“But this rough magic/I here abjure.”

The Tempest

Act Five, Part One

By Dennis Abrams


the tempest photos act five 1Act Five:  Ariel reports that the spirits of Alonso and the other Neapolitans have been broken, and Prospero instructs him to release them. Ariel leads the group in by magic, and to their utter amazement, Prospero appears and reveals who he is. Prospero then reveals Ferdinand and Miranda, and all reunited and reconciled. Ariel is guaranteed his freedom, Caliban is forgiven, and Prospero renounces his magical arts and declares that he will return to Naples as Duke once again.

With Miranda and Ferdinand married, and all more or less happily reconciled, Prospero swears to “abjure” his “rough magic” and travel back to Milan – a promise of retirement that has been seen, by some romantics and others, to foreshadow Shakespeare’s own return to Stratford. But the transformations that Prospero talks of art not unmingled in their unhappiness. “Be cheerful, sir,” he tells Ferdinand after the magical masque celebrating the wedding, “our revels now 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 insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a track behind.


“We are such stuff/As dreams are made on,” he continues, “and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep” (4.1.156-8). If this is Shakespeare announcing his retirement or even looking towards death (although with another three plays, albeit co-written still to be done) – the tone is not indulgent. It is clear, no matter how you read it, that leaving the magic of the stage, the “great globe itself,” will be a painful and irrecoverable loss.


From Marjorie Garber:

the tempest photos act five 2“But the play is also careful to situate [Prospero] between and among the denizens of human society. Generations of critics have identified him as a playwright, reading the play as a metadrama about Shakespeare the maker and the fictional creatures he had under his sway. Viewed in this way, Prospero becomes the end point in a series of other ‘playwright figures,’ from Prince Hal to Hamlet to the Duke in Measure for Measure, who cast roles and play them as a way of reordering their worlds. The ‘playwright’ reading has often also been linked to the popular notion that The Tempest is Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage, and Prospero’s Epilogue Shakespeare’s final gesture of aesthetic relinquishment, before he retires to Stratford, as Prospero does to Milan, ‘where/Every third thought shall be my grave.’ (5.1.313-314). But in point of historical fact, The Tempest  was not Shakespeare’s last play, and the romantic notion of a ‘farewell to the stage’ serves the Shakespeare myth better than the Shakespeare reality; it was we, not the playwright, who seem to need a ceremonial occasion to say good-bye.

Clearly, though, Prospero’s power does come from his knowledge, and specifically from his books. As Caliban counsels the unheeding Stephano and Trinculo,


First to possess his books, for without them

He’s but a sot as I am, not hath not

One spirit to command…


The longer passage of which this is a part seems to recall the scenario of the murder of Hamlet’s father, beginning, as it does, ‘Why…’tis a custom with him/I’th’ afternoon to sleep. There thou mayst brain him,/Having first seized his book’ (84-86). Caliban is insistent on the source of his master’s power: ‘Burn but his books’ (90). When at the close of the play Prospero himself declares, ‘I’ll drown my book’ (5.1.57), he voluntarily renounces the magic powers, spells, and alchemy that have come to him through his ‘secret studies’ in magical lore.

Two things should be borne in mind here. First, that magic was not at this historic moment fully differentiated from what today we would call ‘science’; the latter word meant something more like general knowledge or ‘learning’ in Shakespeare’s day, and did not emerge fully as a term denoting either theoretical truths or practical experimentation until later in the seventeenth century. And second, that books were relatively rare possessions in this period. Although the governing classes in England in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were being urged to read and to acquire books, the number of books they actually owned was very small. Prospero’s possession of books is itself a sign of distinction. At the same time, as his failure to govern effectively in Milan seems to have demonstrated, it is also a sign of his turning away from the public and political world.

That Prospero proposes to ‘drown’ his empowering book of magic may seem at first a less violent action than the book burning proposed by Caliban, but both methods have disturbing histories.  Books deemed heretical were burned, as were heretics. But drowning was a test for suspected witches. To drown a book is a convenient mode of disposal if one lives, like Prospero, surrounded by water, but for a Renaissance audience, this plan to drown a book would have also evoked unmistakable and dangerous associations with witchcraft. If it is ever possible in the play to distinguish Prospero’s ‘white,’ or beneficent, magic from the more dangerous practice of ‘black magic,’ his own explicit phrase of disavowal, ‘this rough magic/I here abjure’ (5.1.50-51), sets magic on one side, and what the spirit Ariel calls the ‘human’ on the other.

