“We are such stuff/As dreams are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.”

The Tempest

Act Four, Part One

By Dennis Abrams


the tempest photos act 4 1Act Four:  Prospero admits that the tasks he assigned Ferdinand were to test his love for Miranda, and he now gives them his blessing to marry with a masque performed by spirits. But, suddenly remembering Caliban’s plot against him, Prospero stops the performance and summons Ariel. Ariel tells how he has beguiled the would-be-murderers into losing their bearings; when they finally arrive at Prospero’s cell, Stephano and Trinculo are distracted by Prospero’s royal robes (who can blame them?) before all three are chased away by spirits disguised as hunting dogs.

Caliban may or not be the play’s tragic hero (if he’s not who is if anybody?), but the play itself is not in his hands, and his one attempt to control its outcome – his plot (with the ineffective assistance of Stefano and Trinculo) to topple Prospero and win the island back for himself is doomed from the start. With the aid of Ariel, Prospero exerts his absolute control, able through his “potent art” to summon up everything from a tempest to a pack of snarling dogs in order to baffle and torment the shipwrecked royal party. Though the comedy is, as we’ve noted, the only one of Shakespeare’s to fit the so-called “unities” of neoclassical drama (the law, supposedly derived from Aristotle, that a play should occupy real-time and a single location), Prospero’s story actually began twelve years earlier, and a world away. As he tells Miranda,

I, thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated

To closeness and the bettering of my mind

With that which but by being so retired

O’er-priced all popular rate, in my false brother

Awaked an evil nature; and my trust,

Like a good parent, did beget of him

A falsehood, in its contrary as great

As my trust was, which had indeed no limit,

A confidence sans bound.


“Rapt” in secret studies in Milan, Prospero fails to realize that his position there is under threat. (A lesson he seems to have taken to heart.) This “evil” transformation in Antonio begins what Prospero calls his “sea sorrow”: his romance-like ejection from power and flight to the island with the infant Miranda. But Prospero’s magic enables him to set up his own poetic justices: Antonio and his retinue have fallen right into his lap, and the fearsome sea storm he raises brings them once again under his control. In this sense, The Tempest can be seen as a story of revenge: Prospero shipwrecks his brother on the island in order to get his own back (quite literally, given that he succeeds in regaining his lost throne.)

It is also a story that I think uses the full resources of Shakespeare’s dramatic skill (with the possible exception of what Bloom calls the invention of the human), to such an extent that it is easy to see Prospero as a kind of stand-in for Shakespeare himself, the magician’s art and the playwright’s art merging into one. To an extent, it’s undeniable that the two do resemble each other. The tempest that begins the play – and which gives it its name – would have been strikingly presented in its first performances at the candlelit Blackfriars theatre. The Tempest’s unusually elaborate stage directions calling first of all for “a tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning” (created either by offstage fireworks or maybe by cannon-balls rolled around a drum). The fierceness of the storm, and the peril the ship is in, is represented by the “Mariners” who appear on stage soaked to the skin – and who shout to each other in jargon that makes little sense to us land-lubbers. All is hyper-realistic. And yet, at the same time, the whole thing, as we soon find out, is doubly make-believe – it is Prospero’s play-within-a-play, and, as he comforts Miranda, for all the shipwrecking horror, “there’s no harm done” (1.1.15). (Of course, as I quoted from Nutall in my last post, do we even know for sure that the ship was actually wrecked?) Though the sailor’s clothes have been stained by saltwater, the courtiers arrive on shore magically dry; “on their sustaining garments not a blemish,” Ariel eagerly explains, “but fresher than before” (1.2.218-20). Gonzalo is quite right to urge Alonso to be “merry”; “You have cause, he says, “so have we all, of joy,”

   for our escape

Is much beyond our loss. Our hint of woe

Is common; every day some sailor’s wife,

The masters of some merchant, and the merchant,

Have just our theme of woe. But for the miracle,

I mean our preservation, few in millions

Can speak like us.


Amid the grinding, daily “woe” of life on the sea, their survival does seem extraordinary; it is still more so because Prospero plays the same tricks on the baffled Milanese as Shakespeare does on us and his audiences. They are spared, even as they are hoodwinked, by the miracles of theatre.

