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  • Print publication year: 1984
  • Online publication date: March 2007

Prospero’s Lime Tree and the Pursuit of Vanitas


The lime tree features in one of the odder of The Tempest’s anticlimaxes. The plot against Prospero’s life appears to be coming to a head, and the enchanter and Ariel confer together for means to overthrow the conspirators. The tone is urgent, the terms martial: one anticipates a mimic war in heaven. Yet the episode dissipates in bathos. Ariel’s will-o’-the-wisp chase reduces murderous pursuit to a mere unseemly dance among the gorse bushes. Then Ariel himself is bidden only to deck the lime tree by the cell with trumpery garments: mere ‘stale to catch these thieves’. As a decoy the device certainly works, although its success must appear contrived. But it in no way advances the plot; the audience is baulked of the expected dramatic confrontation; and an apparently powerful enchanter is reduced to the role of second-hand clothes merchant. Why?

A first answer seems to lie in the fact that the lime tree is not a piece of plot manipulation but a carefully constructed image. As such, it is possessed of a precise technical function which is thematic rather than narrative. Designed both for immediate theatrical impact and for the later process of contemplation, it first seizes the imagination and then unfolds itself to the audience’s understanding. Like others of its kind, it states in compressed (and in this case, somewhat bizarre) form, matters of universal application. Relevant first to its own immediate context, it also acts as a focal point for themes current throughout the play.

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Shakespeare Survey
  • Volume 37: Shakespeare's Earlier Comedies
  • Edited by Stanley Wells
  • Online ISBN: 9781139053143
  • Book DOI:
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