“The Tempest ends, like the other plays in Shakespeare’s last period, in reconciliation and forgiveness. But the ending in The Tempest is grimmer, and the sky is darker…”

The Tempest

Act Four, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


From Auden:

the tempest photos act four part two 1“Falstaff’s kingdom is made up of Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban. Trinculo recalls all of Shakespeare’s earlier clowns, Stephano resembles Sir Toby Belch, and Caliban recollects both Bottom and Thersites. Together, they resemble the crowds in Henry VI, Julius Caesar, and Coriolanus. If Hal’s kingdom becomes smaller, less glorious, Falstaff’s becomes much uglier. Compare the filthy, mantled pool in The Tempest and Falstaff’s being thrown into the water in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Stephano and Trinculo desire money and girls, Caliban wants freedom from books, work, and authority. Their magic is drink, not music, like Prospero’s, and they are ruled by appetite. There are differences among them. Trinculo is good-natured, Stephano is quite brave, and both lack the passion that Caliban has, the passion of resentment. Caliban deifies those like Stephano who gives what he likes, not what he ought to like. Caliban, however, is the one who recognizes that Prospero’s books – consciousness – are the danger. ‘Remember/First to posses his books; for without them/He’s but a sot, as I am…Burn but his books’ (III.ii.99-101, 103). Caliban is worse, but less decadent, than the townees, Stephano and Trinculo. When Ariel plays on the tabor and pipe, the three have different reactions. Stephano is defiant. Trinculo cries, ‘O, forgive me my sins!’ (III.ii.139). Caliban, on the other hand, is capable of hearing the music:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,

Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not,

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices

That, if I then had wak’d 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 wak’d,

I cried to dream again.


Caliban wishes to back to unconsciousness. Gonzalo, on the contrary, sees Utopia in an ideal future. Both are unrelated to the present. Caliban knows what’s to be done when they reach Prospero’s cell. Stephano and Trinculo forget it and go for the clothes. On one side, they’re not murderous people, on the other, they’ve no sense of direction.

Then there is the kingdom of Ferdinand and Miranda. Ferdinand is descended from Romeo and Florizel, Miranda from Juliet, Cordelia, and Marina. Both are good but untempted and inexperienced – they think that love can produce Gonzalo’s Utopia here and now. In the scene in which they make vows of marriage to each other, Ferdinand says he is willing to serve Miranda and do Caliban’s job of carrying logs, and Miranda offers to carry the logs herself. For both of them, love, service, and freedom are the same.


To be your fellow

You may deny me; but I’ll be your servant,

Whether you will or no.


My mistress, dearest!

And I thus humble ever.


My husband then?


Ay, with a heart as willing

As bondage e’er of freedom.


Ferdinand and Miranda are far off both from the witty characters who fight for freedom in the comedies and from the great poetic tragic lovers like Romeo and Juliet, and Antony and Cleopatra. They are not allowed to say the wonderful poetic things that are so suspicious when they are said.

Before he presents the wedding masque to Ferdinand and Miranda, Prospero warns them against lust:

Look thou be true. Do not give dalliance

Too much the rein. The strongest oaths are straw

To th’ fire i’ the’ blood. Be more abstemious,

Or else good night your vow!


In the masque itself, where Ceres represents earth, Iris water, Juno sky, and Venus, sinisterly, fire, there is the curious and interesting remark by Ceres to iris, that Venus and Cupid had thought

     to have done,

Some wanton charm upon this man and maid,

Whose vows are, that no bed-right shall be paid

Till Hymen’s torch be lighted; but in vain.


Ferdinand and Miranda don’t realize these difficulties and so are spared.

The Tempest ends, like the other plays in Shakespeare’s last period, in reconciliation and forgiveness. But the ending in The Tempest is grimmer, and the sky is darker than in The Winter’s Tale, Pericles, and Cymbeline. Everybody in the earlier plays asks forgiveness and gets it, but Prospero, Miranda, Ferdinand, Gonzalo, and Alonso are the only ones really in the magic circle of The Tempest. Alonso is forgiven because he asks to be. He is the least guilty, and he suffers most. Gonzalo, who is always good, need to be forgiven his weakness. Neither Antonio nor Sebastian say a word to Prospero – their only words after the reconciliation are mockery at Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban. They’re spared punishment, but they can’t be said to be forgiven because they don’t want to be, and Prospero’s forgiveness of them means only that he does not take revenge upon them. Caliban is pardoned conditionally, and he, Stephano, and Trinculo can’t be said to be repentant. They realize only that they’re on the wrong side, and admit they are fools, not that they are wrong. All this escapes Miranda, who says:

    O wonder!