For, though Prospero brings the party to “his” island (it’s really Caliban’s, isn’t it?) to achieve some kind of revenge – which he exacts by taunting them with spirits, culminating in Ariel’s appearance as a scourging harpy to make them “mad” (3.3.58) – his treatment of them is ultimately beneficent. His cruelest trick is to make Alonso think that his son Ferdinand has drowned in the shipwreck. Yet far from Sebastian’s morbid certainty that Ferdinand cannot be “undrowned,” undrowned is exactly what he is: a fact that Prospero reveals in the most impressive sleight-of-hand in the play, the sudden appearance of Miranda and Ferdinand innocently playing chess (staged in the so-called “discovery space” at the back of the stage) while the visitors to the island stand goggle-eyed at the front.


From Garber:

the tempest photo act 4 2“Even the endearingly human Miranda, who came to the island as an infant, herself might be regarded as a kind of ‘noble savage,’ although she has been ‘home-schooled,’ in our modern parlance, by her father and his library of learned and powerful books. Her famous – and often misapplied – observation, ‘O brave new world/That has such people in’t!’ (5.1.186-187), is quickly countered by Prospero in the most paternal of put-downs (‘ ‘Tis new to thee’). But of course he is secretly delighted at her interest in humankind, and in the husband he has imported for her with such effort. Like other noble children raised outside the court in the romances – like Perdita in The Winter’s Tale, or Guiderius and Arviragus in Cymbeline – she exhibits a ‘natural’ nobility and generosity of spirit that are manifestly lacking in some of the supposedly civilized Europeans who are shipwrecked on the island’s shores. Caliban alone stands out in the play as a manifest refutation of the romantic view of the ‘noble savage.’ Is Prospero right to call him ‘[a] devil, a born devil, on whose nature/Nurture can never stick’ (4.1.188-189)? The play raises a question that may seem to modern readers very modern: What is the relation of nature to nurture, or – as we would say today – of heredity or genetics to environment?

If the figure of Caliban suggests one view of the situation of mankind in thrall to nature rather than nurture, the Neapolitan court party has a different view, as we have already seen. Gonzalo, who will be so impressed by the ‘several strange shapes’ when they enter to bring a banquet, is also the one who offers a more extended philosophical view of ‘natural man’ in his notion of an ideal commonwealth. In such a place there would be

   use of service, none; contract, succession,

Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;

No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;

No occupation, all men idle, all;

And women too —  but innocent and pure;

No sovereignty –


All things in common nature should produce

Without sweat or endeavour. Treason, felony,

Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,

Would I not have; but nature should bring forth

Of its own kind all foison, all abundance,

To feed my innocent people.

(2.1.151-156, 259-164)

This is an almost word-for-word transcription of a famous passage from Montaigne’s ‘Of Cannibals,’ and it has, or course, one glaring fault in the context of Shakespeare’s play. it refuses to acknowledge that human beings are prone to anarchy, rivalry, and strife – that they are all, in some sense, Calibans. ‘No occupation’ may have been appropriate for an unfallen Adam and Eve, but not for the inhabitants of Gonzalo’s lesser day. Gonzalo plans ‘[t]o feed my innocent people,’ but the fertile isle itself is not enough to certify the innocence of people formerly corrupt and fallen. His fellow courtiers mock him for wanting to be king, while he declares that there will be ‘[n]o sovereignty.’

When Gonzalo compares his commonwealth to the Golden Age, we know that we have caught him in a primal error, though an error that is admirable and idealizing. The human society of Gonzalo’s time – and that of any audience, in Shakespeare’s time or our own – is not innocent or golden, and the play insists upon the importance of occupation, labor, and ‘service,’ whether it is dealing with the ‘high,’ or aristocratic conspirators or the ‘low’ conspiracy of servants and monsters (Stephano and Trinculo, Caliban). It is in the scene in which Gonzalo proposes his ideal commonwealth, to the disgust and disdain of his more corrupt companions, that we hear about another planned usurpation, in which Sebastian and Antonio plot to kill Alonso and seize the kingship of Naples, just as twelve years before Antonio had seized the dukedom of Milan from his brother Prospero. Once again a cycle seems about to repeat itself – a second storm, and a second usurpation. Shakespeare’s craftsmanship in this play is superbly evocative and economical, so that such doublings and repetitions become an intrinsic, almost uncanny, part of the structure and effect of the play.

