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Analogies Between The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream

From The Tempest. Ed. Georg Brandes.

There are certain analogies between The Tempest and the Midsummer Night's Dream. In both we are shown a fantastic world in which heavenly powers make sport of earthly fools. Caliban discovering a god in the drunken Trinculo reminds us of Titania's amorous worship of Bottom. Both are wedding-plays, and yet what a difference! The Midsummer Night's Dream was one of Shakespeare's earliest independent poetical works, written at the age of twenty-six, and his first great success. The Tempest was written as a farewell to art and the artist's life, just before the completion of his forty-ninth year, and everything in the play bespeaks the touch of autumn.

The scenery is autumnal throughout, and the time is that of the autumn equinox with its storms and shipwrecks. With noticeable care all the plants named even those occurring merely in similes, are such flowers and fruit, etc., as appear in the fall of the year in a northern landscape. The climate is harsh and northerly in spite of the southern situation of the island and the southern names. Even the utterances of the goddesses, the blessing of Ceres, for example, show that the season is late September — thus answering to Shakespeare's time of life and frame of mind.

No means of intensifying this impression are neglected. The utter sadness of Prospero's famous words describing the trackless disappearance of all earthly things harmonises with the time of year and with his underlying thought — 'We are such stuff as dreams are made on': a deep sleep, from which we awaken to life, and again, deep sleep hereafter. What a personal note it is in the last scene of the play where Prospero says:—

'And thence retire me to my Milan, where
Every third thought shall be my grave.'

How we feel that Stratford was the poet's Milan, just as Ariel's longing for freedom was the yearning of the poet's genius for rest. He has had enough of the burden of work, enough of the toilsome necromancy of imagination, enough of art, enough of the life of the town. A deep sense of the vanity of all things has laid its hold upon him, he believes in no future and expects no results from the work of a lifetime.

'Our revels now are ended. These our actors
. . . . . . were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air.'

Like Prospero, he had sacrificed his position to his art, and, like him, he had dwelt upon an enchanted island in the ocean of life. He had heen its lord and master, with dominion over spirits, with the spirit of the air as his servant, and the spirit of the earth as his slave. At his will graves had opened, and by his magic art the heroes of the past had lived again. The words with which Prospero opens the fifth act come, despite all gloomy thoughts of death and wearied hopes of rest, straight from Shakespeare's own lips:—

'Now does my project gather to a head:
My charms crack not; my spirits obey; and time
Goes upright with his carriage.'

All will soon be accomplished and Ariel's hour of deliverance is nigh. The parting of the master from his genius is not without a touch of melancholy:—

'My dainty Ariel! I shall miss thee.
But yet thou shalt have freedom.'

Prospero has determined in his heart to renounce all his magical powers:—

'To the elements
Be free, and fare thou well I '

He has taken leave of all his elves by name, and now utters words whose personal application has never been approached by any character hitherto set upon the stage by Shakespeare:—

'But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
. . . . . . . . I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound I'll drown my book.'

Solemn music is heard, and Shakespeare has bidden farewell to his art.


How to cite this article:
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Ed. Georg Brandes. Heinemann, 1904. Shakespeare Online. 2 Aug. 2013. < >.

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Notes on The Tempest

"We have no reason to suppose that Shakespeare believed in magic. From his 14th Sonnet we may infer that he did not believe even in astrology, as most people did long after his day; and yet Prospero is the grandest conception of the magician to be found in all our literature. The delineation is in strict accordance with the prevalent theory of the magic art, and yet it is so ennobled and idealized that in our day, when that theory is reckoned among the dead superstitions of a bygone age, we see nothing mean or unworthy in it." William J. Rolfe. Read on...

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