The Tempest

by: William Shakespeare


Be collected.
No more amazement. Tell your piteous heart
There’s no harm done. (I.ii.)

Following the violent tempest in Act I, Prospero tells Miranda to calm down and assures her that no real harm has been done. He’s not exactly right. Even though no one died, the storm clearly had a traumatic impact, both on the individuals who were shipwrecked and separated, and on Miranda as well. Prospero’s claim that “There’s no harm done” indicates a failure of empathy that will only become clearer over the course of the play.

Those being all my study,
The government I cast upon my brother
And to my state grew stranger, being transported
And rapt in secret studies. (I.ii.)

In Act I, Prospero tells Miranda about the events that brought them to the island. In these lines Prospero admits that even when he was still the Duke of Milan, he handed many of his duties over to his brother in order to pursue his “secret studies” in the magic arts. Although Prospero’s admission does not justify Antonio’s betrayal of his brother, the confession does indicate partial culpability on Prospero’s part.

There they hoist us,
To cry to th’ sea that roared to us, to sigh
To th’ winds whose pity, sighing back again,
Did us but loving wrong. (I.ii.)

Continuing his story to Miranda in Act I, Prospero describes how Gonzalo helped the two of them escape Milan. Prospero’s punning language of “loving wrong” signals the contradictory nature of their escape. On the one hand, Gonzalo did them wrong by sending them out to sea. On the other hand, he sent them to sea out of love, wanting to ensure their survival. Prospero’s pun nicely indicates how he feels about his current situation: resentful about his exile, but still alive and in full control of the island.

For this, be sure, tonight thou shalt have cramps,
Side-stitches that shall pen they breath up. Urchins
Shall forth at vast of night that they may work
All exercise on thee. Thou shalt be pinched
As thick as honeycomb, each pinch more stinging
Than bees that made ‘em. (I.ii.)

Just after Caliban has cursed him and his daughter in Act I, Prospero issues this threat to his insubordinate servant. Prospero’s list of threatening afflictions indicates that he has a large reserve of anger that he can unleash on Caliban at a moment’s notice. The particular language Prospero uses to describe the pain he might inflict on Caliban also indicates a lively—if also violent—imagination.

My high charms work,
And these, mine enemies, are all knit up
In their distractions. They now are in my power. (III.iii.)

By the time he utters these lines in Act III, Prospero has produced many disorienting “distractions” to confuse and frustrate his enemies. The web of illusions he has woven (or “knit”) is working according to plan, and at this point Prospero at last feels fully in control. With these words, Prospero fully reveals himself as a master manipulator, not unlike a puppeteer controlling his puppets’ every move.

All thy vexations
Were by my trials of thy love, and thou
Hast strangely stood the test. Here, afore heaven,
I ratify this my rich gift. (IV.i.)

In Act IV, Prospero admits that he has been testing Ferdinand’s love for Miranda since they first met in Act I. Yet Prospero seems less invested in whether Miranda’s love for Ferdinand is true. In the final line of this quote, Prospero describes his daughter as his “rich gift,” indicating his use of her in a patriarchal system of kinship. In other words, he uses Miranda as a pawn, betrothing her to Ferdinand as part of a larger plan to resolve his own conflict and restore himself to power.

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. (IV.i.)

In the middle of Act IV, Prospero delivers this famous speech on the illusory nature of magic. Importantly, these lines also reflect on the illusory nature of theatrical performance, and indeed of life itself. When Prospero declares that “the great globe itself . . . shall dissolve,” he is likely referencing the theater where the play premiered (London’s Globe Theatre) as well as the world at large. Prospero’s lines communicate a sense of melancholy at the idea that everything, no matter how apparently solid, is fundamentally ephemeral—like a dream.

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. (V.i.)

These lines follow Prospero’s long list of his accomplishments in the magic arts. In calling magic “rough,” Prospero admits that his magic has been at once crude and violent. His use of the word “rough” also recalls the fact that his obsession with magic contributed to his political downfall and eventual exile on the island. When he resolves to break his staff and drown his book, he promises to give up the thing that has caused him much pain and suffering.