Thus, for example, we hear Alonso in this same scene bemoan what he believes to be the death of his son, Ferdinand (the son thinks the father is dead: the father believes the same about the son), ‘O thou mine heir/Of Naples and of Milan, what strange fish/Hath made his meal on thee?’ (2.1.111-113). The ‘strange fish’ might well remind Renaissance audiences of the biblical story of Jonah, as told in the Geneva Bible of 1560, which was Shakespeare’s most likely test: ‘Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah: and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days, and three nights.” (Jonah 1:17)

From this description, it is easy to see why Christians of the period thought of Jonah as a type of Christ, another man who was reborn after three days and nights. Since Ferdinand explicitly associates himself with resurrection (‘a second life’), this is very likely to be a shadow of meaning behind the image of the devouring ‘strange fish.’ But in act 2, scene 2, the strange fish comes to life, revealing itself to be Caliban, who has swallowed up his strange bedfellow, Trinculo. As with other Shakespearean comic low characters – Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream comes to mind – what is figurative or metaphorical in the ‘high’ plot becomes literal or unmetaphored in the ‘low’ one. Bottom, who behaves like an ass and is called one, acquires a literal ass’s head and an appetite for hay. Helena in the same play declares that she will be Lysander’s ‘spaniel,’ but she does not turn into a dog.) So Caliban, who looks like a fish and smells like one, enacts the same scenario as in the Book of Jonah, first encompassing, then releasing, the hapless jester Trinculo. ‘What have we hear, a man, or a fish?’ Trinculo asks himself as he stumbles upon the ‘monster.’ Frightened by the storm, he decides to take refuge under Caliban’s gabardine (or cloak), and the audience is treated to a remarkable spectacle, four arms and four legs sticking out from under a tarpaulin. Trinculo/Caliban becomes a monster-of-a-man, with two heads and two voices.

We might recall that the basic situation in these two scenes in The Tempest is closely parallel: instead of ‘high,’ royal conspirators planning to seize Alonzo’s crown by murder, we have ‘low,’ comic conspirators planning to seize Prospero’s isle by murder. Gonzalo is able to prevent the murder of Alonso because he is awakened by Ariel’s song; and the drinking song of Stephano, Alonzo’s  butler, pervades the atmosphere of the scenes the follow. ‘That’s a brave god, and bears celestial liquor.’ Caliban declares once he has tasted from Stephano’s bottle. ‘I will kneel to him’ (2.2.109-110). In this scene Caliban sings (‘Farewell, master, farewell, farewell!’), and by act 3, scene 2, they are all singing a drunken ‘catch,’ or round, with the ominous refrain, or ‘burden,’ ‘Thought is free.’ Similarly, Stephano is as astonished as Ferdinand to learn that an inhabitant of this island speaks Italian: ‘Where the devil should he learn our language?’ Ferdinand’s response is more genteel but equally surprised: ‘I am the best of them that speak this speech.’ Both speakers, incidentally, think they are addressing nonhuman creatures. Stephano calls Caliban a monster, while Ferdinand views Miranda as a goddess.

Caliban wants to people the isle with Calibans; Stephano – to whom Caliban proffers Miranda as a lure (‘She will become thy bed…[a]nd bring thee forth brave brood’ (3.2.99-100)) – would people it with Stephanos (‘His daughter and I will be a king and queen’ (3.2.101-102)). Ferdinand, the approved suitor will, as his father and hers both wish, take Miranda back with him to Italy, to found a new European dynasty. ‘O heavens,’ cries Alonso, ‘still believing that his son and Prospero’s daughter have been ‘lost’ to death rather than to love, ‘that they were living both in Naples,/The king and queen there! (5.1.151-152).

For as much as the play seeks to compare and contrast Caliban with Ariel, so it also compares him continually with Ferdinand. Each is the son of a ruler. Each thinks of himself as destined and entitled to be king. The analogy is made explicit and telling by juxtaposing them, in language and in action in connection with the topic of labor – an important theme in The Tempest. We may recall that in his fantasy of an ideal commonwealth, Gonzalo proposed that all men could be idle, but recognized that the realities of both the island and the world beyond it continually emphasize the need for occupation and for work. Caliban, naturally enough, dreams of being free from Prospero’s solicitude and tutelage, and free from his bondage – as well as being free with his daughter. By contrast, Ferdinand swiftly discovers the essential truth that a certain kind of freedom comes only through a certain kind of bondage. Again and again we hear him assert that it is in restraint that he has at last found liberty. Believing his father dead, and himself King of Naples, Ferdinand encounters Miranda, is enchanted by her, and –drawing his sword – is charmed from moving by Prospero:


My spirits, as in a dream, are all bound up.

