The Tempest and the Court Masque Inverted


Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen


The Tempest is an intensely self-conscious play - it is, in many ways, theatre about the theatre. Many of the actions and events in it are explicitly and implicitly referred to as theatrical ones. Miranda's response to the shipwreck is a response to a tragedy, full of pity and fear:

0, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer: a brave vessel—
Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her—
Dashed all to pieces! 0, the cry did knock
Against my very heart—poor souls, they perished.[1]

The shipwreck is described by Prospero as a theatrical show staged by himself. "The direful spectacle of the wreck" (1.2.26, my italics) — where the predominant meaning of "spectacle", as defined by Orgel, is "theatrical display or pageant". Similarly, Ariel is commanded to assume the "shape", or role of a "nymph o'th sea". Prospero orchestrates the events in The Tempest and much of the play is a play-within-a-play, directed by Prospero, with Ariel as his assistant-director and stage manager.

The Tempest is also Prospero's attempt to undo the past by restaging it. In this respect, Prospero is comparable to Hamlet, Richard II and Lear who also employ a reenactment of the past as a means of exerting symbolic power over it. Hamlet restages his father's assassination, and 'The Mousetrap', in a sense, is the replacement of actual revenge. Richard II turns his dethronement into a theatrical spectacle, and Lear calls his daughters to a mock trial. All resort to drama because reality is out of their reach, beyond their control. Metadrama, in Shakespeare, seems to function as a symbolic weapon, a substitute for reality, a staged repetition of the past an assertion of control on the site of loss and defeat.

Prospero's theatrical art serves as his weapon of power, his instrument of control. In The Tempest, theatre and political power are each other's doubles. Theatricality and power converge most strongly, and reach their apotheosis, in the wedding masque in Act 4, scene 1. A masque is a celebration of royal power and glory and, in staging one, Prospero becomes a type of king, a royal mage whose ideals become reality in a courtly entertainment. The wedding masque in The Tempest is an allusion to the court masques performed at the Whitehall Banqueting House and brings into the play a broad range of Renaissance thought about royalty, its manifestations and the nature of royal power.

The Court Masque

The court masque played a crucial role in the way Renaissance monarchs chose to think about themselves. Masques served essentially as images of the order, peace and harmony brought about by the monarch's mere presence, and expressed didactic truths about the monarchy. Lavishly spectacular and visual, designed to enchant the eye, they formed a genre fundamentally different from the drama performed on the public stage. Much of the action was taken up by the settings themselves, which did not merely form a passive backdrop to the action, but were an integral part of it and symbolised the controlling power of the king. In this sense, the masque is radically different from the plays that were performed in the popular playhouses, which lacked scenic machinery. Inigo Jones's ingenious settings, "his ability to do the impossible" were the prime manifestation of the royal will.[2]

Under James 1, the form of the masque developed into two contrasting parts. The first section, or antimasque, offered an image of vice and disorder, which, in the second section, the masque proper, was superseded by the workings of royal power, and an ordered, harmonious world, with the king at its centre, was established. For example in The Masque of Blackness and its sequel, The Masque of Beauty, twelve "Nymphs of Niger" were made white:

Brittania, whose new name makes all tongues sing,
Might be a diamond worthy to enchase it,
Rules by the sun that to this height doth grace it,
Whose beams shine day and night, and are of force
To blanch an Ethiop, and revive a corse. [3]

King James is associated with the sun, his rays break "the Night's black charms". In Ben Jonson's Hymenaei, the "four humours and affection" are scared away by the presence of Reason and make way for the eight "nuptial powers" of Juno: "These, these are they / Whom humour and affection must obey".[4] In the same masque, a debate between Truth and Opinion (Truth's false counterfeit) is resolved in favour of the former. Truth, here, embodies the virtues of marriage, while Opinion glorifies the benefits of spinsterhood. Eventually, Truth addresses the king:

This royal judge of our contention
Will prop, I know, what I have undergone;
To whose right sacred highness I resign
Low, at his feet, this starry crown of mine,
To show his rule and judgement is divine.[5]

In The Masque of Queens twelve hags, embodying Ignorance, Suspicion, Credulity and other vices, vanish at the dazzling appearance of Heroic Virtue, accompanied by eleven mythical queens.

In other masques, the king is often represented as the controller and tamer of nature. The royal will creates order and sophistication in "the wildness and untutored innocence of nature".[6] At the climax of each masque, the masquers descended from the stage and chose a dancing partner from the audience, merging the worlds of the masque and the court into the ideal royal universe.

