The Tempest | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Tempest | Act 4, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

This scene begins with Prospero acknowledging that he has only been testing Ferdinand and Miranda's love. Now that he knows Ferdinand really loves his daughter, he is willing to bless the wedding. But he severely warns Ferdinand against taking Miranda's virginity before the wedding and promises "barren hate, sour-eyed disdain, and discord" if he doesn't respect Prospero's wishes.

To celebrate the engagement and to show his powers, Prospero instructs Ariel to go and bring spirit actors to perform a masque. Iris, Ceres, Jupiter, Venus, Mars, Hymen, and Juno all feature in this dramatic production that honors the contract of marriage. Ferdinand, amazed by Prospero's powers that can call forth such spirits at his bidding, longs to stay on the island and live with Prospero as his father and Miranda as his wife.

But Prospero suddenly stops the dancing when he remembers Caliban and his companions plan to kill him and the time is fast approaching. He disperses the spirits and comforts the disappointed Ferdinand by reminding him that everything eventually comes to an end.

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. Sir, I am vexed.
Bear with my weakness. My old brain is troubled.

With his troubled mind, Prospero sends Ferdinand and Miranda away so that he can come up with a plan.

Ariel enters and together the two discuss how best to handle "Caliban and his confederates." Ariel recalls what has already been done to the men. Using music as a lure, Ariel has brought them on an uncomfortable path through "toothed briers, sharp furzes, pricking gorse, and thorns" and then left them in a filthy, stinking pool of water near Prospero's cell. Prospero sends Ariel off to gather some glittery apparel. Meanwhile Prospero laments the devilish nature of Caliban, which cannot be broken or corrected even with the humane treatment Prospero initially offered him.

When Ariel returns they hang the fancy garments on a line near Prospero's cell. When the men enter, soaking wet from the filthy pond, they are complaining and arguing. Caliban tries to keep them focused on the matter at hand: murdering Prospero. But the men become distracted by the beautiful clothing, claiming it for "King Stephano" as Caliban becomes more and more upset that they need to "do the murder first," but the men will have none of it as they try on all the clothes. In the midst of this chaos Prospero sends spirits in the shape of hunting dogs upon the three men to drive them off.

Now Prospero recognizes that everything he has been working toward is suddenly within his control: "At this hour/Lies at my mercy all mine enemies." He only has to finish his plans and he can free Ariel.

Analysis

The subject of marriage is central to this scene, which begins with Prospero's assent to his daughter's marriage to Ferdinand and moves into the lengthy masque. Particularly at the time of the play's writing, marriage was an institution that symbolized order and structure in society. In fact many marriages were founded on reasons other than love because the social contract between two families offered economic or political power for one or both parties.

Ferdinand and Prospero discuss Miranda's virginity and the sexual pleasures of marriage. Modern audience members might extend the theme of exploitation and power to this relationship, particularly as it was written at a time when women had few rights and a wife was considered a possession of her husband. Miranda is passed from one "owner," Prospero, to another, Ferdinand, as Prospero says, "Then as my gift and thine own acquisition/Worthily purchased, take my daughter." However, it is unlikely Shakespeare was pointing to Miranda and Ferdinand's marriage as an additional type of exploitation since their marriage is a key ingredient and source of harmony in the happy ending of the play.

Prospero's repeated admonitions to Ferdinand not to give into his passions before the wedding support the ideal of romantic love, which asserts love is a pure, holy, and honorable condition. At the same time Prospero recognizes the strength of human passion, whereby "The strongest oaths are straw/To th' fire i' th' blood." Shakespeare, through Prospero, acknowledges two powerful, sometimes opposing, forces in human nature: passion and reason. Prospero's insistence that Ferdinand and Miranda undergo the full ceremony of legitimate marriage likewise shows a concern about legitimacy and formality. Despite the fact that Ferdinand has pledged his love and fidelity and technically now has a legal obligation to Miranda, Prospero wants to ensure that Miranda's future is secure.

Prospero commands a masque to be performed to celebrate the betrothal of Ferdinand and Miranda. In the 17th century a masque was an elaborate theatrical production that included costumes, actors, singing, and dancing. The characters and plots were based on story lines from Greek and Roman mythology. In the masque in The Tempest, the goddesses in the masque symbolize fertility and prosperity within family and nature.

This scene provides more insight into the humanity of Prospero's character. Despite the murderous nature of Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo's plot against Prospero, he does not severely punish them. Instead he uses magic to scare them and run them off, so that they do not try to kill him again. Prospero wishes to right wrongs, not create new ones. At the same time Ariel's devotion and Prospero's commitment to freeing Ariel are underscored. In fact there is a true, shared affection between the two, as Ariel asks, "Do you love me, master?" and Prospero responds, "Dearly, my delicate Ariel."

Prospero, who has recently been engaged with his many plans and the masque itself, stops suddenly because he has to solve a new problem. He acknowledges he is getting old and in describing the end of the masque makes clear comparisons to life itself. All the artifice of the masque is like the artifice of life, which, like a play, eventually fades. Our human lives are like short dreams that are surrounded by sleep. Many scholars view Prospero's speech here as Shakespeare's personal farewell to the theater, where his own plays and pageants "now are ended."

Prospero says at the end of the scene that "At this hour/Lies at my mercy all mine enemies," but his confession to Ferdinand a few minutes earlier that "my old brain is troubled" makes it seem like he does not find the successful completion of his revenge plan as satisfying as he had anticipated.

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