Literature Study GuidesThe TempestAct 5 Scene 1 And Epilogue Summary

The Tempest | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Tempest | Act 5, Scene 1 and Epilogue | Summary

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Summary

Prospero, accompanied by Ariel, enters the stage wearing his magic robes again. He has everything under control: "Now does my project gather to a head./My charms crack not, my spirits obey, and time/Goes upright with his carriage." Ariel reports on where the king and his followers are. The whole group of men is deeply distressed, especially "good old Lord Gonzalo" whose "tears runs down his beard like winter's drops/From eaves of reeds." Ariel suggests that if Prospero saw them, his heart would soften toward them. Prospero is moved and agrees that as a fellow human, he should be even more compassionate than Ariel since his wrongdoers have shown repentance. Acknowledging that "The rarer action is/In virtue than in vengeance," he commands Ariel to release all the prisoners and bring them to him.

Prospero draws a circle on the ground. He then speaks to the various spirits he has used in this magical work over these last years. He acknowledges their role and names some of the things he has been able to do through his magic. But then he explains his plan to give up his magic by breaking his staff and drowning his book after he finishes dealing with King Alonso and his men.

Ariel brings Alonso, Gonzalo, Sebastian, Antonio, and the other men into the circle Prospero has drawn. They are still paralyzed by a magic spell and do not recognize Prospero or hear him. Prospero announces that he will "cure thy brains" and restore their senses. Seeing his loyal friend Gonzalo, Prospero is moved to tears and promises he will return home safely. Then Prospero turns to the men who forced him into exile and recalls their crimes, including Sebastian and Antonio's murderous plot against Alonso. Instead of condemning them as expected, he forgives them. He takes off his magic robes and puts on his former ducal robes before waking the men. He reminds Ariel that the spirit will soon receive freedom but first must fetch the sailors still under a sleeping spell in the ship.

When the king and his men wake they see Prospero as he looked when he was the duke of Milan. They are frightened by the sight, not sure whether it is really Prospero or some kind of ghost. They are also filled with guilt for their role in deposing Prospero of his dukedom. But Prospero, instead of condemning them, comforts and welcomes them, showing great honor toward his old and loyal friend Gonzalo. He tells Sebastian and Antonio he knows of their plot against Alonso, but he will not reveal it. He publicly forgives even his brother, but demands, "My dukedom of thee, which perforce I know/Thou must restore." Antonio does not say anything in response.

The grieving Alonso tells Prospero about the loss of his son Ferdinand. Prospero withholds information about Ferdinand's safety and commiserates with the king about the loss of his own daughter. Alonso wishes that the two young people "were living both in Naples,/The King and Queen there!" Prospero then reveals Ferdinand and Miranda happily playing chess together in his house. When Miranda sees the crew, servants, and nobles, she exclaims, "O wonder!/How many goodly creatures are there here!/How beauteous mankind is! O, brave new world/That has such people in 't!" Alonso is astonished that Ferdinand is alive, and Ferdinand is overjoyed to see that his father lives. The prince explains to his father who Miranda is and the nature of their coming marriage. Alonso, remembering his guilt in the exile of Prospero, begins to apologize, but Prospero stops him with an eye to the hopeful future: "Let us not burden our remembrances with/A heaviness that's gone."

Gonzalo says a prayer of thanksgiving and retraces all that has happened and how much has been gained since their journey began. Ariel then appears with the sailors who share the amazing news that the ship is in perfect condition. It is Ariel who has done this reparation of the boat, and Prospero praises the spirit for it.

Finally it is time for Prospero to deal with Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo, who are brought in, still drunk. Prospero describes their bad behavior, including Stephano's plan to become king of the island. Stephano, coming to his senses, realizes that "I should have been a sore one, then." Prospero sends the men away to get cleaned up before he pardons them. Caliban admits that he was foolish to see Trinculo as a god and promises to seek Prospero's favor in the future.

Prospero tells the men that the next day they will all set sail for Naples to celebrate the wedding of Ferdinand and Miranda. Then he will resume his position as duke of Milan where he will grow old in peace. Then he frees the faithful Ariel.

The play finishes with an epilogue that Prospero speaks directly to the audience. He asks to be released from the play so that he, a regular man now, can travel to Naples. He reminds them that the goal of his magic was to please, and now he wants to be set free.

