The epilogue is an interesting feature of The Tempest because it offers some insights into Prospero’s character and commentary on the actor–audience relationship.
Throughout the course of the play, the audience learns what a tremendous schemer Prospero is and the great lengths to which he will go to get what he wants, even creating a storm and running a ship aground. As the play winds down, Prospero has succeeded in bring Ferdinand and Miranda together, which was his dearest wish. Despite his massive ego, Prospero decides it is time to stop using the “rough magic” to get his own way.
In the epilogue, Prospero breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly. He both remains in character, speaking as Prospero, and also speaks as the actor playing the part. He begins by noting that his magical abilities no longer work: “my charms are all o’erthrown.” Instead, he tells the audience that he requires their efforts to get off the island. One way they can help him is with applause and another is by calling out praise; the latter will fill his “sails.”
Here, it becomes apparent that the actor is speaking, as he mentions his intention had been “to please” the audience.
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.
His requests end on a somber note, as he also asks for their prayers and mercy so he can avoid “despair.” Thus with their applause, praise, and prayers, the audience will absolve and liberate him: “Let your indulgence set me free.”