By Kimberly Robinson
The Tempest is often regarded as Shakespeare’s “farewell” to his beloved theater. It is considered to be the last play that he wrote by himself. Some believe that the character of Prospero is a projection of Shakespeare himself. Throughout the play, Prospero's words and actions allude to what some believe to be Shakespeare's thoughts about the Theater and about retirement, and what his life’s work meant to him. In this essay I will try to point out the most important of these instances and analyze them, ultimately letting the reader draw his or her own conclusions as to whether or not Shakespeare actually was bidding farewell through Prospero.
The first passage at the center of this controversy is in Act IV, scene I, lines 146-163, in particular the line, Our revels now are ended, these our actors/As I foretold you, were all spirits and/are melted into thin air; into thin air (IV. I. 148-150). The word “revels” refers to taking part in celebration, merrymaking, pleasure, festivities, and delight. In these lines Prospero is speaking the words to Miranda. He is ending the celebration of Miranda and Ferdinand’s engagement because he had almost forgotten about Caliban’s plot to murder him. However, these lines can also be taken as Shakespeare saying, basically, that the party’s over and its time for him to retire, much like the spirits that disappeared into thin air.
In the next few lines, it seems that Shakespeare is debating the end of his career in vivid, yet depressing, language. To me, these lines suggest that he was questioning the meaning of his career, of his life’s work, maybe even his life itself. In lines 151 through 156 of Act IV scene I, Prospero says:
Like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. (IV. I. 151-156)
The word “baseless” means to have no basis or foundation in fact. When Prospero uses this word he is referring to the illusion of the magic used to create the celebration. What I think Shakespeare was trying to get at through this passage, by using words like “baseless”, “dissolve”, “faded”, and “insubstantial”, was that everything he’d ever accomplished, everything he’d ever written, was somehow lacking and would one day be forgotten, dissolving into the past. Perhaps he doubted his talents, and saw the beautiful things he had written as nothing more than grand illusions that would ultimately mean nothing. When Shakespeare wrote the line about the great globe itself (IV. I. 53), it is highly assumable that he was referring to his renowned Globe Theater, and how, even with all of the wonderful plays that had been performed there over the years, even with all of its history and value, that one day he knew it would dissolve just like everything else. Personally, line 155 is a personal favorite of mine. Prospero is talking about the party of illusions taking place around him, but Shakespeare seems to be commenting on life itself. “Insubstantial” means to lack substance or reality. Perhaps Shakespeare’s own life had begun to take a turn in that direction– maybe he felt the curtains closing around him– and the pageant, being his life, was beginning to fade. In line 159, Prospero asks that Miranda:
Bear with my weakness: my old brain is troubled,
Be not disturbed 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. (IV. I. 159-163)
Of course this is Prospero apologizing for having to stop the celebration so suddenly, blaming his forgetfulness on his age. However, could it not also be Shakespeare wanting to relay to his audience that he himself has grown old, and with a troubled brain? That Shakespeare chose to use the word “repose” when telling his daughter to rest in his cell is also of some interest, considering that the word can refer to how someone lies when they are dead.
The next passage in which Prospero seems to allude to Shakespeare’s career is in Act V, scene I, lines 33-57, in particular lines 42-50.
(Weak masters though ye be) I have bedimmed
The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,
And twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war; to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire, and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong based promontory
Have I made shake; and by the spurs plucked up
The pine and cedar. Graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth
By my so potent art... (V. I. 42-50)
In this part of the passage it seems that Prospero is talking about more than his own magical accomplishments. It seems as though he is alluding to Shakespeare’s other plays, such as King Lear, Hamlet, and Caesar. Shakespeare had “oped” graves in his other plays, and had also written about war. He also incorporated the theme of magic in his plays, along with manipulating nature in the Tempest when Prospero commands Ariel to create the storm that brings Ferdinand and the others to the island.
In the last part of the passage in Act V, Prospero talks of abjuring, or giving up his magic, much in the way that Shakespeare was giving up on the Theater and his plays.
But 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. (V.1.50-57)
Could the references to breaking his staff and drowning his book be referring to Shakespeare’s retirement? Could breaking the staff and drowning the book be his way of “throwing away his pen” and letting go of his career?
The truth is we will never know for sure if Shakespeare was, indeed, saying his goodbyes through Prospero. All we can do is look through the evidence and draw our own conclusions. Shakespeare retired to Stratford upon Avon in 1610. The first recorded performance of the Tempest took place in 1611. He died April 23rd, 1616. The Tempest is considered to be one of his final and finest plays.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Norton Critical Edition. Eds. Peter Hulme. William H. Sherman. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004.
© Kimberly Robinson