The Tempest starts out, as we have noted, as a kind of ‘revenge play,’ and then turns away from that mode toward forgiveness at a crucial moment. Prospero, despite his intellectual inclinations and his paternal instincts, is as obsessed with retribution as any other English Renaissance stage revenger. And Prospero’s conversion from vengeance to ‘virtue’ comes – with a gesture typical of the late Shakespeare – through the agency of an unlikely figure. The agent of conversion is not a human being, but is instead the spirit Ariel, whose wistful observation intervenes on the side of mercy for the hapless Neapolitan conspirators – the King and his followers – immobilized by Prospero’s spell:


Your charm so strongly works ‘em

That if you now beheld them your affections

Would become tender.


Dost thou think so, spirit?


Mine would, sir, were I human.


And mine shall.

Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling

Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,

One of their kind, that relish all as sharply

Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?

Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,

Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury

Do I take part. The rarer action is

In virtue than in vengeance…


Go, release them, Ariel.

My charms I’ll break, their scenes I’ll restore,

And they shall be themselves.


As if this last phrase were a magic commandment (‘And they shall be themselves’), Prospero now begins the series of divestments and restorations that will return him to his former identity, as man rather than mage. Duke rather than island ruler – and, ultimately, actor rather than dramatic character.

The Tempest is a play that could be said to end, in fact, three different times, each time with a gesture profoundly moving and rhetorically powerful. The first of these endings comes during the masque of Ceres that Prospero and his spirits have provided for the entertainment of the betrothed couple., Miranda and Ferdinand. The masque commemorates the ideal values of marriage – fidelity, fertility, progeny – and Ferdinand is enchanted: ‘So rare a wondered father and a wise/Makes this place paradise’ (4.1.123-124). But no invocation of a timeless paradise can remain unchallenged in a Shakespearean world. Suddenly reminded of the plot against his life, and thus of the fallenness of man, Prospero abruptly breaks off the masque and speaks the lines that seem to resonate across the centuries:

Our revels now 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 insubstantial 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…


The ‘revels’ of which he speaks are a formal part of the court masque, the moment when the noble actors dance with the audience, so that these lines prefigure the liminal encounter at the end of the play, when Prospero delivers his Epilogue. Although The Tempest was performed in a private theater and not in the company’s more public playhouse, the Globe, the reference her to ‘the great globe itself’ seems imbued with an unmistakable double significance. Prospero is ‘vexed,’ his ‘beating mind’ remembers, just in time, the threat against him. The masque is thus abruptly sundered. Disappearing spectacles were a commonplace of the masque tradition, as much an aspect of the entertainment as the songs and dances themselves, and the extradramatic authority that postromantic readings have given to this magnificent passage derives, in part, from the tendency to quote it out of context as ‘Shakespeare’s farewell.’ Almost invariably, though, in the modern theater, a hush attends the declamation of these lines, which have taken on a life, and an itinerary of their own.

The play’s second ending occurs immediately after the affecting scene with Ariel in the fifth act, in which Prospero affirms his own ‘nobler reason’ and ‘rarer action’ in offering mercy rather than seeking vengeance. No sooner does Ariel depart than Prospero, tracing a magic circle on the stage, invokes ‘Ye elves, of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,’ and the other spirits with whose aid he has dimmed the sun, called forth the winds, summoned the lightning and the thunder. His speech, a paraphrase of the incantation of the witch Medea in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (book 7, lines 263-289), underscores the powers he is about to relinquish:

     [G]raves at my command

Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth

By my so potent art. But this rough magic

I here abjure. And when I have required

Some heavenly music – which even now I do –

To work mine end upon their senses that

This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,

Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,

And deeper than did ever plummet sound

I’ll drown my book.