The court masque, then, manifested an important theatrical image of kingship; royalty's prime mode of expression was fundamentally histrionic, as is also confirmed by James I's personal treatise on royalty entitled Basilikon Doron (1599) and Elizabeth's assertion that "We princes, I tell you are set on stages, in the sight and view of all the world duly observed."[7] The theatre served as an extension of the royal mind. Even watching a masque was a histrionic activity: the king's box was placed at the centre of the hall, for all the other spectators to see. The king had to be seen seeing. Inigo Jones' stage-effects were also designed in such a way as to give the king the best view of the stage — only from his seat could the action be seen properly.

Prospero's Masque

The wedding masque in The Tempest is a materialisation of Prospero's will and power. Like the court masque, it is a visual spectacle: "No tongue! All eyes! Be silent!" (4.1.59). Whereas in the second scene of The Tempest, Prospero wanted his daughter to listen, and drink in his tale, this time he wants visual attention. The masque celebrates Prospero's paternal magnanimity and his ability to defy the laws of time and nature — "Spring come to you at the farthest, / In the very end of harvest!" (4.1.114-15): winter has been excluded from Prospero's seasonal cycle. Abundance emanates spontaneously from Nature's inexhaustible resources; the masque is a departure from the real world of The Tempest, in which Ferdinand has to labour for his wedding, Ariel for his freedom, Caliban for the liberation from bodily pain. These harsh, rigid transactions are replaced by a vision of unconditional plenty. It is, however, worth noting that Venus and her "waspish-headed son" have been safely excluded from the party; unbridled erotic lust — so much feared by Prospero — has been warded off.

In the court masque, when the masquers reveal their true identities (i.e. as persons of nobility, people of the court), the audience was meant to look through the image, at the ideals of kingship and courtly life it represented. "In such representations", Orgel and Strong write, "the court saw not an imitation of itself, but its true self." [8] Likewise, the wedding masque in The Tempest offers Miranda and Ferdinand an image of their ideal, virtuous selves. It points to the ideals forged by Prospero's royal mind and stands for his project in general:

In one voyage
Did Claribel her husband find at Tunis,
And Ferdinand, her brother, found a wife
Where he himself was lost, Prospero his dukedom
In a poor isle, and all of us ourselves
When no man was his own.

(5.1.208-13, my italics)

Prospero's noble, rational magic is contrasted to the black sorcery practised by Sycorax, Caliban's mother, and this, again, links him to the images of royal power we encounter in the court masque. In Jonson's Hymenaei, for example, "anti-royal" forces are said to be concocted by "the black sorceress Night." Frank Kermode, in his New Arden Edition of The Tempest, writes that Prospero's art is

the disciplined exercise of virtuous knowledge … it is a technique for liberating the soul from the passions, from nature; the practical application of a discipline of which the primary requirements are learning and temperance, and of which the mode is contemplation … it is the ordination of civility, the control of appetite, the transformations of nature by breeding and learning.[9]

Just how strongly Prospero fashions his world and his image of himself the way a king does in a court masque, becomes clear if we connect Kermode's observations to a comment on the Caroline masque — but also applicable to masques in general — by Kevin Sharpe, quoted in Jerzy Limon's The Masque of Stuart Culture:

Neoplatonic philosophy postulates an ascent of cognition from the plane of senses and material objects to a loftier stratum of knowledge of forms and ideas, of which objects were but an imperfect material expression. The Caroline masque enacted that philosophy in the transition from antimasque to masque. The world of sense and appetite was represented in the masque by images of nature as an ungoverned wilderness, threatening, violent, ignorant and anarchic; the sphere of soul was depicted as nature ordered and governed by the patterns of the forms. So in the Caroline masque the transcendence is most often a transformation of nature — from chaos to order and from disjunction to harmony.[10]

If The Tempest can be related to a direct political context, it can also be related to the genre of the court masque on a structural level. In a sense, the play may be said to consist of a series of antimasques, resolved in the final act by Prospero's regenerative powers. In the very first scene, social hierarchy is subverted by the forces of nature —"What cares these roarers for the name of king!" — ; a little later the courtiers plot the assassination of Alonso; Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo conspire against Prospero, and there is also the past usurpation of Prospero which the latter seeks to undo. In The Tempest, the full gamut of Shakespeare's tragic material is played out in three hours. Hamlet, King Lear and the history plays are reenacted on a desert island, this time with the desire to resolve the tragedy and restore harmony and forgiveness. The dramatic form of the play is similar to that of the court masque — Prospero's (royal) powers are called upon to resolve and undo the antimasques acted out by the sailor, the courtiers, Caliban and his inebriated companions and Prospero's brother. In much traditional Tempest criticism, it has been taken for granted that Prospero successfully completes his royal task, that in The Tempest the world of the antimasque is unambiguously defeated and replaced by Prospero's "brave new world". Enid Welsford, for instance, writes that "the only potent will is the will of Prospero. So far from being founded upon a conflict, the play does not even contain a debate." [11]

