.
He is going to resume his dukedom, but also says that every third thought will be of his grave. It doesn’t sound like he is going to take up the reins of government. Who is going to be his successor? Does he care for Milan any more than he did earlier, when he gave it all up for his “books”?
The play seems to leave several other crucial matters unresolved. Are Antonio and Sebastian really repentant? What will happen to Caliban? Does he inherit the island, or does he get carried off to Naples and Milan and given a servant’s livery to wear?
How do you stage the ending? Does Ariel get his own exit, with Prospero focusing for a dramatic moment on the freeing of his favorite spirit? Or does Ariel simply exit with omnes?
Is the epilogue meant to be spoken by “Prospero” (as the text indicates) still in character, or by the actor playing Prospero? It seems to be the former: he has abjured his magic and now needs the help of the audience to get back to Naples. (The problem with that is that he has just instructed Ariel to deliver calm seas and auspicious gales.) But it’s also the latter: Prospero had a “project” (5.1.1), and it has been completed. The actor or playwright have a different “project” –“to please.” The closing couplet appealing for forgiveness seems to invoke the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as [i.e., insofar as, or to the extent that] we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Nobody is going to persuade us that it’s a genial, pleasant play about forgiveness and happy creativity. We’re likely to worry about that voyage back to Naples. The silence of Antonio is ominous. And Prospero? Will every third thought allow him to govern Milan after what he should have learned from Ariel?