How does Shakespeare explore this theme in Act 4?
In the penultimate scene of his ultimate play, the famous bard writes of how two young lovers, Miranda and Ferdinand, are gifted with Prospero’s magic on the acceptance of their union. As a pre-wedding present to the future couple, the deposed Duke puts on a masque – a grand display of light and dance by his spirits.
The leading players in this wondrous performances are Iris, Juno and Ceres. Iris, in Greek mythology, was a messenger from the heavens, a rainbow personified. Iris is regarded as a communicator, the ambassador between mortal men and the divine, and so her presence in the masque makes sense, as she is helping the couple acquaint themselves with the ether world, as well as to understand the power of Prospero. The masque also features Juno, normally a warlike figure, repurposed to symbolise marriage – for in her first line she pledges “to bless this twain, that they may prosperous be, and honoured in their issues”, the final noun meaning Miranda’s potential children, the future rulers of both the Kingdom of Naples and the Duchy of Milan. The third spirit is Ceres, goddess of fertility, who delivers in more artistic terms a similar message that “scarcity and want shall shun you”, meaning that they should be well-nourished and never hungry or poor. The double meaning of Ceres’ verse in lines 110-117 is encouragement for the lovers to bring up many offspring (a process often described in the form of agricultural metaphors).
The beauty of this entire spectacle is apparently great enough for Prospero, the great magician, to be mesmerised by his own tricks, as he says from line 139 “I had forgotten that foul conspiracy of the beast Caliban and his confederates against my life. The minute of their plot is almost come.” then
quickly shoos the goddesses away and ends the masque abruptly, leaving Ferdinand quite perplexed. What is interesting about this aside is that, compared to the long, flowery metaphors of the songs that had dominated the previous pages, this is written plainly (normal for 17th century England, if not for today’s audience). When Iris clarifies the warning against fornication, she says “no bed-right shall be paid… [Cupid] has broke his arrows, swears he will shoot no more…”, explaining it all in terms of Greek and Roman religious characters, yet Prospero comes to his senses with a clear and concise reminder of the real-life events unfolding. To write the speech in this way neatly highlights the boundary between the two different worlds which Prospero must juggle – one can afford to be whimsical and artistic, while the other has more pressing practical problems to deal with.
It appears that, until the premature conclusion, the spirits’ performance impresses Ferdinand and Miranda. The former asks if he “may be bold to think these spirits” in a way which shows his fascination with what he sees, yet he later clarifies that “a wonderful father, and a wife, makes this place paradise”. As if to convince Prospero that he remembers his true objectives, and appreciates the present while remembering that his new family is integrally important.
Throughout the entire masque sequence, Ferdinand has only two brief pieces of speech, and Miranda is silent. Perhaps this could show how the audience too should be enchanted by this charade, enough to forget the human characters, or indeed to feel that they are the observers, and that they have been themselves pulled into the scene, only to be suddenly snapped out when Prospero does.
All of which brings us to the other side of Act 4 – the events with Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano. There are many attempts to juxtapose their situation with that of the trio above. For instance, while Prospero, Miranda and Ferdinand are on the surface, gazing out to the heavens, the conspirators are underground engaged in petty squabbles. This is summed up by Trinculo’s comment: “Monster, I do smell all horse-piss, at which my nose is in great indignation”. This highlights the different outlooks that these characters have on the world: Whereas the glittering prose of the spirits (such as “to make cold nymphs chaste crowns” or “Mars’s hot minion is returned again”) is meant to display a vast fountain of intellect and wisdom, the inebriated jester’s rather profane description of his immediate environment demonstrates a more low-brow approach to life.
That impression further rings true when they encounter the “glistening apparel” laid out by Ariel to catch them. Upon seeing the fancy clothes, Trinculo exclaims “Look what a wardrobe is here for thee!”. He and Stephano then experience wonder and enchantment on a different level as they try on the wealthy garments. Only Caliban, whose material tastes are rather more utilitarian, seems to be aware of the trap, while the other two are totally infatuated with the clothes. The fact that they instantly proclaim themselves as kings is evidence of their unworthiness to take such a position for real. After all, the Crown Prince of Naples is at this point rising above fashion and money, while they are drunkenly squabbling over stolen robes.
Indeed the whole of Act 4 overall demonstrates the stark contrast between what different types of people find truly wondrous or enchanting, and it shows that it is the better man who finds such thoughts in higher, more noble pursuits than the one who should make a priority of obtaining what is, in the grand scheme of things, a rather petty desire.