"Our revels now are ended...."
- / / - / - - / / You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
The scansion of the line would seem to indicate that moved might take a stressed ending, given the prevalence of apostrophes in the speech. However, all the original Folio editions print the word as mov'd, so we'll go with the nine-syllable pattern here as intentional. The term moved sort means "troubled or agitated state" in this context. Perhaps the variant rhythm to open the speech and its long vowel sounds help signify Prospero's attempt to calm down and allay what Ferdinand refers to as a "strong passion."
- / - / - / - / - / As if you were dismay'd. Be cheerful, sir.
Now that Prospero has snapped out of his initial anger at having remembered the plot against him, his speech switches over to regular, non-threatening iambic pentameter. It almost reflects a forced cheeriness, this brisker pace. Dismay'd denotes "apprehensive; filled with fear" in its usage. This marks the beginning of Prospero's philosophical bent.
- / - / - / - / - / - Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
This line also keeps to straight iambic pentameter, albeit with a feminine ending. Revels (from Middle English via the Anglo-French reveler, literally meaning "to rebel") means "festivity, merry-making" in referring to the banished masque (as does the initial reference to actors). It also hearkens to the joy of life, which Prospero knows will soon enough end. It's up to interpretation whether "Our revels now are ended" begins an extended metaphor of a playwright signaling the end of his career. As pointed out in other readings, this type of juicy ambiguity is what scholars live for.
- / - / - - / / - - As I foretold you, were all spirits and
We're more familiar with foretold as meaning "prophesied"; here Prospero simply means "as I told you before." Spirits primarily refers to the supernatural (the spirits performing the masque) in context. However, the etymology and definitions of the word "spirit" (Middle English, deriving from Anglo-French espirit via Latin spiritus, literally "to breathe") could signify some interesting secondary possibilities. If we're interpreting the speech as a farewell, the spirit and actor references can be read as a metaphor of the stage actor inhabiting (and subsequently shedding) his character role. Which is what Prospero is in the act of doing.
- / - / - / - - / / Are melted into air, into thin air;
Note how the use of repetition within the line builds emphasis. Melted is synonymous with "vanished" as used here. The comparison with the illusory nature of theater is a natural one, especially given how Prospero goes on to talk about the scenery in the lines that follow.
- / - / - / - - - / - And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
There are a few ways to scan this line, depending upon which beats one wants to emphasize. I've chosen to mark it as iamb/iamb/iamb/pyrrhic/iamb because it seems the most natural. Baseless fabric means "substance without foundation," which poetically translates in this context to an artifice or contrivance. Combined with the word vision (here in its denotation as "supernatural or imaginary appearance"), referring to the pageant, it continues the theme of theatrical magic.
- / / / - - / - / - - The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
Prospero evokes fairy-tale images in this and the following line. He's building on the idea that the scenery of the stage is just that—a trick of the senses easily summoned and dismissed. The stage can transform into places limited only by the imagination, but the play is a temporal thing.
- / - / - - / / - / The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
And here we have the line that has scholars and amateur psychologists debating whether or not Shakespeare is making a pun out of the name of his theater. That in itself is only one implication. If it is intended as a pun, it could simply be the Elizabethan equivalent of a shared joke with the audience, a conscious, momentary breach of the fourth wall and nothing more. In the midst of an extended theatrical metaphor, such a reading makes sense. Then again, we can draw some parallels between Shakespeare and Prospero; to do so invites the reading of the speech as more of a valediction. Only the author knows the truth behind the line.
/ / - / - / - / - / Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
The line begins with a spondee for added emphasis; it works with the "yea" to signal the predicate of Prospero's statement. All which it inherit can sometimes be confusing because it's a minor object-verb inversion to make the rhythm work. The intended meaning is "all which inherit [the globe]." This is leading toward the larger philosophical point, that we're all bound for dust.
- / - / - / - / - / - And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Other than a feminine ending, this line is regular iambic pentameter. Insubstantial is used in a more supernatural meaning as "incorporeal, created out of nothing," although its connotations as weak, flimsy, or frail make interesting secondary meanings if pageant ("show or spectacle" deriving from the Middle English pagyn, literally meaning "scene of a play") is read as a metaphor for life.
- / - / - / / - - / Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
This line features a common Shakespeare variant in his blank verse: a caesura (the pause indicated by the new sentence in mid-line) with a trochaic inversion. The technique puts successive hard stresses on the end of one sentence and the beginning of another, adding emphasis on the shift in thought. Rack denotes "a floating vapor or cloud; wisp" and reflects the relative insignificance of our existence on earth. Stuff (deriving from Middle English via the Anglo-French estuffes, meaning "goods" which comes from Old French estoffer, meaning "to equip or stock") denotes "that of which a thing is made; materials."
- / - / / - - / - / As dreams are made on, and our little life
In this line, Shakespeare writes on to mean "of" in this context. Little means "short in duration" in the literal sense, although given the metaphorical theme, it also brings a sense of "inconsequential" to the speech.
- / - / - / Is rounded with a sleep.
The rest of the speech deals with the rather mundane task of getting Ferdinand offstage so Prospero can talk plans with Ariel, so the analysis ends here. Rounded is used synonymously with "surrounded, encompassed" in this passage, which Shakespeare writes to mean loosely, "life is surrounded by (has its beginning and end in) a sleep." The extended metaphor also richly compares life to a dream, which alternately means that life is limited only by imagination and that it ultimately vanishes—at least physically—without a trace.