“..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 Tempest

Act Five, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


From Harold Bloom:

the tempest photos act 5 1“Ariel is our largest clue to understanding Prospero, though we have no similar aid for apprehending this great sprite, who has very little in common with Puck, despite the assertions of many critics. Barely mentioned in the Bible, Ariel seems to have been selected by Shakespeare not for the irrelevant Hebrew meaning of his name (he is no ‘lion of god’ in the play, but a spirit of the elements fire and air), but probably for the sound association between Ariel and aireal. Plainly a contrast to Caliban, all earth and water, Ariel comes into the play before Caliban and finally is dismissed to his freedom – his last words to Prospero are ‘Was’t well done?’ an actor speaking to a director. Ariel’s evidently will be endless play, in the air and in the fire. Caliban, despite his current claque, is grumpily re-adopted by a reluctant Prospero – ‘this thing of darkness I/Acknowledge mine’ – and will go off with his foster father (not his slave owner) to Milan to continue his interrupted education. That seems a visionary project indeed, but should cause no more shudders than the future of many Shakespearean marriages: Beatrice and Benedick flailing at each other in late middle age is not a happy vista. Ariel’s future, in his terms, is a very cheerful one, though it is beyond Shakespeare’s understanding, or ours. Shelley associated Ariel with the freedom of Romantic poetic imagination, which is not altogether un-Shakespearean, but which also is now out of fashion. Whatever happens in The Tempest is the work of Ariel, under Prospero’s direction, yet it is not a solitary labor, as presented upon our stages. The sprite is the leader of a band of angels: ‘to thy strong bidding task/Ariel and all his quality,’ they being his subordinates and airy spirits like himself. They, too, presumably are working for their freedom, and are not happy about it, if we can believe Caliban.

Ariel and Prospero play an odd comic turn (wonderfully parodied by Beckett’s Clov and Hamm in Endgame) in which Ariel’s anxiety about the terms of his release from hermetic service and Prospero’s uncertain temper combine to keep the audience on edge, waiting for an explosion that does not take place (except upon politically correct stages). Frank Kermode usefully reminds us that The Tempest ‘is unquestionably the most sophisticated comedy of a poet whose work in comedy is misunderstood to a quite astonishing degree.’ It was difficult, surely, to surpass Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, and The Winter’s Tale in sophistication, yet Shakespeare managed this so brilliantly that, as Kermode implies, we still cannot apprehend fully the comic achievement. I have only rarely heard anyone laugh at a performance of The Tempest, but that is because of the directors, whose moral sensibilities never seem to get beyond their politics. The Prospero-Ariel relationship is delicious comedy, together with much else in the play, as I hope to show. What is not at all comic is the mutual torment of the Prospero-Caliban failed adoption, which I will examine again as I turn to a closer consideration of The Tempest.

The deliberate absence of images in The Tempest may have prompted Auden to call his ‘commentary’ The Sea and the Mirror. Auden’s Prospero says to Ariel that he surrenders his Hermetic library ‘To the silent dissolution of the sea/Which muses nothing because it values nothing.’ Starting with the storm at sea, and ending with Prospero’s promise of ‘calm seas, auspicious gales,’ The Tempest allows us to be washed free of images, one of the comedy’s major gifts. We are Miranda, who is adjured to ‘Sit still, and hear the last of our sea-sorrow.’ If the sea values nothing, and swallows all, it also keeps nothing, and casts us back again. Ariel’s best and most famous song makes our drowned bones into coral, and translates what Hart Crane calls our ‘lost morning eyes’ into pearls.

