Our revels are now ended…

OK, it’s one of my favorites speeches, pretty much from the entire Canon, let alone The Tempest. But you’ve probably been noticing, I’ve been avoiding it like the plague.

It’s THE speech:

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.
  • I.ii.147-58

Side-note: The last time I wrote about this speech, over thirty years ago, it didn’t go well. But I have to go back even further to start this story. When I was a senior in high school, I was the editor-in-chief of my school’s yearbook. I used this speech as a thematic background for the opening section of the book. Yeah, there’s nothing like a little adolescent male pretension. Anyway, it was a favorite speech of mine. So when I took a Shakespeare class at UCLA, taught by the inimitable Professor Rodes, and I got a chance to write on a speech, this is the one I picked. Now, in his class, he had a seating chart as he wanted to call you by name. If he could call on you without looking at the chart, you had “made” it. It was a goal. One that I achieved about midway through the course after I had written pretty much the best paper I wrote at UCLA about the concept of manhood in Macbeth. Got an A- on that paper (he was tough), and he actually asked for a copy of it. I was over the moon. So when I got a chance to write on a speech, you know which one I picked. This one. I poured my heart and soul (but alas not enough of my brain) into the paper. And on the last page, beyond the grade (C+) were simply two words: “What happened?”

So here I am, thirty-plus years later, nearing the end of the discussion of this play (AND of this project’s originally planned canonical approach to the plays), and I’m faced with this speech again.

Beyond the emotional baggage I carry regarding this speech, there’s just so much else that comes with it. And damned near all of it has to do with it being what seems to many to be a valedictory address, a goodbye speech. And I’m not sure what I want to say about it.

Yes, there’s certainly a wistful farewell in there. “Our revels now are ended…” Party-time is over, kids.

But as it turns out, the party isn’t real, isn’t tangible. They’re just visions. But hell, it’s not even clear that we’re seeing these visions with our eyes. If we are, those visions vanish before our eyes and leave nothing but memories; if we aren’t seeing them with our eyes, those visions are like memories of the now… dreams. Life is but a dream, and we are asleep.

For me, the most fascinating word in that speech is “rack.” It’s what’s not even left behind when all this fades away. Now, “rack” could mean “A bank of cloud, fog, or mist; a wisp of cloud or vapor. Also as a mass noun: mist, fog; sea spray” (“rack, n.2.2.b” Oxford English Dictionary Online, Oxford University Press, June 2017.). So fitting for this island-set play. But for me, it could just as easily mean “A frame on which cloth, parchment, etc., is stretched, usually before drying” (“rack, n.3.1” OED Online). I get that from the use of “fabric” earlier in the speech. And the connotation of the frame is more than just drying wet or washed clothes, but also paint on canvas. Not only do the visions disappear, but so does the painting. So art (all art) vanishes, fades from view. Heck, so does that damned frame. It’s all gone. It’s only in your head, son.

It’s the context of the speech that makes it so weird for me. It’s meant to be comforting to the Ferdinand and Miranda, after the sudden ending by Prospero of their wedding masque. The kids are freaked out by the disappearance of their entertainment, its sudden and almost violent vanishing, and this speech is meant to comfort them; remember it’s led into by “You do look, my son, in a moved sort, / As if you were dismayed. Be cheerful, sir” (IV.i.146-7).

It’s all been a dream. It’s just a dream, just keep telling yourself that.

Has that line ever comforted anyone?

Party-time is over, indeed.

7 Replies to “Our revels are now ended…”

  1. Lots to say about this speech – not least, that like you, I find it, and the last half of The Tempest, very moving. Teaching the play a couple of years ago was an interesting mix of energy and passion at the beginning and (perhaps rightly) sitting back and letting the students do the work towards the end, because some speeches touched me too deeply to allow myself to get involved.

    I’m not surprised by your experience at University: I often found that it was easier to write about things that generated negative responses from me than the futile struggle to avoid ‘gushing’ about what I liked! That tended to be reflected in my marks, too …

    At face value, Prospero’s words aren’t very optimistic, are they? You could read them with the nihilistic tone I apply to Macbeth’s ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ speech. If I were looking for a more positive spin, I think I would read this as a carpe diem, trying to provoke the lovers into making the very most of the time they have together. ‘All which it inherit’ and ‘leave not a rack behind’ suggests a move away from any focus on fame, or posterity, or legacy – ‘concentrate on the here and now’, it seems to urge them, and maybe us.

    One thing I think is certain – it’s not the writing of a young man. Like King Lear, in some ways The Tempest is best approached with the benefit of life experience … ?

    1. Yes, certainly the writing of a more experienced writer. I don’t think those words or sentiments could have been found in Midsummer.

      Not to make grandiose comparisons, but it’s like later-career Bruce Springsteen could never now write, “Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack. / Went out for a ride and I never went back.”

    1. I like it.

      There’s certainly use for “rack” as “A framework, typically composed of rails, bars, or pegs, in or on which articles may be placed or suspended” from 1388 and on. Interestingly, the first time it’s used as “A stand on which items of clothing are stored, transported, or displayed for sale, typically consisting of a horizontal rail on vertical supports. Later also: a stand on which other items, such as books, newspapers, records, etc., are displayed for sale” is not until 1889 according to the OED.

  2. ‘Not a rack could also be a version of ‘not a wrack’ – i.e, wreck: the ‘insubstantial pageant’ has vanished without a shred of debris to prove that it was ever there… As you know, early C17th orthography isn’t as concrete as modern readers often expect.

    1. “early C17th orthography isn’t as concrete as modern readers often expect” … truer words were never spoken!

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