'The Tempest' Quotes Explained

Quotes About Language, Otherness, and Illusion

The most significant quotations in William Shakespeare's The Tempest deal with language, otherness, and illusion. They echo the play’s huge emphasis on power dynamics, especially as Prospero’s ability to control illusions leads to his total influence over all other characters. This domination leads to quotations about their expression of resistance, or lack thereof, as well as Prospero’s engagement with his own power and the ways he admits he is also powerless.

Quotes About Language

You taught me language, and my profit on’t
Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language! (I.ii.366–368)

Caliban sums up his attitude toward Prospero and Miranda. A native of the island alongside Ariel, Caliban has been forced to obey the powerful and control-oriented Prospero in what is often understood to be a parable of European colonialism in the New World. While Ariel has decided to learn Prospero’s rules to cooperate with the powerful magician and minimize the damage done to him, Caliban’s speech highlights his decision to resist Prospero’s colonizing influence at any cost. Prospero and, by extension, Miranda, think that they have done him a service by teaching him to speak English, much in the “white man’s burden” tradition of “taming” indigenous people by teaching them so-called superior, civilized, or European social rules. However, Caliban refuses, using the tools they have given him, language, to resist their influence by transgressing societal rules and cursing at them.

Caliban’s at times despicable behavior is thus complicated; after all, while Prospero’s viewpoint suggests that he is an ungrateful, untamable savage, Caliban points out the very human damage he has experienced by being forced to obey their rules. He has lost what he was before their arrival, and since he is forced into having a relationship with them, he chooses for it to be one marked by resistance.

Quotes About Gender and Otherness

[I weep] at mine unworthiness, that dare not offer
What I desire to give, and much less take
What I shall die to want. But this is trifling,
And all the more it seeks to hide itself
The bigger bulk it shows. Hence, bashful cunning,
And prompt me, plain and holy innocence.
I am your wife, if you will marry me.
If not, I’ll die your maid. To be your fellow
You may deny me, but I’ll be your servant
Whether you will or no. (III.i.77–86)

Miranda employs clever constructions to hide a powerful demand in the guise of powerless femininity. Although she begins by asserting she “dares not offer” her hand in marriage, the speech is clearly a proposal to Ferdinand, traditionally an assertive role of course reserved for the male counterpart. In this way, Miranda betrays her sophisticated awareness of power structures, no doubt nurtured by her father’s power-hungry nature. And while she recognizes the lowliness of her place within the European social structure of which her father is a merciless proponent, she reenacts his power-grabbing antics almost desperately. While she couches her proposal in the language of her own servility, she denies Ferdinand his own power by asserting that his answer is almost irrelevant: “I’ll be your servant / Whether you will or no.”

Miranda seems aware that her only hope of power comes from this powerlessness; in other words, by preserving her maidenly and bashful nature, she can bring about the events that she hopes for, a marriage to Ferdinand. After all, no one is without a will to execute their own desires, however much it may be repressed by society. Miranda declares her own sexual interest through her metaphor of “hiding the bigger bulk,” evoking an erection and pregnancy at the same time.

Quotes About Illusion

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Ding-dong.
Hark! now I hear them — Ding-dong, bell. (II, ii)

Ariel, speaking here, addresses Ferdinand, who is newly washed up on the island and thinks himself the only survivor of the wreck. This speech, rich in beautiful imagery, is the origin of the now common terms “full fathom five” and “sea-change.” Full fathom five, which refers to a depth underwater of thirty feet, was understood to be the depth at which something was considered irretrievable before modern diving technology. The father’s “sea-change,” which now means any total transformation, alludes to his metamorphosis from a human into a part of the seabed; after all, a drowned man’s bones do not turn into coral when his body begins to decay at sea.

Although Ariel is taunting Ferdinand and his father is in fact alive, he is correct in asserting that King Alonso will be forever changed by this event. After all, just as we saw the powerlessness of a king against a storm in the first scene, Alonso is fully laid low by Prospero’s magic.

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. (IV.i.148–158)

Prospero’s sudden remembrance of Caliban’s murder plot causes him to call off the beautiful marriage feast he has conjured for Ferdinand and Miranda. Although the murder plot is not itself a powerful threat, it is a very real-world concern, and elicits this bittersweet speech. Prospero’s tone betrays an almost exhausted awareness of the beautiful but ultimately meaningless nature of his illusions. His almost total power on the island has allowed him, after all, to create a world in which he need not concern himself with almost anything real. Despite his power-hungry nature, he acknowledges that his achievement of domination has left him unfulfilled.

This speech is one to which critics point to suggest a link between Prospero and his creator Shakespeare himself, as Prospero’s spirits are “actors” and his “insubstantial pageant” takes place within “the great globe itself,” certainly a reference to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Indeed, this weary self-awareness seems to presage Prospero’s giving up of his art of illusion at the end of the play, and the looming end of Shakespeare’s own creative work.

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.

Prospero delivers this soliloquy, the final lines of the play. In it, he admits that in giving up his magical art, he must return to the abilities of his own brain and body, powers which he acknowledges as “faint.” After all, we already see him use the language of weakness: his illusions are “o’erthrown,” and he feels himself bound by “bands.” This is unusual language coming from Prospero, who normally embraces his own power. And yet, as we saw above, he admits again how giving up his powers of illusion is also a “relief” and a “release.” After all, although Prospero found himself prosperous and powerful on his magical fantastical island, his successes were all based on illusion, almost a fantasy. On the eve of his return to the real world of Italy, he finds himself relieved, ironically, to have to really struggle again.

It is no coincidence that these are the final lines of a play, an art form also marked by illusion. Just as Prospero is about to return to the real world, so too are we to return to our own lives after an escape to the magical island of Shakespeare’s world. For this reason, critics link Shakespeare’s and Prospero’s ability to engage in illusion, and have suggested this goodbye to magic is Shakespeare’s own farewell to his art, as he finishes one of his very last plays.