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,...
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.