The third and final ending is the play’s famous Epilogue, in which Prospero addresses himself directly to the audience, putting himself in our hands and asking of us – as various characters in the play had sought from him – freedom from bondage and confinement. Requesting the ‘good hands’ (applause) and ‘[g]entle breath’ (praise) of the audience in the theater, he puts himself in the position in which he had previously put those who conspired against his life, asking for mercy and forgiveness. Again he emphasizes his powerlessness:

     Now I want

Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;

And my ending is despair

Unless I be relieved by prayer,

Which pierces so, that it assaults

Mercy itself, and frees all faults,

As you from crimes would pardoned be,

Let your indulgence set me free.

(Epilogue, 13-20)

Prospero’s loss of power has been demonstrated effectively in some recent productions by a modern stage device: a sudden shift, at the beginning of the epilogue, from an amplified to a nonamplified voice, seeming to diminish and ‘humanize’ the actor. As with some other Shakespearean epilogues we have encountered (Puck’s in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and especially Rosalind’s in As You Like It), this direct address to the audience – a common device in performances of the period – emphasizes both the fictive nature of the play and the human identity of the actor/performer/speaker. Puck, a spirit, and Rosalind, who calls herself a magician, have much in common with Prospero. [MY NOTE:  True – I hadn’t thought about it.] But Prospero’s dramatic persona, not only a magician but also a political figure and a mortal and suddenly aging man (‘Every third thought shall be my grave’), renders the tonality of this Epilogue somber rather than playful, reaching across the boundaries of stage and audience, from actor to spectator, from age to age, and from mortality to the dream of eternity and art.”


And from Tony Tanner:

the tempest photos act five 3“From now on [Prospero’s] ‘project doth gather to a head’ (V.i.1). The King and courtiers are drawn into a circle where they ‘stand charmed,’ ‘spell-stopped’ (V.i.61). They have indeed been ‘justled from your sense’ (V.i.158), but now Prospero commences the breaking of the spell and the clearing of the mind.

     The charm dissolves apace;

And as the morning steals upon the night,

Melting the darkness, so their rising senses

Begin to chase the ignorant fumes that mantle

The clearer reason…


The sense are rising, the understanding is swelling – the refreshing tide of renewed sanity is coming in. The reconciliations, reunions and restorations are perfunctorily managed, and a quick forgiveness is dispensed. (Even to ‘unnatural’ Antonio, though with some asperity and quite a touch of the old temper – ‘For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother/Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive/Thy rankest fault – all of them,’ V.i.130-32. He gets no reply.) It is as if Shakespeare through Prospero is saying – these are the familiar conventions of the genre; let’s just quickly run through them. Time is running out – and the absconding playwright shows his hand through the retiring Governor. Good Gonzalo, always positive, is the most appreciative:

   O, rejoice

Beyond a common joy, and set it down

With gold on lasting pillars. In one voyage

Did Claribel her husband find at Tunis,

And Ferdinand her brother found a wife

Where he himself was lost; Prospero his dukedom

In a poor isle; and all of us ourselves

When no man was his own.


Truly go ‘find’ yourself is the best benefit afforded by this island.

But they can still ‘taste/Some subtleties o’ th’ isle, and that will not let you/Believe things certain’ (V.i.123-5), and as seeming miracle follows seeming miracle – a curtain drawn revealing Ferdinand and Miranda playing chess (more theatrics); the news that the wrecked ship is, in fact, as good as new – it is the sheer ‘strangeness’ of the whole experience which overwhelms them.

These are not natural events; they strengthen

From strange to stranger.


This is as strange a maze as e’er men trod,

And there is more in this business than nature

Was ever conduct of.


‘Strange to stranger’ – to strangest (appropriately enough, ‘strange’ is yet another word which occurs more often in this play than elsewhere – the last one I will mention); what cannot happen here? These are, indeed, not ‘natural’ events – they are theatrical events. Which brings us to Prospero and Shakespeare.

The inclination to identify Prospero and his creator goes back a long way. In 1838 Thomas Campbell wrote of The Tempest that it ‘has a sort of sacredness as the last work of the mighty workman. Shakespeare, as if conscious that it would be his last, and as if to typify himself, has made its hero a natural, a dignified, a benevolent magician.’ This view of Prospero prevailed at least up to and including Frank Kermode’s landmark, and still indispensible, Arden edition of 1954 (few editions have weathered the years so well). But more recent commentaries have knocked quite a few spots off that dignity and benevolence, and a second look has been taken at Prospero’s magic. This seems to me correct; though when he is made out to be a megalomaniacal fascist imperialist, one begins to yearn for the old sanities. Prospero is a complex character in his own right, and we must leave him firmly embedded in the play rather than trying to transport him to Stratford. Having said that, there are some clear parallels between Prospero and Shakespeare, just as there is an unmistakable sense of concludingness in the famous lines of relinquishment, and in the generally penumbral air of the last scene, which is at once a new dawn and an old dusk (both).

