Essay Question: What is the impact of the masque to the overall structural unity of the play? How does the masque differ from the rest of the play in theme and poetry?
The masque scene in The Tempest, in Act IV Scene I, clearly differs from all other scenes. Many producers of the play have chosen to eliminate this scene on the grounds that due to its differences it disrupts the overall structural unity of the play. The theory has in fact been advanced that the masque was not a part of Shakespeares original text but was added for the purpose of some celebration where The Tempest was performed. However, others believe that its differences serve a definite purpose to the play and that the masque was a key factor in Shakespeares vision.
The purpose of the masque within the context of The Tempest is a celebration of Miranda and Ferdinands engagement. The themes of the masque reflect issues that relate to the newly-affianced couple: fertility, chastity, and unity. It represents Prosperos ideal of a perfect world: one in which nature and civilisation (nurture) are balanced and evil does not exist. The masque begins with Iris, the messenger of the gods reputed to travel on a rainbow, praising the bountiful earth over which Ceres, the goddess of the fertile earth, reigns. Juno, the queen of the heavens, who represents love inside the boundaries of marriage, appears. She and Ceres discuss the absence of Venus and her son Cupid (patrons of lawless love), and then together sing a blessing on the lovers Miranda and Ferdinand. This is followed after a short interlude by a dance of Reapers and Nymphs. The dance is abruptly cut off when Prospero remembers the plot by Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo against his life.
Masques were a common form of entertainment in Elizabethan times. Elaborate costumes were used to create fantastic spectacles for the royals and nobles at court, involving technicians, poets, and even the court members themselves. It has been theorised that the masque in The Tempest was added for a specific celebration: the wedding of King James daughter Elizabeth to the Elector Palatine in November 1611, the first recorded performance of the play. This is a fallacious conclusion. While it is true that the masque is eminently suitable for a celebration such as the wedding of a princess, the masque also contains themes highly relevant to the play as a whole and echoed elsewhere: chastity, fertility, union, and Prosperos idea of a perfect world.
The theme of chastity in The Tempest is heavily emphasised through Prospero. He bluntly commands Ferdinand if thou dost break her virgin-knot before all sanctimonious ceremonies maybe ministeredbarren hateshall bestrew the union of your bed (IV.1.15-21). Juno was the patron of weddings, the governor of lawful love, and represents the virtue of chastity in the masque. Fertility (governed by Ceres) is also relevant to the young lovers, especially as Miranda is the only woman in the play. It is interesting to note that when Caliban describes Miranda to Stephano, he says, She will become thy bed, I warrant, and bring thee forth brave brood (III.2.107-108). Union is another theme echoed elsewhere in the play: the union of Naples and Milan through the marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda, and the reunion of Prospero and his enemies, forgiveness given and Alonso and Prospero united through the love of their offspring. In the masque, Iris (associated with the rainbow) unites Juno, queen of the heavens, with Ceres, goddess of the earth. Finally, Prosperos ideal of a perfect world is presented in the masque. Nature and Nurture are balanced: the goddesses of ordered fertility and marriage are presented, the natural earth balanced with civilisation and ceremony. Venus and Cupid, patrons of lawless love, are nowhere to be seen. This perceived balance between nature and nurture finds resonance in other parts of The Tempest, for example, the contrast between Caliban and Miranda. Caliban is evil because his nature is entirely dominant, and he has received none of the benefits of Prosperos nurture. Prospero says he is, a devil, a born devil, on whose nature nurture can never stick (IV.1.188-189). In contrast, Miranda, another result of Prosperos tuition, is represented as the perfect balance between nature and nurture. While she knows nothing but the nature of the island, she has been trained for civilisation, and is able to fit in perfectly with the sophisticated Ferdinand and the court party. Admired Miranda! Indeed, the top of admiration, worth whats dearest to the world, (III.1.37-39) as Ferdinand says. Another reflection of Prosperos perfect world is this: no conflict is present in the masque. The dark side of human nature, greed, uncontrolled lust, and violence, does not exist in the context of the masque. Prospero was deposed from his dukedom due to the greed of his brother and the King of Naples. Caliban and his companions attempt to take over the island kingdom, kill Prospero, and rape Miranda. These violent emotions have affected Prospero negatively and so in his masque it is only natural that he presents a world without these passions.
Not only do the themes of the masque fit in with the play as a whole, but the masque immediately leads to Prosperos famous speech about the brevity of human life. Prospero relates the masques unreality and the theatres unreality to real life, and states that human lives are like the dreams of the masque: all people shall die, our little livesrounded with a sleep (IV.1.158), in the end as insubstantial as any piece of theatre. The masque directly leads into this speech. Our revels now are ended (IV.I.148) says Prospero, referring to the masque, and this begins his chain of reasoning. As such an important speech must have been part of Shakespeares original design for the play, and the masque leads into it, the masque therefore must have been intended by Shakespeare as an integral part of the play.
The language and poetry used in the masque is different to that used in the rest of the play. The language in general is more archaic and formal than that used elsewhere. Obscure expressions such as pioned and twilled brims (IV.1.64) and spongy April (IV.1.65) are used. The impression gained is of a formal, unreal world. The unreality relates to two themes of the play: the perfect world, and lifes unreality. The idea of Prosperos perfect world is deliberately presented as unrealistic. This idea of a perfect world being unrealistic is repeated through Gonzalos ideal of a model commonwealth. He gives voice to the idea of a socialist Utopia, where all things in common nature are producedto feedinnocent people (II.1.162-167). This idea is mocked by Antonio and Sebastian: Yet he would be king ontthe latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning (II.1.159-161). Rulership of the island and kingdoms such as Naples and Milan are coveted by most of the characters in the play, but it is made clear that no character will be able to bring about a perfect, unreal world such as is represented in the masque. The theme of the unreality of life is also represented in the masque: Prospero relates the unrealistic masque to theatre performances in general, and these to our human lives and their inevitable end.
Prospero appears throughout the play as a master of magic and commander of spirits. The masque, starring Ariel in the role of Ceres, is a natural outgrowth of this side of Prospero. While elsewhere he uses his powers in more negative ways, such as the pursuing of Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban by spirit hounds, the masque gives him a chance to fully display his magical powers in a positive and spectacular manner. The formality and unreality of the language contributes to the magical impression of the masque, as does the representation of goddesses played by spirits. The masque is not, then, a patched-on extra added to the play for a royal wedding, but completely fits in with what is observed of Prospero and his magic island.
While the language of the masque and its differences to the rest of the play may seem to disrupt The Tempest, the masque actually contributes to the structural unity of the play. The themes of the masque are themes that are highly relevant to the play as a whole. The deliberate impression of unreality created by the language used in the masque relates to several themes of the play. Prosperos command over spirits and benevolent aspect are also presented through the masque. The textual evidence of the play proves that the masque is present for a definite purpose. It is different, but it is also necessary and natural to The Tempest, conveying vital themes and ideas. It does not disrupt, but enhances.