Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
Ariel announces the final hour of Prospero’s plan and reports that the King and his followers are imprisoned in the grove and in a state of distraction, especially Gonzalo: “Your charm so strongly works ’em / That if you now beheld them, your affections / Would become tender” (V.i.17-19). “Dost thou think so, spirit?” Prospero asks. “Mine would, sir, were I human.” “And mine shall,” resolves Prospero, since he is human; “with my nobler reason, ‘gainst my fury / Do I take part. The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance” (V.i.19-28). He’ll release them, restore their senses, “And they shall be themselves” (V.i.32).
This is the key moment in the play, and calling Prospero “one of a long line of Shakespeare’s worried rulers … for whom the burden of power is greater than its rewards,” Stanley Wells remarks, “The question that faces the play’s interpreters is whether from the start Prospero acted with the benevolent aim of bringing his enemies to a truer knowledge of themselves and then forgiving them, or whether, at the opposite extreme, he acted with the intention rather of seeking a vengeance from which he is deflected only by surprised acknowledgement of Ariel’s sympathy for them” (Wells 367). The reliably insightful Goddard decides, “Prospero thinks it is his reason that overcomes his fury. But what has just happened contradicts him. It was his angel that whispered the suggestion in his ear” (Goddard, II 283). “Those who, once powerful, suffer defeat, are restored to power, and then might take revenge but do not — they hold the keys of peace” (Goddard, II 284; cf. Sonnet 94). Thus can the play be considered a revenge tragedy, “turned, at the last moment, toward forgiveness” (Garber 853).
While Ariel is off fetching the men, Prospero recounts his powers’ accomplishments:
I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and azur’d vault
Set roaring war; to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire, and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-bas’d promontory
Have I made shake, and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar. Graves at my command
Have wak’d their sleepers, op’d, and let them forth
By my so potent art.
“The magician’s summary of his deeds — the graves he has opened, the wars of the elements he has fomented, the oaks he has rifted with lightning-bolts, on to the heavenly music he is even now ‘requiring,’ which might so easily be The Tempest itself — fits the masterpieces of the poet so exactly that the inference seems all but inescapable” (Goddard, II 278-279). The speech paraphrases Medea in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book VII. But all this has come to an end for Prospero:
I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fadoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.
Ariel leads in the court figures who stand under a spell. Gonzalo remarks, “All torment, trouble, wonder and amazement / Inhabits here” (V.i.104-105), which has been taken as Burghley’s commentary on theater. Prospero pays homage to Gonzalo and has Ariel fetch his hat and rapier so that he will restore his more recognizable Milan appearance of twelve years ago. Ariel sings “Where the bee sucks” (and we still have what may be the original music for this and other Tempest songs), and Prospero refers to Ariel’s coming freedom, after he fetches the mariners who are asleep aboard the King’s ship.
The men emerge from their stupors and Alonso begs forgiveness from Prospero and resigns his dukedom (V.i.118-119). Prospero greets Gonzalo warmly and the others less so, telling Sebastian and Antonio that he could reveal them as traitors but that he’ll keep quiet at this time. Prospero’s forgiveness certainly lacks warmth when he speaks to his brother (Wells 369). Alonso asks how Prospero has survived and mentions his lost son. Prospero claims to have lost a daughter “In this last tempest” (V.i.153) but means it metaphorically. “This cell’s my court” (V.i.166), he says Prospero, and then reveals to Alonso and the others Ferdinand and Miranda playing chess in his cave.
All are reunited, and Miranda meets a batch of humans for the first time:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in it!
By “brave” she mean noble in the phrase that inspired Huxley’s 1932 work. The sentiment is qualified by Prospero’s paternalistic, “‘Tis new to thee” (V.i.184). Alonso is devastated with delight and wants to apologize, but Prospero says, “Let us not burthen our remembrances with / A heaviness that’s gone” (V.i.199-200).