I’ll break my staff,

Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,

And deeper than did ever plummet sound

I’ll drown on my book.


Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus promises to ‘burn my books’ in his very last words, and there is surely, here, a distant echo: but Shakespeare’s is, rather, a drowned and drowning play, though it is worth noting that Faustus also prayed that his soul should be:

     changed into little water-drops,

And fall into the ocean, ne’er to be found!

(Doctor Faustus, V.ii.118-119)

Prospero’s ‘project’ and Shakespeare’s play last exactly the same length of time because, finally, they are one and the same thing. At the end, Prospero must put on his Milanese clothes, leave his island, and return to his unmagical ducal daily duties in Italy; just so, playwright and audience must leave the theater and return to their less bewitching, ‘real’ lives. Even Shakespeare’s magic can only work in the theater and for so long. That is why Prospero (and there is a nice legend that Shakespeare played the role) comes forward to speak the Epilogue; post-play, minus magic, in the hands of God – and the audience.

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,

And what strength I have’s mine own,

Which is most faint.

…Now I want

Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;

And my ending is despair

Unless I be relieved by prayer.

(1-3, 13-16)

Prospero can put on spectacular, spell-binding shows, he can ‘justle’ the senses this way and that; but, if you remember, his ‘art’ cannot get the daily chores done (like bringing in the wood), and it cannot convert the unconvertible (Antonio). And, we have to say, that goes for Shakespeare and his art, too. (He, too, can wake ‘sleepers’ from their graves by his ‘so potent art,’ V.i.50 – Theseus, Caesar, Cleopatra, Henry V – you name it.) It is irrelevant, and certainly undiscoverable, whether Shakespeare was here consciously saying goodbye to the theatre. But he was, by this time, far too self-conscious an artist for it not to be the case that in depicting and delimiting Prospero’s magic he was both displaying and examining his own art. There has never been art like it; before or since.

When I started writing these introductions, I made a point of acknowledging the enduring influence of the man who taught me how to read Shakespeare at Cambridge (and, in effect, for the rest of my life), the late Philip Brockbank. As a very small concluding piety I want to let him answer my opening question, and have the last word on the last play.

‘Where is the island of The Tempest? The final answer to this question must be, ‘in the theatre’…Every Shakespearean play is ‘islanded’ from the flux of life to which the epilogue returns us at the end of The Tempest, and having left the island-theatre we know that the fuller significance of our lost lives was there brought home to us.’”


And from Van Doren:

the tempest photos act five 5“Is Shakespeare Prospero, and is his magic the art with which he has fabricated thirty-seven plays? Is he now burying his book – abandoning the theater – and retiring where every third thought will be his grave? And does ‘The Tempest’ so signify? Answers are not too easy. Shakespeare has never dramatizes himself before, and it may not have occurred to him to do so now. Also, ‘The Tempest’ is not a cantata; it is still a play, and it is ballasted with much life. It has snarling beasts and belching drunkards to match its innocent angels and white magicians. It contains two of Shakespeare’s finest songs – ‘Full fathom five thy father lies’ and ‘Come unto these yellow sands’ – and two of his coarsest – ‘’Ban, ‘Ban, Cacaliban’ and ‘The master, the swabber, the boatswain, and I.’ And Ariel is more than an angelic musician; he is a mischief maker, another Puck, unwilling at his work and restless under the burden of magic he bears. It can be doubted, in other words, that Shakespeare sat down solemnly to decorate his life’s work with a secret signature. ‘The Tempest,’ pressed a little, yields this meaning as it yields most of the meanings ingenuity can insist upon, and yields it with grace. But a better signature was the play itself, which, if the author had been given to such exercises, he might have recognized as one of the most beautiful literary objects ever made. He would scarcely, however, have been so conscious of what he had done. He is more likely to have let the moment go with four simple words: Now I will rest.”