Ariel suggests a more radical metamorphosis than anyone in the drama actually undergoes. No one fades away, and yet no particular character, not even Prospero, suffers ‘a sea-change/into something rich and strange.’ Perhaps only the complete work of Shakespeare as a whole could sustain that metaphor. I wonder again if The Tempest was one of Shakespeare’s throwaway titles, another ‘as you like it,’ or ‘what you will.’ The storm is Ariel’s creation (the will being Prospero’s), and what matters is that it is a sea fiction, a drenching that at last leaves everyone dry. No one is harmed in the play, and forgiveness is extended to all by Prospero, in response to Ariel’s most human moment. Everything dissolves in The Tempest, except the sea. From one perspective the sea is dissolution itself, but evidently not so in this unique play. There is no Imogen or Autolycus in The Tempest; personality seems no longer to be a prime Shakespearean concern, and it is inapplicable anyway to the nonhuman Ariel and half-human Caliban. A visionary comedy was not a new genre for Shakespeare; A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Bottom’s play, yet also Puck’s. Still, The Tempest – unlike Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale – is not at all a recapitulation. Mysteriously, it seems an inaugural work, a different mode of comedy, one that Beckett attempted to rival in Endgame, a blending of Hamlet with The Tempest.

Allegory was not a Shakespearean mode, and I find little in The Tempest. W.B.C. Watkins, an admirable critic, noted Spenserian elements in Ariel’s harpy scene and in the masque of Ceres, neither of which is one of the glories of the play. The Tempest provokes speculation, partly because we expect esoteric wisdom from Prospero, though we never receive any. His awesome art is absurdly out of proportion to his purposes, his adversaries are a sorry lot, and could be defeated by a mere Sycorax, rather than by the mightiest of magi. I suspect that anti-Faustianism is again the best clue to Prospero, magic scarcely beats dramatic representation, unless a deflationary element is also at work. Shakespeare was interested in everything, and yet cared far more about inwardness than about magic. When his own so potent art turned aside from inwardness, after the extraordinary fourteen months in which he wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra, a kind of emptying out of the self pervaded Coriolanus and Timon of Athens. The apparent influx of myth and miracle that scholars celebrate in the last plays is more ironic and even farcical than we have taken it to be. Prospero’s magic is not always a persuasive substitute for the waning inwardness, and Shakespeare gives signs that he is cognizant of this trouble.

Prospero is nearly as nervous about missed cues and temporal limitations as Macbeth was, and his absolute magic is jumpily aware that its sway cannot be eternal, that its authority is provisional. Authority seems to me the play’s mysterious preoccupation. I say ‘mysterious’ because Prospero’s authority is unlike anyone else’s in Shakespeare. To say what it is not is easy enough: not legal power, even though Prospero was legitimate Duke of Milan. Nor is it precisely moral: Prospero is not truly anxious to justify himself. Perhaps it has a link to what Kent implies when, in the disguise of Caius, he again seeks service with his master, Lear, but Prospero does not have much in him of Lear’s divine majesty. Prospero seeks a kind of secularized spiritual authority, and he finally attains something like it, though at considerable human expense to himself. Gerald Hammond, in his wonderful study of seventeenth-century English poetry and poems, Fleeting Things (1990), makes a fine observation on how even the opening scene introduces the problem of authority: ‘The Tempest begins its exploration of the uses and abuses of authority with a foundering ship on which passengers and crew are at odds.’ The honest old Gonzalo admonishes the forthright Boatswain to remember whom he has aboard, and receives a wonderful reply:

None that I love more than myself. You are a counselor; if you can command these elements to silence, and work the peace of the presence, we will not hand a rope more; use your authority: if you cannot, give thanks you have lived so long, and make yourself ready in your cabin for the mischance of the hour, if it so hap. Cheerly, good hearts! Out of our way, I say.


The ironic authority has been usurped by Prospero, who commended these elements to storm. When we first encounter Prospero, in the next scene, we hear him urging Miranda to ‘be collected’ and cease to be distracted by tempest and shipwreck, since he assures us that no one has been hurt in the slightest. This is so endlessly suggestive that an audience has to be somewhat bewildered. If the overwhelming storm – which totally convinced the experienced Boatswain of its menace – is unreal, then what in the play can be accepted when it appears. A.D. Nuttall describes much of The Tempest as ‘pre-allegorical,’ a phenomenal sheen that encourages us both to marvel and to be skeptical. Prospero, though he later seems to be influenced by Ariel’s concern for the victims of the magi’s illusions, would seem to have decided upon ‘the rarer action’ of forgiving his enemies even before he plots to get then under his control.

