Throughout most of Act IV of The Tempest, Prospero, Ferdinand, and Miranda watch a masque enacted for them by Ariel and other spirits on the island. But before the pageant can reach a proper conclusion, Prospero remembers he needs to direct to a close matters elsewhere on the island, and so he orders the masque to conclude. But before he leaves, he says to the happy couple,
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. (4.1.165-175)
Superficially, Prospero is simply confirming Ferdinand’s earlier suspicions that the actors are not humans but are in fact spirits. “They have vanished into the air,” he is saying, “and like the set which has also disappeared, there is not a trace of them left.” But strangely, at the conclusion of a statement that is supposedly about the airy spirits, Prospero suddenly switches from they to we: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.” For what reason has Prospero suddenly slipped from a straightforward explanation to this existential meditation on reality?
The reason, I think, begins to present itself upon examining the play’s context. The Tempest was the final complete play that Shakespeare wrote alone: he wrote only sections of Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Moreover, unlike so many other master artists, he did not compose until his death, but rather lived for a few more years following the composition of his last play. Thus, in his mind, he must have known that there would be no more for him following Prospero’s play. Indeed, Prospero himself — more than any of the other dozens of authentic Shakespearean personages — seems to me to be the most clear surrogate for Shakespeare: both men direct the action around them; both have a knack for pageantry; and both, at the time Shakespeare wrote The Tempest at least, are aging men who have daughters to match with suitable husbands.
Accepting that Prospero’s voice is at least occasionally Shakespeare’s authentic voice, we can look at the above passage in a new light. Not only have Prospero’s “revels” come to an end, but so too have Shakespeare’s: his days of play-writing are over. And regardless of how many spectacular stories were enacted within the “great globe itself” — that is, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater — the sets will be torn down and eventually the building itself will collapse into the earth.
The concluding sentence of the passage — that amazing, troubling little line — seems to me to be Shakespeare’s greatest acceptance of mortality. Just as his career will soon end, just as the Globe will eventually compound into dust, so too will he himself — the material of a dream, a short-lived dream — quickly disappear when he at last falls into the “sleep” of death. Surely, this is the case for all of us mortals — the “we” to which Prospero refers here.
I imagine that, like Prospero, Shakespeare ventured into retirement, “where / Every third thought” was his grave (5.1.8-9). Such “third thoughts” do seem to appear earlier in his thinking, however, as in the words he gives to Prospero about our “little life.” Despite every Bardolater’s best effort to prove otherwise, Shakespeare was all too mortal, and he rounded his life with the sleep of death only five years after composing The Tempest. Whether he was already suffering from that which eventually killed him while he wrote the play is not for us to know; but so irrepressible was his understanding of the human condition that he could not help but to allow the occasional insight into our existences to sneak into his writing, as occurs in Prospero’s explanation of the masque to Ferdinand. Whatever his initial intent might have been when he set out to write The Tempest, his final play provides us with the language with which to accept our going hence from this life.