Summary of Act V
Prospero finally has all under his control; Ariel has apprehended Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio, and they are all waiting for Prospero's judgment. Finally, Prospero makes up his mind against revenge, and makes a speech that signifies his renunciation of magic; the accused and the other nobles enter the magic circle that Prospero has made, and stand there, enchanted, while he speaks. Prospero charges Alonso with throwing Prospero and his daughter out of Italy, and Antonio and Sebastian with being part of this crime. Prospero announces Ariel's freedom after Ariel sees the party back to Naples, and Ariel sings a song out of joy. Alonso and Prospero are reconciled after Alonso declares his remorse and repents his wrongs to Prospero and Miranda, and Prospero finally wins back his dukedom from Antonio. Prospero, perhaps unwillingly, also says that he forgives Antonio and Sebastian, though he calls them "wicked" and expresses his reservations about letting them off the hook.
After despairing that his son is dead, Alonso finds out that his son Ferdinand is indeed alive, and the two are reunited; then, Ferdinand and Miranda's engagement is announced, and is approved before the whole party by Alonso and Prospero. Gonzalo rejoices that on the voyage, such a good match was made, and that the brothers are reunited, and some of the bad blood between them is now flushed out. Ariel has readied Alonso's boat for their departure, and the boatswain shows up again, telling them about what happened to all of the sailors during the tempest.
Caliban apologizes to Prospero for taking the foolish Stephano as his master, and Prospero, at last, acknowledges Caliban, and takes him as his own. Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban's plot is exposed to the whole group, and is immediately forgiven. Prospero invites everyone to pass one last night in the island at his dwelling, and promises to tell the story of his and Miranda's survival, and of the devices of his magic. The play ends with Prospero addressing the audience, telling them that they hold an even greater power than Prospero the character, and can decide what happens next.
Analysis of Act V
Prospero's first words suggest an alchemic metaphor; the words "gather to a head" denote things coming to a climax, but also liquid coming to a boil, and Prospero's "project" is a kind of scientific experiment as well. Prospero, with his somewhat sinister studies in magic and strange powers, is a figure reminiscent of an alchemist as well, though his experiments are more involved with human nature than metallurgy.
Allusions to classical literature also appear in this act, but this time to Ovid rather than Virgil. Prospero's speech, starting at line 33, is very much reminiscent of one of Medea's speeches in the Metamorphoses: both speeches run roughly "ye elvesby whose aid I have bedimmed, called forth,given fire, and rifted," and Shakespeare's language is too similar to Ovid's in its syntax, commanding and formal tone, and implications to be merely incidental.
There are also a few interesting allusions to English folk beliefs in Prospero's speeches, one of them with the "green sour ringlets" that he mentions (V.i.37). These "ringlets" that he is referring to are fairy rings, or small circles of sour grass caused by the roots of toadstools; according to folk tales, these rings were made by fairies dancing. Suddenly appearing "midnight mushrooms," as Prospero calls them, were thought to be another sign of fairies' overnight activities. The "curfew" that Prospero mentions in the same speech marked the beginning of the time of night when spirits were believed to walk abroad, and fairies and other creatures were believed to cause their mischief then.
When Prospero at last confronts Alonso and his brothers, he uses another ocean metaphor to describe the gradual process of Prospero's spell falling from them, and their minds returning to reason. Understanding, in Prospero's estimation, is the sea, and confusion is the shore at low tide, waiting to be cleared of its "foul and muddy" covering. Though they are still charmed as Prospero speaks like this, gradually understanding will reach them, like the sea on an "approaching tide" (V.i.80).
The surprise of Ferdinand alive on the island is nicely set up by one of Alonso's statements; upon being told that Prospero lost a daughter, in a manner of speaking, Alonso exclaims, "o, that they were living both in Naples, the king and queen there!" (149-50). The statement is perhaps too tidy a foreshadowing of the revelation that Ferdinand and Miranda are in fact alive, and will be united as king and queen; but, as in Act 1, an urgently expressed wish of one of the characters is fulfilled by the economical workings of the plot. Ferdinand and Miranda's pairing is a prime example of the political marriage, used frequently to cement unions between former enemies, as in this case; and they were also not uncommon in England, with Elizabeth's oft-proposed matches to French and Spanish royalty, and James I's strategic alliances forged with the marriages of his own children occurring in the era of this play.
