Study Guide

The Tempest Art and Culture

By William Shakespeare

Art and Culture

Act 1, Scene 2

If by your art, my dearest father, you have
Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.
The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch,
But that the sea, mounting to the welkin's cheek,
Dashes the fire out. (1.2.1-5)

When Prospero uses his magic to orchestrate the storm that shipwrecks his enemies, it's as though the entire island is a stage, don't you think? 


PROSPERO [aside]
It goes on, I see,
As my soul prompts it. [to Ariel] Spirit, fine spirit!
   I'll free thee
Within two days for this. (1.2.501-504)

When Miranda falls in love with Ferdinand at first sight, Prospero congratulates himself for making it all happen. This reminds us that Prospero's magic to manipulate people and situations just like artists do. In other words, Prospero acts like he's directing a play when he orchestrates his daughter's meeting with the prince.

Act 4, Scene 1

Go bring the rabble, 
O'er whom I give thee power, here to this place.
Incite them to quick motion, for I must
Bestow upon the eyes of this young couple
Some vanity of mine art. It is my promise,
And they expect it from me. (4.1.40-45)

Prospero doesn't only practice his art for practicality's sake.  Like many artists, he wishes to be admired for his incredible skill.

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. (4.1.165-175)

This is one of the most famous passages in Shakespeare and reminds us a lot of the big "All the world's a stage" soliloquy in <em>As You Like It.</em>  When Prospero announces the wedding masque is over, Shakespeare gives a shout-out to the Globe Theater and makes an astonishing comparison between human life and the theater.  As literary critic Stephen Greenblatt points out, Prospero's remarks draw our attention to "the theatrical insubstantiality of the entire world and the dreamlike nature of human existence."

I had forgot that foul conspiracy
Of the beast Caliban and his confederates
Against my life. The minute of their plot
Is almost come. (4.1.155-158)

In the middle of the dazzling performance of the wedding masque, Prospero is suddenly reminded of the "foul conspiracy" against his life.  This reminds us that the magic of the theater has the capacity to suspend time and make us forget (if only for a short time) the problems of the real world.   

Come, temperate nymphs, and help to celebrate
A contract of true love. Be not too late. (4.1.148-149)

As a gift to the young couple, Prospero puts on a masque (a fancy, courtly performance with music and dancing) to celebrate Miranda and Ferdinand's "contract of true love."  Interestingly enough, in the winter of 1612-1613, <em>The Tempest</em>  (along with thirteen other plays) was performed in honor of the marriage of King James I's daughter Elizabeth to Frederick (the Elector Palatine).  Some scholars think that Prospero's "wedding masque" was added by Shakespeare just for this performance but other critics say there's no evidence that it wasn't an original part of the play. 

Act 5, Scene 1

Here Prospero discovers Ferdinand and Miranda,
playing at chess
(5.1.Stage Direction).

Wait a minute. At this point, Prospero has already promised to give up his "art," so why is he still running around acting like a magician/playwright by pulling back curtains and making dramatic revelations to his audience?


Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have 's mine own (Epilogue.1-2)

Hmm.  Is it just us or does Prospero's final speech sound like Shakespeare (who retired shortly after completing <em>The Tempest</em>) is trying to tell us something?  Is this Shakespeare's way of saying goodbye? 

[...] Now 'tis true
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardoned the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell, (Epilogue.3-8)

This is pretty strange. Why the heck does Prospero need the audience's help if he wants to leave the island and return to Italy? Keep reading...

But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
    As you from crimes would pardoned be,
    Let your indulgence set me free. (Epilogue.9-20)

When Prospero says the audience's applause is the only thing that can release him from his bondage, he's saying a lot more than "hurry up and clap so I can get off this stage."  This final speech says something about the importance of the theater audience.  In the end, it's the playgoers' approval that matters the most.