The world revealed as an illusion, part 2

For me, a canonical example in literature of the world revealed as an illusion comes in Act 4, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, when Prospero cuts short a play within the play by declaring:

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 towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye 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.

What is so lovely about this speech is that he is not merely referring to the performers in the play he is watching. He also refers to “the great globe”, which is not only his own fictional world, but the name of the actual theater where Shakespeare’s plays were performed.

With these words, the speech jumps not only out of the play within the play, but out of the fictional world of The Tempest itself, and into our own reality outside the play.

Which makes the closing lines far more powerful: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

Those final words end up serving as a reminder that life itself is a kind of waking dream, which will one day end, and that the audience members themselves are ephemeral creatures. It just doesn’t get any more meta than that.

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