And finally, from Samuel Coleridge:

Great Performances at the Met: The TempestTHERE is a sort of improbability with which we are shocked in dramatic representation, not less than in a narrative of real life. Consequently, there must be rules respecting it; and as rules are nothing but means to an end previously ascertained—(inattention to which simple truth has been the occasion of all the pedantry of the French school),— we must first determine what the immediate end or object of the drama is. And here, as I have previously remarked, I find two extremes of critical decision;—the French, which evidently presupposes that a perfect delusion is to be aimed at,—an opinion which needs no fresh confutation; and the exact opposite to it, brought forward by Dr. Johnson, who supposes the auditors throughout in the full reflective knowledge of the contrary. In evincing the impossibility of delusion, he makes no sufficient allowance for an intermediate state, which I have before distinguished by the term, illusion, and have attempted to illustrate its quality and character by reference to our mental state, when dreaming. In both cases we simply do not judge the imagery to be unreal; there is a negative reality, and no more. Whatever, therefore, tends to prevent the mind from placing itself, or being placed, gradually in that state in which the images have such negative reality for the auditor, destroys this illusion, and is dramatically improbable.

Now the production of this effect—a sense of improbability—will depend on the degree of excitement in which the mind is supposed to be. Many things would be intoler-able in the first scene of a play, that would not at all interrupt our enjoyment in the height of the interest, when the narrow cockpit may be made to hold

The vasty field of France, or we may cram
Within its wooden ‘O the very casqnes
That did affright the air at Agincourt.

Again, on the other hand, many obvious improbabilities will be endured, as belonging to the groundwork of the story rather than to the drama itself, in the first scenes, which would disturb or disentrance us from all illusion in the acme of our excitement; as for instance, Lear’s division of his kingdom, and the banishment of Cordelia.

But, although the other excellences of the drama besides this dramatic probability, as unity of interest, with distinctness and subordination of the characters, and appropriateness of style, are all, so far as they tend to increase the inward excitement, means towards accomplishing the chief end, that of producing and supporting this willing illusion,—yet they do not on that account cease to be ends themselves; and we must remember that, as such, they carry their own justification with them, as long as they do not contravene or interrupt the total illusion. It is not even always, or of necessity, an objection to them, that they prevent the illusion from rising to as great a height as it might otherwise have attained;—it is enough that they are simply compatible with as high a degree of it as is requisite for the purpose. Nay, upon particular occasions, a palpable improbability may be hazarded by a great genius for the express purpose of keeping down the interest of a merely instrumental scene, which would otherwise make too great an impression for the harmony of the entire illusion. Had the panorama been invented in the time of Pope Leo X., Raffael would still, I doubt not, have smiled in contempt at the regret, that the broomtwigs and scrubby bushes at the back of some of his grand pictures were not as probable trees as those in the exhibition.

The Tempest is a specimen of the purely romantic drama, in which the interest is not historical, or depen-dent upon fidelity of portraiture, or the natural connexion of events,—but is a birth of the imagination, and rests only on the coaptation and union of the elements granted to, or assumed by, the poet. It is a species of drama which owes no allegiance to time or space, and in which, therefore, errors of chronology and geography—no mortal sins in any species—are venial faults, and count for nothing. It addresses itself entirely to the imaginative faculty; and although the illusion may be assisted by the effect on the senses of the complicated scenery and decorations of modem times, yet this sort of assistance is dangerous. For the principal and only genuine excitement ought to come from within,—from the moved and sympathetic imagination; whereas, where so much is addressed to the mere external senses of seeing and hearing, the spiritual vision is apt to languish, and the attraction from without will withdraw the mind from the proper and only legitimate interest which is intended to spring from within.

The romance opens with a busy scene admirably appropriate to the kind of drama, and giving, as it were, the keynote to the whole harmony. It prepares and initiates the excitement required for the entire piece, and yet does not demand any thing from the spectators, which their previous habits had not fitted them to understand. It is the bustle of a tempest, from which the real horrors are abstracted;—therefore it is poetical, though not in strictness natural—(the distinction to which I have so often alluded)—and is purposely restrained from concentering the interest on itself, but used merely as an induction or tuning for what is to follow.

