Summary and Analysis
Prospero, acknowledging that he has been harsh, now promises a reward that will rectify the young lovers' momentary suffering. Recognizing Ferdinand and Miranda's love for one another — they have passed the trials that Prospero has set before them — he offers Miranda to Ferdinand as his wife. Prospero next calls Ariel to help stage a celebration of the betrothal. The celebration includes a masque, presented by the spirits of the island.
Suddenly Prospero remembers the three conspirators who have set out to murder him and calls a halt to the masque. He then summons Ariel, who reports that he led the three men, all of whom are very drunk, through a briar patch and into a filthy pond, where he left them wallowing. Prospero instructs Ariel to leave garish clothing on a tree to tempt the men.
Soon Caliban, Stefano, and Trinculo appear, foul smelling and wet. Stefano and Trinculo lament the loss of their bottles but are much cheered when they see the clothing hanging nearby. The two ignore Caliban's pleas to continue on their mission and his warnings that their hesitation will lead Prospero to catch them. At that moment, Prospero and Ariel enter with spirits, disguised as hunters and hounds. The three conspirators flee, with the spirits in pursuit. Prospero, acknowledging the power he now holds over all his enemies, promises Ariel that he shall soon be free.
Within a few minutes of the opening of this scene, the betrothal is complete, and Miranda and Ferdinand's future has been determined to Prospero's satisfaction. The virtue and honor of these young people transcends the actions of their fathers and, in this betrothal, lies the redemption of their families. (According to Elizabethan custom, marriages consisted of three separate elements. The first was the betrothal, with it announcement of a promise to wed and the acknowledgement of the family's permission for the union to take place. The second part consisted of the wedding, with a religious ceremony that united the couple and bound them together under church law. The final part to the marriage was the consummation, the physical union of the couple through sexual intercourse.)
For the first time, Prospero can fully reveal his true nature. Finally, there is no need to be punitive or autocratic, and he can simply enjoy his daughter's happiness. For these few moments, the audience can witness what Prospero is like without the weight of revenge or control motivating his actions. Even in his gentleness and goodwill toward Ferdinand, Prospero does not forget that he is still Miranda's father, and as such, he is responsible for her until she is safely wed. Consequently, a significant amount of time is spent warning Ferdinand that he must control his lust until the wedding takes place. Prospero warns the young man that "barren hate, / Sour-eyed disdain, and discord," will be his reward if he cannot control his lust (IV.1, 19-20). All of this is in keeping with the expected parental role. Miranda is even more innocent than most young women, having had none of the socialization that other young women would experience. Because of her isolation, she is more vulnerable, and her father is aware of her purity of heart. However, he is also a father, facing the imminent loss of his only child, and so his excessive warnings to Ferdinand to control his lust are to be expected.
The betrothal ceremony is sealed with a masque, and, in keeping with the motif of reality and illusion, this masque draws on mythical goddesses and on Greek and Roman mythology. The goddesses are selected for their symbolism and connections to nature and represent the promise of fertility and fecundity, heavenly harmony, and an eternal springtime of love. As the goddess of the rainbow, Iris is the promise of spring rains leading to a bountiful harvest. As a messenger from Juno, she also represents the gods' blessing on this betrothal. When Juno appears, her presence affirms the blessing of the heavens, and since Juno is the goddess of marriage and childbirth, her presence is the promise of a happy union for the couple and a blessing of many children. Finally, Ceres' appearance also promises nature's blessing on this marriage. Together, the goddesses are the promise of celestial harmony, fruitful harvests, and eternal seasons without winter. Venus, with her emphasis on abandon and sexual love is deliberately excluded, since the focus of the masque is on honorable marriage.
The pastoral tradition focuses on a nostalgic image of the peace and simplicity of the life of shepherds and other rural folk in an idealized natural setting. Pastoral poetry is characterized by a state of contentment and a focus on the contemplative life. As is the case with most masques, Prospero's masque focuses on these pastoral motifs, with reapers and nymphs celebrating the fecundity of the land. The land is green, the harvesters sunburned, and the harvest worth celebrating. Love is innocent and romantic and not sexual. The country life, with its abundance of harvests and peaceful existence is an idealized world that ignores the realities of country life with its many hardships. But a wedding masque is not the time to remind the young couple of the possible hardships that they will face. Instead, Prospero focuses on the blessings of a happy marriage and the contentment that Ferdinand and Miranda will bring one another.
At the conclusion of the masque, Prospero addresses Ferdinand and tells him that "We are such stuff / As dreams are made on" (IV.1, 156-57). This is a reminder that the masque, with all its heavenly creatures, is not real. Like the masque, life, too, will come to its inevitable end. Prospero reminds Ferdinand that each man's life is framed by dreams. The evidence of that life, with its earthly possessions, is only temporary. Again, this points to the role of the young couple as redeemers for their father's sins. Alonso, and through him, Antonio and Sebastian, have placed too much emphasis on worldly possessions and titles. Even Prospero, with his focus on books, has forgotten that they are also only temporary vestiges in this life. This reminder that corporeal riches are only temporary also seems to be directed toward Stefano and Trinculo.
Many scholars and critics would like to see Shakespeare's autobiographical presence in Prospero's words. Those who think that Shakespeare is allowing Prospero to speak his farewell to the stage find "Our revels now are ended" to be a poignant reminder of the temporal plight of all men's lives. Since The Tempest comes near the end of Shakespeare's career and life, it is very tempting to read autobiography into Prospero's words. Still, his words may only be an impassioned reminder for each man to value life and accept its temporal limitations.
At the scene's end, Prospero must shrug off the mantle of fatherhood and assume the cloak of ruler and deal with the three conspirators who plot his death: Caliban, Stefano, and Trinculo. The punishment that Ariel reports is more nuisance than painful, another reminder that Prospero's retribution includes no serious injuries. Aside from a few scratches, the trip through the briar patch and the putrid pond only injure the men's pride. Even the spirit hunters and dogs that give Caliban, Stefano, and Trinculo chase are little more than air, not capable of causing their prey any harm. This mild punishment reflects Prospero's inherent good nature and his willingness to forgive his enemies. He will make them suffer for their plotting, but he will do them no real injury. Although it was not always clear earlier in the play, by this act, Prospero's true nature, his goodness and his humanity, have become clear to the audience.
genius either of two spirits, one good and one evil, supposed to influence one's destiny.
Phoebus' steeds the mythological horses that drew the chariot of the sun. Here, the suggestion is that they are lame from the long day and overriding.
vanity reference to an illusion or trick that Prospero has created.
abstemious moderate, especially in eating and drinking; temperate. Prospero is warning Ferdinand once again about resisting lust before the wedding occurs.
bring a corollary here, meaning to bring too many spirits rather than not enough.
amain at or with great speed; here, Miranda's peacocks fly quickly.
sicklemen reference to nymphs disguised as harvesters.
unbacked not broken to the saddle: said of a horse.
trumpery something showy but worthless; here, the gaudy clothing designated as bait for the three conspirators.
frippery here, an old clothing shop.
dropsy a disease characterized by the accumulation of fluid in the connective tissues, resulting in swelling.
jerkin a short, closefitting jacket, often sleeveless.