PROSPERO 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. Exit. (Epilogue, 13-20)
It’s still an epilogue, and conventional in some respects: it asks for applause, for a favourable reception for the play; it craves indulgence, punning on the pre-Reformation practice of selling indulgences, a last witty touch. But it is also Prospero’s final cri de coeur. He has given up or lost everything—his spirits, his art—he cannot even name Miranda, or Ariel, but their absence is palpable here; he’s already missing them, unbearably. The verb allows him a moment of apparent volition, agency, desire: I want. But want, here, means lack. Daughter, spirits, art: these are the things that are no longer his, the things he cannot ever have (or do) again; his ending (of the play; of his life?) will be despair, and hence damnation, without even the hope of grace. (An early modern audience would be reminded of Faustus here.) Unless I be relieved by prayer, he says. On one level, this is a playful appeal for applause: put your hands together for Prospero! But the conceit is darker: prayer is imagined as a weapon, piercing mercy itself, assaulting divine grace. (A strange recollection of the words shot to the gods on arrows some two decades before, in Titus Andronicus. A piercing word, howled to heaven’s ear, feared deaf.) There’s desperation in that sharp plea, and pain; prayer itself is imagined as fierce, agonised and agonising—even as it frees all faults. Forgive me, as you would want and hope and pray to be forgiven yourselves? he asks. Forgive me my sins, my crimes, here unspecified: against Caliban? against Ariel? Miranda, and himself? Forgive me. And set me free.