In the second scene, Prospero’s speeches, till the entrance of Ariel, contain the finest example, I remember, of retro-spective narration for the purpose of exciting immediate interest, and putting the audience in possession of all the information necessary for the understanding of the plot.

Pro. Mark his condition, and th,’ event; then tell me,
If this might be a brother. Mira. I should sin,
To think but nobly of my grandmother ;
Good wombs have bore bad sons.
Pro. Now the condition, &c.

Theobald has a note upon this passage, and suggests that Shakspeare placed It thus:—

Pro. Good wombs have bore bad sous,—
Now the condition.

Mr. Coleridge writes in the margin: ‘I cannot but believe that Theobald is quite right.’— Ed.

Observe, too, the perfect probability of the moment chosen by Prospero (the very Shakspeare himself, as it were, of the tempest) to open out the truth to his daughter, his own romantic bearing, and how completely any thing that might have been disagreeable to us in the magician, is reconciled and shaded in the humanity and natural feelings of the father. In the very first speech of Miranda the simplicity and tenderness of her character are at once laid open;— it would have been lost in direct contact with the agitation of the first scene. The opinion once prevailed, but, happily, is now abandoned, that Fletcher alone wrote for women;— the truth is, that with very few, and those partial, exceptions, the female characters in the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher are, when of the light kind, not decent; when heroic, complete viragos. But in Shakspeare all the elements of womanhood are holy, and there is the sweet, yet dignified feeling of all that continuates society, as sense of ancestry and of sex, with a purity unassailable by sophistry, because it rests not in the analytic processes, but in that same equipoise of the faculties, during which the feelings are representative of all past experience,—not of the individual only, but of all those by whom she has been educated, and their predecessors even up to the first mother that lived. Shakspeare saw that the want of prominence, which Pope notices for sarcasm, was the blessed beauty of the woman’s character, and knew that it arose not from any deficiency, but from the more exquisite harmony of all the parts of the moral being constituting one living total of head and heart. He has drawn it, indeed, in all its distinctive energies of faith, patience, constancy, fortitude,—shown in all of them as following the heart, which gives its results by a nice tact and happy intuition, without the intervention of the discursive faculty, sees all things in and by the light of the affections, and errs, if it ever err, in the exaggerations of love alone. In all the Shakspearian women there is essentially the same foundation and principle ; the distinct individuality and variety are merely the result of the modification of circumstances, whether in Miranda the maiden, in Imogen the wife, or in Katherine the queen.

But to return. The appearance and characters of the super or ultra-natural servants are finely contrasted. Ariel has in every thing the airy tint which gives the name; and it is worthy of remark that Miranda is never directly brought into comparison with Ariel, lest the natural and human of the one and the supernatural of the other should tend to neutralize each other; Caliban, on the other hand, is all earth, all condensed and gross in feelings and Images; he has the dawnings of understanding without reason or the moral sense, and in him, as in some brute animals, this advance to the intellectual faculties, without the moral sense, is marked by the appearance of vice. For it is in the primacy of the moral, being only that man is truly human; in his intellectual powers he is certainly approached by the brutes, and, man’s whole system duly considered, those powers cannot be considered other than means to an end, that is, to morality.

In this scene, as it proceeds, is displayed the impression made by Ferdinand and Miranda on each other ; it is love at first sight;—

at the first sight
They have chang’d eyes:—

and it appears to me, that in all cases of real love, it is at one moment that it takes place. That moment may have been prepared by previous esteem, admiration, or even affection,—yet love seems to require a momentary act of volition, by which a tacit bond of devotion is imposed,— a bond not to be thereafter broken without violating what should be sacred in our nature. How finely is the true Shakspearian scene contrasted with Dryden’s vulgar alteration of it in which a mere ludicrous psychological experiment, as it were, is tried—displaying nothing but indelicacy without passion. Prospero’s interruption of the courtship has often seemed to me to have no sufficient motive; still his alleged reason—

lest too light winning
Make the prize light—

is enough for the ethereal connections of the romantic imagination, although it would not be so for the historical.

Fer. Yes, faith, and all his Lords, the Duke of Milan,
And his brave son, being twain.