How many goodly creatures are there here?

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world

That has such people in’t!

To which Prospero answers, ‘’Tis new to thee’ (V.i.181-84). And the play hardly ends for Prospero on a note of great joy. He tells everyone:

I’ll bring you to your ship, and so to Naples,

Where I have hope to see the nuptial

Of these our dear-belov’d solemnized;

And thence retire me to my Milan, where

Every third thought shall be my grave.


We come now to the inner and outer music of The Tempest. There are Ariel’s songs:

Come unto these yellow sands,

    And take hands.

Curtsied when you have and kiss’d,.

   The wild waves whist,

Foot it featly here and there;

And, sweet sprites, the burthen bear.

   Hark, hark!


Full fadom five thy father lies;

   Of his bones are coral made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes;

   Nothing of him that doth fade

But doth suffer a sea change

Into something rich and strange,

Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell:


   Where the bee sucks, there suck I;

   In a cowslip’s bell I lie;

   There I couch when owls do cry.

   On the bat’s back I do fly

   After summer merrily.

Merrily, merrily shall I live now

Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.


the tempest Act Four Part Two 2There is music to put people to sleep and to waken them, ‘strange and solemn music’ at the banquet (III.iii.18). ‘Soft music’ for the wedding (IV.i.59), and ‘Solemn music’ after Prospero buries his staff (V.i.57) to charm the court party. The sounds of the play also include the storm, thunder, and dogs. Some music is associated with Caliban’s hate and Antonio’s ambition, as well as with Ferdinand’s grief for his father. There is more music in the scenes with Prospero and Miranda, Ferdinand and Miranda, and Gonzalo and Alonso than anywhere else in the play.

The nature of the magician, which is legitimately allied with that of the artist in the play, has to do with music. What does Shakespeare say about music in his plays? In the Merchant of Venice, Lorenzo says:

The man that hath no music in himself,

Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,

Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.


In later plays, music is often used as a medicine. The Doctor in King Lear calls for music as Lear awakens from his madness (IV.vii.25). Cerimon in Pericles awakens Thaisa to the accompaniment of music (III.ii.81-91), and Paulina calls for music as Hermione’s statue comes to life in The Winter’s Tale (V.iii.98). In Antony and Cleopatra, sad music is played in the air and under the earth as we learn that ‘the god Hercules, whom Antony lov’d,/Now leaves him’ (IV.iii.15-16). Balthazar’s song in Much Ado About Nothing, ‘Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more!/Men were deceivers ever.’ (II.iii.64-76) is a warning against the infidelity of men and the folly of women’s taking them seriously. In Measure for Measure, when Marina says that a song has displeased her mirth, ‘but pleas’d my woe,’ the Duke replies by stating the puritanical case against the heard music of the world:

‘Tis good; though music oft hath such a charm

To make bad good, and good provoke to harm.


Even the worst of characters, Caliban, is sensitive to music.

Prospero’s magic depends upon his books and his robes. By himself he is an ordinary man, not Faustian. He depends also on ‘bountiful Fortune’ and ‘a most auspicious star’ (I.ii.178, 182) to bring his old enemies to the island. What does he do? He says, in his speech to the ‘elves of hills’ and ‘demi-puppets’ that with their help he has


The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,

And ‘twist the green sea and the azur’d vault

Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder

Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak

With his own bolt; the strong bas’d promontory

Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up

The pine and cedar; graves at my command

Have wak’d their sleepers, op’d, and let ‘em forth

By my so potent art.

‘But this rough magic,’ he says, ‘I here abjure’ (V.i.41-51). The first thing we hear of Prospero doing on the island is releasing Ariel. What magic he does between that action and the storm with which the play begins we don’t know and don’t care. He raises storms to separate characters so that they may become independent. He allays the water by music, he leads on and disarms Ferdinand, he sends all but Antonio and Sebastian to sleep so that they can reveal their natures, he wakes Gonzalo, he saves Alonso’s life, he produces a banquet to force guilt upon the consciousness of the members of the court, he creates a masque just to please the lovers, he engages in fooling Stephano and Trinculo and Caliban, and he produces the solemn music of his charms. With the help of immediate illusions, he leads characters to disillusion and self-knowledge, the opposite of the effects of drink and of Venus.

