Because most of Shakespeare’s comedies use marriage as a symbol of a harmonious and healthy social order and The Tempest does not, I was intrigued by the ways in which he uses conflict to reach, one assumes without finishing the play, a resolution. In Shakespeare’s comedies, misunderstandings erupt, blocking situations are used and conquered, and at the end, love triumphs and marriage sets everything right. The social order is restored. Although a romance rather than a comedy, social order is an important aspect of the play, both in terms of the explicit conflict of the play (Prospero’s fight to become Duke of Milan again) and in terms of the play’s constant exploration of the master-servant dialectic, especially when the dynamic appears unsettled or discordant. Prospero creates a masque that will describe to the couple the importance of marriage versus love and lust.
Just as Shakespeare seeks to resolve the conflict of his lost dukedom through the marriage of his innocent daughter Miranda with the Duke of Naples’ son, Ferdinand, the masque uses social and dramatic associations of marriage, and underscores them heavily with the seriousness of the masque. In doing this, a sense is created that, even though the play’s major conflict is still unresolved, the world of the play is beginning to heal itself. The fact of marriage itself, as it is presented in the masque, is enough to settle the turbulent waters of the story.
The masque begins with a pastoral description by Iris, Goddess of the rainbow and messenger of Juno, starting the show with color and beauty. Iris declares to Ceres (Greek Demeter, Goddess of agriculture, growth, prosperity and rebirth) that they are there for “A contract of true love to celebrate” on the “blest lovers” (4.1.84,86). Once Ceres ensures that Venus and Cupid are not involved (because they are the gods of lust, not conjugated marriage) and Iris confirms “they to have done/Some wanton charm upon this man and maid,/Whose vows are that no bed-right shall be paid/Till Hymen’s torch be lighted,” we know that Prospero’s insistent theme in the masque is to have them legally wed before any sex take place between them. Just as the queen of all gods blesses their marriage, she also blesses the children that will come from their union. Instead, he explores marriage as part of society and family. Juno, the symbol of marriage and family life in Roman mythology, descends declaring, “To bless this twain that they may prosperous be/And honoured in their issue” (4.1.104-105). In so doing, marriage is subtly glorified as both the foundation of society and as part of the natural order of things, given the accord between marriage and nature in Ceres’ speech when she says,
CERES: Earth’s increase, and foison plenty
Barns and garners never empty,
Vines with clust’ring bunches growing,
Plants with goodly burden bowing;…
Scarcity and want shall shun you,
Ceres’ blessing so is on you”
Thus, Prospero has managed to communicate to Ferdinand that his virginal daughter will be his only after their legalized marriage ceremony while blessing their union and, with that union, social order is restored.