Since Prospero, through Ariel and his lesser daemons, controls nature on, and near, the island, the audience never can be sure what it is they behold When Prospero tells us that ‘bountiful Fortune’ has brought his enemies to the shore, we can only wonder at the cosmological intelligence service that is at play. Ariel’s first entrance (in advance of Caliban’s) dissolves no ambiguities. The all-powerful spirit had been imprisoned in a pine tree by the witch Sycorax, and would be there still had not Prospero’s art liberated him. Evidently Ariel has not the resources to fend off magic, which is thus assigned a potency greater than that of the angelic world. Fire and air, like Caliban’s earth and water, yield to the Fifth Element of hermetic sages and North African witches. The pleasantly teasing relationship between Prospero and Ariel contrasts with the fury of hatred between Prospero and Caliban, and yet Ariel, no more than Caliban, has the freedom to evade Prospero’s will. Before Act I closes, that potent will charms Prince Ferdinand into a frozen stasis, demonstrating that the human, like the supernatural and the preternatural, is subject to Prospero’s Art.

We hardly recognize that The Tempest is a comedy whenever Prospero is on stage. That may be only a consequence of our acting and directing traditions, which have failed to exploit the contrasts between the anti-Faust’s authority and the antics of his hapless enemies. Since Prospero makes no appearance in Act II, the delicious humor comes through, even in some of our current ideological jamborees that pass for productions of The Tempest. Shakespeare is subtly genial and shrewd in the dialogues given to his castaways:


Though this island seem to be desert,–


Ha, ha, ha! So, you’re paid.


Uninhabitable and almost inaccessible,–






He could not miss’t.


It must needs be of subtle, tender and delicate


Temperance was a delicate wench.


Ay, and a subtle; as he most learnedly delivered.


The air breathes upon us here most sweetly.


As if it had lungs and rotten ones.


Or as ’twere perfumed by a fen.


Here is everything advantageous to life.


True; save means to live.


Of that there’s none, or little.


How lush and lusty the grass looks! how green!


The ground indeed is tawny.


With an eye of green in’t.


He misses not much.


No; he doth but mistake the truth totally.


Partly this works as an intricate allusion to the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the destruction of Babylon:

‘Come downe and sit in the dust: a virgine, daughter Babel, sit on the grounde: there is no throne, O daughter of the Chaldeans: for thou shalt no more be called, Tendre and delicate.’

(Geneva Bible, Isaiah 47:1)

Temperance, a woman’s name among the Puritans, meaning both ‘calm’ and ‘chaste,’ is also a word for a moderate climate. Antonio, Prospero’s usurping brother, and Sebastian, would-be usurper of his brother, Alonso, King of Naples, are the unredeemable villains of the play. Gonzalo and Adrian, more amiable, are the butts of this nasty duo, but the jokes, on their deeper level, go against the scoffers, since the Isaiah allusion is a warning of the fall that awaits evildoers. The immediate comedy is that Gonzalo and Adrian have the truer perspective, since the isle (though they cannot know this) is enchanted, while Antonio and Sebastian are savage reductionists, who themselves ‘mistake the truth totally.’ The audience perhaps begins to understand that perspective governs everything on Prospero’s island, which can be seen either as desert or as paradise, depending upon the viewer.

Isaiah and Montaigne fuse in Gonzalo’s subsequent rhapsody of an ideal commonwealth that he would establish upon the isle, were he king of it. The taunts of Sebastian and Antonio at this charming prospect prepare us for their attempt to murder the sleeping Alonso and Gonzalo, who are saved by Ariel’s intervention, an episode more melodramatic than the comic contest allows to apprehend seriously. Comedy returns in the meeting between Caliban and King Alonso’s jester, Trinculo, and his perpetually intoxicated brother, Stephano. Poor Caliban, hero of our current discourses on colonialism, celebrates his new freedom from Prospero by worshiping Trinculo as his god:

No more dams I’ll make for fish

Nor fetch in firing

At requiring;

Nor scrape trenchering, nor wash dish:

‘Ban, ‘Ban, Cacaliban

Has a new master – get a new man.