What can’t magic do? It can give people an experience, but it cannot dictate the use they make of that experience. Alonso is reminded of his crime against Prospero, but he repents by himself. Ferdinand and Miranda are tested, but the quality of their love is their own. The bad are exposed and shown that crime doesn’t pay, but they can’t be made to give up their ambition. That art thus cannot transform men grieves Prospero greatly. His anger at Caliban stems from his consciousness of this failure, which he confesses to, to aside and alone – he doesn’t explain it to Ferdinand and Miranda:

A devil, a born devil, on whose nature

Nurture can never stick! On whom my pains,

Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost!

And as with age his body uglier grows,

So his mind cankers.


You can hold the mirror up to a person, but you make him worse.

At the end Prospero himself asks for forgiveness in the epilogue…

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,

And what strength I have’s mine own,

Which is most faint. Now ‘tis true

I must be here confin’d by you,

Or sent to Naples. Let me not,

Since I have my dukedom got

And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell

In this bare island by your spell;

But release me from my bands

With the help of your good hands.

Gentle breath of yours my sails

Must fill, or else my project fails,

Which was to please. Now I want

Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;

And my ending is despair

Unless I be reliev’d by prayer,

Which pierces so that it assaults

Mercy itself and frees all faults.

As you from crimes would pardon’d be,

Let your indulgence set me free.

Rilke, at the end of his poem, ‘The Spirit Ariel,’ writes of the epilogue to The Tempest:

     Now he terrifies me,

this man who’s once more duke. – The way he draws

the wire into his head, and hangs himself

beside the other puppets, and henceforth

asks mercy of the play!…What epilogue

of achieved mastery! Putting off, standing there

with only one’s own strength: ‘which is most faint.’”


And from Frank Kermode, “Shakespeare’s Language”:

the tempest photos act 4 part two 2“’The value of The Tempest,’ said Henry James, ‘is, exquisitely, in its refinement of power, its renewed artistic freshness and roundness, its mark as of a distinction unequalled, on the whole…in any predecessor.’ He thought the story ‘a thing of naught,’ but the style, he believed, demonstrated ‘its last disciplined passion of curiosity.’ James’s essay expresses a not uncommon opinion as to the high merits of The Tempest (often regarded as the last play Shakespeare wrote, except for the works done in collaboration with John Fletcher), and it is unfortunate that James did not support his praise of its style with some close consideration of its language.

Despite the resemblances to the other Romances (which are responsible for the invention of Romance as a separate Shakespearian genre), The Tempest is in some respects sui generis. It was probably written with the Blackfriars Theater in mind, and it may be assumed that the King’s Men performed it both there and at the Globe, but no proof of performance at either venue survives. However, it certainly was done at court (probably in the Banqueting House in Whitehall) on Hallowmas night, 1 November 1611, when it was, if not a new, then still a recent play. It was performed again during the celebrations of the betrothal of King James’s daughter Princess Elizabeth to the Elector Palatine during the winter of 1612-13.

The masque was probably in the text from the beginning, though some believe it was added for the royal betrothal (27 December 16120 or the wedding (14 February 1613). It is more suited to the first than to the second of these occasions, since it is an offering to Ferdinand and Miranda, who may be thought of as betrothed but emphatically not as on the brink of marriage.

But the idea that the masque or pseudo-masque was written into the play for any special occasion is improbable. Other Blackfriars plays have masque-like elements, the King’s Men occasionally took a humble part in court masques, and this entertainment may have been following a fashion appropriate to the more courtly pretentions of the indoor theater. It contributes to the play’s magical atmosphere and gives a distinctive quality to its structure. Its verse is different in style from that of the remainder of the play. Of course Shakespeare had long before used a contrasting ‘recessive’ style for plays-within-plays, not only in Hamlet, but in Love’s Labour’s Lost and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the resort to not very impressive rhyming couplets in the midst of the ‘late’ blank verse of The Tempest has no real bearing on the question as to whether the ‘masque’ was there from the beginning. It is plausibly accommodated within the narrative and serves to slow down the movement towards the final scenes of recognition, reconciliation, and dynastic security.

