The Tempest

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Prospero Character Analysis

The rightful Duke of Milan who was overthrown and exiled by his brother Antonio and Alonso, the King of Naples. Prospero has lived for 12 years with his daughter Miranda on a deserted island, where he has become a powerful enchanter and the master of the spirit Ariel and the "monster" Caliban. Prospero has become a powerful enchanter, and his magical skill gives him almost complete control over everyone on the island. He's not shy about using his enchantments either, whether on his enemies or on his daughter, to manipulate events to his liking. In fact, Prospero's power on the island is so complete that many critics compare him to an author of a play—just as an author controls the actions of the characters in a play, Prospero controls the actions of the people on the island. Prospero is domineering, and expects gratitude and devotion from both his daughter and his servants. Yet he is not bloodthirsty, and at the end of the play, rather than taking revenge on those who wronged him when he has them at his mercy, he instead choose to give up his magic power and reconcile with his enemies.

Prospero Quotes in The Tempest

The The Tempest quotes below are all either spoken by Prospero or refer to Prospero. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Simon & Schuster edition of The Tempest published in 2004.
Act 1, scene 2 Quotes
Thy false uncle...new created
The creatures that were mine...set all hearts i'th'state
To what tune pleased his ear, that now he was
The ivy which had hid my princely trunk,
And sucked my verdure out on't...
Related Characters: Prospero (speaker), Antonio
Page Number: 1.2.95-106
Explanation and Analysis:

Prospero has decided to tell Miranda the truth about their past, before they were shipwrecked on the island. Prospero has explained that he was once the Duke of Milan, but that he effectively allowed his brother, Antonio, to manage the state; Antonio then betrayed Prospero to take total control of Milan for himself.

In this quote, Prospero explains how Antonio used his cunning political skill to manipulate others into believing whatever "tune pleased his ear." Prospero emphasizes how he and Antonio were initially very close and that he loved and trusted him, but that Antonio used this proximity and trust to undermine Prospero. This description establishes Antonio as a clear villain within the play, motivated not by loyalty and compassion but by self-interest and the desire for power. 

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You taught me language, and my profit on't
Is, I know how to curse.
Related Characters: Caliban (speaker), Prospero
Page Number: 1.2.437-438
Explanation and Analysis:

Prospero has thanked Ariel for creating the storm, although he has failed to set Ariel free per his request. Meanwhile, Prospero's "poisonous slave" Caliban enters, who Prospero treats much more cruelly. The two fight, with Prospero arguing that in the past he treated Caliban with care, only to have Caliban retaliate by attempting to rape Miranda. Caliban resentfully responds that he wished he had been successful in his rape attempt. Caliban grumbles that Prospero taught him language, but the only value of this is that now he knows how to curse. This is a key moment that establishes Prospero's paternalistic attitude to Caliban, a feature that signifies their colonial dynamic.

While Prospero considers it a gift that he has taught Caliban language, Caliban refuses to separate this education from Prospero's overall imprisonment of him. Caliban implies that there is little use to having language fluency if he is not treated as an equal by the people he communicates with. Under these circumstances, the only value in being able to speak is to curse his oppression. This tension is symbolically significant when compared to the "education" that European colonizers imposed on colonized populations throughout the New World.

Act 4, scene 1 Quotes
...Be cheerful, sir,
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.
Related Characters: Prospero (speaker), Ferdinand
Page Number: 4.1.164-175
Explanation and Analysis:

Prospero has given permission for Ferdinand and Miranda to marry, and ordered Ariel to gather the spirits for a masque – a play, of sorts – to celebrate the couple. However, Prospero interrupts the celebration when he remembers the plot hatched by Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban to murder him. Ferdinand has expressed concern at Prospero's strange behavior, and Prospero attempts to reassure him by saying that their "revels" have simply come to an end and reminding him "We are such stuff / as dreams are made on; and our little life / is rounded with a sleep." Pointing out life's transience seems like a strange way of reassuring someone, and thus we can interpret Prospero's speech as a more general, introspective stream of thought rather than a direct address to Ferdinand. 

