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Our revels now are ended by William Shakespeare

“Our revels now are ended” appears in Act IV, Scene I of The Tempest by William Shakespeare. It is one of Shakespeare’s late plays that he wrote alone. In the play, one of the main characters Prospero utters this soliloquy after the masque scene. Critics regard this soliloquy along with the epilogue by Prospero as Shakespeare’s “retirement speech”. This particular speech taps on the theme of the temporality of life and the inevitability of death. Shakespeare beautifully describes life as a cycle, beginning and ending with sleep. What we see amidst is nothing but an illusion, a dream.

Our revels now are ended From, The Tempest, Act 4 Scene 1


Context

In Act 4, Scene 1 of The Tempest, Prospero blesses Miranda, his daughter, and Ferdinand for their marriage. Then he calls in Ariel, a spirit in his service, to perform a masque for them. Soon, three spirits representing Juno, Iris, and Ceres perform a masque that celebrates the engagement of the couple.

Just as the spirits begin the country dance, Prospero stops the show and sends them away. He has forgotten about the plot of Caliban (a servant of Prospero and a savage monster). Suddenly he remembers that the time is near for Caliban and the conspirators (Trinculo and Stephano) to make their attempt on his life.

By seeing Prospero in such a disturbed state, Ferdinand and Miranda get alarmed and start talking about what has happened to him. Prospero assures them there is nothing wrong with him. His consternation is a result of his age. He says that a walk will help him to recover. Then he delivers the following speech “Our revels now are ended” about the masque.

Full Speech

Our revels now are 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-capp’d 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.   

From The Tempest, Act 4 Scene 1


Summary

At the beginning of the “Our revels now are ended” speech, Prospero says the masque that has come to an end. The actors, a reference to the spirits called upon by Ariel, have melted into the thin air. He describes the spectacle as a “baseless fabric” of one’s vision. The high towers close to the clouds, the pompous palaces, and solemn temples representing the three sections of the society that are part of this great globe of ours are going to dissolve. Even human beings are perishable like those structures. Prospero ends his speech by saying that life is circled with sleep and what one sees in his lifetime is nothing but a dream.

Meaning

From the very first line “Our revels now are ended”, the speaker Prospero is hinting at life as a whole. The awareness of death and the futility of all the activities of his life makes him thoughtful, introspective, and a bit grief-stricken. In such a mental state, he depicts the enactment of the spirits as a mere representation of human life. Like their play is stopped in the middle, the glorious chain of one’s life events comes to an end abruptly. Death gives the stage direction regarding when the play is going to end. What humans see in the middle of the play, as mere actors, is a dream, an illusion. And their play begins and ends with sleep.

Structure & Form

Shakespeare wrote his plays using the blank verse form. It means the lines are unrhyming, yet they have a specific meter. Generally, his plays are written in iambic pentameter with a few variations. In iambic pentameter, each line consists of five feet, consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Let’s have a look at the scansion of Prospero’s whole speech to have clarity on the metrical scheme.

Our re/-vels now/ are end/-ed. These/ our ac/-tors, 

As I/ fore-told/ you, were/ all spi/-rits and 

Are mel/-ted in/-to air,/ in-to/ thin air

And, like/ the base/-less fab/-ric of/ this vision

The cloud/-capp’d tow/-ers, the/ gor-geous/ pa-la/-ces, 

The so/-lemn tem/-ples, the/ great globe/ it-self

Yea, all/ which it/ in-he/-rit, shall/ dis-solve 

And, like/ this in/-sub-stan/-tial pageant/ fad-ed

Leave not/ a rack/ be-hind./ We are/ such stuff 

As dreams/ are made/ on, and/ our lit/-tle life 

Is round/-ed with/ a sleep.

As we can see, the overall speech is in iambic pentameter and the last line is in iambic trimeter. Shakespeare uses a few spondees and pyrrhics. For example, the “great globe” is a spondee. Its previous foot is pyrrhic. Some lines that end with only an unstressed syllable are hypermetrical.

Literary Devices

Shakespeare uses a number of literary devices in “Our revels now are ended” that make his thoughts more appealing to the audience. These include:

  • Metaphor: In the first line, “revels” is a metaphor of life and the “actors” represent human beings. The “baseless fabric” of vision is a reference to an illusion.
  • Simile: It occurs in the following lines: “And, like the baseless fabric of this vision”, “And, like this insubstantial pageant faded”, and “We are such stuff/ As dreams are made on”. In the first two examples, the comparison is made between the masque and an illusion. The third example presents a comparison between life and a dream.
  • Repetition: In the third line of this speech, Shakespeare uses repetition for the sake of emphasis.
  • Metonymy: The “cloud-capp’d towers”, “gorgeous palaces” and “solemn temples” are metonyms of kings, noblemen, and religious preachers respectively. The “great globe” is a metonym for human beings.
  • Allusion: There is an allusion to Shakespeare’s Globe in the reference “great globe”.
  • Alliteration: It occurs in “cloud-capp’d”, “great globe”, “such stuff”, and “little life”.
  • Epigram: Shakespeare uses an epigram in the last two lines. The first reference connects the temporality of life to a dream. In the second reference, the playwright hints at death by “a sleep”. Here, he talks about how a human being’s life starts and ends with sleep.
  • Enjambment: It occurs in a few instances. For example, the second and third lines of the speech are enjambed.