Ferdinand and Miranda metaphorically reduce their parents' political wrangling over "kingdoms" into a game of chess. Allegorically, the game of chess often represented political conflict over a prize, and here, the stakes are the realm that Miranda and Ferdinand will inherit. Although Ferdinand and Miranda are a confirmed couple by the end of the play, their discussion over the game foreshadows some political movement looming in their own future. Miranda makes an accusation, at least partly in jest, that Ferdinand will "play [her] false"; the baseless charge recalls Prospero's false cry of treason against Ferdinand, in the first act (172). Yet, Miranda openly admits to complicity in any cheating that Ferdinand might commit: "for a score of kingdoms you should wrangle, and I would call it fair play," she assures him, her remark forecasting that the same ambition, deceit, and struggle that marked their parents' lives shall also be present in their own (174-5).
As for Miranda, her famous exclamation of "o brave new world that has such people in't" can hardly be taken at its cheery face value, when Miranda's knowledge and the context around the statement are considered (183-4). The remark comes only ten lines after Miranda's half-joking, politically minded statements to Ferdinand; and, considering Miranda's typical tone and manner in the play, a wide-eyed expression of wonder would be out of character. The remark could have been spurred purely by the briefly worded reunion of Alonso and his son Ferdinand; however, coming so soon after Sebastian's less-than-exuberant remark, and with so little buildup, it is unlikely that Miranda's remark can be construed in a purely positive way. Also, Prospero's reply, "'tis new to thee," sounds more like a remark correcting her assumption about the outside world, than a simple, rather unnecessary, and prosaic affirmation. The tone of Miranda's utterance is complicated by a great many factors, and its meaning is a great deal less straightforward than it suggests when taken out of context and character.
As for the closure of this play, do not be misled by Gonzalo's typically optimistic appraisal of the situation. Gonzalo rejoices that "Ferdinandfound a wife Prospero his dukedomand all of us ourselves," conveniently omitting any mention of Caliban's fate, or Sebastian and Antonio's lack of salvation (210-2). As with many of Shakespeare's comedies, with which this play is loosely grouped, the resolution is anything but cut and dry. There is a parallel lack of closure in Love's Labours Lost, in which the ladies of France swear at the end to leave off any discussion of marriage for an additional year; and in Twelfth Night, at the end of which Orsino and Viola's union is indefinitely postponed. Also, in Much Ado about Nothing, when Hero reveals herself to Claudio, he says no words of apology or love; a happy resolution can be read into the situation, but there is no reply at all from Claudio to such a major development, either in words or gestures in the stage directions. Shakespeare's comedies might be considered to have "happy endings"; but, the conclusions of these plays, even more so than with tragedies like Hamlet, are rarely simple in their implications, or harmonized in their meaning and tone.
Prospero is finally aligned with Medea, a representation of dark magic, like Sycorax, in this act, further complicating his characterization. Prospero makes a rather strange claim in this act, that is brought up nowhere else in the play; he echoes Medea's claim in the Metamorphoses that he can call up dead men from their graves, which seems to be included merely to further identify Prospero with the figure of Medea. Sycorax, the witch whom Prospero takes every opportunity to disparage but whom he resembles in his use of force, manipulative use of his magic, and past history, is actually based upon Ovid's portrayal of Medea; and, the relation between Prospero and Sycorax/Medea becomes more apparent in Prospero's speech, based upon the words of Medea.
Medea and Sycorax represent a dark side of magic that is also present in Prospero; Prospero uses his magic for devious, selfish, and questionable purposes, and with him, it is difficult to separate the good-intentioned magic he uses from the bad. Prospero himself has a mixed view of his own magic; he recognizes how his fascination with magic lost him his dukedom, and almost caused his loss of control, and therefore cannot maintain his magical practices and his role as a man of action in the real world. He also chooses to give up his magic when he leaves the island, revealing a mixed view of magic in Prospero himself. Prospero's battle against his fabricated characterization of Sycorax is resolved when he finally accepts Caliban, her offspring, and the dark qualities that Caliban represents to him; "this thing of darkness I / acknowledge mine," Prospero says, bringing closure to his struggles against Caliban and his allegedly evil mother (V.i.275-6).