My father’s loss, the weakness which I feel,

The wreck of all my friends, nor this man’s threats

To whom I am subdued, are but light to me.

Might I but through my prison once a day

Behold this maid. All corners else o’th’ earth

Have I in such a prison.


Ferdinand’s description of his enchantment (‘My spirits, as in a dream are all bound up’) returns the play to the pervasive theme of dream and waking, as well as to the cognate pair of freedom and bondage. And this question of the rule of bondage and enslavement, whether willing or coerced, lies at the heart of much of the political criticism of The Tempest. Remembering Ariel’s ‘sweet sprites, bear the burden,’ and Miranda’s charmingly mistaken identification of Ferdinand as a ‘spirit’ and a ‘thing divine’ (1.2.413, 423) rather than a human being, we may see Ferdinand here as about to enter into the service of his beloved.

When Ferdinand is bound, Caliban is freed (though in his case by liquor rather than love), as his song suggests: ‘’Ban, ‘ban, Cacaliban/Has a new master. – Get a new man!’ (2.2.175-176). As he wanders off unsteadily toward his so-called freedom and his fate, warbling the burden ‘Freedom, high-day! High-day, freedom!’ this scene and those words are juxtaposed to the next, the beginning of act 3, where the stage direction tells us, ‘Enter Ferdinand, bearing a log.’ Ferdinand, indeed, is the ‘new man’ Prospero has gotten, performing the same tasks as Caliban (fetching wood, for example) but in a very different mood. ‘The mistress which I serve quickens what’s dead,/And makes my labours pleasures,’ he declares (3.1.6-7), and ‘The very instant that I saw you did/My heart fly to your service’ (64-65). This language of servitude to a mistress is borrowed, in part, from the conventions of Petrarchism and courtly love. Service and bondage are freedom for Ferdinand, as the humble task of carrying logs, so hated by Caliban, becomes a useful and even a gratifying job. We may note that Prospero will later make a very similar argument to Ariel, emphasizing that freedom and bondage are properly linked:

Shortly shall all my labours end, and thou

Shalt have the air at freedom. For a little,

Follow, and do me service.


the tempest photos act 4 2But if slavery is an issue that links the concerns of Shakespeare’s time to those of our own, so is the question of gender and power. Why should the audience prefer Prospero the magician and his daughter Miranda over Sycorax the magician and her son Caliban? Both Sycorax and Prospero keep Ariel in a condition of bondage. What makes us choose Prospero over his predecessor? It is not entirely easy to glean the ‘true’ story here, since, by Shakespeare’s design, we only hear and see one side – Prospero’s side. Sycorax is silenced by the simple and definitive fact that she never appears in the play. Although she is, in theory, the most powerful figure in the Tempest story, she is presented only in memory, through the accounts of Caliban (‘This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother’) and Prospero (‘The foul witch Sycorax, who with age and envy/Was grown into a hoop’). Her place of origin, Argiers marks her as one of the several strong North African women in Shakespeare who are associated with magic powers (Cleopatra, to give the most obvious example, but also the ‘Egyptian charmer’ who gave the magic handkerchief to Othello’s mother.)

Ferdinand’s sister Claribel, another potentially powerful woman, first in line to inherit the Neapolitan throne, has also in effect been exiled from the playing-space. The Neapolitan courtiers are returning from her wedding in Tunis when they are shipwrecked. Antonio asks Sebastian after the storm, ‘Who’s the next heir of Naples?’

Sebastian:  Claribel.

Antonio:  She is that Queen of Tunis; she that dwells

Ten league’s beyond man’s life; she that from Naples

Can have no note – unless the sun were post –

The man I’th’ moon’s too slow – till new-born chins

Be rough and razorable…


Sebastian:  …Tis true my brother’s daughter’s Queen of Tunis;

So is she heir of Naples; ‘twist which regions

There is some space.

Antonio:  A space whose every cubit

Seems to cry out ‘How shall that Claribel

Measure us back to Naples?…’


Sebastian unwittingly echoes the sentiments of Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, in his estimate of this exogamous marriage: ‘Sir,’ he says to the King, ‘you may thank yourself for this great loss,/That would not bless our Europe with your daughter,/But rather lose her to an African’ (2.1.123-125). Claribel, he insists, did not want to go: ‘the fair soul herself/Weighted between loathness and obedience’ (129-130). (His ‘fair’ emphasizes the whiteness of the bride in contrast to her husband.) But this is a dynastic marriage, arranged by the father for political purposes. The daughter’s choice is not her own. Her marriage is an affair of state, not an affair of the heart.

