The epilogue of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, while separate from the body of work preceding it due to the nature of an epilogue, it is an integral part of the work. It provides resolution to an otherwise unresolved piece, and the piece actually prepares for the epilogue by mirroring it throughout the play.
Throughout the play, themes of power and magic develop, complementing each other so that ultimately, the nature of Prospero’s power can be either revered, or reduced to smoke and mirrors. Prospero’s power to administer pain gives him control over Ariel and Caliban. However, with many of the other characters, control is gained by illusions – sometimes pleasant, and sometimes upsetting. Prospero makes Ferdinand follows Ariel’s music’s “sweet air,” but he confounds Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo by adding a faceless voice, which disturbs them, and makes them quarrel. Prospero doesn’t actually make anyone do anything; he appeals to their senses in either a positive or negative way, and their response to these sensations brings about an action Prospero required. However, by the play’s end, it is never resolved whether Prospero had any real power, or was simply manipulative enough to get what he wanted. This will be resolved in the epilogue.
The epilogue is a monologue delivered by Prospero. The play is over in the sense that no more action is to be taken by the characters. However, the play is not really over at all. Prospero’s still there rather than a closed curtain. He has stepped out of the completed “play.” His character is greatly changed though. Prospero was an omnipotent character who brought about everything in the play. Now that the play is over, and everyone is gone, there seems to be nothing left for Prospero to control, leaving him powerless. Yet he claims to still have some “faint power” of his own. If power requires someone to have power over, then someone besides the other characters is subordinate to Prospero. This can only be the audience. He continues by making a plea, asking that the audience applaud the play, sending him back to Naples, and he says that if we don’t, he will remain trapped on his island.
As mentioned above, the epilogue is mirrored in the play, and through comparing this mirroring in Act IV, Scene I, it is easier to determine the purpose of the epilogue, and to answer the question of Prospero’s power.
Prospero brings spirits to act in a sort of play for Ferdinand and Miranda. When Ferdinand begins to speak, Prospero tells him to be silent “or [his] spell is marred” (line 127.) What is most important in this comparison of the mini-play of Act IV Scene I to the large play of the pre-epilogue Tempest is found at the end of the mini-play. Prospero tells Ferdinand that these actors were spirits, which “melted… into thin air,” (147-149) and he continues to compare these actors to the world (it is important to note that their “world” is their own literary world, as this is the only world they have access to), and finally to themselves: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” (155-156.)
Prospero has also created a larger play, The Tempest. This is why Prospero, in his play, refers to the nature of their world, and themselves as “stuff dreams are made on.” The spirits in the mini-play are same “stuff” as the characters in The Tempest, including Prospero. This confines The Tempest to the same rules as the mini-play, and consequently our attention to the play sustains the character’s existence. The audience’s response to the play determines Prospero’s very existence. What Prospero gives the audience to sense may be ignored or imagined (dreamed;) if we ignore it, it simply fails to exist.
Returning to Prospero’s plea, the island and Naples are simply icons. Having reached this point in the play, we have already allowed Prospero to exist on his island. He says that if we applaud his play, he will go to Naples. We can imagine him returning to Naples because the play was moving in this direction when it ended, but this requires the audience’s imagination, and if the play isn’t given a second thought, then Prospero would never leave the island.
So where is Prospero’s “faint” power if everything down to his very existence relies on the audience? Like Ferdinand, the audience is witnessing mere illusions. All throughout the play, Prospero has wielded a great deal of power simply by appealing to other character’s senses, and now, it is clear that he has been doing the same to the audience. While this gives him no direct power to make the audience do anything, if he has succeeded, then the audience will applaud, and Prospero will have “made” the audience applaud, the way he “made” all of the other characters act.
The epilogue drastically changes the nature of The Tempest by making it all another of Prospero’s illusions, and by showing the power of Prospero for the sort of “stuff” it is. Every exhibition of Prospero’s power pointed to this epilogue. The first time we imagined that there was anything actually happening or existing – that there was a man addressing a boatswain – we were under Prospero’s power in the same way that the characters of the pre-epilogue Tempest are. The epilogue also brings closure to the play by letting the audience answer the question of Prospero’s power, allowing the audience to choose to be controlled or not. The entire play is thus redefined and resolved in the epilogue.