Freedom, high-day! high-day, freedom! freedom,

high-day, freedom!

The complexities of Caliban multiply in Act III, where his timid brutality and hatred of Prospero combine in a murderous scheme:

Why, as I told thee, ‘tis a custom with him

I’ th’ afternoon to sleep: there thou mayst brain him,

Having first seiz’d his books; or with a log

Batter his skull, or paunch him with a stake,

Or cut his wezand with thy knife. Remember

First to possess his books; for without them

He’s but a sot, as I am, nor hath not

One spirit to command: they all do hate him

As rootedly as I. Burn but his books.


The viciousness of this contrasts with the aesthetic poignance of Caliban’s reaction to the invisible Ariel’s 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 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.


the tempest photos act 5 2What reconciles the two passages is Caliban’s childishness, he is still very young, and his uncompleted education yielded to the trauma adoption. Shakespeare, inventing the half-human in Caliban, astonishingly blends together the childish and the childlike, As audience, we are repelled by the childish, gruesome fantasies of battering Prospero’s skull, or paunching him with a stake, or cutting his windpipe with a knife. Yet only a few moments on, we are immensely moved by the exquisite, childlike pathos of Caliban’s Dickensian dream. Far from the heroic rebel that our academic and theatrical ideologues now desire him to become, Caliban is a Shakespearean representation of the family romance at its most desperate, with an authentic changeling who cannot bear his outcast condition.

As a victim of that condition, Caliban is the ironic forerunner of the state of traumatized confusion that Prospero and Ariel will impose upon all of the castaway princes and nobles. Hounded by Ariel in the guise of a Harpy, they are at last herded into a grove near Prospero’s cell, to await his judgment. First, the magus celebrates the betrothal of Miranda and Ferdinand with a visionary masque performed by spirits at his command. Poetically, this entertainment seems to me the nadir of The Tempest, and I suggest it may be, in some places, a deliberate parody of the court masques that Jonson was composing for James I at the moment that Shakespeare’s play was written. Far more important than the masque itself is the manner of its disruption, when Prospero suddenly suffers the crucial trial of his Art. He starts suddenly, and when he speaks, the masque vanishes:

I had forgot that foul conspiracy,

Of the beast Caliban and his confederates

Against my life: the minute of their plot

Is almost come.


Few theatrical coups, even in Shakespeare, match this. On edge throughout the play to seize the propitious moment, Prospero has so lulled himself with the showman’s aspect of his Art that he, and all his, nearly are undone. Critics tend to slight Prospero’s perturbation here, questions its necessity, as if they were so many Ferdinands, finding it ‘strange.’ Miranda refutes them when she observes that ‘Never till this day/Saw I him touch’d with anger, so distemper’d.’ His anger is not just with ‘the beast Caliban,’ discarded foster son, but with himself for failing in alertness, in the control of consciousness. A lifetime of devotion to the strict discipline of Hermetic love has only barely prevailed, and something in Prospero’s self-confidence is forever altered.

I am not at all clear as to why critics should find this a mystery. Shakespeare invents the psychology of overpreparing the event, from which the majority of us suffer. I think of Browning’s Childe Roland, one of Shakespeare’s heirs, who suddenly comes upon the Dark Tower and chides himself: ‘Dunce,/Dotard, a-dozing at the very nonce,/After a life spent training for the sight!’ Prospero’s mastery depends upon a strictly trained consciousness, which must be unrelenting. His momentary letting-go is more than a danger signal and provides his most memorable utterance, addressed to Ferdinand, his prospective son-in-law, and so heir both to Naples and to Milan:

You do look, my son, in a mov’d sort,

As if you were dismay’d: be cheerful, sir.

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-capp’d 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. Sir, I am vex’d;

Bear with my weakness; my old brain is troubled:

Be not disturb’d with my infirmity:

If you be pleas’d, retire into my cell,

And there repose: a turn or two I’ll walk,

To still my beating mind.