Claribel is married to an African and lives half a world away – news of her father’s death might take a generation to get to her (infants born now will by that time be grown men with beards). So Sycorax, the former ruler of the isle, and Claribel, the first heir of Naples, are exiled from the play by its playwright, leaving only a single woman, Miranda, the good daughter. Miranda, who is cautioned to hang on to her father’s every word, who becomes the object of all male fantasies (from Caliban’s to Ferdinand’s), is the attentive student who is both schooled and put down by her pedagogue father. Miranda does not lack either charm or spirit. She does, importantly, rebel against her father (just as Juliet did) to choose a lover apparently against the paternal will. But this play is a romance or tragicomedy, and the father is playacting his opposition, as King Simonides, the father of Thaisa, did in Pericles.

Miranda’s marriage to Ferdinand is set up as a love match, a delightful instance of love at first sight in which each overestimates the other (he thinks she is a goddess, she thinks he is a spirit). Indeed, Prospero finds it necessary to correct her: ‘No, wench, it eats and sleeps, and hath such senses/As we have’ (1.2.416-417). But at base this, too, is a dynastic marriage, an ‘arranged marriage’ in the most literal sense, since Prospero has caused the wreck in order to bring this suitor to the island (‘It goes on, I see,/As my soul prompts it,’ he remarks approvingly, aside to the audience, when the lovers are immediately attracted (422-423)). Both fathers see immediate political advantage in the match, and the magnificent climactic tableau in the fifth act, signaled by the stage direction ‘Here Prospero discovers [i.e. reveals] Ferdinand Miranda playing at chess,’ draws upon the fact that chess is a ‘royal’ game, in which the pieces are kings and queens, bishops, knights, and pawns. Each piece moves by particular rules that govern it, and some are ‘checked,’ or brought to a standstill in the course of the action, just as Ferdinand and the court party are, ‘bound up’ (1.2.491) ‘charmed from moving’ (stage direction, 1.2.470), unable to ‘budge’ till Prospero released them (5.1.11). The chess-playing lovers, reenacting a scene common in stories of courtly love, are also exhibiting a mise en abyme (a version of the familiar ‘play-within-the-play), in which a model of the entire action is recapitulated within the action. Thus the lovers are in a sense already ruling the Europe that is represented in the alternating squares of their game board.

The term ‘checkmate,’ which comes from an Arabic phrase meaning ‘the King is dead,’ is the ritual exclamation of a chess player who is about to win a game. The term was in common use long before Shakespeare’s day, and would have been understood as the key word of the game in question, even if not actually uttered. Indeed, the double and antithetical sense of ‘mate’ here (to kill or rival: to marry) marks the transition at the center of the play’s action, for instead of killing King Alonso, Prospero has contrived a marriage between the King’s son and Prospero’s daughter. Moreover, The Tempest itself could be regarded as a mise en abyme in this sense, since Prospero deliberately restages the events of the past in order to reverse their outcome for the future.”


And to continue with Tanner:

the tempest photos act 4 3“After Ariel, of course Caliban, as night follows day. He, too, shows a reluctance to respond to Prospero’s orders (on the not unreasonable grounds that (a) ‘There’s enough wood within,’ and (b) ‘I must eat my dinner,’ I.i.314, 330). Clearly it is a day for slaves to be recalcitrant, and Prospero is in what might be called a ‘foul’ temper. First, he promises Caliban a pretty painful night of cramps and stinging pinches (the punishments Prospero metes out sound sort of fairy-folksy, but, if I read carefully, they would seem to be, not exactly tortures, but at least ‘cruel and unusual’; for instance, being wound round with adders which ‘hiss me into madness,’ II.ii.14). Then, as with Miranda and Ariel, he reminds Caliban of the past. ‘I have used thee (filth as thou art)’ – always the kind word – ‘with humane care’ (I.ii.345-6), trying to educate him, as he was educating his own child. Miranda, indeed, reminds Caliban, in some uncharacteristically harsh words (she sounds like her father – ‘abhorred slave’ and so on), that she taught him language. This continued ‘till thou didst seek to violate/The honor my child’ (I.ii.347-8) – ‘O ho, O ho! Would’t had been done!’ cries Caliban, revealing the unrepentant lechery of the savage (I.ii.349) – at which point the ‘humane care’ very promptly stopped, and Caliban was ‘confined into this rock’ – another of Prospero’s prisoners.