To tell the story of The Tempest in the chronological order of its events – to extract what some call the fibula from the finished object – one would need first to describe the wicked plot that banished the scholarly Prospero and his daughter, Miranda, their voyage in a leaky boat, and their twelve-year sojourn on an island with two other inhabitants, a spirit and a ‘deformed slave.’ Years later, by good luck and with some help from the mage Prospero, the wicked conspirators involved in his overthrow are cast ashore on the island, where they are at the mercy of the ruler they wronged. Dramatizing this narrative straightforwardly (‘and then…and then…and then…’), one would need to allow for a long gap, much like the one filled by Time as Chorus in The Winter’s Tale. With Pericles and The Winter’s Tale, as well as more primitive romance plays as precedents, this could have been arranged easily enough.

However, Shakespeare preferred another solution. The play begins when the events of the fibula are near their end, with the ship buffeted by a storm and its occupants cast upon the island. It then treats of the various confrontations between Prospero (with his assistants) and, on the other side, his brother and his associates. It is notorious that in this play Shakespeare, contrary to his usual custom, observed the classical unities of time and place. There is much insistence on the point that the time of the story is the same as the time of the action. And in a sense that entire action is concerned with recognition: the parties are brought together, the guilty are accused, purged, and reconciled – that, essentially, is what happens in the play. The storm and the other magical devices are instrumental in achieving this. It is as if The Winter’s Tale should have begun when Florizel and Perdita arrive in Sicily. The whole matter of Leontes’s jealousy, the flight of Polixenes, the saving of Perdita as a baby and her rustic education, the preservation of Hermione by Paulina, all these events would have had at this point to be explained and the narrative brought up to date.

The design of The Tempest is careful, and it would seem that Shakespeare really was attending to the rules for correct five-act construction as they were understood by more classically minded playwrights in his time. The first scene is a prologue; the exposition, or protasis, follows – all that occurred ‘in the dark backward and abysm of time’ is recounted by the end of Act I; and the later act divisions reflect the business of what was called the epitasis, leading to the final catastrophe. The scheme is varied by the inclusion of the incomplete masque in IV.i, and despite the adherence to classical rule, the whole structure is highly original. The paradox is only apparent, for the rules were not intended to prevent originality; as Jonson pointed out, the ancients should be regarded as guides, not commanders.  Nevertheless, the exposition – the inclusion of the past in the story of the present, taking the form of Prospero’s account of what happened twelve years ago, and how things now stand – seems to have been a little awkward to negotiate, and the awkwardness shows in the language.

The prologue is extremely expert in the rendering of the storm and the reactions of the characters – and it was much admired by Coleridge – but the scene that follows, though neatly diversified by the appearances of Ariel and Caliban, is less so. Prospero explains why he has waited so long to tell Miranda this tale, and putting aside his magic robe (necessary gear, presumably, while he was magically arranging the tempest), he says, ‘The hour’s now come’ (I.ii.36) to do so. With some agitation and some bad-tempered admonitions to Miranda, of which the primary purposes is to prevent his having to deliver an unbroken monologue, he then describes the plot that overthrew him:

     Thy false uncle…

Being once perfected how to grant suits,

How to deny them, who t’ advance, and who

To trash for overtopping, new created

The creatures that were mine, I say, or chang’d ‘em,

Or else new form’d ‘em; having both the key

Of officer and office, set all hearts i’ th’ state

To what tune pleas’d his ear, that now he was

The ivy which had hid my princely trunk,

And suck’d my verdure out on’t.


The general sense is not in dispute: acting as Prospero’s deputy, Antonio, once he had learned his mob, exercised his authority, granting or withholding favours, promoting some and checking overly ambitious officers, so that Prospero’s dependants became his dependants, or perhaps changed them from one dependency to another, or, rather, remodeled them. He had the power of office and control over the administration, so that he called the tune for everybody; he was the ivy that enfeebled Prospero, the princely tree, sucking all his strength. All this is a single sentence, and the unwieldiness of a paraphrase arises from the repetitiveness of the original, the hurry and disconnection of its metaphors.