Indeed, many critics choose to read this speech as a sort of message from Shakespeare himself. The Tempest is widely believed to be the last play Shakespeare wrote, and thus in calling the masque to an end, Prospero mirrors Shakespeare's departure from the theatre before his own death. The "insubstantial pageant" that fades and leaves nothing behind can be compared to Shakespeare's work as a playwright, and Shakespeare/Prospero's phrase "our little life" can be interpreted as a gesture of humility, reminding the audience that everyone is mortal and, in the grander scheme of history, insignificant. This point is, of course, somewhat ironic, as Shakespeare's legacy has proven more enduring than almost any other writer in history. 

A devil, a born devil, on whose nature
Nurture can never stick...
Related Characters: Prospero (speaker), Caliban
Related Symbols: Prospero's Cloak and Books
Page Number: 4.1.211-212
Explanation and Analysis:

Prospero has suddenly interrupted the masque, having remembered Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban's plot against him. He summons Ariel, who reports that he has led the three drunk men on a treacherous walk, and gives further details about their plans to kill Prospero and steal his cloak and books. Prospero is furious, exclaiming that Caliban is a devil "on whose nature / nurture can never stick." His words reflect a prominent debate among colonizers at the time about the nature of indigenous populations. Some argued that "savage" populations could be educated or "nurtured" to think and behave like Europeans––hence the "civilizing" missions that imposed Christianity and Western culture on colonized populations.

Others believed that it was impossible to "civilize" these populations, as Prospero claims in this passage. Like Prospero, many who held this view claimed that non-white people were not human, comparing their "nature" to animals or "devils." Note that both interpretations were deeply racist in that they cast the non-Europeans were seen as inferior to Europeans, although the second was more likely to be used as justification for enslavement and genocide. 

Act 5, scene 1 Quotes
Mine would, sir, were I human.
Related Characters: Ariel (speaker), Prospero
Page Number: 5.1.26
Explanation and Analysis:

Thanks to Ariel, Prospero has gained control over all his "enemies"; as a result, he has promised Ariel his freedom. When Prospero asks how Alonso and his men are doing, Ariel replies that they are terrified and that if Prospero were to see them now his "affections would become tender," adding, "mine would, sir, were I human." This humble comment reveals the irony of the idea that Ariel is not human. Throughout the play, Ariel has acted with compassion, intelligence, and dignified self-restraint (indeed, these qualities set him apart from many of the human characters on the island!). His advice that Prospero will feel pity for Alonso and the others is accurate, and shows that he has a sophisticated understanding of the depth of human emotions. 

Despite this, Ariel still refuses to claim human status for himself, and obediently acquiesces when Prospero continues to delay his promise of freedom. In this sense, we can interpret Ariel as an ideal colonized subject, passively accepting Prospero's right to rule over him, silently putting up with bad treatment, and never claiming the right to be equal with those who have enslaved him. 

Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?
Related Characters: Prospero (speaker), Ariel
Page Number: 5.1.28-31
Explanation and Analysis:

Ariel has told Prospero that Alonso and his men are in a terrible state, and that if he were human, Ariel would feel sorry for them. Prospero is moved to sympathy by Ariel's words, and in this passage describes how Ariel has inspired him to be more compassionate. He says that if Ariel, who is only "air," can emphathize with the imprisoned men's plight, then surely Prospero himself should feel even more moved.

Once again, Ariel is presented in noble, anthropomorphized way, while still being treated as an "other," as decidedly non-human. Prospero's suggestion that the more similar you are to someone the more likely you are to feel sympathy with them contrasts with other evidence in the play. Antonio, for example, despite being Prospero's own flesh and blood, still acts with merciless cruelty against his brother. 

...The rarer action is
In virtue, than in vengeance.
Related Characters: Prospero (speaker)
Page Number: 5.1.35-36
Explanation and Analysis:

Moved by Ariel's sympathy for Alonso and the other men who Prospero has ordered to be imprisoned, Prospero has reflected that he himself should be more sympathetic. He admits that he still feels hurt by their "high wrongs," but reasons that it is more rare to act virtuously than vengefully. The events leading up to this moment certainly support this theory; the play is full of characters seeking revenge on one another.