Caliban has another view of what happened:

This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother,

Which thou tak’st from me.


Disregarding the fact that all talk of ‘property rights’ on this ‘uninhabited island’ seems faintly absurd, Caliban’s claim to, as it were, legitimate ownership is dubious. It will not do to see him as representing the expropriated native of shameful colonial history. The banished Sycorax (with child) has no more ‘right’ to the island than the exiled Prospero (with child). They are both alien interlopers (call them witches, call them settlers) on a land hitherto outside of history. Admittedly she was there first; but he seems to have made a better fist of things. What is certain is that Caliban — however he was while running wild and free – is considerably worse off as the solitary ‘subject under (usurping?) ‘king’ Prospero. Caliban’s famous retort on being reminded of what we call the ‘gift’ of language is unanswerably compact – ‘You taught me language, and my profit on’t/Is, I know how to curse’ (I.ii.363-4). So he does; and so he curses, inventively and volubly, throughout. But his cursing is, must be, some kind of derivative of the abominable language of execration, disgust and vilification regularly bestowed on him by his ferocious-sounding master. Prospero may be many things, and I will come to that; but, here, let us notice one little detail. Shakespeare had a particular feeling for dog’s names, and when Ariel and Prospero finally set the ‘divers Spirits in the shape of dogs and hounds’ on doomed, drunken and thieving Stephano, Trinculo and Caliban, the dogs summoned by Ariel are ‘Mountain’ and ‘Silver’ – which seems appropriate enough since Ariel is equally home in shining light and ‘heavy’ earth; while the dogs called up by Prospero are ‘Fury’ and ‘Tyrant’ (IV.i.255-7). Point taken – ask Ariel and Caliban.

Caliban also reveals that, initially, Prospero was kind or, at least, conciliatory in his treatment of him – ‘Thou strok’st me and made much of me’ (I.ii.333); though perhaps this is rather as one might pet a dog of uncertain temper. In response ‘I loved thee/And showed thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle,/The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile’ (I.ii.336-8). Just as the native Indians were indispensible to the first settlers. And notice that the island is barren and fertile. Both. You can read it either way, according to your temperament and predisposition – holy Gonzalo and good Adrian see the fertility (‘see how lush and lusty the grass looks,’ etc.); rank-minded and sour-souled Antonio and Sebastian stress the fen-like barrenness (‘the ground indeed is tawny,’ etc. – see II.i.37-60). The island as a whole says different things to different people, who duly experience it in different ways.

It is notable that Caliban reveals himself as capable of ‘love;’ for the rest, the talk of love is, rightly enough, exclusively between Ferdinand and Miranda – except for a curiously touching moment shortly before the end when Ariel quite unexpectedly asks Prospero, ‘Do you love me, master? No?’ (‘Dearly, my delicate Ariel’ – Prospero’s response is perhaps his tenderest utterance in the play, IV.i.48-9.) It seems that there is s surprising capacity for ‘love’ in these non-human, or sub-human, slaves that you will look for in vain in worldly-wise, worldly-withered, courtiers like Antonio and Sebastian. Caliban has had this ‘love’ whipped out of him (‘lying slave,/Whom stripes may move, not kindness!, I.ii.344-5); but we see him pathetically eager to transfer it to Stephano. It will not do to interpret this as some sort of instinctive, animal-like, tail-wagging servility. The need and desire to love is the very mark of the human. And as well as the (acquired – thank you Prospero and Miranda) ability to curse, Caliban also reveals an (innate) sensitivity, which manifests itself in one of the most beautiful speeches in the play – not, surely, something that Shakespeare would have given him if he wanted us to share the unqualifiedly negative Prospero view of Caliban.

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,

Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twanging instruments

Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes 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 carried to dream again.


It is a moment of ‘rare’ sensibility.

