Act V, scene i & Epilogue
Ariel tells Prospero that the day has reached its “sixth hour” (6 p.m.), when Ariel is allowed to stop working. Prospero acknowledges Ariel’s request and asks how the king and his followers are faring. Ariel tells him that they are currently imprisoned, as Prospero ordered, in a grove. Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian are mad with fear; and Gonzalo, Ariel says, cries constantly. Prospero tells Ariel to go release the men, and now alone on stage, delivers his famous soliloquy in which he gives up magic. He says he will perform his last task and then break his staff and drown his magic book.
Ariel now enters with Alonso and his companions, who have been charmed and obediently stand in a circle. Prospero speaks to them in their charmed state, praising Gonzalo for his loyalty and chiding the others for their treachery. He then sends Ariel to his cell to fetch the clothes he once wore as Duke of Milan. Ariel goes and returns immediately to help his master to put on the garments. Prospero promises to grant freedom to his loyal helper-spirit and sends him to fetch the Boatswain and mariners from the wrecked ship. Ariel goes.
Prospero releases Alonso and his companions from their spell and speaks with them. He forgives Antonio but demands that Antonio return his dukedom. Antonio does not respond and does not, in fact, say a word for the remainder of the play except to note that Caliban is “no doubt marketable” (V.i.269). Alonso now tells Prospero of the missing Ferdinand. Prospero tells Alonso that he, too, has lost a child in this last tempest—his daughter. Alonso continues to be wracked with grief. Prospero then draws aside a curtain, revealing behind it Ferdinand and Miranda, who are playing a game of chess. Alonso is ecstatic at the discovery. Meanwhile, the sight of more humans impresses Miranda. Alonso embraces his son and daughter-in-law to be and begs Miranda’s forgiveness for the treacheries of twelve years ago. Prospero silences Alonso’s apologies, insisting that the reconciliation is complete.
After arriving with the Boatswain and mariners, Ariel is sent to fetch Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano, which he speedily does. The three drunken thieves are sent to Prospero’s cell to return the clothing they stole and to clean it in preparation for the evening’s reveling. Prospero then invites Alonso and his company to stay the night. He will tell them the tale of his last twelve years, and in the morning, they can all set out for Naples, where Miranda and Ferdinand will be married. After the wedding, Prospero will return to Milan, where he plans to contemplate the end of his life. The last charge Prospero gives to Ariel before setting him free is to make sure the trip home is made on “calm seas” with “auspicious gales” (V.i.318).
The other characters exit, and Prospero delivers the epilogue. He describes the loss of his magical powers (“Now my charms are all o’erthrown”) and says that, as he imprisoned Ariel and Caliban, the audience has now imprisoned him on the stage. He says that the audience can only release him by applauding, and asks them to remember that his only desire was to please them. He says that, as his listeners would like to have their own crimes forgiven, they should forgive him, and set him free by clapping.
In this scene, all of the play’s characters are brought on stage together for the first time. Prospero repeatedly says that he is relinquishing his magic, but its presence pervades the scene. He enters in his magic robes. He brings Alonso and the others into a charmed circle (V.i.57, stage direction) and holds them there for about fifty lines. Once he releases them from the spell, he makes the magician-like spectacle of unveiling Miranda and Ferdinand behind a curtain, playing chess (V.i.173, stage direction). His last words of the play proper are a command to Ariel to ensure for him a safe voyage home. Only in the epilogue, when he is alone on-stage, does Prospero announce definitively that his charms are “all o’erthrown” (V.i.1).
When Prospero passes judgment on his enemies in the final scene, we are no longer put off by his power, both because his love for Miranda has humanized him to a great extent, and also because we now can see that, over the course of the play, his judgments generally have been justified. Gonzalo is an “honourable man” (V.i.62); Alonso did, and knows he did, treat Prospero “[m]ost cruelly” (V.i.71); and Antonio is an “[u]nnatural” brother (V.i.79). Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo, led in sheepishly in their stolen apparel at line 258, are so foolish as to deserve punishment, and Prospero’s command that they “trim” his cell “handsomely” (V.i.297) in preparation for the evening’s revels seems mild. Accusing his enemies neither more nor less than they deserve, and forgiving them instantly once he has been restored to his dukedom, Prospero has at last come to seem judicious rather than arbitrary in his use of power. Of course, it helps that Prospero’s most egregious sins have been mitigated by the outcome of events. He will no longer hold Ariel and Caliban as slaves because he is giving up his magic and returning to Naples. Moreover, he will no longer dominate Miranda because she is marrying Ferdinand.
Prospero has made the audience see the other characters clearly and accurately. What is remarkable is the fact that the most sympathetic character in the play, Miranda, still cannot. Miranda’s last lines are her most famous: “O wonder!” she exclaims upon seeing the company Prospero has assembled. “How many goodly creatures are there here! / How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world / That has such people in’t!” (V.i.184–187). From Miranda’s innocent perspective, such a remark seems genuine and even true. But from the audience’s perspective, it must seem somewhat ridiculous. After all, Antonio and Sebastian are still surly and impudent; Alonso has repented only after believing his son to be dead; and Trinculo and Stephano are drunken, petty thieves. However, Miranda speaks from the perspective of someone who has not seen any human being except her father since she was three years old. She is merely delighted by the spectacle of all these people.
In a sense, her innocence may be shared to some extent by the playwright, who takes delight in creating and presenting a vast array of humanity, from kings to traitors, from innocent virgins to inebriated would-be murderers. As a result, though Miranda’s words are to some extent undercut by irony, it is not too much of a stretch to think that Shakespeare really does mean this benediction on a world “[t]hat has such people in’t!” After all, Prospero is another stand-in for the playwright, and he forgives all the wrongdoers at the end of the play. There is an element in the conclusion of The Tempest that celebrates the multiplicity and variety of human life, which, while it may result in complication and ambiguity, also creates humor, surprise, and love.
If The Tempest is read, as it often is, as a celebration of creativity and art, the aging Shakespeare’s swan song to the theater, then this closing benediction may have a much broader application than just to this play, referring to the breadth of humanity that inspired the breadth of Shakespeare’s characters. Similarly, Prospero’s final request for applause in the monologue functions as a request for forgiveness, not merely for the wrongs he has committed in this play. It also requests forgiveness for the beneficent tyranny of creativity itself, in which an author, like a Prospero, moves people at his will, controls the minds of others, creates situations to suit his aims, and arranges outcomes entirely in the service of his own idea of goodness or justice or beauty. In this way, the ambiguity surrounding Prospero’s power in The Tempest may be inherent to art itself. Like Prospero, authors work according to their own conceptions of a desirable or justifiable outcome. But as in The Tempest, a happy ending can restore harmony, and a well-developed play can create an authentic justice, even if it originates entirely in the mind of the author.
The plot of The Tempest is organized around the idea of persuasion, as Prospero gradually moves his sense of justice from his own mind into the outside world, gradually applying it to everyone around him until the audience believes it, too. This aggressive persuasiveness makes Prospero difficult to admire at times. Still, in another sense, persuasion characterizes the entire play, which seeks to enthrall audiences with its words and magic as surely as Prospero sought to enthrall Ariel. And because the audience decides whether it believes in the play—whether to applaud, as Prospero asks them to do—the real power lies not with the playwright, but with the viewer, not with the imagination that creates the story, but with the imagination that receives it. In this way, Shakespeare transforms the troubling ambiguity of the play into a surprising cause for celebration. The power wielded by Prospero, which seemed unsettling at first, is actually the source of all of our pleasure in the drama. In fact, it is the reason we came to the theater in the first place.
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