On Shakespeare and Growing Up

I reread The Tempest the other day. It has always been my favorite among Shakespeare's plays, and revisiting it now was like returning to an old and trusted friend... An old and trusted friend that had changed quite a lot in my absence. What I remembered most about it was how, when I first read the play, the ending struck me as rather somber and melancholy. As the elaborate and joyful masque he conjured for Miranda's wedding comes to an end, Prospero gives up his magic, reminding us that all life, too, shall in time fade away, like a distant and blurry dream. Or so my memory went. For what first jumped out to me this time around was how Prospero actually precedes his speech with an invitation to be cheerful:
You do look, my son, in a moved sort, 
As if you were dismay'd. Be cheerful, sir. 
Our revels are now 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-clapped tow’rs, 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.
Act IV, i, ln. 148-157                                                   
The elegiac note is still there, of course. Coming amid the celebration of the upcoming marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda - rich with symbols of fertility and abundance - Prospero's eloquent speech, connecting the now vanished play to life's impermanence, provides a sobering contrast. Just like the play that has ended, ripe with images of the harvest and filled with bright hope for the future, so too our life must one day end, its promise, “the cloud-clapped tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces…” and its very existence, “the great globe itself,” gone forever. Comparing our own lives to dreams serves not only to impart the fleeting, insubstantial quality of existence, but also to hint of death ("sleep") as life's final destination.

A 19th century illustration of the wedding masque

But while, when I first read the play, this was all I got from it, now I can also see the reason to be cheerful. It may seem bleak at first glance, but Prospero is actually renewed spiritually through this understanding of life’s impermanence. His speech can almost be seen as a kind of funeral address for his tenure on the island. It comes, quite appropriately, at the celebration of his daughter’s upcoming wedding. Miranda has been Prospero’s only cherished loved one. (He tenderly describes her as his preservation at one point, as “one third of my life”.) Through releasing Miranda, he allows her to pursue romantic love and embark in adult life, free from his tutelage and control. In another dramatic gesture signaling the end of his domination, Prospero also renounces his magic—the most visible symbol of his power and of his life on the island. 

And once he releases Ariel, Prospero has completely distanced himself from his former rule and authority over the island. Instead of domination, he is now ready to embrace mercy and forgiveness. He forgives the treacherous Antonio and Sebastian, and returns Caliban to his care even after his attempted betrayal. More importantly, he sets out for a life off of the island, returning to civilization and reclaiming his dukedom. I first read this as a fall from grace. I now see it as an evolution from domination to compassion. Prospero is reborn and renewed, ready to enter a fresh period of existence. He too, like Miranda, has the right to rejoice and exclaim, “O brave new world, that has such people in’t!”

I suppose that I am the one that has changed. When I was a teen, Prospero renouncing magic and declaring life short and fleeting seemed so sad. Now it mainly looks wise and admirable, even if a little bittersweet. The Tempest, however, is still one of my favorite plays and one of these days I will follow Prospero's example, take a break from my day job, graduate school, wedding planning and magic to write a more detailed review for it.

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