I have no desire to sentimentalize Caliban; there is clearly much of the savage about him, and there was that sexual attempt on Miranda (not that that makes him sub-human, alas!). But it simply will not do to see Prospero as embodying or representing Art, civility, law and order, the most advanced western civilized thought and skill, having to bring to heel raw, recalcitrant wild nature in the misshapen shape of the ‘beast,’ Caliban. Something of that, certainly; but, as I have intimated, in this play all such schematic, diagrammatic clarifications are, finally, out. Caliban is called ‘monster’ often (it is yet another word which occurs more frequently than elsewhere), but only by Stephano and Trinculo (they also compare him to ‘a dead Indian,’ II.ii.34 – which may be a Virginian hint) – never by Prospero, who stays with ‘beast.’ And Stephano and Trinculo are pickled silly most of the time; certainly not qualified to pronounce on the more or less monstrous in man or nature. They reveal an inferiority to Caliban when they allow themselves to be distracted from their plot by the useless finery set out to snare them. ‘Let it alone, thou fool! It is but trash’ (IV.i.224) says unacquisitive Caliban. He is primitive; they are degenerate. The real ‘monsters’ on the island are, of course, Sebastian and, particularly, Antonio. They are both effectively speechless and notably unrepentant during the final reconciliation scene. Antonio really is a utterly recalcitrant piece of degraded nature; impervious to, and contemptuous of, any grace or kindness. He may have the bearing of a courtier, but in him we see nature denatured, the last humanizing flicker extinguished. There are worse things in heaven and earth than Caliban. True, he does instigate the plot to kill Prospero, thus initiating the parodic version of Antonio’s planned regicide which, in turn, is a repetition, this time thwarted, of the distant usurpation of Prospero. (Unlike Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Prospero can repeat the past – and change it.) Certainly, you should not assassinate Governors, and we must never forget the importance of ‘the vital power of regiment’; but one has heard of justified, or at least justifiable, slave revolts. Just how much ‘nurture’ will, or can, ‘stick’ on Caliban’s ‘nature’ remains an open question. Clearly there are some natures on which it won’t – one of the mysteries we live amongst. At the end, Caliban seems resolved to have another go – ‘I’ll be wise hereafter/And seek for grace’ (V.i.295-6). At the same time, Prospero acknowledges some sort of responsibility for Caliban which remains terminally ambiguous – ‘this thing of darkness i/Acknowledge mine’ (V.i.275-6). Why his?

If I have not wanted to promote Caliban as a version of the mythical ‘noble savage,’ I have, by the same token, no desire to demote Prospero into an ignoble slave-driver. ‘Nobility’ – and it is very important – in this play appertains exclusively to the Italian courts, and Prospero must be registered as noble, even though disquietingly prone to anger. As Miranda watches, as she thinks, the ship goes down, she instinctively guess that it ‘had no doubt some noble creatures in her’ (I.ii.7); and so it does – Ferdinand.

I might call him

A thing divine; for nothing natural

I ever saw so noble.


This is Miranda’s response to her first sight of him (she in turn will be though a ‘goddess’ by Ferdinand’s father; this is par for romance, and together they make a ‘noble’ pair). Just as nature can produce monsters, so it can engender nobles. Though, to define true nobility (when it doesn’t just mean rank or title) may be said to be an ongoing matter, always to be explored in Shakespeare’s plays. Certainly, some of the ‘goodly creatures’ that Miranda wonders at when the courtiers are assembled at the end, are neither so good, nor indeed so ‘beauteous’ as she generously assumes (V.i.182-3).

But Ferdinand is presented as genuinely noble (this is demonstrated in his courteous and chivalric courting of Miranda), enduring the test of penal servitude for her sake). Like Caliban, he also hears some of the ‘sounds and sweet airs’ of the isle, which again prompt some beautiful lines:

Where should this music be? I’ th’ air or th’ earth?

It sounds no more; and sure it waits upon

Some god o’th’ island. Sitting on a bank,

Weeping again the King my father’s wrack,

This music crept by me upon the waters,

Allaying both their fury and my passion

With its sweet air.


The last word nicely elides air – oxygen with air – melody; the sounds are Ariel’s, but it is as if Ferdinand is breathing in the music of the elements – earth, air, waters. And the grammar allows the music to be weeping with Ferdinand. The threatening roar of the sea has modulated to a consoling, placating singing. A second song effectively distils the atmosphere and process of the whole play.

Full fathom five thy father lies;

Of his bones are coral made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes;

Nothing of him that doth face

But doth suffer a sea change

Into something rich and strange.


This is the magical metamorphoses which seems to spread through the play.

Ariel also makes sounds specially for Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian – this time, a morel indictment:

You are three men of sin, whom destiny –

That hath no instrument this lower world

And what is in’t – the never-surfeited sea

Hath caused to belch up you and on this island,

Where man doth not inhabit –


It is as if these indigestible sinners have caused the very sea to vomit them out. Ariel reminds them of their ‘great guilt’ and their treatment of Prospero –

     for which foul deed

The pow’rs, delaying, not forgetting, have

Incensed the seas and shores, yea, all the creatures,

Against your peace.