A tradition of interpretation, now little credited, read this as Shakespeare’s overt farewell to his art. That is certainly rather too reductive, yet one wonders at ‘the great globe itself,’ which may contain an ironic reference to Shakespeare’s own theater. Whether or not there is a personal element here, Prospero’s great declaration confirms the audience’s sense that this is a magus without transcendental beliefs, whether Christian or Hermetic-Neo-Platonic. Prospero’s vision and the London of towers, palaces, and the Globe itself shall dissolve, not to be replaced by God, heaven, or any other entity. Nor do we appear to have any resurrection ‘our little life/Is rounded with sleep.’ What the audience sees upon the stage is insubstantial, and so is the audience itself. What vexes Prospero indeed is his infirmity, his lapse of attention, and the murderousness of Caliban, but what might vex the audience is the final realization that this powerful wizard pragmatically is a nihilist, a kind of benign Iago (an outrageous phrase!), whose project of necessity must end in his despair. When he urgently summons Ariel, and says, ‘Spirit,/We must prepare to meet with Caliban,’ the willing replay is:

Ay, my commander: when I presented Ceres,

I thought to have told thee of it, but I fear’d

Lest I might anger thee.


Since Ariel and Prospero rather easily drive out Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo, who flee before spirit hounds, we are left to wonder what Ariel might have done had Prospero not rouses himself. Not once in the play does Ariel act without a specific order from Prospero, so perhaps the danger from Caliban’s plot was more real than many critics concede. There is a certain air of relief in Prospero’s language as he addresses Ariel to open Act V, when the culmination is at hand:

Now does my project gather to a head:

My charms crack not, my spirits obey; and time

Goes upright with his carriage. How’s the day?


After ordering Ariel to release the King of Naples and the other worthies, Prospero achieves the zenith of his anti-Fautianism in a great speech of renunciation, which nevertheless provides more fresh queries than answers:

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves,

And ye that on the sands with printless foot

Do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him

When he comes back, you demi-puppets that

By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,

Whereof the ewe not bites; and you whose pastime

Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice

To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid –

Weak masters though ye be – I have bedimm’d

The noontime 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 the 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

I have abjure, and, when I have requir’d

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 poetic strength of The Tempest, perhaps even of Shakespeare, touches a limit of art in this apparent kenosis, or emptying-out, of Prospero’s mortal godhood. If I say ‘apparent,’ it is because the unholy powers of the magus surpass anything we could have expected, and we wonder if this declaration really can undo his acquired nature, which itself is art. The spirits supposedly being dismissed are deprecated as ‘weak masters,’ and we have to ask when and why Prospero roused the dead. That art indeed would have been so much more than potent that to term is ‘rough magic’ is altogether inadequate. Which book will be drowned, out of the number in Prospero’s library, or is this not his own manuscript?

Prospero’s abjuration sounds more like a great assertion of power than like a withdrawal from efficacy. Nothing Prospero says severs him more from Shakespeare than this speech. We are listening not to a poet-playwright but to an uncanny magician whose art has become so internalized that it cannot be abandoned, even though he insists it will be. The single scene that is Act V will continue for some 250 lines, during which Prospero’s authority suffers no diminishment. Why do Antonio and Sebastian, who express no repentance whatsoever, take no action against Prospero, if he no longer commands spirits? When Prospero, in an aside to Sebastian and Antonio, says that he knows of their plot against King Alonso, yet ‘at this time/I will tell no tales,’ why do they not cut him down? Sebastian only mutters, in an aside, ‘The devil speaks in him,’ and indeed from the perspective of the villains, the devil does inhabit Prospero, who terrifies them. Prospero may yet attempt to abandon his art, but it is not at all clear that his supernatural authority ever will abandon him. his deep melancholy as the play closes may not be related to his supposed renunciation.

