The Tempest: Masque

The Tempest:


World Literature

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 Shakespeare’s 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 Shakespeare’s vision.

The purpose of the masque within the context of The Tempest is a celebration of Miranda and Ferdinand’s engagement. The themes of the masque reflect issues that relate to the newly-affianced couple: fertility, chastity, and unity. It represents Prospero’s 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 Prospero’s 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 may…be ministered…barren hate…shall 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, Prospero’s 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 Prospero’s 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 Prospero’s tuition, is represented as the perfect balance between nature and