A quick word or two on that Epilogue

Crazy busy today, so only a couple of quick thoughts on the Epilogue to The Tempest


spoken by Prospero.

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

Of course, the opening three lines of the speech have many believing that this is some kind of valedictory speech, a kind of good-bye from the Bard. I don’t really want to talk about that. At least not today.

I want to hit something else.

There are only five plays in the the canon that we’ve read that end with an epilogue: The Second Part of Henry the Fourth, Henry the Fifth, Pericles, As You Like It, and this one, The Tempest.

Now, the first three have the last speech spoken by some kind of choric figure (Rumor, Chorus, Gower, respectively). As You Like It‘s is spoken by “Rosalind,” but it’s obvious that it’s really the actor speaking the lines (as he says, “If I were a woman…”) not the character.

So that leaves this as the only epilogue spoken by a character in the play.

Stop. I know what some of you are thinking. But what about the ending of A Midsummer Night’s Dream? What about Robin/Puck’s last speech? Well, in that play, everyone but Puck exits before his speech, leaving him alone on stage. So it’s less an epilogue and more of a final speech. In this play, everyone exits, and then we get the Epilogue, with the weirdly specific stage direction “spoken by Prospero.” So enough with the Midsummer stuff.

And yet.

Look at the speech.

That’s not blank verse, my friends. No. The lines rhyme, the speech is in couplets.

Look at the scansion.

The lines are short. But more than that, in many cases, they’re sing-songy. An incomplete or catalectic form of trochaic tetrameter, perhaps. Trochees, as you might remember, are the exact opposites of iambs: instead of a two-syllable foot with the first syllable unstressed and the second stressed, a trochee is a two-syllable foot with the first syllable stressed. Tetrameter would be comprised of four-foot lines; so eight-syllable lines. But these lines are, for the most part, seven-syllable affairs; that’s where the “catalectic” descriptor comes into play…instead of a full trochee at the end of the line, the line loses that final unstressed syllable. So you could call these lines catalectic trochaic tetrameter. Or…you might call them acephalous iambic tetrameter. In other words, this would be a four-foot iambic line, only we’re missing the first syllable. I’m going to go with the acephalous iambic tetrameter, for reasons you’ll see in a minute.

Regardless, this is the same kind of incantatory verse as we see in the witches in Macbeth, or…you guessed it, the fairies in Midsummer. Witchcraft. Fairies. Magic. Supernatural. That works here. So maybe there is a Midsummer connection here.

Only, the verse is really a mess. Yes, we have some acephalous iambic tetrameter. But we also have plain ol’ iambic tetrameter, as well. Of the twenty lines in the speech, only seven are acephalous (1, 2, 6, 9, 10, 11, and 15), nine are pretty solid iambic (4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 16, 17, 19, and 20). Which leaves four to be just plain funky.

Two of those (lines 3 and 13) have the same structure–two iambs, caesura, then acephalous iambic dimeter, and the other two kick off with trochees to settle back into iambic.

Is the messiness of this speech’s scansion supposed to be a representation of Prospero’s o’erthrown charms and most faint strength?

Or is there something else at work here?

One Reply to “A quick word or two on that Epilogue”

  1. I think we have to view this as a deliberate act – perhaps, as you say, to signify that the charms are indeed ‘o’erthrown’. A writer who can make Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting a sonnet in dialogue, and who can be as lyrical as he is in other parts of this one couldn’t (probably wouldn’t allow himself to) be this sloppy.

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