Summary of Act IV
Prospero stops Ferdinand's punishment, and decides to finally give Miranda to him, since he has proven his love for her through his service. Prospero accepts the union, but issues them a warning; if Ferdinand takes Miranda's virginity before a ceremony can be performed, then their union will be cursed. Ferdinand swears to Prospero that they shall wait until the ceremony to consummate their marriage, and then Prospero calls upon Ariel to perform one of his last acts of magic. A betrothal masque is performed for the party by some of Prospero's magical spirits; Juno, Ceres, and Iris are the goddesses who are represented within the masque, and the play speaks about the bounties of a good marriage, and blesses the happy couple. This act of magic so captivates Prospero that he forgets Caliban's plot to kill him; for a moment, he almost loses control, but manages to pull himself out of his reverie and take action.
Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo come looking for Prospero, and swipe a few garments of Prospero's on their way. Caliban still wants very much to kill Prospero, and carry out this plot; however, Trinculo and Stephano are very drunk, as usual, and prove completely incapable of anything but petty theft. Prospero catches themnot difficult, since they are making a huge amount of noise--and sends Ariel after them as they flee.
Analysis of Act IV
Prospero tries to dismiss his tyrannical demands for Ferdinand's service as "trials of thy love"but also makes mention in this first scene that he has "punished" Ferdinand, which implies a need for retribution for a wrongdoing (IV.i.6). The word "punished" that he uses recalls the fabricated charges Prospero raises against Ferdinand in the first act, of Ferdinand being a spy or a potential usurper; and the irony is that Prospero heaps his suspicion on Ferdinand, who has no such designs, while forgetting the very real plots of Caliban and his brothers.
Prospero's actions, however, were unfair and ungrounded; he uses the couple's love to try to excuse himself in this instance, but Prospero is not the just judge he would have himself appear to be. Ironically, Prospero's decision to let Miranda and Ferdinand marry was made even before Ferdinand came to the island, and was made because the marriage would secure Prospero's position back home, and would make his daughter queen as well. The work Prospero made Ferdinand do, coupled with the enchantment that he put his daughter and Ferdinand under so they would fall in love, merely assured that Prospero's plan would succeed, as it finally does. But, be wary of the difference between the way Prospero's character appears, and the machinations and plans lying beneath the appearance he would like to project, especially in instances such as this one.
However, just as Prospero begins to promise a blessing upon their union, his tone again becomes threatening. It is so important to Prospero that they not consummate their marriage before "full and holy rite be ministered," that he would wish them "barren hate" if they do, and continues with enough bitter, harsh-toned rhetoric to hopefully drive his point home (IV.i.17-20). Prospero conjures up a frightful image of disdain, personified as being "sour-eyed"; and, in meaningful contrast with the traditional flower-strewn marriage bed, an image of hateful weeds symbolizing the downfall and pollution of the marriage. Prospero's language, heavy with unpleasant images and symbols, does yield some result; Ferdinand, in earnest, forswears his "worser genius," or any possible influence of lust and dishonor within him.
Prospero seems preoccupied with Miranda's virginity because it is inextricably bound up with Prospero's own power. Her virginity is their prime bargaining chip in winning an advantageous marriage that will secure both of their positions; and if she does marry Ferdinand, their power back in Italy is secured for both of them. Virginity was often an important bargaining pointmost notably, for Queen Elizabeth, who used her eligibility to gain a great deal of power throughout her reign. If Miranda's virginity is thrown away, then Prospero's greatest hope for regaining his estate and position is gone too; so Prospero tries his best to keep Miranda well-informed of her importance, and keep Ferdinand warned as to the potential consequences of his actions. Prospero's great concern foreshadows the importance of this theme in the betrothal masque; in the masque, Iris makes mention that the couple cannot be together "till Hymen's torch be lighted," her language parallel to that in Prospero's earlier entreaty to the lovers.
Prospero reduces his daughter, who is intelligent and worthy, to a mere object, wrapping her with the language of exchange when speaking of her to Ferdinand. Prospero refers to his daughter, not by her name, but as a "rich gift," "compensation" for Ferdinand's pains; he says his daughter has been "worthily purchased" as an "acquisition," further building up his metaphor of his daughter as a thing of exchange. Prospero's metaphors, and overstatement of his daughter's perfection ("she will outstrip all praise") could be meant to distract Ferdinand from what Prospero and Miranda are getting in the bargain. Indeed, Prospero never makes mention of the power and position that he and his daughter are regaining because of this "rich gift," or the true purchase price of his daughter's hand.