However, there is a discrepancy between Prospero's magic on the one hand and the political realities it is designed to undo on the other. The sea captain's command over his ship, and the authority he derives from this, and Caliban's organic knowledge of and sensuous bond with the island are palpable political facts to reckon with. Prospero is even dependent on Caliban for basic physical sustenance: "We cannot miss him. He does make our fire, / Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices / That profit us" (1.2.311-13). Likewise, the conspiracy against Prospero is tangible in its carnivalesque physicality, the conspirators' excessive drinking and their preoccupation with the body, rather than the mind.

Prospero's magic, by contrast, is abstract, and it operates in the realm of ideas, even though the opening scene of The Tempest might at first seem to contradict this. Prospero conjures up an immaterial banquet (producing real food is beyond his capabilities), and evokes a masque that, for all its splendour, is primarily an abstract ideal, disconnected from concrete realities. In fact, the entire scope of Prospero's project is abstract: Prospero seeks to effect a type of religious conversion in his brother, tries to inscribe "nurture" on Caliban's "nature", he is his daughter's schoolmaster, the forger of her mind. The physically real effects of his magic (Ferdinand's paralysis, the pack of hounds that chase the conspirators) spring from an anxiety at his own lack of control over others — his inability to control their minds, which is what he most desperately wants.

Characters whose minds Prospero seems unable to control, include Stephano, Trinculo and Caliban. All three figure at the interruption of the wedding masque as Prospero remembers their "foul conspiracy" against his life:

Enter certain reapers, properly habited. They join with the nymphs in a graceful dance, towards the end whereof Prospero starts suddenly and speaks, after which, to a strange hollow and confused noise they heavily vanish.

The interrupted ceremony in Shakespeare often marks a dramatic turning point. In Hamlet, the interruption of 'The Mouse-Trap' by Claudius' sudden angry departure is particularly ominous. By restaging his father's assassination, Hamlet has revealed his suspicions concerning Claudius' crime. He is now openly dangerous and has, in fact jeopardised his life. In Richard II, the interruption of the duel between Bullingbrook and Mowbray marks a crucial political mistake on Richard's part and heralds his downfall and eventual death. Here, what was intended as the benevolent apotheosis and climactic celebration of Prospero's powers, is suddenly undercut by a conspiracy he himself has instigated. Prospero's anxiety seems out of proportion with reality. Perhaps it is the unmistakable political will behind the conspiracy that disturbs him so much; the mere fact of resistance and of carnivalesque irreverence signifies a limit to his powers. He cannot alter people's minds — "Thought is free" (3.2.121) as Caliban and the clowns have it.

The masque is followed immediately by Prospero's famous speech on the evanescence of life:

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-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.


Prospero's vision of proliferation, abundance, inexhaustible plenty is overthrown by a declaration of finiteness, of transience. What was imagined to be permanent, an exchange without diminution — "nothing of him that doth fade" — turns out to be ephemeral, proves subject to loss. This is the culmination of one important 'deep structure' of the play as a whole. In Milan, Prospero devoted himself to the study of magic and, as a result, lost his throne; Caliban, in a dream, sees "riches ready to drop upon [him]" and wakes up to reality; a banquet appears in front of the courtiers but when they fall to, it vanishes. The Tempest rehearses this pattern of frustration over and over again and eventually leads up to the interrupted masque.[12] Prospero's vision is emptied out, drained. He is thrown back upon himself, upon the naked fact of his old age: "Be not disturbed with my infirmity" (4.1.160). The speech refers most strongly to himself — he is old, weak — and to his splendid magical powers — they are merely "insubstantial", a histrionic fiction. One is all the more forcefully reminded of the substantial realities of the sailor, Caliban, Stephano, Trinculo, of the palpability of storms, but also of the erotic tension between Miranda and Ferdinand — at best repressed but by no means effaced by Prospero — of food and drink, of forms of physical excess as opposed to Prospero's abstract abundance. The conflict between Prospero's esoteric project and the realities it is designed to undo remains unresolved — the former's powers, at least, are insufficient, precisely because they are intangible idealisations; they are only a dream of absolute power.