Line-by-Line Analysis

Lines 1-3

Our revels now are ended. These our actors, 

As I foretold you, were all spirits and 

Are melted into air, into thin air:

After abruptly stopping the masque, Prospero utters the speech “Our revels now are ended” to his daughter Miranda and her lover Ferdinand. The “revels” of the spirits are ended. Here, “revels” is a metaphor for the lively enjoyment of one’s life. It comes to an end in old age. The speaker Prospero is old. Thus he is under the impression that all his enactments are going to end soon.

According to him, the actors (as he has told them) were all spirits and melted into the air. He uses repetition to emphasize his point. Besides, the use of the phrase “thin phrase” is a reference to how one’s soul leaves the body and mingles into the thin air like the spirits. So, here is talking about life.

By actors, he means human beings. Shakespeare uses a similar metaphor in his best-known monologue “All the world’s a stage”. In this monologue, he compares all the men and women as players or actors.

As it was the last ever play of Shakespeare, he might be hinting at his retirement by “Our revels now are ended”. In this line, readers can find the use of inversion as “now” is written before the verb “are”.

Lines 4-7

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, 

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, 

The solemn temples, the great globe itself, 

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve 

In the fourth line, the speaker compares the spectacle concerning the spirits vanishing into the thin air to the “baseless fabric of vision”. The phrase “baseless fabric” means a thing without any foundation or base. An elusive or magical scene does not have a foundation. It is just a “baseless fabric” that the audience fails to notice and sees as a real phenomenon. Here, the speaker is talking about the masque as just an illusion of reality. Alongside that, through this line, Shakespeare refers to the acts of one’s life as a mere illusion that lasts as long as he is alive.

The next two lines contain anaphora as they begin with the same word. Using this device, Shakespeare connects this line into the same thread. Here, he uses metonymy to refer to the rulers, aristocrats or rich men, and religious preaches by “cloud-capp’d towers”, “gorgeous palaces”, and “solemn temples”. The speaker says that all those stately buildings or those who reside there die are perishable, including the “great globe” or earth.

The “great globe” is a metonym for human beings. The variety used here is “container for the thing contained”. In the next line, the speaker says that all which a human being inherits shall dissolve. This line taps on the theme of death and the futility of life. The things one inherits, by birth or by skill, are temporary. Nothing remains. Through this line, Prospero hints at what he is going to do in the last act of the play. 

Lines 8-11

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.

In these lines of the “Our revels now are ended” speech, the speaker talks about the “insubstantial pageant”. Like this magical pageant, life does not even leave a “rack” or mark behind. Here, “rack” is a reference to “wrack” or shipwreck. Shakespeare uses this pun to remind the audience that the shipwreck in the play is nothing but an illusion. The island and the shipwreck are a magical recreation of reality.

In the following line, Prospero refers to life as “stuff” similarly made with the elements that constitute dreams. It means that life is nothing but waking dreams humans see after they wake up from their sleep before birth. Thereafter, he refers to the cycle of life and death. According to him, life begins and ends with sleep. Before birth, an infant sleeps in its mother’s womb. While an everlasting sleep ends this dream of life.

Interestingly, Shakespeare topples the basic definition of dreams that are seen during sleep. According to him, what human beings see during their lifetime is a dream. In this way, he hints at the insubstantial nature of the events in a person’s life. Both happiness and grief are temporary. What is absolute is life and death, (also the speed of the light in space!).

Historical Context

Shakespeare wrote The Tempest probably sometime between late 1610 to mid-1611. It was thought to be one of his last plays which he wrote single-handedly. In this play, Prospero delivers two soliloquies. According to critics, these soliloquies are regarded as Shakespeare’s own “retirement speech” before finally leaving the stage. So, in “Our revels now are ended”, Shakespeare projects himself as Prospero and talks about life. The larking effect of approaching death is also imminent in his mind. In such a state, he contemplates what is the meaning of life. Is it a dream or an illusion he created for himself? He cannot conclude what it is so he leaves it open-ended.

FAQs

What does Prospero mean by his famous line “we are such stuff/ As dreams are made on, and our little life/ Is rounded with a sleep”?

Through these lines, Prospero compares life to a dream. According to him, what we see in our life is nothing but an illusion. All the events are transient, be it out success or failures, happiness or grief. Life constitutes a cycle of sleeping, dreaming, and sleeping. The first sleep is a reference to when we stay in our mothers’ wombs. While the second stage of dreaming lasts from birth to our death. Finally, the last stage, death ends with eternal sleep.

How does Prospero show that everything on earth has its end?

Prospero shows the fact everything on earth has its end by referring to the abrupt ending of the pageant played by spirits. On stage, actors merely play by following a director’s instructions. When he directs them to end their act, they have to follow the order. Likewise, death is the director who determines when the curtain comes down on one’s life.

To whom is Prospero referring when he says, “we are such stuff/ As dreams are made on”?

Prospero is referring to human beings by these lines. Here, he compares life to a dream. It is also a hint of the illusion Prospero created inside the play. Therefore, the masque and the players are nothing but an illusion.

What “revels” is Prospero referring to?

By “revels”, Prospero refers to the masque enacted by the spirits. It is also a metaphorical reference to human life.

Why did Prospero abruptly end the revels?

He abruptly ends the play as he suddenly remembers that the time has come when Caliban and other conspirators are going to make an attempt on his life.


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