By Marc C. Conner, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University
There is something in Prospero’s speeches in The Tempest that reveals what Shakespeare was thinking at that time. Prospero says that the masque is over now and elaborates this with the statement “our revels are now ended”, implying that the play and, indeed, all of Shakespeare’s plays and his career as a man of the theater are coming to a close.
Shakespeare’s Prospero in The Tempest
Through Prospero, Shakespeare makes a great comment on the theater itself, and ultimately on life itself: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
Life is a brief dream, and on either end is the sleep of death, the quiet of the grave. The wisdom is not unlike that of Hamlet himself at the end of his play. This wisdom could sound bleak, but we must remember the full frame for this scene: Prospero’s life is coming to its close, but he has just blessed the new life that will come from Miranda and Ferdinand, and then from their blessed children, and so on and so on.
The Tempest is rich with the sense of the ongoing bounty of life, but also well aware of the sadness of loss and the inevitability of death, and also of the mystery of what lies beyond this life. It is precisely the wisdom we might expect from a playwright who has created such bountiful visions and who now faces the end of those visions, those “insubstantial pageants.”
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Prospero’s Second Speech in The Tempest
The second great speech—one of the most beautiful and poetic speeches in all of Shakespeare—also comes right after a crucial moment of forgiveness and mercy, when Prospero, schooled by Ariel, resolves to show mercy to his enemies.
Prospero begins by calling upon all the spirits and magical creatures he has made use of in his enchantments—the “elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves,” the fairies and the sprites and all the good creatures that have enhanced his power.
He then shifts into describing the awesome and actually rather terrifying feats of magic he has performed: obscuring the sun, creating great storms, wielding the lightning bolt, shaking the earth, and even opening the graves and bringing forth the dead: “graves at my command / Have waked their sleepers, ope’d and let ‘em forth / By my so potent art.”
This is quite a revelation, and again, if we read this as also spoken in some sense by Shakespeare himself, it does seem to describe in a metaphorical way his own art. Has he not brought back from the dead Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Troilus and Cressida, Timon, Lear, and two centuries’ worth of English kings and queens?
This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Prospero’s Stunning Announcement in The Tempest
And it’s at this point that Prospero makes his startling announcement: that he is giving up his magic forever. He states: “But this rough magic / I here abjure”—an interesting word to use, implying a renunciation but also having the religious sense of recanting a heresy, as if there’s something unorthodox or even sinful about what he’s been doing.
Certainly this fits with Shakespeare’s own art, which defies any creed or orthodoxy or dogma that would define and contain it. Prospero concludes with a highly dramatic evocation of the end of his magic:
I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound I’ll drown my book.
We can imagine the staff as Shakespeare’s own pen, and the book of Prospero’s magic, of course, is ultimately the book of all of Shakespeare’s own plays, a magical book indeed.
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Prospero’s Final Speech in The Tempest
The last of Prospero’s speeches to the audience happens after the play has ended and sounds as if Shakespeare could not quite bear to end the play as well as his own career. The final 260 or so lines of The Tempest are filled with moments of forgiveness, scenes of restoration, declarations of wonder, and testaments to future peace and harmony.
Prospero’s epilogue is an excellent acclamation, the request for applause by the audience. He starts by saying, “Now my charms are all o’erthrown, / And what strength I have’s mine own, / Which is most faint.” It is like a magician whose magic has been taken away or an artist bidding adieu to his art. Speaking to the audience, his companions since the beginning of the story, Prospero then asks them for the release for which he is yearning.
Prospero wants a release and it is not difficult to imagine Shakespeare himself speaking here and asking for a release from the public life of stage and from the rigors of his art.
Common Questions about Prospero’s Speeches in The Tempest
Yes, The Tempest ends with scenes of restoration.
Prospero is yearning for a release from his duties at the end of the play, The Tempest.
Ariel helps helps Prospero understand the importance of mercy and forgiveness in The Tempest.
Prospero’s speeches are important in The Tempest because he speaks for Shakespeare. It is through him Shakespeare declares the end of his career to the audience.