The quote is one of Shakespeare’s best-known. Today, it is commonly misquoted as “We are such stuff as dreams are made of.” But, this simple change does not impact the meaning of the lines. Shakespeare is suggesting, through Prospero, that life, as Edgar Allan Poe phrased it, is “a dream within a dream.”
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“We are such stuff as dreams are made on” Meaning
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on” is a quote that is used to describe the illusory nature of life. Prospero understands, perhaps due to his common use of magic, that life is a dream. He creates spirits to entertain Miranda and Ferdinand before the wedding and makes them vanish just as quickly. This inspires him to speak on the spirit-like nature of life itself.
Interestingly, William Shakespeare’s quote describes the play and life. In another part of the monologue in which this quote is used, Shakespeare describes the disappearance of the “great globe” itself. This is a reference to the Globe Theatre in which many of Shakespeare’s works were performed, as well as to the Earth itself.
Where Does Shakespeare Use “We are such stuff as dreams are made on?”
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on” appears in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest in Act IV, Scene 1. It is spoken by one of the most important characters in the play—Prospero and is directed at Ferdinand, the young man who has fallen in love with Prospero’s daughter, Miranda. It is part of a short speech that begins with the following lines:
You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismay’d: be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
Here, it’s clear that Prospero is speaking to Ferdinand alone. Plus, stage directions prior to the short monologue inform the reader of this fact. Interestingly, these lines are also the origin of the phrase “into thin air.” Prospero’s lines are delivered in the middle of a short masque that he stages prior to his daughter’s wedding. He pauses the festivities in order to speak about something important. But first, he describes the “revels” or the performance that they’ve been watching as melting into thin air or as an illusion.
These famous lines are interesting because Shakespeare wrote them to apply to the short play that Prospero stages as well as the play that is occurring in front of the audience. The Tempest itself will melt into thin air when it is over. Here are the next lines of the quote:
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. Sir, I am vex’d;
Here, Prospero describes how everything that one knows, the towers, buildings, and temples, are going to melt away. These lines apply three-fold. To The Tempest, to the play that Prospero is staging within The Tempest and the real world that the audience and readers reside in. The line “the great globe itself” is telling. Shakespeare is referring to the planet as well as the Globe Theatre. Nothing, not a “rack,” is going to be left behind.
The famous line “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” follows. This line is commonly miss quoted as “we are such stuff as dreams are made of.” But, there is no real difference between the two. When Shakespeare uses the word “on,” he means “of.” The phrase continues with the haunting, “and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” Here, Prospero is alluding to death as well as the time before one was born. One’s life is like a circle beginning and ending with darkness.
Why Does Shakespeare Use “We are such stuff as dreams are made on?”
Shakespeare uses “we are such stuff as dreams are made on” as part of one of his most famous short speeches in The Tempest. Here, Prospero speaks thoughtfully and hauntingly of life, death, and illusion. He speaks about the masque that he has created for Ferdinand and Miranda’s wedding, the broader play (The Tempest), as well as life itself. This quote emphasizes Prospero’s preparations for his confrontation with Caliban (one that he has momentarily become distracted from) and his emotions about Ferdinand’s engagement to his daughter.
Other Quotes from The Tempest
- “Full fathom five my father lies” – a famous quote from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It appears in Act I, Scene 2, and is spoken by the spirit, Ariel.
This quote appears in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It is spoken by Prospero and is directed at Ferdinand. The quote appears in Act IV, Scene 1 prior to Ferdinand’s wedding to Prospero’s daughter, Miranda.
He means that life is an illusion and a fleeting one. Eventually, everything that one knows, including that which is going on within the play, the play itself, and the life of audience members and readers, is going to fade away. Temples, buildings, and palaces are all going to disappear.
This quote features in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, one of the Bard’s last plays. It is also one of a few that scholars have categorized as a “romance.” The line is spoken by Prospero, one of the most important characters in the play.
- Read: The Tempest by William Shakespeare
- Watch: The Tempest Live by William Shakespeare
- Listen: The Tempest Audiobook by William Shakespeare