Ariel leads in the sailors for further reunions and reliefs. They have been asleep all this time, and “Thus the play is framed by the sleep of the mariners, who take no part in the action (Garber 860). Ariel then brings in Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban, who have been harassed by the spirits. Alonso chides the two men and Caliban. Prospero calls Caliban
This misshapen knave —
His mother was a witch, and one so strong
That could control the moon, make flows and ebbs,
And deal in her command without her power.(V.i.268-271)
The elder Ogburns take this as a reference to the unpreposessing Alençon and his too-powerful mother Catherine de Medici. Marriage negotiations with Elizabeth lasted twelve years; Caliban is earlier called “Monsieur Monster” (III.ii.18); Argier may refer not to Angiers but to Angers, the capital of the dukedom; and Sycorax may be a combination of sycophant and rex (Ogburn and Ogburn 551-552). According to this reading, which places the earliest version of the play in the 1580s, Oxford’s imagination is freed from having to propagandize the Alençon match at last (Ogburn and Ogburn 552).
Prospero also admits, regarding Caliban, “this thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine” (V.i.275-276). Caliban is abashed at having devoted himself to the other two: “What a thrice-double ass / Was I to take this drunkard for a god, / And worship this dull fool!” (V.i.296-298).
Prospero invites the nobles into his cave where he’ll tell his life story; then tomorrow they’ll sail,
Where I have hope to see the nuptial
Of these our dear-belov’d solemnized,
And thence retire me to my Milan, where
Every third thought shall be my grave.
Prospero promises “calm seas” (V.i.315), tells Ariel to make sure of it, and frees him: “Then to the elements / Be free, and fare thou well!” (V.i.318-319).
Prospero declares that since he relinquished his powers, his coming journey relies on the good will of the audience, expressed in their applause. “As you from crimes would pardon’d be, / Let your indulgence set me free” (19-20). Even if we interpret the play and its Epilogue as the playwright’s farewell to his art, a “self-silencing” (Anderson 352), which some find too sentimental an interpretation — “it is we, not the playwright, who seem to need a ceremonial occasion to say good-bye” (Garber 870; cf. Wells 370; Asimov 670) — still the final mood is “one of acceptance rather than of mourning” (Wells 368), and the play ends with no one having come to any physical harm, a rarity in Shakespeare (Asimov 670), as is the fact that the play has obeyed the unities too (Garber 862).
The elder Ogburns think this play was placed first in the First Folio — possibly by Mary Sidney, with whom de Vere must have been negotiating the marriages of his two younger daughters at some point (cf. Farina 22) — as a kind of prelude (Ogburn and Ogburn 1209) to the canon. There are passages so awkward in the play that not even the young Oxford could have been responsible for them (852), and therefore it was a play completed perhapsby Derby, “finished as a tribute to the great conjurer,” his father-in-law Oxford (Ogburn and Ogburn 538). We know the in-laws visited at least four times between the marriage of Derby and Elizabeth Vere in 1595 and 1599, when Derby was supposedly “penning comedies for the common players.”
The Ogburns also feel that some form of the play was written at the end of Oxford’s banishment from court in the early 1580s (Ogburn and Ogburn 536-537). Twelve years earlier than this, Oxford would indeed have been, like Prospero, a new “prince of power” (Ogburn and Ogburn 542-543).
Insofar as we have here a “fable of art and creation” (Garber 852), with Prospero “as a figure for the artist as creator — as Shakespeare’s stand-in” (Garber 852), then an allegorical reading does make some sense of The Tempest as a statement about the playwright’s art. The island is the theater, and Miranda the plays (Ogburn and Ogburn 878, 881). Caliban might be many things, including the “rude, untutored public” (Ogburn and Ogburn 540), and his attack on Miranda either the piratical phenomenon yielding would-be bastard copies (Ogburn and Ogburn 541) or perhaps the CALvinist puritans trying to BAN plays (Ogburn and Ogburn 540). Stephano and Trinculo = Shakspere, to be given the island by Caliban (Ogburn and Ogburn 558) if they can “possess his books.” So “the easily befuddled public should continue to believe the imposter the king of the magic island” (Ogburn and Ogburn 560). In any case, wider acceptance can be expected of the idea of the “tempest” as the storms of life, from which the magic island of theater and the arts serve as a refuge. In a letter to Robert Cecil in 1603, shorty after the death of Queen Elizabeth, Oxford wrote,
In this common shipwreck, mine is above the rest, who least regarded though often comforted of all her followers, she hath left to try my fortune among the altercations of time and chance, either without sail whereby to take the advantage of any prosperous gale, or with anchor ride till the storm be overpast. (qtd. in Farina 23)