The sprite-ly voice of conscience?

In The Tempest, given Prospero’s backstory, his desire for revenge and his plans to achieve it are clear and clearly understandable. So what changes to allow for the kumbaya hug-out that is the ending? I think the key is in the early moments of Act Five. In my head, I keep coming back to this moment. And seems I’m not alone, as reader “Pongo Literatii” commented a few days back for the blog entry Friday (non)Film Focus: a question of postcolonialism:

I’d suggest that Prospero acts INhumanely for most of the play: obsessed by power, control, and vengeance. There is an irony in the fact that it is Ariel, a non-human figure, who reminds him of his humanity in Act V: ‘That if you now beheld them, your affections / Would become tender. […]. Mine would, sir, were I human.’ I think Alexander Pope’s reflection that ‘to err is human; to forgive, divine’ fits nicely with your ideas about forgiveness and Prospero’s response to the wake-up call by Ariel.

I agree 100%.

Here’s the sequence in full:

 Your charm so strongly works ’em
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.
 Dost thou think so, spirit?
Mine would, sir, were I human.
 And mine shall.
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ’gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance. They being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further. Go, release them, Ariel.
My charms I’ll break, their senses I’ll restore,
And they shall be themselves.
  • V.i.17-32

Some things of interest:

I love how the meter of Ariel’s second line puts a caesura before the spirit predicts Prospero’s forgiveness:

~ / ~ / ~ / ~ || / ~ / ~

That if you now beheld them, your affections

Given Prospero’s volatility, I’d pause, too.

In the next line, we get a perfect iambic antilabe between the two, followed by another antilabe (here, Ariel’s meter is a little uneasier–a trochee followed by a spondee–a spirit discussing his fantastical humanity). I’m not sure if these antilabes foreshadow what’s about to happen, or are meant to show a previous connection, but there’s something there.

Prospero’s response, questioning how he himself could not be moved more than Ariel is, is pretty regular iambic–a trochee here, a spondee there, a feminine ending. And this regularity continues (as he discusses his “nobler reason”) until he reaches the concept of “vengeance.” At this point, we get a–well, let’s call it–metrically challenged line:

~ / ~ / ~ / ~ || / /~ / ~ /

In virtue than in vengeance. They being penitent,

The first half of the line is completely normal, three and a half iambs. At the mid-line end of the sentence, we get a caesura; the pause makes sense. But then? A spondee followed by two iambs. Rhythmic. No big deal, right. Except for the fact that this is a long line: thirteen syllables, seven (well, six and a half) two-syllable feet.

For me, this almost demands that what might already be a quick beat at the end of the end-stopped line become a longer, more meaningful pause. And if there is a longer(ish) pause after “They being penitent,” then what follows (“The sole drift of my purpose doth extend / Not a frown further”) takes on the weight of a decision, a turning-point. He has considered this, and has changed.

And this changes everything.

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