All this has political implications beyond the play itself. As a structural allusion to the genre of the court masque, it is an evocation of royal power and splendour. It offers a series of antimasques, promises their undoing by Prospero's royal magic, yet, at crucial moments, withholds it, frustrates the very expectations it first creates. As such, it subverts the ideology of the court masque by resisting the easy solutions this genre offers. Prospero / the king is powerful, but only up to a point. Prospero's project is a royal desire whose realisation is ambivalent.

By staging the wedding masque as a piece of drama-within-drama, The Tempest also highlights the theatricality of kingship, marks it out as a histrionic construct. Royalty expresses itself by means of a theatrical fiction and in The Tempest it is represented as such. The court masque, as an expression of royal power, is appropriated for the stage, employed to create — in the audience — a desire for resolution. At crucial moments, however, this resolution is not achieved. Rather, it remains confined to Prospero's theatrical fantasy. What prevails, then, is an image of political struggle. The 'counter-voices' in the play remain alive, are not exorcised totally by the appearance of Prospero / the king, even if they do not triumph either.

This is Prospero's tragedy. He learns that there are limits to his power. Crucially, his brother, the usurper, remains unregenerate, never asks for forgiveness. In the great reconciliation-scene, Prospero addresses Antonio in a disturbingly ambiguous fashion, which indicates the unresolved emotional struggle within himself:

For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother
Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive
Thy rankest fault—all of them—and require
My dukedom of thee, which perforce I know
Thou must restore.


In one and the same breath, Prospero expresses both forgiveness and a deeply rooted hatred. Antonio does not reply, and from his silence we may deduce his unwillingness to repent.

Prospero also loses his daughter — and, crucially, his dukedom — to Ferdinand. The two lovers are "discovered playing at chess." Their somewhat cynical exchange seems to mirror the harsh Realpolitik characteristic of the world of Milan, and of which Prospero became the ironic victim. Yet it may also be seen as an image of erotic courtship, as a series of playful moves in which power-games are only symbolically played out. As Leslie Fiedler brilliantly points out, the chess-game also indicates Prospero's loss of power over his daughter: "the strongest piece is the queen; and the combat always ends with the cry, 'Checkmate!', meaning 'The king is dead!', the old man left without a move." [13]

Of his two servants — Ariel, the creature of air and Caliban, the creature of earth — it is Ariel whom Prospero has to let go and give freedom, and Caliban with whom — in a famously enigmatic line — he eventually expresses an ambiguous bond: "This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine" (5.1.275-76). Although these words firmly claim Caliban as Prospero's colonised property, there is more at stake. "Acknowledge" has a positive ring and may mean "to accept", or "to recognise". Caliban, initially branded as the ultimate, evil Other, is acknowledged as a part of Prospero's own identity. This is also suggested by the line "This thing of darkness I", which, because of its ambiguous line ending, could be read as apposition — "This thing of darkness; I" — and hence an equation, of Prospero and Caliban.

Commenting on these lines, Leslie Fiedler has observed that Prospero "speaks on a psychological level, too, as indeed he must, since, in general the oppression of minorities always implies the repression of certain elements in the psyche of the oppressors with which those minorities are identified." [14] Prospero identifies Caliban with impending death, and the infirmity of old age: "And with age his body uglier grows, / So his mind cankers" (4.1.191-92). It refers back to Prospero's realisation of his advancing age:

Sir, I am vexed
Bear with my weakness, my old brain is troubled
Be not disturbed with my infirmity.


At the close of the play, he announces his return to Milan "where / Every third thought shall be [his] grave" (5.1.311). Caliban serves as a substitute for Prospero himself. His fears concerning his age are transferred on to Caliban. Likewise, Caliban may be said to embody Prospero's own repressed desires for Miranda. She is the only woman on the island and Prospero imagines his relationship with her as a kind of obsessive symbiosis:

I have done nothing but in care of thee,
Of thee, my dear one, thee, my daughter, who
Art ignorant of what thou art; naught knowing
Of whence I am, nor that I am more better
Than Prospero, master of a full poor cell,
And thy no greater father

(1.2.16-21, my italics)

These desires are externalised and inscribed on Caliban, who is endowed by Prospero with an unbridled, rapacious sexuality — "thou didst seek to violate / The honour of my child" (1.2.347-48). The Tempest, then, resists the ideology of a court masque like The Masque of Blackness, in which the king reigns over and transforms 'blackness', and, instead, hints at the blackness within Prospero/the king himself.