Most of what we hear in the remainder of The Tempest is triumph, restoration, some reconciliation, and even some hints that Prospero and Caliban will workout their dreadful relationship, but much also is left as puzzle. We are not told that Caliban will be allowed to say on the island, will he accompany Prospero ‘to my Milan, where/Every third thought shall be my grave?’ The thought of Caliban in Italy is well-nigh unthinkable, what is scarcely thinkable is Antonio in Milan, and Sebastian in Naples. Presumably the marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda will ensure both Naples and Milan against usurpers, though who can say/ In some respects, Prospero in Milan as restored ruler is as unsettling a prospect as Caliban continuing his education in that city. Gonzalo, in a remarkable speech, tells us that Ferdinand:

    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.

Gonzalo encompasses more than he intends, for Prospero’s true dukedom may always be that poor isle, where ‘no man was his own,’ since all were Prospero’s, and only he was his own. How can the magus, whatever his remaining powers be, find himself his own in Milan?”

A great reading of the play, I think.


And to finish Kermode:

the tempest photos act 5 3“Music has a different function in the scene of the banquet (III.iii). Spirits, gentler than humans, provide it, accompanied by ‘Solemn and strange music.’ The King’s party interprets the show as kingly, but it isn’t; ‘Praise in departing’ (39), says Prospero aside, looking forward to the sequel. Ariel appears as a harpy, accompanied by thunder and lightning, and ‘with a quaint device the banquet vanishes.’ The sinners are confronted with themselves, and Ariel spells this out:

You are three men of sin, whom Destiny

That hath to instrument this lower world

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

Hath caus’d to belch up you…


That Destiny has the lower world as its instrument is proper not only to romance but to the ethic that animates it; here it uses the sea, but, as Ariel goes on to explain, ‘The pow’rs, delaying (not forgetting), have/Incens’d the seas and shores – yea, all the creatures,/Against your peace’ (73-75). The show is a call to repentance issued in the severest possible language. The immediate effect on Alonso is to drive him crazy with guilt, and he runs off to the seaside to join his supposedly drowned son:

   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, pronounc’d

The name of Prosper; it did base my trespass.

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

I’ll seek him deeper than e’er plummet sounded,

And with him there lie mudded.


The force of this tremendous passage derives from a combination of Ariel’s music and his summoning of all the ‘instruments’ of destiny as witnesses to guilt and agents of punishment. Alonso’s speech takes the form of a kind of world-music, the speech of the sea caught up in the singing of the wind, the thunder providing the deep and terrifying bass, the whole a chorus of condemnation. Thus confronted with his guilt, Alonso seeks what seems the only possible relief, to join the son he believes drowned as a consequence of his sin. Antonio and Sebastian are defiant, but as Gonzalo sees, they are also desperate. And there Act III ends.

Ferdinand’s sufferings, though Prospero calls them austere, are brief enough. Now released from servitude, he has only to undertake to respect Miranda’s virginity until they are married. The masque follows, interrupted (as somehow it must be) by Prospero’s remembering he still has to deal with the conspiracy of Caliban and Stephano.

The disappearance of the dancers ‘to a strange, hollow, and confused noise’ (IV.i.138)  gives rise to the famous speech ‘Our revels now are ended’ (148ff.) A passage may be too well known to be well known, and this one is inevitably mixed up with speculations about Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage. It restates the old topic of life, our world, as a dream, often hinted at in the play that has just ended. And the idea of comparing plays and actors to the dissolving pageant of dreams is ancient. There is much sleeping in this play (Miranda, Gonzalo, Caliban) and to suggest that life is a dream, that we ‘are such stuff as dreams are made on’ and that our ‘little life is rounded with a sleep,’ is not to make a dashing new metaphor; however, the word is ‘rounded,’ not ‘ended,’ as if the whole course of life and death were a single entity; or perhaps, as Stephen Orgel proposes, ‘rounded’ means ‘surrounded’ (‘our little life…being a brief awakening from an eternal sleep’). Certainly the very existence of plays, pageant, actors can induce in Shakespeare reflections of this sort.