Prospero's relinquishing of his magic is coincident with the disclosure of his methods and devices; his magic is spoiled, just like any kind of magic, when the boatswain comes forth and tells of the strange fate of the ship, complete with some remarkably vivid sound imagery. Prospero's powers cannot survive the trial of being revealed, and his promise to tell Alonso of his devices and tricks is the final act of his resignation.
As for Caliban, the wrongs done to him are not redressed, and the poetic, noble sentiments that he shows within the play, especially in his beautiful speech about the island, do not reappear. "How fine my master is," Caliban exclaims; he fully proves himself a born servant, by apologizing to Prospero for taking the foolish, drunken Stephano for his master, and submitting himself to Prospero more willfully than ever (261). Trinculo and Stephano's ill-conceived murder plot is simply laughed off by the party, and Prospero shows no signs of treating Caliban with anything other than veiled contempt. Although Prospero does finally accept Caliban, he also still regards Caliban as being "as disproportioned in his manners as in his shape"; Prospero upholds his civilized superiority over this native, though to acknowledge Caliban and to also dislike his ways of being are completely contradictory views.
A major theme running through the entire work is forgiveness versus vengeance; Prospero causes the tempest out of a wish for revenge, but by the end of the work, he decides to forgive the crimes against him, fabricated or otherwise. He finally declares this intent, with his words alluding to the proverb "to be able to do harm and not do it is noble." The same sentiment is also offered up in Shakespeare's Sonnet 94: "they that have power to hurt and will do noneRightly do inherit heaven's graces," that poem runs. At last, Prospero renounces the anger and resentment that marked his tone throughout the play, especially in scene 2 of the first act. Prospero declares his brothers "penitent," though they are not; Alonso expresses his regret, but Antonio, who has the most to be sorry for, expresses no remorse.
The circle of forgiveness remains unresolved by the end of the play, but, in a moment of irony, Prospero believes that closure has been reached. Throughout the play, Prospero does direct a disproportionate amount of blame toward Alonso, leading him to abduct and enslave Alonso's son Ferdinand; when confronting his brothers, Prospero actually calls Antonio "a furtherer in the act," a great understatement of Antonio's actual role as prime perpetrator of the crime against Prospero. Alonso expresses complete penitence, asking Prospero to "pardon me my wrongs"; and he achieves some sort of reconciliation with Prospero, through his willingness to cooperate with Prospero's wishes of reconciliation. Also ironic is that the only crime that Prospero charges Antonio with is conspiring to kill Alonso, which Prospero himself arranged through Ariel; although Prospero focused his great anger on Antonio almost exclusively in Act 1, by the end of the play, he has, quite ironically, forgotten his primary motivation in causing the tempest and bringing his brothers and their companions to the island.
As for Antonio and Sebastian, they are not satisfactorily redeemed by the end of the play, and Prospero's forgiveness, though openly and freely declared at first, is almost rescinded when he finally addresses the pair. His previously conciliatory tone turns threatening, as he says he could "justify them traitors" if he wished to do so (V.i.128). He even states that "to call [Antonio] brother would even infect [his] mouth," which is hardly an expression of forgiveness; but, in a strange paradox of sentiment, he completes his sentence with the words "I do forgive thy rankest fault," turning an insult and a threat into some approximation of absolution (130-2). Also, Sebastian returns to his characteristic sarcasm, calling Ferdinand's survival "a most high miracle"; and his unimpressed tone is additional proof that not only is Sebastian not sorry for any wrongs, he is completely unchanged by the events of the play (177).
In the end, the play's concern with political legitimacy is resolved by the disinheritance of the usurper, though it is unresolved in the case of Caliban. Prospero has again secured his dukedom, and also his daughter's power and marriage; and so, with Prospero's main goals achieved, the play ends. However, in an epilogue spoken by Prospero in rhymed couplets, Prospero steps outside the confines of the play to address the audience, as a character from within a fiction. The audience of the play, he says, are the ones who hold the power over his fate, and must finally forgive him for his deeds; a larger world surrounding the play is revealed, with the audience recreating the role of the author, which Prospero himself recreates, in turn, from within the play. No other Shakespeare play has quite this kind of un-ended ending to it; but, the sentiment is completely fitting, coming as it does after a play in which unfinished business is such a recurrent, pervasive theme.