Prospero’s words in Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, have long been thought to have been Shakespeare’s own goodbye to the theatrical world, assuming, of course, you are reading the play or at least these speeches as autobiographical. After all, The Tempest was the last play The Bard wrote by himself. He did, of course, work in collaboration for at least two more plays (Pericles and All is True aka Henry VIII). No one can be quite sure of this order because dating the plays is inexact, records have been lost, and scholarly arguments over who collaborated on what sections of these and other plays remain unresolved.
But in reading the play, there seem to be three goodbyes, not just one. The first appears in Act 4 Sc. 1, as Prospero says, touchingly, to Ferdinand what many read as Shakespeare’s essential goodbye:
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. Sir, I am vex’d;
Bear with my weakness; my, brain is troubled:
Be not disturb’d with my infirmity:
If you be pleased, retire into my cell
And there repose: a turn or two I’ll walk,
To still my beating mind.
The “great globe” is often read as a reference to the Globe Theatre, in which Shakespeare was a player, a playwright, and shareholder. However, the play was not performed in the Globe during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Its first two performances were made before King James and his court in 1611 and again in the winter of 1612-13. Shakespeare died in 1616. The lines that begin “The cloud-capp’d towers” and end with “Leave not a rack behind.” are those carved into the marble beneath Shakespeare’s statue in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey.
This speech contains the deeply moving words that have been immortalized since as a universal comment on both the theatre and life itself: “We are such stuff/As dreams are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.”
But this isn’t the only scene where Prospero bids the actors (and thus the audience) goodbye. In Act 5 Sc. 1, he says,
…this rough magic
I here abjure, and when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.
He gives up his magic (abjuring it as if it were a religious heresy): is that the author giving up his art as a writer? And yet, even those lines in which he gives up magic and “drowns” his book (of magic) don’t mark the actual end of the play, so they aren’t anyone’s goodbye, not yet. There are still around 120 more lines in the act to be spoken, as well as the play’s final resolution: a whole final scene in Act 5 Sc 1 (another 380 lines). Ultimately we come to the forgiveness that the play was always bound towards; the culmination of the tale. Such a farewell seems premature.
Ariel and the sprites, slaves to Prospero, are finally freed in Act 5, long after this speech. In the end, Propero gives everything up: his daughter, his magic, his beloved books, his servants, his island, his control, his political status, and most of all his anger and revenge. It’s not merely his art that he abandons. This is a complete catharsis.*
It’s not entirely clear to me if Caliban is freed because he is sent off to do some work before he can win Propero’s “pardon” (which may mean freedom or simply forgiveness for his drunken acts of mischief; see lines 345-350). He’ll be left behind on his island, but will he still be in thrall to the magician, foreshadowing some future return?
After line 378, the stage direction says “They all exit” (Exeunt omnes). It seems like happily ever after, but, still, the play doesn’t end then. Prospero either remains behind or comes back on stage to speak his last words alone, and directly to the audience. Prospero’s epilogue continues this goodbye-I’m-giving-it-all-up theme, closing the play (written in rhyming verse unlike the rest of the play) on a personal note:
Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
Many critics have imagined Shakespeare himself played the role and spoke these words (although no evidence confirms that). And in doing so he bowed off the stage, and out of theatrical life. Until, that is, he collaborated on some final plays, which throws a spanner in the theory. And epilogues were a well-used device in plays of the era (Shakespeare used it, for example, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It). As Marjorie Garber notes in Shakespeare After All, the epilogue “emphasizes both the fictive nature of the play and the human identity of the actor/performer/speaker… somber rather than playful, reaching across the boundaries of stage and audience, from actor to spectator, from age to age, and from mortality to the dream of eternity and art.”
In her recent book, This is Shakespeare, author Emma Smith wrote.
That Prospero’s lines in The Tempest could serve as Shakespeare’s own epitaph gives marble form to a myth eliding the author and his character that began in the Restoration period and continues today…
Key to this association is the insistent idea that The Tempest is Shakespeare’s last play. The evidence here, as elsewhere in Shakespeare’s career, is patchy. Although it defnitely dates from towards the end of Shakespeare’s active theatrical work in London, there is no defnitive external evidence to confrm that The Tempest, written and performed in 1610–11, is Shakespeare’s fnal play. We can’t completely guarantee its place amid the other late plays The Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline, either of which could be later. It is because we want the play’s closing movement to read as Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage that we place The Tempest at the end of Shakespeare’s career, and then we use that position to affirm that the play must dramatize Shakespeare’s own feelings at the end of his career. We know that Shakespeare worked with John Fletcher on The Two Noble Kinsmen and All Is True and the lost ‘Cardenio’, based on Don Quixote, afterwards, so The Tempest was certainly not his last writing for the stage.
Harold Bloom, in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human dismisses the interpretation of Shakespeare’s farewell as “now little credited.” The introduction to the play by David Bevington (Bantam Books/ Quality Paperback Book Club Edition, 1980) calls it a “romantic fiction to associate the dramatist with Prospero’s farewell to his art.” He adds it is “an almost irresistible idea because we are so moved by the sense of completion…” Yet the tradition lives on.
In a lengthy essay on the play, Dr. Robert Zaslavsky argues that in the epilogue, it is the author, not the actor who speaks: “…the final statement is outside the play proper, in the epilogue spoken by someone who, I would suggest, is rather Shakespeare than Prospero…. we can substitute “spoken by Shakespeare” for “spoken by Prospero.” The epilogue, then, is the final speech of the artist par excellence to his audience.”
HuffPost contributor, M. W. Jacobs, wrote an article for the online publication in 2015, titled, “Shakespeare’s Parting Words,” in which he continued the tradition of associating “Shakespeare’s farewell address to us, his audience.” He identifies the speech in Act 4 Sc. 1 as the farewell, comparing the speech to “a Buddhist sermon. An emphasis on the evanescence of all things is one of the distinguishing characteristics of Buddhism. “Impermanence” is the first of the Buddha’s ‘Three Marks of Existence’.”
Marc C. Conner, of Washington and Lee University, writing for The Great Courses, says
There is something in Prospero’s speeches in The Tempest that reveals what Shakespeare was thinking at that time. Prospero says that the masque is over now and elaborates this with the statement “our revels are now ended”, implying that the play and, indeed, all of Shakespeare’s plays and his career as a man of the theater are coming to a close.
Conner adds of the epilogue: “Prospero wants a release and it is not difficult to imagine Shakespeare himself speaking here and asking for a release from the public life of stage and from the rigors of his art.”
It’s tempting to read the play as a final farewell, and Prospero’s powerful, imaginative words themselves make it easy to do so. It’s romantic to imagine the poet and playwright speaking from his heart to us directly. But methinks it’s reading too much into the play to interpret everything as autobiographical or replete with hidden messages. Sometimes, as Freud quipped, a cigar is just a cigar.
* If anything, one could read into this Prospero — therefore Shakespeare — giving up his Catholicism, which Protestants equated with magical beliefs, and surrendering to the official religion (represented by the king and duke in the play). After all, the play was first performed before James I, the great Protestant king, and his Protestant court. In which case, is it really goodbye to the old religion, or just a nudge and a wink, a tip of the hat to the new political reality while Caliban stays behind to keep the old “rough magic” alive? But let’s not complicate the story further.