This is an ironic reversal of the initial situation — Caliban served as the embodiment of otherness: low physicality, dangerous sexuality, unregenerate nature while Ariel was safely sexless, bodiless, the materialisation-cum-enactment of Prospero's language, the extension of his mind. Like his drunken fellow-conspirators, Caliban in his "deformity" is a creature of the antimasque, to be evicted from Prospero's courtly world, or at least 'whitewashed', deprived of his "nature" and inscribed with "nurture". [15] Ironically, Prospero finds himself unable to 'educate' Caliban and it even seems, once again, as if Prospero, in the last few scenes of the play, is thrown back more and more upon his own physical vulnerability, is brought down to a level of existence which he initially displaced on to Caliban.

In a sense, Prospero and Caliban come to occupy similar positions towards the end of the play. Caliban gets his island back — Prospero will return to Milan — and he is, once more, "his own king". As the sole inhabitant of the island, he is alone, like Prospero after everyone has left the stage — the other characters are all part of a company (the lovers, the courtiers, the clowns), while Prospero is essentially isolated — and the Duke-magician pronounces his epilogue:

Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own,
Which is most faint. No 'tis true
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got,
And pardoned the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell,
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;
And my ending is despair
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.


While at the end of a court masque the king is addressed and his power glorified, here a duke addresses the audience to confess his powerlessness. Having relinquished his magical powers, Prospero is reduced to his own limited bodily strength. The Tempest, as a dramatic fiction, has now become Prospero's prison and Prospero his own prisoner. He has survived his own fantasy, his dream of power. Prospero's confinement echoes that of Ariel and Caliban, and his call for liberation similarly recalls their desire for freedom. His demand for mercy and forgiveness brings to mind Caliban's words just a few lines earlier: "I'll be wise hereafter, / And seek for grace" (5.1.294-95). "Grace", or Christian forgiveness, favour, here invests Prospero's power with religious dimensions — the languages of religion and power are conflated. In the Epilogue, religious favour becomes the very icon of Prospero's powerlessness and dependence. Finally, Prospero finds himself in a position he had hitherto reserved for his subjects. He expresses a sense of guilt: "As you from crimes would pardoned be, / Let your indulgence set me free" (5.1.337-38). Prospero's theatrical project, initially the sign of his power, now becomes his crime. In the world Prospero had created for himself, crimes were only committed by others — Antonio, Caliban, Stephano, Trinculo. His final confession of guilt mirrors the general reversal of his situation. As Edmund puts it in King Lear: "The wheel has come full circle, I am here." [16]

Prospero appeals to the audience for mercy, but also for their imaginative collaboration. The metadramatic undercurrent present throughout the play culminates here in an explicit elision of the borderline between play and world. It is the task of the audience to finish The Tempest; the struggle for power it presents is transferred to them, its energies infused into the extra-theatrical world.




1 The Tempest, ed. Stephen Orgel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 1.2.5-10. All subsequent quotations are taken from this edition.

2 Stephen Orgel, The Illusion of Power, p. 87. Orgel's book is a classic introduction to the study of the court masque in its historical context. Much of the material in this section was inspired by it. Other seminal works are Enid Welsford's The Court Masque, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1927), Jerzy Limon's The Masque of Stuart Culture (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1990), Stephen Orgel and Roy Strong's Inigo Jones: The Theatre at the Stuart Court (London: Sotheby Parke Bernet Publications Limited, 1973), and The Court Masque (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), a collection of essays edited by David Lindley.

3 The Masque of Blackness, in Stephen Orgel and Roy Strong, Inigo Jones: The Theatre at the Stuart Court, p. 92, ll. 229-33.

4 Hymenaei,lines 240-41, in Inigo Jones, p. 108.

5 Hymenaei, lines 883-87, in Inigo Jones, p. 113.

6 The Illusion of Power, p. 49.

7 Quoted in The Illusion of Power, p. 42.

8 Inigo Jones, p. 2.

9 Frank Kermode (ed.), The Tempest, New Arden Edition (London: Methuen, 1954), pp. x1vii-x1viii.

10 The Masque of Stuart Culture, p. 67.

11 The Court Masque, p. 340.

12 See also David Lindley's essay "Music, Masque and Meaning in The Tempest", The Court Masque, ed. David Lindley, 47-60.

13 The Stranger in Shakespeare (Frogmore, St Albans: Paladin, 1974), p. 206.

14 The Stranger in Shakespeare, p. 209.

15 Limon's The Masque of Stuart Culture contains a brilliantly suggestive drawing by Andrzej Markowicz, showing an assortment of typical 'antimasque characters' — beer-bellied drunkards, long-haired, grotesque clowns and a type of human bottles, embodying, of course, the evils of dipsomania. They show a decided resemblance to Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo.

16 King Lear, in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), 5.3.175.


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