Our revels … such stuff as dreams are made on (4.1.146-158) #StormTossed

PROSPERO     You do look, my son, in a moved sort,

As if you were dismayed. Be cheerful, sir.

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. (4.1.146-158)


It is projection, perhaps, because we have heard already how upset Prospero is, but it’s also empathy and concern: Ferdinand is troubled, moved, dismayed. Be cheerful, sir. Don’t worry. (Be not afeard. Prospero is reassuring himself too.) It’s just the end of the show, the end of the masque, the celebrations. (The revels, technically, referred to the end of a masque at court, when the audience joined in the final dance. But it’s also the general term for entertainment.) And I told you that all the actors were spirits – you asked me, remember? – and, well, spirits disappear. They vanish, melt into air, into thin air. (The first reinvention. We saw the spirits, the nymphs and reapers, the actors, exit slowly, and reluctantly. Now, retrospectively, in our mind’s eye, they fade, like mist, like shadows, another word for actors. The repetition, with its additional adjective – into air, into thin air – stretches out and re-enacts that fading.) And – like the baseless fabric of this vision – this spectacle, this castle in the air which has been entirely imaginary, a dream – everything else will fade away too, like a show, a daydream, a memory. Towers so high that they disappear into the clouds, and the gorgeous palaces where princes (and dukes, and duke’s daughters, and princesses) dwell; even the solemn temples, the grandest, largest buildings known to anyone in the audience (Whitehall, St Paul’s; Babel): all of these great, glorious monuments to human skill, and labour, and money, and power – they will simply fade away, dissolve, vanish softly, gently. Not crumbling into dust; not destroyed by war or fire or even time – just – slipping away. It sounds like the most skilful of scene changes, a cross-fade, the sudden drop of a gauze curtain and a change in lighting. It sounds theatrical, because towers, and palaces, and temples, are the scenery for court masques – and for a moment, we imagine all of those too, because Prospero describes the things that we haven’t seen, in the moment of their disappearance, and we so see them too, even as they fade, dissolve.

Everything has been made in words – all the descriptions of the island, and the vivid, headlong evocations of the idyllic pastoral landscape with which the masque began. We imagine, compliantly, willingly; we see the fleeting beauty, and feel the puzzling loss. This is theatre, the great globe itself (and the Globe too, although the Tempest was certainly played at the Blackfriars as well), but it is also all of life, its transience, its wonder, and its wonderings. And all the people too – not just us (Prospero, Miranda, and Ferdinand; the audience) but their descendants; all which it inherit, all the people in times to come, who live and work here – we and they will all dissolve too. Nothing lasts. And that’s alright. Like this insubstantial pageant, which has now faded, which was only ever made of words, and music, and canvas and tissue and spangles – all life, every human achievement, will vanish, like a rack, a wisp of cloud, a mist, a breath. Into thin air. We are such stuff as dreams are made on. On is of, straightforwardly. And stuff is, well, stuff, matter, material (it also has a specifically textile meaning…) But the order here is counterintuitive. We are not made from dreams, pieced together from visions and imaginings – but rather, our dull flesh, our lack of imagination, our petty inability to see beyond the mundane, our base, failing, flawed humanity – we are nonetheless the stuff out of which dreams can be made. And our little, insignificant, overlooked, mixed-up life is rounded, ended, concluded, with a sleep. To sleep, perchance to dream – and here, that is a wonderful thing.

Almost inevitable at the funerals of actors (and others) this is such a gentle, comforting, bracing and bittersweet speech. It is framed as consolation and reassurance, for speaker, and audience. And it matters, fiercely, that this is not the end of the play. There is more to come. These revels may have ended, but there will always, always be another performance.

This one’s for the theatre-makers, for the dreamers of dreams…

And some dreamy Vaughan Williams.




View 2 comments on “Our revels … such stuff as dreams are made on (4.1.146-158) #StormTossed

  1. Prospero’s speech was used in the last episode of Endeavour. I remembered it from school…around1964 or so. I didn’t understand it’s significance then, I do now. Your explanation is as poetic and moving as the speech itself.

    1. Thank you! it’s very kind of you to say so. It is a wonderful speech. It was very moving writing about it in the midst of the lockdown almost exactly four years ago…

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