Act III, scene iii
Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio, Gonzalo, and their companion lords become exhausted, and Alonso gives up all hope of finding his son. Antonio, still hoping to kill Alonso, whispers to Sebastian that Alonso’s exhaustion and desperation will provide them with the perfect opportunity to kill the king later that evening.
At this point “solemn and strange music” fills the stage (III.iii.17, stage direction), and a procession of spirits in “several strange shapes” enters, bringing a banquet of food (III.iii.19, stage direction). The spirits dance about the table, invite the king and his party to eat, and then dance away. Prospero enters at this time as well, having rendered himself magically invisible to everyone but the audience. The men disagree at first about whether to eat, but Gonzalo persuades them it will be all right, noting that travelers are returning every day with stories of unbelievable but true events. This, he says, might be just such an event.
Just as the men are about to eat, however, a noise of thunder erupts, and Ariel enters in the shape of a harpy. He claps his wings upon the table and the banquet vanishes. Ariel mocks the men for attempting to draw their swords, which magically have been made to feel heavy. Calling himself an instrument of Fate and Destiny, he goes on to accuse Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio of driving Prospero from Milan and leaving him and his child at the mercy of the sea. For this sin, he tells them, the powers of nature and the sea have exacted revenge on Alonso by taking Ferdinand. He vanishes, and the procession of spirits enters again and removes the banquet table. Prospero, still invisible, applauds the work of his spirit and announces with satisfaction that his enemies are now in his control. He leaves them in their distracted state and goes to visit with Ferdinand and his daughter.
Alonso, meanwhile, is quite desperate. He has heard the name of Prospero once more, and it has signaled the death of his own son. He runs to drown himself. Sebastian and Antonio, meanwhile, decide to pursue and fight with the spirits. Gonzalo, ever the voice of reason, tells the other, younger lords to run after Antonio, Sebastian, and Alonso and to make sure that none of the three does anything rash.
Ariel’s appearance as an avenging harpy represents the climax of Prospero’s revenge, as Antonio, Alonso, and the other lords are confronted with their crimes and threatened with punishment. From Prospero’s perspective, the disguised Ariel represents justice and the powers of nature. He has arrived to right the wrongs that have been done to Prospero, and to punish the wicked for their sins. However, the audience knows that Ariel is not an angel or representative of a higher moral power, but merely mouths the script that Prospero has taught him. Ariel’s only true concern, of course, is to win his freedom from Prospero. Thus, the vision of justice presented in this scene is artificial and staged.
Ariel’s display has less to do with fate or justice than with Prospero’s ability to manipulate the thoughts and feelings of others. Just as his frequent recitations of history to Ariel, Miranda, and Caliban are designed to govern their thinking by imposing his own rhetoric upon it, Prospero’s decision to use Ariel as an illusory instrument of “fate” is designed to govern the thinking of the nobles at the table by imposing his own ideas of justice and right action upon their minds. Whether or not Prospero’s case is really just—as it may well be—his use of Ariel in this scene is done purely to further his persuasion and control. He knows that a supernatural creature claiming to represent nature will make a greater impression in advancing his argument than he himself could hope to. If Prospero simply appeared before the table and stated his case, it would seem tainted with selfish desire. However, for Ariel to present Prospero’s case in this fashion makes it seem like the inevitable natural order of the universe—even though Prospero himself is behind everything Ariel says.
This state of affairs gets at the heart of the central problem of reading The Tempest. The play seems to present Prospero’s notion of justice as the only viable one, but it simultaneously undercuts Prospero’s notion of justice by presenting the artificiality of his method of obtaining justice. We are left to wonder if justice really exists when it appears that only a sorcerer can bring about justice. Alternatively, Prospero’s manipulations may put us in mind of what playwrights do when they arrange events into meaningful patterns, rewarding the good and punishing the bad.
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