It is strange to think of the "liver," as Ferdinand mentions it, as having anything to do with love; but, in Shakespeare's time, the organ was a symbol of lust and passion, just as these emotions are associated with the heart today. The heart was also related to love, but was thought to be more pure and honorable in the feelings originating there. We know now, of course, that feelings originate in the brain, and that these relations of organs and emotions are quaint in their backwardness; but, the heart remains a symbol related to love, and despite our modern medical knowledge, this ancient literary device continues to be used.
Though the marriage rites to be performed are Christian, allusions to ancient pagan mythology abound. Prospero invokes Hymen, god of marriageand a figure uniquely opposed to his wish for "holy rites" for his daughter. Ferdinand mentions "Phoebus' steeds," as symbols of day-time and the sun, and the characters in Prospero's masque originate in classical myths as well. Allusions to Greek and Roman myth were common in Elizabethan literature, but especially common in the first few court masques that were performed, which often featured the same goddesses as characters that appear in this masque.
Prospero calls upon Iris, the messenger of the gods and also the goddess of the rainbow, to perform a betrothal masque for Ferdinand and Miranda. A betrothal masque also appears in As You Like It that is presided over by Hymen; but otherwise, the spectacle was mostly reserved for weddings of state and almost exclusively for court functions. In this respect, the masque does confirm that the wedding is an important oneeleven were actually performed at the court of King James, and some of these for occasions of the marriage of rich and important people. Masques were special ritual-type plays in which the monarch was always the protagonist, and the subject was how royalty made things harmonious and resolved tensions between people. Although Shakespeare's masque took some inspiration from earlier ones, thematically it is entirely innovative. Royal power is displayed as power over nature, and the idea of the masque as the projection of a royal vision first appeared in this masque in The Tempest, and were to appear again in Jonson's court masques of later years.
Within the masque are a few parallels to events within the play. Ceres presides over the play, because she symbolizes order and plenty; Ceres is credited with teaching men agriculture, thus civilizing them and stopping their wild hunter-gatherer ways. Prospero's mission parallels this, as Prospero also sought to civilize and bring order to the island, and to the wild Caliban, though he did not manage to succeed. Also, Ceres mentions "dusky Dis," meaning Pluto, the god who abducted Ceres' daughter Proserpine, inspired by Cupid and Venus. Caliban is reminiscent of the dark figure of Pluto, in his attempts to abduct and rape Miranda; and the story also recalls the plot Caliban later fosters, to get Miranda for Stephano. The parallels might be faint, but it is, after all, Prospero who has "called [them] to enact [his] present fancies"; the inclusion of the Pluto/ Proserpine story is so tangential to the concerns of the masque, that it must have been included by Prospero on purpose, as some sort of reminder to himself (IV.i.121-122).
Once again, Prospero almost loses control because he is absorbed by his art; but here, he is able to shake himself from his reverie, and becomes conscious of time again. The moment is important because Prospero is in real danger of losing control, and almost gives up his chance to act because of the pull of his magic. The moment is a humanizing one for Prospero, as he realizes his mortality and his forgetfulness, as well as the limits of his magic. The masque, which he created from his own power, disappears in an instant; and finally, Prospero realizes that his works of magic are all in vain, as they are made of "baseless fabric" and will not last. He sees that "we are such stuff as dreams are made on," and at last realizes that his mind has aged and his powers are fragile and faltering (IV.i.166-167). It is a sobering moment for Prospero, to admit his "weakness" and "infirmity"; and this marks the beginning of his surrender of his magic.
It is not Caliban and his drunken friends, whom Ariel describes in a simile as being "like unbacked colts," that Prospero has to worry about (l. 176). Indeed, the thought of Caliban upsets Prospero more than the plot, as Prospero again curses the one "on whose nature nurture can never stick" (188-89). Prospero thinks that Caliban is bad because he has not adopted the "civilized" ways of thinking that Prospero has, and must be bad natured because of this; but Prospero fails to realize that Caliban's relative goodness has been more spoiled by the way Prospero treats him than by any refusal to adopt foreign ways of thinking. Prospero, for all his learning, still espouses a haughty, colonial point of view when it comes to Caliban, and lets this prejudiced treatment corrupt a potentially good man's nature.