The Tempest — Act Four Plot Synopsis: a masque for lovers

Previously, in The Tempest

Act One begins on a ship in the midst of our titular storm. The sailors, attempting to keep each other from panicking, are joined by some royal passengers. Two of their party, Sebastian and Antonio, are jerks, insulting and cursing the sailors. On the other hand, a third, Gonzalo seems kindly enough. And as the chaotic scene ends, the ship wrecks. Meanwhile, on a nearby island, Miranda, a young woman, watches the storm out at sea with her father, Prospero, who has created the storm. He assures her that no one has been hurt, and begins to tell her her history. They came to the island twelve years ago when she was only three years old. Previously, he had been the Duke of Milan. who had been betrayed and usurped by his own brother, Antonio. Father and daughter were taken and put aboard a small boat, but before they were cast away, Gonzalo provided the boat with garments, linens, food and Prospero’s beloved books. We meet Prospero’s servant, Ariel, who carried out the tempest for Prospero. We learn the royal passengers have been placed on the island in different locations, all in groups–except for the king’s son. We also meet the island’s other inhabitant, Caliban. According to Caliban, this 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” (I.ii.419); 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 passengers have been placed: King Alonso, his brother Sebastian, Prospero’s brother, Antonio, the Duke of Milan, and the good Gonzalo. Ariel plays music, putting all but two to sleep. Antonio tries to convince Sebastian to kill his brother to become king. Sebastian says he willing to become king, 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 as protection from wild beasts; this sounds reasonable, and the party moves on. In another part of the island, Caliban gathers wood for Prospero. When he hears someone coming, he lays down and covers himself with his cloak. Enter Trinculo, who uncovers a portion of Caliban, and finds himself unable to describe it. He then imagines taking this thing back to England and making money of the creature. Thunder roars, and to protect himself, he dives under the cloak as well. Then enter Stephano, who uncovers Caliban’s head, and immediately has a similar idea as Trinculo. When Caliban pleads for kindness, Stephano gives the beast a drink. Trinculo recognizes the voice and reveals himself. They are thrilled to not be the only solo survivors. Caliban promises to show Stephano all the island has to offer, and leave Prospero’s tyranny.

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 enters (with her father watching from afar); she bemoans the labors her father has put this young man to, and wants to help him. He chivalrously refuses. Compliments then exchanges of love then promises of future marriage are made. On another part of the island, Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban are running out of alcohol. When Ariel enters, Caliban tells his new masters that he is “subject to a tyrant” (III.ii.42) and reveals a plan to his masters: kill Prospero. Meanwhile, the royal party is being slowed in its trek across the island. Antonio and Sebastian plan to rid themselves of the older men at “the next advantage” (III.iii.13). Prospero brings forth shapes and spirits to create a banquet for the hungry royals. Ariel enters as a harpy, and makes the banquet disappear, saying that there are “three men of sin” (III.iii.53) who must be punished. When they draw their swords, Ariel makes those weapons too heavy to wield. Prospero, watching, is happy with Ariel’s work, now that his enemies are “in [his] power” (III.iii.90). And thus ends Act Three of The Tempest.

The single-scene Act Four of The Tempest begins with the father, his daughter and her love entering the scene, and Prospero apologizing to Ferdinand for possibly “austerely punishing[ing]” (IV.i.1) him, and states that he hopes his gift of his daughter to the young man will make amends. The father admits to having done this unkindness to test the young man, and says that “she will outstrip all praise / And make it halt behind her” (IV.i.10-11). No matter how much Prospero may boast of her, she will prove even greater; and to this Ferdinand has no doubt.

Prospero warns the young man, however, that if he “dost break her virgin-knot before / All sanctimonious ceremonies” (IV.i.14-5), not only will their marriage be fruitless and barren but “sour-eyed disdain, and discord shall bestrew / The union of your bed with weeds so loathly / That you shall hate it both” (IV.i.20-2). Yikes. Ferdinand promises.

Interestingly, Miranda is silent through all of this. Interesting, but honestly not surprising.

Anyway, Prospero calls for Ariel, who enters immediately. The magician tells the sprite to bring all the other spirits (there are others?) to this spot, but not until he calls for him. While Ariel does this, Prospero wants to “bestow upon the eyes of this young couple / Some vanity of [his magical] art” (IV.i.40-1) because he had earlier promised them. Ariel leaves.

Prospero again warns Ferdinand; the young man assures.

Prospero calls for Ariel, but who enters is Iris, goddess of the rainbow, who then praises the Ceres, the goddess of agriculture and fertility. Ceres then enters, only it’s Ariel in disguise. The two of them then speak glowingly of Juno, queen of the gods (wife of Jupiter). Juno arrives to “bless this twain, that they my prosperous be” (IV.i.104). This show of the gods is for the benefit of the couple to be married.

Ferdinand is amazed, and Prospero tells him that these are spirits that he has brought forward to “enact / [his] present fancies” (IV.i.121-2). And those fancies include a (continuing) masque with Reapers and Nymphs.

But Prospero breaks off the masque as he remembers Caliban’s conspiracy. He sends the spirits off abruptly. The happy couple is stunned by his “passion” and “anger” (IV.i.143, 145). And when Prospero sees their disturbance, he tries to calm them with one of the most famous speeches in Shakespeare:

You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismayed. Be cheerful, sir.
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. Sir, I am vexed.
Bear with my weakness. My old brain is troubled.
Be not disturbed with my infirmity.
If you be pleased, retire into my cell
And there repose. A turn or two I’ll walk
To still my beating mind.
  • IV.i.146-163

The center of that speech is widely quoted and dissected, and we’ll do the same as well later, but for now he uses the speech to release the couple from the stage. He then calls forth Ariel.

Ariel reports on how he has been toying with Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo. He has drawn them through rough nature and has left them in a “filthy mantled pool” (IV.i.182). Prospero then has Ariel bring him his magic robe–think Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. And when he has it on, he and Ariel, invisible, watch Caliban and the men enter. Caliban tries to keep the others quiet as they near Prospero’s cell. The men, however, are not happy with their progress thus far–stinking, losing their alcohol–and repeatedly call him “monster.” As they reach the cell, the men become distracted by the clothes they find. Caliban tries to keep them focused: “do the murder first” (IV.i.232), but to no avail. All they want to do is steal the clothes.

Prospero then watches as his spirits descend upon them in the shapes of hounds and hunters, driving them off. He says they will be tormented by “dry convulsions … aged cramps” (IV.i.259-60). And if you think he’s only thinking of punishing these three, think again: “At this hour / Lies at my mercy all mine enemies. / Shortly shall all my labors end” (IV.i.262-4).

With that slightly ominous statement, the penultimate act of The Tempest comes to an end.