Recently, I watched a DVD of Julie Taymor’s film version of The Tempest, in which Prospero is renamed Prospera and is played by Helen Mirren. I rather liked it. The Tempest is my favorite Shakespeare play, and I am always moved to tears by those great lines toward the end:
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-capp’d tow’rs, 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.
The very last lines, in particular — “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” — have always seemed to me koan-like in their suggestiveness.
It is easy to think that “rounded with a sleep” is equivalent to Nabokov’s formulation in Speak, Memory, that “our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” But Shakespeare doesn’t say “darkness.” He says “sleep.” One cannot sleep and dream unless one is alive.
Of course, there is no suggestion in Shakespeare’s line that it is we who are sleeping or dreaming. Quite the opposite, in fact. It is we who are the ingredients of the dreams being dreamed by some sleeper or other.
Or maybe not. The clue may lie in that word “rounded,” which is usually thought to mean surrounded, but that I think can just as easily be taken as “rounded off.” This would suggest — and I believe this is a common interpretation — that Shakespeare was saying much the same as his younger Spanish contemporary, Pedro Calderon, says in one of his most famous plays, that life is a dream:
What is life? A frenzy.
What is life? An illusion,
A shadow, a fiction,
And the greatest profit is small;
For all of life is a dream,
And dreams, are nothing but dreams.
I do not usually remember my dreams, and those I do remember tend to be pedestrian. But I have had enough experience of them to make what I think are a couple of sound observations. The most interesting thing about them is the way in which they recombine the details of everyday life in something new and strange, often terrifying. I also think it is interesting that, while we sometimes wake in the middle of one, as often as not the dream is rounded off by just plain sleep. It is this, perhaps, that Shakespeare had in mind.
But what are we to make of this? That our being is a sleep punctuated by dreams? Talk about evanescence.
Of course, Shakespeare wasn’t practicing philosophy. He was writing plays, and the thoughts his characters express can really only be attributed to them — the characters. Prospero (or Prospera) is a magician. Small wonder he (or she) would see reality in terms of illusion.
For those of us in the audience, the value of those lines I quoted at the start lies in the richness of their ambiguity, the way thinking about them causes one not only to find them puzzling, but also just as puzzling the life to which they refer. This is great poetry precisely because it does not offer any solutions or explanations. It doesn’t just prompt one to think on the mystery of things, but to feel that mystery as part and parcel of being alive.
Perhaps the essential note of being alive is never to be quite sure what is going on.