In looking at the Tempest, I want to focus on one passage that I found particularly striking. Prospero says to Ferdinand in 4.1:
You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismayed. Be cheerful, sir.
Our revels are now ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. (4.1 146-158)
Many of the prevailing themes and considerations of the play are crystalized here. The diction is quite telling: “dismayed,” literally, the negation of “may,” from Old English mæg, of Germanic origin meaning “to have power,” or, of course, recalling the month of May (named for the goddess Maia), a time of rebirth and awakening. So Ferdinand looks as if he were powerless, asleep, as it were, to May. And he is indeed spellbound by Prospero’s magical sway. “The revels are now ended,” recalls the disrupted feast of the King, and also the revelers Stefano and Trinculo. Of course “revel” also has a theatrical dimension that resonates with the other language of the stage present in his wordplay. Prospero goes on to say, “These our actors...were all spirits,” calling to mind the theme of the relation between the spiritual and material worlds, “and / Are melted into air, into thin air.” Here the diction reminded me of Hamlet’s “too too solid flesh,” and indeed a similar theme is emerging here (Hamlet 1.2 129-130). In the next line, it’s further elaborated in the difficult description of the “baseless fabric of this vision.” Here we’re asked to imagine a fabric, something of a very tangible, material nature, as if it were a nothing, nothing, that is, that we could touch or feel or see in the usual sense of the words. A thing of the substance of a vision, and also a suggestion that it is “baseless” not only in its lacking a foundation, but also in that it is not of the baseness of this “lower world” in which our earthly destiny is played out (3.3 53-54). Indeed he goes on to list the things of this world, even “the great globe itself,” (again a passing allusion to the theater), and tells us it shall all dissolve—again, recalling Hamlet’s lines, “resolve itself into a dew” (Hamlet 1.2 130). It shall “like this insubstantial pageant faded, / Leave not a rack behind.” The Norton text glosses “rack” helpfully as “wisp of cloud.” But “rack” has several meanings that illumine many thematic threads in the play. It was at one time used to mean “shipwreck,” which of course is quite pertinent to the drama; then of course there’s “the rack,” as in the torture devise—this hints at Prospero’s torture of Caliban and the other two rogues who get a taste of it soon after this passage; but “rack” can also refer to a cut of meat (recalling the theme of revelry) and the process of drawing off wine (the latter usage comes from the Provençal raca meaning “stems and husks of grapes, dregs”). And to go back to the Norton’s gloss, “wisp of cloud” resonates with the theme of the “tempest,” and the relation between Ariel and other spirits to the forces of nature and fate. Prospero concludes his meditation with a line that really sticks with one, “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.” This brings to a point the thematic concerns of the “baseless fabric” of the spirits and our nature as beings who are essentially asleep—it reminds one of his words to Miranda earlier in the play, which I would suggest can be read not only literally but also as metaphor, “thee, my daughter, who / Art ignorant of what thou art” (1.2 17-18). He seems to be suggesting that our nature is to be asleep, to go about our lives, reveling on this great globe, in a world of things with distinct contours and lines, when we are, at the same time, of the stuff that dreams are made of. And so in death one sleeps, a movement of return, return to what one is. To sleep, perchance to dream...