But Prospero still needs to act in the other sense, to bring the play he is in to a close. Ariel gives a lively account of the tricks he has played o Stephano and his companions: they follow him ‘As they smelt music’ (178), and they are now hunted by spirits ‘in shape of dogs and hounds(254), a fate befitting their status. Now, at the end of Act IV, Prospero can say, ‘At this hour/Lies at my mercy all mine enemies’ (262-63). His ‘project’ as he calls it – as if he were an alchemist – is gathering to a head (V.i.1); the play, like the project, can now reach its end.

Prospero rather sourly declares his determination to forgive: prompted by Ariel’s remark that he would pity Prospero’s enemies ‘were he human,’ the mage states, ‘The rare actions /In virtue than in vengeance’ (V.i.27-28) (again a not uncommon position, here given rather gnomic utterance).

Having said farewell to anger, he says farewell also to magic. His second most celebrated speech is a renunciation of the powers he has used in bringing on the climax of this action. ‘Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves’ (33ff) is a splendid set piece that owes a great deal to a speech of Media in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (vii.197-209). Ovid was always Shakespeare’s favorite classical author, and here he looks to the Latin as well as to Arthur Golding’s translation of 1597. Media is a sorceress as well as an infanticide. The magic that Prospero abjures is ‘rough,’ and is said to include raising the dead. What is to follow is not a loftier magic but the resumption of mortal humanity: the breaking of the staff, the drowning of the book. The resumption of his formal clothing as Duke of Milan will ensure that he will be no longer a mage, only a duke.

One last demand for heavenly music finds Alonso and his friends within a magic circle, charmed, tranced; as the charm dissolves, Prospero addresses them in turn. Ariel celebrates his eminent freedom and is sent to look after the mariners, asleep in their ship. (Once more we have sleepers, people in trances; the play will not let us forget sleep, dreams, trances.) Prospero’s forgiveness of his brother is notoriously not very gracious (‘For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother/Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive/Thy rankest fault’ (130-32)). Firmly in control, he toys with Alonso, claiming to have lost a daughter as Alonso has lost a son, whereupon the lovers are discovered playing chess (another of the ‘discoveries’ that punctuate this play). It is rightly thought Shakespearian that Sebastian should be given the exclamation “A most high miracle!’ (177) and Ferdinand, the lucky lover, the key lines of the piece: ‘Though the seas threaten, they are merciful;/I have curs’d them without cause.’ (178-79).

the tempest photos act 5 4Now, as the details of recognition are registered, Miranda makes her celebrated remark: ‘O wonder!/How many goodly creatures are there here!/How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world/That has such people in’t!’ (181-84) and Prospero his disillusioned reply: ‘Tis new to thee.’ Miranda’s lines have depth; she can see what her father has learned not to see. The comparison she has in mind is with Caliban and possibly her father; she does not know that the beauteous are likely also to be corrupt. The remorse of Alonso and the rejoicing of Gonzalo set the tone for these recognitions; as Gonzalo says they are divinely appointed (201-4). After so much practice Shakespeare knew how to achieve the right rapt tone for these conclusions: ‘O, rejoice/Beyond a common joy, and set it down/With gold on lasting pillars’ (206-8).

The sailors arrive to be included, waking from their deep sleep to find their ship in wonderful shape, though they are immediately entranced and in another dream. The thieving drunks are then produced. Sycorax is mentioned as a witch having much the same powers as Prospero, described in the same passage of Ovid concerning Medea. As to her son, ‘this thing of darkness I/Acknowledge mine,’ says Prospero (275-76). He had made the mistake of offering nurture to one whose nature it would never stick, civility and language to one incapable of receiving it. The play has hinted qualifications to this, but Caliban now says he has learned something and will ‘seek for grace.’

The Epilogue – one of ten of Shakespeare’s that survive – is a conventional appeal for applause. There is no good reason to believe that this example of the genre is dedicated to personal allegory. Prospero says he is now an actor without a part, a magician without magic; the spell he is under is a spell of disapproval and can be broken only by applause, which he prays the audience to provide. The Epilogue is neatly tied to the themes and language of the play – charms, spells, enchantment, bands, a project, a ship, an act of forgiveness. It is delivered by an ex-magician who, having renounced his powers, can only with the help of the audience get back to Naples (unlikely, here, to be a figurative version of Stratford.)