Theobald remarks that no body was lost in the wreck; and yet that no such character is introduced in the fable, as the Duke of Milan’s son. Mr. C. notes: ‘Must not Ferdinand have believed be was lost in the fleet that the tempest scattered?’—Ed.

The whole courting scene, indeed, in the beginning of the third act, between the lovers, is a masterpiece; arid the first dawn of disobedience in the mind of Miranda to the command of her father is very finely drawn, so as to seem the working of the Scriptural command Thou shalt leave father and mother, &c. O! with what exquisite purity this scene is conceived and executed! Shakspeare may sometimes be gross, but I boldly say that he is always moral and modest. Alas! in this our day decency of manners is preserved at the expense of morality of heart, and delicacies for vice are allowed, whilst grossness against it is hypocritically, or at least morbidly, condemned.

In this play are admirably sketched the vices generally accompanying a low degree of civilization; and in the first scene of the second act Shakspeare has, as in many other places, shown the tendency in bad men to indulge in scorn and contemptuous expressions, as a mode of getting rid of their own uneasy feelings of inferiority to the good, and also, by making the good ridiculous, of rendering the transition of others to wickedness easy. Shakspeare never puts habitual scorn into the mouths of other than bad men, as here in the instances of Antonio and Sebastian. The scene of the intended assassination of Alonzo and Gonzalo is an exact counterpart of the scene between Macbeth and his lady, only pitched in a lower key throughout, as de-signed to be frustrated and concealed, and exhibiting the same profound management in the manner of familiarizing a mind, not immediately recipient, to the suggestion of guilt, by associating the proposed crime with something ludicrous or out of place,—something not habitually matter of reverence. By this kind of sophistry the imagination and fancy are first bribed to contemplate the suggested act, and at length to become acquainted with it. Observe how the effect of this scene is heightened by contrast with another counterpoint of it in low life,—that between the conspirators Stephano, Caliban, and Trinculo in the second scene of the third act, in which there are the same essential characteristics.

In this play and in this scene of it are also shown the springs of the vulgar in politics,—of that kind of politics which is inwoven with human nature. In his treatment of this subject, wherever it occurs, Shakspeare is quite peculiar. In other writers we find the particular opinions of the individual; in Massinger it is rank republicanism; in Beaumont and Fletcher even jure divino principles are carried to excess;—but Shakspeare never promulgates any party tenets. He is always the philosopher and the moralist, but at the same time with a profound veneration for all the established institutions of society, and for those classes which form the permanent elements of the state— especially never introducing a professional character, as such, otherwise than as respectable. If he must have any name, he should be styled a philosophical aristocrat, delight-ing in those hereditary institutions which have a tendency to bind one age to another, and in that distinction of ranks, of which, although few may be in possession, all enjoy the advantages. Hence, again, you will observe the good nature with which he seems always to make sport with the passions and follies of a mob, as with an irrational animal. He is never angry with it, but hugely content with holding up its absurdities to its face; and sometimes you may trace a tone of almost affectionate superiority, something like that in which a father speaks of the rogueries of a child. See the good-humoured way in which he describes Stephano passing from the most licentious freedom to absolute despotism over Trinculo and Caliban. The truth is, Shak-speare’s characters are all genera intensely individualized; the results of meditation, of which observation supplied the drapery and the colours necessary to combine them with each other. He had virtually surveyed all the great component powers and impulses of human nature,—had seen that their different combinations and subordinations were in fact the individualizers of men, and showed how their harmony was produced by reciprocal disproportions of excess or deficiency. The language in which these truths are expressed was not drawn from any set fashion, but from the profoundest depths of his moral being, and is therefore for all ages.

My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning – more on Act Five

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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3 Responses to “But this rough magic/I here abjure.”

  1. GGG says:


    I have been distracted by life and have not given this play the comments it deserves! The ending is wonderful, especially the epilogue. I can see why it is tempting to see it as an autobiographical farewell, but read it more as a commentary on how all art is ultimately judged by its audience.

    Have I missed in an earlier post that this play was not performed at the Globe? I can imagine that an enclosed, candle-lit theatre must have made the play and its actors truly magical and mysterious.

    And as usual, there is evidence of how much Shakespeare has influenced our culture: “O brave new world!”

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