Yet Prospero's use of the word "rare" does not just refer to infrequency, it also refers to value. As he has observed to Ariel, acting with compassion and forgiveness toward others is admirable, and an important part of being human. Note that Prospero must be reminded of this fact, and of how to use his power for good, by Ariel, a non-human with very little power. 

...But this rough magic
I here abjure...I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than ever did plummet sound
I'll drown my book.
Related Characters: Prospero (speaker)
Related Symbols: Prospero's Cloak and Books
Page Number: 5.1.59-66
Explanation and Analysis:

Having decided to set free Alonso and his men, Prospero conjures the spirits onstage and gives a lyrical speech about the many acts of magic he has performed in the past. He then resolves that, after this final act, he will break and bury his staff and "drown" his magic books, giving up his supernatural powers for good. Although Prospero is not a villainous character and (arguably) used magic mostly for good, this speech suggests that it is necessary for him to stop practicing magic in order to restore the natural order and balance of power––both on the island and back in Italy. 

This speech takes on a further level of significance if we read Prospero as representing Shakespeare. As Shakespeare neared the end of his life, perhaps he used Prospero's speech as a symbolic farewell to the theatre after a lifetime of creating "magic" and illusion on the stage. This analogy suggests that, while the power to create drama is akin to a supernatural gift, it is not possible for this to last forever, as even playwrights are mortal beings whose "little life" will inevitably come to a close. 

...O rejoice
Beyond a common joy, and set it down
With gold on lasting pillars: 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.
Related Characters: Gonzalo (speaker), Prospero, Miranda, Ferdinand
Related Symbols: The Tempest
Page Number: 5.1.247-254
Explanation and Analysis:

All the characters on the island have been summoned together, which has led to many surprises, including the fact that Prospero, Miranda, and Ferdinand, all of whom were presumed dead, are in fact alive, and that Ferdinand and Miranda have fallen in love. In response to the happy scene, Gonzalo calls on everyone to rejoice, observing that while Ferdinand was lost in the storm, he in fact found a wife; meanwhile, Prospero has regained his dukedom "in a poor isle." Gonzalo's statement emphasizes how the upheaval of the storm and magic of the island have ultimately resulted in a restoration of the natural order of things. His final comment that everyone has found themselves "when no man was his own" highlights the importance of compassion, loyalty, and selflessness, traits that Gonzalo has unwaveringly embodied throughout the play. 

Gonzalo's speech emphasizes the way in which the characters have made instrumental use of the island; indeed, Gonzalo describes all the ways in which the storm will restore and improve Italian courtly society without mentioning the impact on the island itself, including its inhabitants. A postcolonial perspective – one that can see the faults in colonialism and the ideas and logic that supported colonial actions – thus allows us to identify a narrow, selfish underside to Gonzalo's triumphant declarations. 

...this thing of darkness, I
Acknowledge mine.
Related Characters: Prospero (speaker), Caliban
Page Number: 5.1.330-331
Explanation and Analysis:

Now that everyone has been brought together, Prospero has reclaimed his dukedom, and Miranda and Ferdinand's love has been announced, Prospero asks Ariel to undo the spell placed on Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban. Prospero reveals the plan the three drunk men hatched against him, and asks the other characters if they recognize Stephano and Trinculo. He then claims "this thing of darkness" as his own. Assumedly, "thing of darkness" refers to Caliban; there are many times in the play when Caliban is referred to as a nonhuman "it" rather than as a man, and this description is related to his indigenous status and dark skin.

Such an interpretation confirms the impression that Prospero believes Caliban to be his property, and treats him simultaneously as a child, pet, and inanimate possession. Such a dynamic was typical of this era (bear in mind that The Tempest was written only a few decades before the establishment of the Atlantic slave trade). It is possible that these lines actually consist of Prospero taking partial responsibility for the sinister plot against him, though this is somewhat unlikely considering that after this statement Caliban says "I shall be pinch'd to death."

