“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
In the first season finale, Jean-Luc Picard chooses this line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest to honour the life of Commander Data. One of Shakespeare’s most famous lines, it might as well be the title of the entire series, and maybe the motto of Star Trek itself. It evokes the importance of imagination, and the realities of mortality.
Of course, in the very first episode of Picard, Jean-Luc dreams of Data. We learn that these dreams have been frequent, and are a vehicle for Picard’s guilt. He is, indeed, “made” of these dreams.
The final episode in particular holds The Tempest in its heart. In its original context of the “dreams” line, Prospero has just terminated a grand magical illusion — a wedding masque, a gift to his daughter Miranda — and is speaking to her and her fiancé Ferdinand about the dissolution of those illusions:
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.
This speech is often thought of as reflecting Shakespeare’s retirement from the theatre, and it certainly shows Prospero preparing to leave his magical life on the island and return to Milan, where “every third thought shall be [his] grave.”
In Picard, this reflects Picard’s situation in the whole show. His “revels” are indeed long past, and he wrestles with his impending death from the very first episode. But in the finale, this speech also applies — even more literally — to Data’s send-off. We learn that Data was reconstituted from a single neuron, and that his consciousness has lived on in a complex simulation, not unlike those magical illusions performed by Prospero in The Tempest. But ultimately Data asks for the simulation to be terminated, so he can live for a moment knowing that his life is finite.
The Tempest is a story of discovery — both external and internal. The island in The Tempest is a prototype for all new worlds, including the “strange” ones of Star Trek — new planets and new minds. The play’s subtext of colonization also finds its image in Star Trek, with the politics of the Prime Directive, First Contact, synthetic life, and the role of the Federation.
Picard focuses heavily on synthetic life — in particular the ethics of its mere existence. Though this may seem more Frankenstein than Shakespeare, again The Tempest helps us.
Shakespeare has his “brave new world” populated with beings both more than human (the spirit Ariel) and less than human (the creature Caliban). In many ways this has been the central question of synthetic life in Star Trek. In the Next Generation episode “The Measure of a Man,” Picard and Bruce Maddox debate the personhood of Data. Data is more than human in terms of his strength and intellect, but less than human (in Maddox’s view) in terms of his free will and emotions.
This is again the question in Picard. Soji and the other synths are both more advanced than humans, but Soji may also be The Destroyer, and the synths easily take to the idea of eradicating organic life. Will they choose to be Ariel, the magical spirit whose “affections would become tender” at the suffering of humans? Or will they choose to be Caliban, the “thing of darkness” that seeks revenge on Prospero?
In the end, Prospero himself must make this choice, and he chooses “virtue over vengeance,” releasing his enemies and choosing peace over violence.
In the finale of Picard, Soji claims to have no other choice than to summon the higher synthetics, and thereby to extinguish organic life. Picard replies, saying that “to say you have no choice is a failure of imagination.” This again hearkens back to the motif of illusion and theatricality in The Tempest, where Prospero’s imagination is his most powerful tool.
In the play, the illusions are so powerful that most characters cannot tell the difference. This could also parallel the new organic synthetic life forms — so “real” that they are, in fact, real. If the illusion is perfectly convincing, it is no longer an illusion.
This idea is even carried over to technology, in the synth device that allows Rios to repair his ship by simply imagining (dreaming?) that it is so. This is Prospero and Ariel’s magic, which is able to conjure music, food, even a bevy of goddesses, from thin air. An omnipotent replicator if you will. Picard and Dr. Jurati then use this device on a grand scale with the new iteration of the “Picard manoeuvre,” multiplying the ship in a grand illusion to confuse and delay the Romulans. In a sense then, we might say the real Picard manoeuvre is using illusion (magic?) to defeat one’s enemies! Prospero indeed.
But these illusions have a purpose: they teach the characters about themselves. In the final scene of The Tempest, Gonzalo says that on the island, with all its illusions, “all of us [found] ourselves / When no man was his own.” In Picard, Soji finds herself through the illusion of her human life. Data found himself by trying to be human. Picard finds himself through his care for synthetic life, and we fans find ourselves through watching these fictional characters.
A show about endings would not be complete without a consideration of Macbeth. Near to his end, Macbeth provides his famous nihilistic view of life and death:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Except in the case of Picard, the tale signifies…everything. The brevity of the candle is key. Data has learned that death gives meaning to life. In their final encounter, he tells Picard, “I want to live, however briefly, knowing my life is finite. Mortality gives meaning to human life, captain. Peace, love, friendship. These are precious because we know they cannot endure. A butterfly that lives forever is really not a butterfly at all.”
And Picard wants to show Soji and the other synths that to “have life” is only the beginning. They must learn “what it’s for”: that player strutting and fretting on the stage gives life its meaning.
For a moment, the end of Picard begins to feel very tragic indeed as we watch the captain die, and we share in the grief of his friends. But, again more like The Tempest, where all those thought to have perished in the storm are revealed to be alive, there is more to the story. Picard and Data finally get to say goodbye, and find the closure they both need. And then, in a beautiful ironic reversal, Picard and Data effectively change places. Data is able to die, and in a sense become “fully human,” and Picard is reborn as a synthetic, the ultimate sign of respect for those lifeforms he has defended and loved. In effect, both characters shuffle off this mortal coil (can’t leave out Hamlet) with grace and beauty, reaffirming the value of this performance called life, and boldly embracing the sleep that gives it meaning.