To ‘trash’ is to restrain a hound; the figure is fleeting, and one wonders if some other sense of ‘trash’ may not be lurking here; in Shakespeare the noun ‘trash’ usually has a sense close to the modern one, and that is  how Trinculo uses it in this play (IV.i.224). We remember Iago’s triple use of the word in Othello: ‘this poor trash of Venice’ (II.ii.303); ‘Who steals my purse steals trash’ (III.iii.157). Shakespeare often invented verbs from nouns, for instance ‘godded’ in Coriolanus; ‘he words me’ in Antony and Cleopatra; and he might be doing something like that in this verbal usage of ‘trash.’ But the metaphor doesn’t stay long enough to be clearly understood.

the tempest photos act four part two 2The creation of already created creatures (I.ii.81-2) gives a taut, compressed, anxious idea, but the effect is dissipated, no doubt in a further attempt to render Prospero’s agitation, by the weaker synonyms ‘chang’d’ and ‘form’d.’ The key (83) begins as a door key but immediately becomes a musical key, which enables Antonio to tune his dependants to suit his taste. (The synecdochic ‘hearts’ reminds us of lines in Antony and Cleopatra: ‘The hearts/that spannell’d me at heels…’ (IV.xii.20-21)). The musical figure at once gives way to the figure of the trunk smothered in ivy, more usually an image of close friendship but here more accurately agricultural. We are well accustomed to such flurries of metaphor, but here the effect seems enfeebled like the tree, sacrificed to the representation of agitated speech; the long sentence with its complex grammar, its refusal of end-stopped lines, its relatively unimpressive, shifting figures, certainly achieves that, but at some cost to the auditor.

   He being thus lorded,

Not only with what my revenue yielded,

But what my power might else exact – like one

Who having into truth, by telling of it,

Made such a sinner of his memory

To credit his own lie – he did believe

He was indeed the Duke, out o’ th’ substitution,

And executing th’ outward face of royalty

With all prerogative. Hence his ambition growing –

Dost thou hear?


The difficulty begins with ‘like one/Who was having into truth…’ By ‘into’ we must understand ‘unto’: who, by living a lie, had made his memory such a sinner against truth that he came to believe his own lie. But this is surely unnecessarily awkward, and the syntax of this long sentence is again a tribute more to Prospero’s agitated state of mind than to any kind of expository clarity. The speech breaks off without promise of a conclusion, with no vigour of metaphor, only repetitive statements concerning Antonio’s perfidy and ambition.

What follows immediately is a metaphor, as if the lack of such had forced itself on the speaker’s attention: ‘To have no screen between this part he play’d/And him he play’d it for, he needs will be/Absolute Milan’ (107-9). The ‘screen’ image is not clearly worked out. Prospero begins to say, ‘To have no screen between the office of duke and the title of duke’ (where the screen is Prospero himself); but the sense is altered and the screen, standing between the dukedom and Prospero, is now Antonio. In the first use the screen is an impediment to Antonio’s ambition; in the second it represents Antonio’s function as regent, screen Prospero from the world. But the trouble such writing gives the auditor or readers is not well spent, and the puzzle hardly seems worth solving.

What can be said of this performance is that by abolishing the great gap in time between the early events and the arrival of Prospero’s enemies on his island. Shakespeare has forfeited immediacy; there is no vivid contrast between past and present; Prospero’s angry account of his brother’s treachery has little of the savage actuality of Leontes’s sudden outburst, since the usurpation (except in so far as the murder plot of Antonio and Sebastian recapitulates it) belongs to the dark backward and abysm of time, not, terrifyingly, to the moment represented. Moreover, Prospero is entirely in control of events, and the play cannot convey, like Pericles, a sense that Chance or Providence is in charge of all the tragedy and loss, all the wanderings, that come to an end in recognition and forgiveness.

The account of Prospero and the lady Miranda in the ‘rotten carcass of a butt’ introduces a romance quality to the verse; they cry conventionally to the sea that roars, sigh to the winds that sigh back. Gonzalo, in good romance style, has handsomely supplied their craft with ‘Rich garments, linens, stuffs, and necessaries’ (164), and also with the magic books required for the present operation.

Miranda sleeps, and Ariel is the next interlocutor; he gives a brilliant account of his electrical feats during the storm and the safety of the ship and its passengers, now dispersed about the island. Ariel is expressly hot human, and one of the achievements of the play is to have him observe human beings from a perspective that is fairy-like; knowing and partly understanding their behavior but finding it strange, like Puck. The little picture of Ferdinand gives this idea immediately:

The King’s son have I landed by myself

Whom I left cooling off the air with sighs,

In an odd angle of the isle, and sitting,

His arms in this sad knot.