Epilogue Quotes
Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own—
Which is most faint. Now '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.
Related Characters: Prospero (speaker)
Related Symbols: Prospero's Cloak and Books
Page Number: Ep.1-20
Explanation and Analysis:

Prospero has scolded Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban for their plot against him, but has suggested that if Caliban follows a final set of orders, he may be freed. Meanwhile, the rest of the characters have made plans to spend one final night on the island before voyaging back to Italy the next day. Everyone exits except Prospero, who delivers a final speech addressed to the audience. Prospero reviews the fact that he has relinquished his magical powers, reclaimed his dukedom, and "pardoned the deceiver." In other words, the natural hierarchy of power has been restored, and there remain no outstanding plots or grudges. Prospero asks the audience to "release me from my bands / with the help of your good hands"––meaning that the audience's applause will set him free. 

Again, many critics interpret this final speech to be the voice of Shakespeare himself, proclaiming a final farewell to the theatre. The speech alludes to the importance of forgiveness, perhaps suggesting that the power of drama lies within its ability to evoke sympathy and to encourage people to treat one another with mercy and compassion. Prospero's request to be "released" and "set free" is curious, as he himself has imprisoned and enslaved various other characters throughout the play. Overall, whether within the world of the play or in the context of a farewell from Shakespeare, Prospero's speech emphasizes the continuation of life beyond the ephemeral presence of any one person. 

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Prospero Character Timeline in The Tempest

