By Bill Walthall

OK, it’s one of my favorites speeches, pretty much from the entire Canon, let alone The Tempest. But you’ve probably been noticing, I’ve been avoiding it like the plague.

It’s THE speech:

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.
  • I.ii.147-58

Side-note: The last time I wrote about this speech, over thirty years ago, it didn’t go well. But I have to go back even further to start this story. When I was a senior in high school, I was the editor-in-chief of my school’s yearbook. I used this speech as a thematic background for the opening section of the book. Yeah, there’s nothing like a little adolescent male pretension. Anyway, it was a favorite speech of mine. So when I took a Shakespeare class at UCLA, taught by the inimitable Professor Rodes, and I got a chance to write on a speech, this is the one I picked. Now, in his class, he had a seating chart as he wanted to call you by name. If he could call on you without looking at the chart, you had “made” it. It was a goal. One that I achieved about midway through the course after I had written pretty much the best paper I wrote at UCLA about the concept of manhood in Macbeth. Got an A- on that paper (he was tough), and he actually asked for a copy of it. I was over the moon. So when I got a chance to write on a speech, you know which one I picked. This one. I poured my heart and soul (but alas not enough of my brain) into the paper. And on the last page, beyond the grade (C+) were simply two words: “What happened?”

So here I am, thirty-plus years later, nearing the end of the discussion of this play (AND of this project’s originally planned canonical approach to the plays), and I’m faced with this speech again.

Beyond the emotional baggage I carry regarding this speech, there’s just so much else that comes with it. And damned near all of it has to do with it being what seems to many to be a valedictory address, a goodbye speech. And I’m not sure what I want to say about it.

Yes, there’s certainly a wistful farewell in there. “Our revels now are ended…” Party-time is over, kids.

But as it turns out, the party isn’t real, isn’t tangible. They’re just visions. But hell, it’s not even clear that we’re seeing these visions with our eyes. If we are, those visions vanish before our eyes and leave nothing but memories; if we aren’t seeing them with our eyes, those visions are like memories of the now… dreams. Life is but a dream, and we are asleep.

For me, the most fascinating word in that speech is “rack.” It’s what’s not even left behind when all this fades away. Now, “rack” could mean “A bank of cloud, fog, or mist; a wisp of cloud or vapor. Also as a mass noun: mist, fog; sea spray” (“rack, n.2.2.b” Oxford English Dictionary Online, Oxford University Press, June 2017.). So fitting for this island-set play. But for me, it could just as easily mean “A frame on which cloth, parchment, etc., is stretched, usually before drying” (“rack, n.3.1” OED Online). I get that from the use of “fabric” earlier in the speech. And the connotation of the frame is more than just drying wet or washed clothes, but also paint on canvas. Not only do the visions disappear, but so does the painting. So art (all art) vanishes, fades from view. Heck, so does that damned frame. It’s all gone. It’s only in your head, son.

It’s the context of the speech that makes it so weird for me. It’s meant to be comforting to the Ferdinand and Miranda, after the sudden ending by Prospero of their wedding masque. The kids are freaked out by the disappearance of their entertainment, its sudden and almost violent vanishing, and this speech is meant to comfort them; remember it’s led into by “You do look, my son, in a moved sort, / As if you were dismayed. Be cheerful, sir” (IV.i.146-7).

It’s all been a dream. It’s just a dream, just keep telling yourself that.

Has that line ever comforted anyone?

Party-time is over, indeed.

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