The small, sympathetic caricature is a sketch of a mourning human made by one who is merely familiar with the notion that humans feel sorrow and express it in their own ways. The oddness of the angle is reflected in the knot of the strange young man’s folded arms; he is cooling the air with sighs like a Petrarchan lover, or like Miranda and her father sighing back to the wind in their little boat. Ariel’s account of his journey for des to ‘the still-vex’d Bermoothes’ (229) has other values (it introduces the New World element so important in the play), but in its place it has an exotic, idiosyncratic charm; he is granted just the clear voice Prospero lacks, but is at once scolded as a bad servant, a ‘malignant thing’ (257), reminded of his painful servitude to Sycorax, mother of Caliban, and threatened with a repetition of the travail from which Prospero had released him, to live pegged in the entrails of a tree.

Prospero is even less polite to Caliban. The character is very properly celebrated as one of Shakespeare’s most remarkable inventions. For a master of language invents a character who needs to be taught languages, who is willing to deal with the problems of one who acquires language without acquiring its social contexts of respect and privilege. Thersites, in Troilus and Cressida, calls Ajax ‘a very land-fish, languageless, a monster’ (III.iii.263) because Ajax’s vainglory has prevented him from making elementary discrimination of rank, and so forth. Words like these of Thersites are of course applied to Caliban, though he is a wild man, a man of the forest rather than a fish, and he has learned language, though his use of it is distinguished from that of his betters. His first speech illustrates his point that the profit he has from learning language is that he can curse, rather like that other outsider Coriolanus: ‘As wicked dew as e’er my mother brush’d/With raven’s feather from unwholesome fen/Drop on you both! A south-west blow on ye,/And blister you all o’er!’ (I.ii.321-24). But he can, as everybody knows, say a great deal in a very different key. What he lacks and always will is an understanding of the conditions that must prevail for the making of what the philosopher J.L. Austin called felicitous speech-acts.

His language is no more conformable with Prospero’s than his attitude to sex suits Miranda. His complaint against the imperialistic pretensions of Prospero has of late received a good deal of attention from critics, who as a rule have less to say about the skill with which the writing expresses a kind of nativeness that is, in the exoticism of its detail, as magical as the feats of Ariel.

Shakespeare borrowed much detail from the travelers who found the ‘Berudas,’ far from being the ‘most dangerous infortunate, and most forlorne place of the world’ were, ‘in truth the richest, healthfullest and pleasing land…[that] ever man set foot on.’ The ‘Bermudas’ were hard to get to, and one navigator, William Strachey, commanded a ship that was run on to the shore and wedged between two rocks; but once ashore the colonizers found the native obliging and supplies ample. They claimed to have encountered very little in the way of fairies and devils.

However, the model for the typical New World native was the European wild man. How else could these exotic persons be visualized and understood? Since Alonso and his friends are on the way from Tunis to Naples, Caliban’s island is presumably in the Mediterranean, and he is really the homo selvaticus of European tradition, with additional New World details. It is on this foundation that Shakespeare develops his unique character. His lust is as normal in savages who live outside the constraints of society as their knowledge of the food supply and their initial generosity. Prospero’s attempts to make Caliban and by teaching him language and allowing him to live in the same cell as Miranda must fail. As Miranda rather forcefully puts it, ‘I endow’d thy purposes/With words that made them known. But thy vild race/(Though thou didst learn) had that in’t which good natures/Could not abide to be with,’ to which Caliban’s famous reply is ‘You taught me language, and my profit on’t/Is, I know how to curse.’ (I.ii.357-64). Not the least offensive characteristic of colonialism was the assumption that the ‘Indian’ had not a language but a brutish gabble. Compelled to speak the language of civilization, to him another prison, all he can do is curse.

The idiolect that Shakespeare devised for Caliban has such depth and novelty that his representation of the peremptoriness, arrogance, and ill temper of Prospero seems shallow by comparison. Ariel is another wonder, a spirit who makes the carrying out of his orders an arcane, beautifully inhuman task. He leads in Ferdinand, and between his music and exotic songs (‘Come unto these yellow sands’ (375) and ‘Full fadom five’ (397)), Ferdinand, now encountered for the first time, has his perfect speech, a blend of mourning and music that modern readers can hardly not associate with Eliot and The Waste Land.