Analysis

At the beginning of this scene Prospero is wearing his magic robes and has everything under his control. Prospero is at the height of his power. Yet Ariel reminds him there is a limit to this magical event they are orchestrating, which began "When first I raised the tempest." The conversation hints that the theatrical pageant is coming to an end, and this end was planned from the very beginning. This suggests Prospero's magic was only to serve a certain purpose and not to gain magical control for good.

No sooner has it become clear how powerful Prospero is than he uses his power to reverse what seemed to be his plan of revenge. After considering how much more compassionate he should be to penitent humans than Ariel, he reflects on how important it is to use reason and virtue to control emotions and vengeance. The theme of forgiveness and restoration reemerges, completing the transformation of the power of revenge into a beneficial power produced for the good of many.

When Prospero makes his speech to the spirits and vows to "break my staff" and "drown my book," it isn't yet entirely clear why he is ready to give up all his magic. He has gotten to the height of his power and orchestrated everything he wanted to, but when it comes time to act out his final revenge he is unwilling to harm anyone. Perhaps Shakespeare is suggesting great power does not satisfy unless it is used for good.

Instead of enacting justice against men who deserve some kind of punishment, Prospero turns justice on its head and extends mercy and forgiveness, even if it is "unnatural." In many of his revelations about what the men have done to him, he is speaking while the men are still under a spell. They do not hear him. In this way the old magician absorbs the crimes himself and does not exact payment for their evil. There is a unique power in mercy and forgiveness to restore the characters in the play. Sebastian is so surprised by Prospero's behavior, in fact, that he first ascribes it to evil rather than good: "The devil speaks in him." The forgiveness is almost too good to believe—in fact, it creates its own "magical" power because it comes out of nowhere and restores people to good relationships. Justice does require, however, that Prospero's dukedom be restored.

The theme of power continues through the end of the play, although now it is not for the purpose of exploitation but for restoration. Prospero has given up his ultimate plan of revenge, but he is still in control of the events. He controls Sebastian and Antonio by not revealing their treachery against King Alonso. And he remains in control of Alonso, as well, by depicting his own lost daughter and explaining that he lost her "In this last tempest," before revealing that both Miranda and Ferdinand are alive. All the way to the final lines of the play, Prospero uses his knowledge and power to manage the outcome of the events. However, since Antonio never repents and does not offer the dukedom to Prospero, the repentance and forgiveness of the last scene seem incomplete, which implies that while Prospero can manipulate circumstances, his power over individuals is limited.

The audience is reminded of Miranda's innocence when she sees so many humans together for the first time. Despite the corruption that has tainted the various characters, Shakespeare reminds the audience of the marvel of humanity through Miranda's joy at seeing so many people. Perhaps Shakespeare is reminding his audience there is value in stepping back and marveling at the wonder that makes humanity unique in the world. Channeling the good in humanity creates a power that is difficult to reckon with.

The theme of magic supported by the symbols of sleeping and dreaming emphasize the natural and unnatural elements of the events on the island. When the boatswain and other sailors return, they marvel that they "were dead of sleep" and when they woke up they were free and the ship was in perfect order. "Even in a dream were we divided from them," the boatswain says. Shakespeare continues to keep the lines murky between illusion and reality through the use of Prospero's magic, just as Shakespeare uses the false reality of a play to show the audience the way humans and the world function.

At the end of the play Prospero's use of magic and his control of the island and its spirit residents can come to an end because he has regained his position as duke. Now he can "retire me to my Milan, where/Every third thought shall be my grave." The magician has grown old, and he is eager to re-embrace a more normal, human condition.

The character of Caliban comes full circle by the end of the play when he recognizes "What a thrice-double ass/Was I to take this drunkard for a god,/And worship this dull fool!" He vows renewed allegiance to Prospero as he admits to Prospero's power of him and the futility of disobedience. The audience wonders if Prospero will take Caliban to Milan or leave him behind on the island. Either way Caliban is a tragic figure in the midst of the play's happy ending. The best he can hope for is isolation on a deserted island or a life of physical servitude to his master, Prospero.

Romantic love finds its final fullness in Act 5, Scene 1, when both Prospero and Alonso bless the engaged couple that will, one day, rule Naples.

Many scholars view Prospero's epilogue as Shakespeare's description of his own surrender of his writing power. Just as Prospero gives up creating magic on the island, Shakespeare has finished his work and gives up creating magic on the stage. Like the old Prospero who wants to simply live out his life as a regular human in his home in Milan, Shakespeare pleads with his audience to "release me from my bands/With the help of your good hands." In other words, give him the applause he needs so he will know he has accomplished his purpose in pleasing the audience. Their accepting applause is the mercy that will "set me free."

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