A ‘disciplined passion of curiosity,’ said Henry James, and to think about the style of The Tempest is to have some sense of his meaning. After the awkward moments of the exposition, its linguistic discipline is extraordinary. Of course there are passages where the business is to carry forward narrative and no spectacular effects are called for. But the irruptions of Ariel, for whom, as for Caliban, a new dramatic language had to be invented, the pervasiveness of music; the quiet verbal insistence on dream, on spirit, on sea give The Tempest qualities that are in the end beyond description, and have for so long made it an object of something like veneration. Attempts to provide it with a close relationship to the author’s life are a mark of that respect; and so, one hopes, are the readings that exaggerate the play’s relevance to Jacobean colonialism. Of course it cannot be said that neither of these relationships exist, only that they are secondary to the beautiful object itself.”


So what does everyone think about the play?  And for those of you who have it before this round, how has your reading of the play changed?


My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning, final thought on The Tempest.

Future posts:  Thursday evening/Friday morning my sonnet post.  And then Sunday evening/Monday morning, my introduction to our next play, Henry VII (All Is True)


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8 Responses to “..I’ll break my staff,/Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,/And deeper than did ever plummet sound/I’ll drown my book.”

  1. anzanhoshin says:

    You had mentioned Murakami, by whom I suppose you to mean Haruki rather than Ryu, as your next overarching project. Naturally, this would be interesting. But as with Proust, one is then dealing only with translations. Although Murakami (Haruki) has a hand in the translations, I still cannot take the book as anything other than merely a translation of the book. While with Shakespeare there is sometimes the matter of editions, still, for the most part the language is the language. All of this to say, I would much prefer an author who writes in English. Though I will likely follow or at least check in on whatever you might do.

    Thanks once more for your excellent articles.

    • Mahood says:

      I know what you mean about the translations, it can be frustrating…that said, it is simply impossible to read all the great writers/books in their original versions if you don’t have the language.

      I find searching for the ‘best’ translators a task that is very rewarding in itself: you can think of the famous ‘bad’ translators – Constance Garnett making a mess of the Russian classics; H. T. Lowe-Porter’s poor translations of Thomas Mann into English etc., but there are always alternative translators who will try to justify their translations – Pevear/Volokhonsky on Dostovsky, for example, or John E. Woods on Mann, or Edith Grossman on Cervantes…their introductions to the text often provide a insight into the process of translation.

      in the end though, they may always fall victim to the old Italian saying: “Traduttori traditori” — “translators traitors” (!)

    • Like Mahood, I know what you mean about translations. It’s an issue I went through with Proust, and with Dostoevsky and with every translated book I’ve ever read. Years ago, I was hanging out at a friend’s bookstore in New Orleans, and a mutual friend came in to purchase a copy of Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons” My friend had three different editions, each with a different translator. We compared the first paragraph of each — it was amazing to me how different each was, in tone, in meaning. But that being said, unless one learns all the major languages (and some of the not so major) one is dependent on translators. And given the choice between only reading books in English or reading books in translation, I’m going to take the leap and hope to find a translation that seems to me to read closest to what think is the original voice.

  2. Eddie says:

    You wrote “Henry VII” for the next play, though I’m sure you meant “Henry VIII”. I was panicked for a moment, thinking there was another play I didn’t know about!

  3. Mahood says:

    Bloom’s connection between the relationship of Clov and Hamm in Endgame and Ariel and Prospero in the Tempest was interesting…in fact, as I read the specific passages dealing with Prospero & Ariel (and Prospero & Caliban, especially), I kept thinking about the master/slave relationship of Lucky and Pozzo in Waitiing for Godot…

    …and during Lucky’s speech, he makes direct reference to Miranda (and her line from Act 1 Scene 2 ‘O, I have suffered/With those that I saw suffer…’) by saying/thinking ‘…and suffers like the divine Miranda with those who for reasons unknown but time will tell are plunged in torment plunged in fire…’

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