Where whould 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 tempest photos act 4 part two 3The beauty of this depends much on the unexpected verb ‘crept’ – it is as if the music came over the calmed water like a sea mist and had the same slow effect on the young man’s grief. There follows Ariel’s eerie second song, in which the deep water transforms the supposedly dead king into coral and pearl. The conversion of eyes into pearls has just that touch of inhuman perception one associates with Ariel, and the speech of Ferdinand is drawn into this remoteness, the words of a young human with his arms in a sad knot. The meaningless refrains of landward, farmyard noises give way to the fainter ding-dong of the sea nymphs’ knell, like the distant clang of a buoy.

The song absorbs Ferdinand, and it is at this point Miranda is first permitted to see him. ‘The fringed curtains of thine eye advance,/And say what thou seest yond,’ says Prospero. ‘What, it’ a spirit?’ asks Miranda (409-410). These words of Prospero’s were condemned by Pope and Artbuthnot as ‘a piece of the grossest bombast,’ and Coleridge admitted that if they simply meant ‘Look what is coming yonder,’ they might be thought ‘to border on the ridiculous,’ but he defends them as appropriate to the moment when Miranda, still in a kind of dream, is invited to look at something absolutely new and extraordinary, which she will take for a spirit. The solemnity of Prospero’s language is therefore, he says, ‘completely in character, recollecting his preternatural capacity, in which the most familiar objects in nature present themselves in a mysterious point of view.’ This is brilliantly said; another way of putting it would be to say that the new, hieratic tone used by Prospero is appropriate to this moment of magical discovery, the display of a princess’s future husband, a masque like moment in a play that has several such. Assured of Ferdinand’s humanity, Miranda still wants to call him ‘A thing divine’ (419), and Ferdinand greets her with equal solemnity: ‘Most sure, the goddess/On whom these airs attend!’ (422-23). Each of the Romance heroines is mistaken for a goddess, in a tradition that goes back at least to Virgil, who was himself remembering a passage in the Odyssey. The Virgilian lines were often imitated in Renaissance literature, but Shakespeare, who drew on the Aeneid more than once in the play, was looking directly at Virgil.

Prospero welcomes the success of his contrivance but characteristically treats Ferdinand ‘ungently’ (445) explain that he thinks ‘too light winning’ would make ‘the prize light’ (452-53). So he calls Ferdinand a traitor, threatens him with base imprisonment, and strikes him motionless when he tries to resist, meanwhile simulating a just fury. Ferdinand is again spellbound (‘My spirits, as in a dream, are all bound up’ (487)).

The splendour of this first act proceeds from the language of Ariel and Ferdinand, not from Prospero, although he arranged the whole thing. Act II introduces a different and less amiable group. Gonzalo is making the best of their plight while Antonio and Sebastian sneer at him. The prose rhythm of their dialogue is in complete contrast to the verse we have just heard, with its alternations of anger and trance. Only at line 107, as Alonso interrupts them to talk of his bereavement, does verse return, and once again with a touch of that new-minted maritime dialect: ‘what strange fish/Hath made his meal on thee?’ (113-14). He wins no sympathy from Sebastian: ‘The fault’s your own.’ (136).

Gonzalo attempts consolation with his fantasy of a utopian commonwealth, in a speech celebrated as evidence that Shakespeare knew his Montaigne. Gonzalo is dreaming of a just society, an ideal commonwealth such as might be found among virtuous, uncorrupted natural men, a fantasy associated with ‘soft’ primitivism as against the ‘hard’ variety that regarded the state of nature as solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. He is providing easy targets for the cynical comments of Antonio and Sebastian; they sneer at him, but he keeps them out of mischief, and it is when Gonzalo falls asleep that they are free to plot murder.

Coleridge as probably the first to point out that at this point the verse is reminiscent of Macbeth:

Ant:  Th’ occasion speaks thee, and,

My strong imagination sees a crown

Dropping upon my head.

Seb:  What? art thou waking?

Ant:  Do you not hear me speak?

Seb:  I do, and surely

It is a sleepy language, and thou speak’st

Out of they sleep. What is it thou didst say?

This is a strange repose, to be asleep

With eyes wide open – standing, speaking, moving –

And yet so fast asleep.

Ant:  Noble Sebastian,

Thou let’st thy fortune sleep – die, rather; wink’st

Whiles thou art waking.


