In The Tempest, what is the overall impact of the masque?

In The Tempest, the overall impact of the masque is to make us aware of the natural order of things and the dangers involved in trying to disrupt it. The marriage element of the masque is designed to show us the joys that the natural order can bring, whereas Prospero's admonishment of Antonio and his confederates reminds us of the consequences of going against the way things should be.

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In act 4, scene 1, Prospero has Ariel conjure a masque, meant to impress Ferdinand, who is soon to wed Miranda. Prospero wants to emphasize for his son-in-law the serious side of marriage as a social contract and part of the divine order. Iris, the messenger goddess of the rainbow,...

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In act 4, scene 1, Prospero has Ariel conjure a masque, meant to impress Ferdinand, who is soon to wed Miranda. Prospero wants to emphasize for his son-in-law the serious side of marriage as a social contract and part of the divine order. Iris, the messenger goddess of the rainbow, enters first and summons Juno, who represents marriage and family as the wife of Jupiter, the king of the gods. Iris also summon Ceres, the goddess of the harvest.

The effect of the scene, in which Ceres and Juno pour out blessings on the marriage of the two young lovers, is to show the power of the feminine on the wedded state. It is significant that it is the beautiful rainbow and dew-giving goddess, Iris, who summons the two other powerful goddesses associated with fertility, childbirth, and abundance. Marriage, the three goddesses show, is more than just the sex that Ferdinand looks forward to. The couple's union represents, instead, the cycle of life and nature's many blessings, all of which are associated with female fecundity. As Juno states to the lovers,

Scarcity and want shall shun you.
Ceres' blessing so is on you.

After this, Juno calls on nymphs and reapers, who dance, but the return in the masque to a more sexual theme appears to remind Prospero suddenly of the dark plot against his life hatched by Caliban. The beautiful illusion of the masque dissolves against this reality, and Prospero gives one of the most important speeches in the play:

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.

This speech adds emphasis to a sense of the ephemeral quality of the masque. It is fleeting, but so is life, which Prospero compares to a dream.

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In The Tempest, Prospero has been confined to a remote island after being usurped as Duke of Milan by his brother Antonio and his henchmen. According to the standards of the time, Prospero's unceremonious overthrow represents an attack on the natural order of things, as that order dictates that a duke's title should only pass to someone else through natural death or abdication.

In the masque staged by Prospero, the natural order is restored to a considerable extent by the betrothal of Miranda and Ferdinand. Here we have a wedding that has Prospero's blessing, which is just what would've been expected at the time.

For a girl from a good family such as Miranda to have gone against her father's wishes in choosing a husband would've been, like Prospero's overthrow, an attack upon the natural order of things. But Miranda is marrying Ferdinand with her father's blessing, and so the natural order of things has reasserted itself, much to Prospero's delight.

A much less pleasant aspect of the masque comes in the form of Prospero's admonishment of his treacherous brother, Antonio, and his co-conspirators. And yet, like the wedding of Miranda and Ferdinand, it's also concerned with the restoration of the natural order of things.

As far as the natural order—and Prospero—is concerned, Prospero is the rightful Duke of Milan. Among other things, this gives him the right to administer a royal tongue-lashing to the hapless Antonio and his confederates, who are “men of sin” being punished for their treachery by destiny.

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The masque highlights one of the themes of the play, that it is important to keep oaths.

The Tempest is a play about honor and loyalty.  Prospero tries to lead Ferdinand to fall in love with his daughter, but then he also tries to impress upon him the fact that an oath of love is a serious thing. 

Earlier, Prospero targeted Antonio and Alonso as oath-breakers for the role they played in stealing his kingdom from him and sending him away.  Ariel freezes them and admonishes them.

You are three men of sin, whom Destiny,
That hath to instrument this lower world
And what is in't, the never-surfeited sea
Hath caused to belch up you; and on this island
Where man doth not inhabit; you 'mongst men
Being most unfit to live. (Act 3, Scene 3)

The point is that they treated Prospero badly, and he wants to get revenge on them.  He will get this revenge by using magic to control them.  He takes their faculties from them, and cements them in place.  Then he has them led to him.

In the meantime, Prospero is allowing his daughter to marry the king’s son, despite the king’s role in his banishment.  He wants to impress upon Ferdinand the value of his daughter’s hand and the marriage promise in general.

Look thou be true; do not give dalliance
Too much the rein: the strongest oaths are straw
To the fire i' the blood: be more abstemious,
Or else, good night your vow! (Act 4, Scene 1)

During the masque, the two lovers hear from the goddesses Iris, Ceres, and Juno.  They demonstrate Prospero’s magic because he calls forth their images to bless the couple.  The masque promotes the element of magic and mystery in a less dreadful way than we have seen it before.  We learn that magic can be used to entertain and bless as well as for violence.

Prospero obviously wants Ferdinand to treat his daughter well.  He reminded him to refrain from physical intimacy before the actual wedding, and now he is trying to impress upon him the significance of the bond he is entering into and what it means to Prospero.  It should send a clear message to Ferdinand that his new father-in-law is quite powerful!

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