The timeline below shows where the character Prospero appears in The Tempest. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1, scene 2
Power Theme Icon
Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Theme Icon
Miranda and Prospero watch the tempest from the shore of an island. Miranda pities the seafarers, saying "O,... (full context)
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
Power Theme Icon
Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Theme Icon
Prospero reassures her that no harm has been done and says that it's time to tell... (full context)
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
Power Theme Icon
Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Theme Icon
...Alonso, the King of Naples and a long-time enemy of Milan, to help him overthrow Prospero. To sway Alonso, Antonio promised that, as duke, he would pay an annual tribute to... (full context)
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Theme Icon
Alonso and Antonio arranged for soldiers to kidnap Prospero and Miranda in the middle of the night. The soldiers hurried them aboard a fine... (full context)
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
Power Theme Icon
Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Theme Icon
Miranda says that she would like to meet Gonzalo someday. She then asks Prospero why he created the storm. Prospero replies that circumstances have brought his enemies close to... (full context)
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
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Prospero summons his servant Ariel, who greets Prospero as his "great master," then gleefully describes how... (full context)
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
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Prospero thanks Ariel. Ariel reminds Prospero that he had promised to reduce Ariel's time in servitude... (full context)
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
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Colonization Theme Icon
Prospero awakens Miranda and, calling for his "poisonous slave," (1.2.325) summons, Caliban, the malformed son of... (full context)
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
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Enraged, Prospero hurls new curses at Caliban and orders him to get to his chores. Caliban grudgingly... (full context)
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
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Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Theme Icon
..."Full fathom five thy father lies. / Of his bones are coral made" (1.2.396–397). Unseen, Prospero and Miranda watch Ferdinand approach. Miranda declares Ferdinand handsome. Ferdinand soon notices Miranda and, struck... (full context)
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
Power Theme Icon
However, to test the depth of Ferdinand's love for Miranda, Prospero speaks sharply to Ferdinand and takes him into captivity as a servant. Miranda begs her... (full context)
Act 2, scene 1
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Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Theme Icon
...and Alonso, unsettled, draw their swords and exit, followed by Ariel, who plans to tell Prospero of the plot he has foiled. (full context)
Act 2, scene 2
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Caliban enters, carrying wood. He delivers a monologue in which he curses Prospero and describes the many torments Prospero's spirits inflict on him. Just then, Trinculo, Alonso's jester,... (full context)
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
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...and expresses a hope that Stephano might be able to deliver him from servitude to Prospero. Stephano, meanwhile, fantasizes about becoming ruler of what he believes is a deserted island, while... (full context)
Act 3, scene 1
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
Power Theme Icon
Ferdinand enters, carrying a heavy log. Having been imprisoned and put to work by Prospero, he delivers a soliloquy in which he says that Miranda's love, the cause for which... (full context)
Power Theme Icon
Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Theme Icon
Miranda enters. Prospero follows behind, unseen. Miranda urges Ferdinand not to work so hard and offers to help... (full context)
Act 3, scene 2
Power Theme Icon
Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Theme Icon
Ariel, invisible, enters just as Caliban begins to describe Prospero's ill treatment of him and to ask Stephano to avenge this wrong. Ariel calls out... (full context)
Power Theme Icon
Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Theme Icon
Caliban continues to describe his plan to murder Prospero. He suggests several ways of killing Prospero, and it is clear that he has thought... (full context)
Act 3, scene 3
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Theme Icon
Colonization Theme Icon
...the air. Spirits enter, assemble a lavish banquet, and signal for the courtiers to partake. Prospero has also entered, but because of his magic is invisible. The men marvel at the... (full context)
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
Power Theme Icon
Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Theme Icon
...is an agent of Fate, Ariel condemns Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian for overthrowing and exiling Prospero and Miranda. He says that the tempest was nature's tool for exacting revenge on Alonso... (full context)
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
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Alonso is bitter with remorse for the overthrow of Prospero, which he believes has caused the drowning of his son. He resolves to drown himself... (full context)
Act 4, scene 1
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
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Prospero gives Ferdinand his blessing to marry Miranda, saying that Ferdinand has stood up well to... (full context)
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Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Theme Icon
Prospero orders Ariel to gather his band of spirits to put on a celebratory masque, or... (full context)
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
Power Theme Icon
Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Theme Icon
Suddenly, Prospero recalls Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo's conspiracy to kill him. He calls an abrupt end to... (full context)
Colonization Theme Icon
Prospero summons Ariel, who reports that he has led the drunken conspirators on a torturous walk... (full context)
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Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Theme Icon
...wine in the swamp. Caliban tries to re-focus them on the murder. He points out Prospero's cave close by and reminds them of the ultimate reward, saying "Do that good mischief... (full context)
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Colonization Theme Icon
Ariel and Prospero send spirits shaped like hunting dogs to chase off the conspirators. Prospero orders Ariel to... (full context)
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
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Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Theme Icon
Prospero says that all of his enemies are now under his control, and he promises Ariel... (full context)
Act 5, scene 1
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
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Prospero asks Ariel how Alonso and his men are doing. Ariel reports that he has confined... (full context)
Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Theme Icon
Alone on stage, Prospero invokes the various spirits who have aided him, describing the many incredible feats he has... (full context)
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
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Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Theme Icon
Ariel leads the courtiers onto the stage, still spellbound by Prospero's charm. Prospero addresses them—praising Gonzalo for his goodness and loyalty and scolding Alonso, Sebastian, and... (full context)
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
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Prospero releases Alonso and his men from the spell. Alonso, shocked and confused at seeing Prospero,... (full context)
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Prospero next addresses Antonio and Sebastian, condemning them for overthrowing and exiling him and for plotting... (full context)
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Alonso laments the death of Ferdinand. Prospero responds that he, too, has "lost" a child. Alonso assumes that Miranda has also died.... (full context)
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...reports that the sailors awakened to find the ship miraculously restored to perfect condition. Next, Prospero asks Ariel to release Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo from their spell and bring them forward... (full context)
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
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Colonization Theme Icon
The courtiers and Prospero mock Stephano and Trinculo for their drunken state and foiled ambitions. Prospero orders Caliban to... (full context)
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
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Prospero invites Alonso and his court to spend the night in his cell, where he promises... (full context)
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
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Prospero gives Ariel the final task of ensuring the ship a safe, speedy voyage back to... (full context)
Epilogue
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
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Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Theme Icon
Everyone exits except for Prospero, who speaks an epilogue to the audience. He begins, "Now my charms are all o'erthrown,... (full context)