‘The powers’ – unspecified; it is as if they were under the supervision of the seas and shores, which are ‘instrumenting’ this ‘lower world.’ To Alonso, it is as if the sea had spoken:

     O, it is monstrous, monstrous!

Methought the billows spoke and told me of it;

The winds did sing it to me; and the thunder,

That deep and dreadful organ pipe, pronounced

The name of Prosper; it did bass my trespass.

Therefore my son i’ th’ ooze is bedded; and

I’ll see him deeper than e’er plummet sounded

And with him there lie mudded.


The elements of nature, mediated by Prospero, refracted through Ariel, yield a moral music.

the tempest photos act 4 4When Ferdinand has passed his test and is honourably betrothed to Miranda, Prospero, through Ariel, puts on a masque for them, which he calls ‘some vanity of my art’ (IV.i.41); and much of his art is, indeed, theatrical. Ceres and Juno appear to bestow ‘Honor, riches, marriage blessing’ (IV.i.106) on the pair, and Ceres invokes the seasonal bounty of great creating Nature:

Earth’s increase, foison plenty,

Barns and garners never empty

Vines with clust’ring branches growing,

Plants with goodly burden bowing,

Spring come to you at the farthest

In the very end of harvest.


It is important that Venus is kept away, since virginity is essential for a royal marriage; and this is a marriage Prospero very much wants (so that his child’s children will inherit Milan and Naples). Hence his stress on the necessity for ‘all sanctimonious ceremonies’ and his almost hysterical hands-off warnings to Ferdinand. The masque does celebrate a more familiar pastoral nature; but it is as if in a dream within a dream. And it ends suddenly with ‘a strange, hollow and confused noise’ as the dancing Nymphs and Reapers ‘heavily vanish’ (more ‘hollowness’ and ‘heaviness’ on the isle) He has foiled one plot, but he has another to deal with. ‘I had forgot that foul conspiracy/Of the beast Caliban and his confederates/Against my life. The minute of their plot/Is almost come’ (IV.i.139-42). He must go carefully by the clock, and can’t really afford much dalliance with pastoral illusionism. But the thought of Caliban’s malevolence brings back his old fury, and Ferdinand and Miranda are dismayed to see him ‘with anger so distempered’ (IV.i.145). He seeks to reassure them with what is, I suppose, the most famous speech in Shakespeare:

   be cheerful sir.

Our revels are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits and

Are melted into air, into thin air;

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,

And like this substantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep. Sir, I am vexed.

Bear with my weakness; my old brain is troubled.

Be not disturbed with my infirmity…


This was how masques ‘dissolved,’ and Shakespeare had seen a number. Here it leads easily onto a vision of comic dissolution. Prospero is a magician; but he is also a vexed old man, with his thoughts turning towards the grave. (People have understandably wondered whether this is also Shakespeare, not so old – forty-seven – and, as one hopes, not so vexed, with his thoughts turning towards retirement.)”



So what do you all think of the play?  Who is the hero?  Is there one?

And semi-official announcement:  after finishing with Shakespeare, my next project is going to be a “read” of the best of Murakami — anyone interested?

My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning – more on Act Four

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6 Responses to “We are such stuff/As dreams are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.”

  1. peajayar says:

    I’m up for reading some Murakami.

    • Cool! Right now I’m thinking we’ll do Hardboiled World, Wind Up Bird, Kafka on the Shore, 1Q84 and finish with his new book which will be out late summer.

      • Mahood says:

        I’m definitely up for it, Dennis – haven’t read anything by him, but am very excited about the Murakami project.

        Still an act or two behind, but keeping up with the notes – hope to catch up in the next day or two … got slightly sidetracked recently with François Mauriac’s ‘Thérèse Desqueyroux’ and Thomas Pynchon’s ‘The Crying of Lot 49’!

      • Mahood: I’ve never read the Mauriac, and while I’ve read the Pynchon…I’m not a fan.

  2. Mahood says:

    I can understand why … his book intrigued and frustrated me in not terribly equal measures. It reminded of someone’s comment on the music of Richard Wagner: some nice moments, but some terrible half hours … that said, I’m giving one of his other books a go …

    • He might be one of those authors I just can’t makes sense of. I’ve carried a copy of Gravity’s Rainbow with me since college (not literally but every time I move), and I’ve never made it past page 50 without hurling it against a wall and vowing never to try it again.

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