Here murderous ambition is indeed Macbeth-like, but the repetition of ‘sleep’ (as if Gonzalo’s nap prompted it) casts a distinctive shadow over the whole; the language is sleepy, on the border of sleep and waking (‘wink’st’ means ‘you keep your eyes shut’). It lacks the intensity of the Macbeths as they plan the killing of Duncan, but the conspirators grow alert and the tone of the verse alters, with an effect like that of slowly waking from a dream: Ferdinand is dead; who is the next heir? Claribel, she who is stranded in Tunis, ‘she that from Naples/Can have no note…till new-born chins/Be rough and razorable.’ (247-50):

   she that from whom

We all were sea-swallo’d, though some cast again

(And that by destiny) to perform an act

Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come

In yours and my discharge.


Now they are actors in a play; they have survived the wreck, as if to fulfill a duty prescribed by the destiny that saved them. The script is written, the prologue spoken, all they need now is to play their prescribed parts. Destiny is the playwright; the plot was prepared long ago. The rapid working out of the theatrical analogy is good mature Shakespeare; and it stirs in one’s mind the deep-seated parallel between the notion of destiny and the role of the authors who plans ahead and writes parts appropriate to his cast. Sebatian is persuaded to imitate the conscienceless Antonio and kill his brother; the attempt is forestalled by Ariel. The entire plot is no more than a dreamlike interlude, an episode, indeed, in Prospero’s plot; it lasts just as long as Gonzalo’s brief sleep, shaken off at Ariel’s orders.

The tormented Caliban is introduced to Trinculo and Stephano, with much comic business (II.ii); the serious point is Caliban’s willingness to serve them, expressed in verse and with a sure sense of the peculiar mixed resources available: crabs, pig-nuts, jays and ‘marmazets,’ filberts and ‘scamels,’ whatever they are. He celebrates admission to this new, drunken company with a drunken song of illusory freedom, followed, after his exit, by Ferdinand, doing the Caliban-like work of bearing logs; he has not transported many when Miranda enters and there is a scene of pure love, evidence that Prospero’s plot is going well.

Ferdinand has the advantage in experience, for Miranda has never seen a man except her father and Ferdinand, and the point is touchingly made (‘How features are abroad/I am skilless of’ (III.i.52-53); she is inexperienced but not naïve, educated but more candid than another young woman might be:

…but by my modesty

(The jewel in my dower), I would not wish

Any companion in the world but you;

Nor can imagination form a shape,

Besides yourself, to like of.


She emphasizes her chastity, as her father would wish, but declares her love and her inability even to fantasize a lover more desirable. Ferdinand replies in kind; Prospero, secretly looking on, approves.

The scene in which Ariel interrupts Caliban and his new masters is just a series of music-hall jokes until Caliban comments on Ariel’s music. The famous speech may look back to an ancient idea, that even beasts, the less than human, can be moved by music, but even so it surprises us; such sympathy as we are encouraged to feel for Caliban has depended on our resenting Prospero’s bullying and his evident exploitation of him as servant. Now Caliban responds to music as good men are supposed to do who have it in their souls. Stephano lacks it, reflecting only that he will have his music for nothing in his brave new kingdom, but Caliban speaks of it as magical, and as a promise, given in a dream, of harmony.

Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises,

Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will humb about mine ears; and sometimes voices,

That if I then had wak’d 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 wak’d

I cried to dream again.


He has learned language for other reasons than to curse. The pleasing sounds happen often enough, and some are equally remembered, hence the switches of tense; the sounds give delight, the instruments ‘will hum’ (meaning that it is their custom to do so, it happens often); but then he recalls a particular instance when he was put to sleep, dreamed again, woke again, and cried to have the dream again. Sleeping, dreaming, waking, sleeping: the rhythm is of a child’s rhyme, and the ‘riches’ are of another world, a richer world than Prospero’s”


More from Kermode in a future post.

My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning

Our neat reading:  The Tempest, Act Five


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1 Response to “The Tempest ends, like the other plays in Shakespeare’s last period, in reconciliation and forgiveness. But the ending in The Tempest is grimmer, and the sky is darker…”

  1. chandra says:

    I tend not to write a leave a response, but after looking
    at a great deal of remarks on The Tempest ends, like the other plays in Shakespeare’s last period,
    in reconciliation and forgiveness. But the ending
    in The Tempest is grimmer, and the sky is darker | The Play’s The Thing.
    I do have 2 questions for you if it’s okay.
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