The Tempest — Act Five Plot Synopsis: forgiveness and release

Previously, in The Tempest

Act One begins on a ship in the midst of our titular storm; the ship, carrying a royal party is wrecked. Meanwhile, on a nearby island, Miranda watches the storm out at sea with her father, Prospero, who has created the storm. He assures her that no one has been hurt. We learn Prospero’s servant, Ariel, carried out the tempest for him. The royal passengers have been placed on the island in different locations, all in groups–except for the king’s son. The island’s other inhabitant, Caliban, is also now Prospero’s servant, though Caliban believes the island is his because it belonged to his mother. Prospero sends Caliban off to gather firewood, and Ariel re-enters invisibly, leading the king’s son, Ferdinand. Miranda sees him as a thing divine; Ferdinand thinks she is a goddess. We begin to see Propsero’s endgame: love between the young people. Of course, Prospero can’t let this happen too easily, and he plays the role of obstacle himself.

Act Two begins in another part of the island, where the main group of royal passengers have been placed. Ariel plays music, putting all but two to sleep. Antonio convinces Sebastian to become king through murder. Sebastian agrees, but Antonio would need to do the killing. Antonio agrees, but Sebastian needs to kill Gonzalo. Both men draw, and Ariel wakes the sleepers. The would-be killers explain their drawn weapons reasonably, and the party moves on. In another part of the island, Caliban encounters Trinculo and Stephano, whom Caliban promises to show all the island has to offer.

The third act begins with Ferdinand, laboring to bring in logs as fuel for Prospero. The king’s son is more than willing to do this labor if it means being near Miranda; Miranda bemoans the labors her father has put this young man to, and wants to help him. Compliments then exchanges of love then promises of future marriage are made. On another part of the island, Caliban reveals a plan to his new masters: kill Prospero. Meanwhile, the royal party is beguiled by a vision created by Prospero, while Ariel accuses them of being three sinful men for usurping Prospero as Duke of Milan.

Act Four begins with Prospero apologizing to Ferdinand for treating him harshly, and states that he hopes his gift of his daughter to the young man will make amends. Prospero calls for Ariel to create a spiritual show for the young couple. But Prospero breaks off the masque as he remembers Caliban’s conspiracy. Then he and his sprite watch as Caliban and the men enter. Caliban tries to keep the others quiet as they near Prospero’s cell. The men become distracted by the clothes they find. Prospero’s  spirits descend upon them in the shapes of hounds and hunters, driving them off.

The relatively long single-scene Act Five of The Tempest takes us back to Prospero and Ariel (which is kind of interesting, as we left the two of them at the end of Act Four). The magician states that his “project gather[s] to a head” (V.i.1). Ariel lets us know that according to their timeline, we’re reaching the end (“the sixth hour” [V.i.4]). The king and his party are unable to leave a line grove, and all are distracted. Ariel notes that Gonzalo is especially sad, so much so that he states, “Your charm so strongly works on ‘em, / That if you now beheld them, your affections / Would become tender” (V.i.17-9). Prospero notes that “the rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance” (V.i.27-8), and tells Ariel to bring them so that he can release them from his spell.

Prospero, alone, delivers a kind of incantation to the spirits–even to the Nature–of the island. He admits to the use of magic, which he now says he will give up:

 I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.
  • V.i.54-7

Upon this, Ariel brings in the King’s group, still charmed. Prospero cries when he sees Gonzalo (Prospero’s “true preserver” [V.i.69]), and the magician slowly releases them from his spell–speaking to each, listing their sins, and even forgiving his own brother. Prospero notes that these men still don’t understand what is going on; he has Ariel fetch his own royal garments, as Duke of Milan. As Prospero attires himself, he tells Ariel that he will miss the sprite, and gives him orders to release the sailors from their ships hold.

Gonzalo sees Prospero as a vision of the island’s “torment, trouble, wonder and amazement” (V.i.104). Prospero reveals himself to the the group. Alonso is unsure of what he is seeing, but he says that he has been held by a “madness” (V.i.116)…of course, what’s unclear is if this madness was Prospero’s spell of the last few hours, or that which made him assist Antonio in the usurpation of Prospero’s power twelve years earlier. Regardless, he restores the dukedom to Prospero and begs the magician’s pardon, and then questions how Prospero got to the island.

Instead of answering, Prospero embraces his friend Gonzalo, who is still not sure if this is really happening.

In an aside, he tells Antonio and Sebastian that he could tell Alonso what they had been planning to do, but for now he “will tell no tales” (V.i.129). He tell tells Antonio that he forgives him, but that he does want his dukedom back. Alonso still wants to hear about how Prospero got to the island, and how he is there to meet with them. The king tells Prospero that he has lost his son in the storm; Prospero announces that he has lost his own daughter in the storm as well. Alonso bemoans, “O heavens, that they were living both in Naples, / The king and queen there!” (V.i.149-50)…and even the blind can see where this is going.

Prospero says that his tale of how he got to the island can wait until later, and welcomes the party to his cell, which when he opens to reveal Ferdinand and Miranda playing chess. The king cries that if this is a vision of the island, he will lose his son twice (once in reality, and again here). But the son is not a vision, and father and son are reunited.

Miranda is astounded by seeing more men beyond just Ferdinand,

 O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in’t!
  • V.i.181-4

In what must be a laugh-line, Prospero merely responds, “‘Tis new to thee” (V.i.184).

Alonso greets his new daughter, and Gonzalo says that if it took Prospero being driven from Milan to make his heirs kings of Naples, it was worth it. Ariel brings in the Master and Boatswain, who deliver the news that not only is boat safe, but it is “tight and yare and bravely rigged” (V.i.224) as when they started their voyage.

Prospero says he will explain all, then tells Ariel to bring in Caliban and his confederates. In they come with their stolen wardrobe. Caliban sees Prospero now as a “fine … master” (V.i.262), but fears his chastisement. Sebastian and Antonio wonder if there’s any way to market Caliban. Prospero tells the king that the three of them had plotted his own death. Alonso admits to having Trinculo and Stephano as his party, while Prospero directs Caliban to take the two back into his cell, and put everything back in order; and Caliban “seek[s] for grace” (V.i.296).

Prospero then tells the party that he will explain all, then go to Naples with them to see his daughter married, after which he will return to Milan, “where / Every third thought shall be of [his] grave” (V.i.311-2). The magician gives Ariel one final order: “Be free, and fare thou well!” (V.i.319).

And in an epilogue, Prospero gives a kind of valedictory, bittersweet:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have ’s mine own,
Which is most faint. 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,
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.1-20

And with that, The Tempest ends.

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