In this excerpt from her new book, This is Shakespeare (published Mar 31 in the United States), Emma Smith probes the biographical interpretations that readers have layered over Shakespeare’s plays, particularly The Tempest, and how that shapes what we think of as their chronology and the arc of Shakespeare’s life and career.
Underpinning these interpretations are parallels between Prospero and Shakespeare; the epilogue in The Tempest, spoken by Prospero, has been taken by some readers as a farewell from Shakespeare himself.
Aside from the epilogue, some notable lines from The Tempest that Smith references below are those that accompany Shakespeare’s statue in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey:
The Cloud capt Tow’rs,
The Gorgeous Palaces,
The Solemn Temples,
The Great Globe itself,
Yea all which it Inherit,
And like the baseless Fabrick of a Vision
Leave not a wreck behind.
“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. When the writers John Dryden and William Davenant began to ransack Shakespeare’s plays for productions to please the newly opened playhouses, they rewrote The Tempest as The Enchanted Island (1667). There they also connected ‘Shakespeare’s magic’ with that of Prospero. It’s clear that there are suggestive parallels between the art of the playwright and the magic exercised by Prospero in his island dominion. Prospero describes his powers as ‘my art’, and uses magic to make things happen, just as an author uses writing. Prospero moves the shipwrecked Italians around his island stage in order to create pleasing dialogues and meaningful encounters, just as an author handles his or her characters, or a director his or her actors. Prospero controls both the present and the other characters’ pasts: in a long narrative scene in the play’s ﬁrst act, he gives the background to the story – in the compelling account of his brother Antonio’s usurpation of the dukedom, his own subsequent exile with his daughter Miranda, and of the spirit Ariel imprisoned in a tree by the witch Sycorax, mother of Caliban (discussed as diegesis, rather than mimesis, in the chapter on The Winter’s Tale). Many of these recounted events have no independent corroboration. It is almost as if Prospero is inventing all these characters, ﬂeshing out a backstory for them, to develop the force of his creation. In Peter Greenaway’s inventively baroque ﬁlm adaptation, Prospero’s Books (1991), this idea is interpreted by having Prospero voice all the lines. He (played by John Gielgud) begins the ﬁlm by writing, in exquisitely precise early modern handwriting with a sharp quill, the play’s opening speeches: ‘Boatswain! / Here master. What cheer’? (1.1.1–2). The play continues this meta-theatrical tone. The speech after the wedding masque is steeped in the language of theatre: ‘revels’, ‘actors’, ‘pageant’, and, above all, the name of Shakespeare’s own company playhouse, ‘the great globe itself’ (4.1.148, 155, 153). For readers eager for biographical interpretations, the idea that Prospero articulates Shakespeare’s own farewell to his art has been irresistible.
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 deﬁnitely dates from towards the end of Shakespeare’s active theatrical work in London, there is no deﬁnitive external evidence to conﬁrm that The Tempest, written and performed in 1610–11, is Shakespeare’s ﬁnal 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.
Nevertheless, we have wanted to invest in Prospero’s epilogue, which articulates his own freedom in terms of being liberated from his theatre-prison, as a version of what Greek theatre called ‘parabasis’, a digression in which the author addressed the audience directly. In fact, the epilogue does a more conventional job in scripting the bridge between role and actor, acknowledging the audience and soliciting applause:
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 pardoned the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from your 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 pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
The vocabulary here – of release, despair, prayer, faults, indulgence – connects farewell with liberation, but also with death. On the one hand, this epilogue completes a comedy, but on the other, its momentum is death-driven. Prospero has already admitted that on his return to Milan, ‘Every third thought shall be my grave’ (5.1.315). It’s a melancholic reading beautifully ampliﬁed in W. H. Auden’s poetic meditation on The Tempest, ‘The Sea and the Mirror’ (1944). Part of Auden’s poem, ‘Prospero to Ariel’, sees the magus at the end of the play addressing the newly freed spirit and admitting
I am glad I have freed you,
So at last I can really believe I shall die.
For under your inﬂuence death is inconceivable.
In these readings, and others like them, Prospero’s farewell is not only Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage, but his dying breath, signalled by his liberation of the life-spirit Ariel.
There’s a small inconvenience in this interpretation, given that Shakespeare does not die for at least another ﬁve years, but let that pass. It may seem too pedantic to observe that the last of Shakespeare’s words performed on the stage were almost certainly not this valedictory epilogue from Prospero, but the rather unsonorous lines of Duke Theseus at the end of The Two Noble Kinsmen: ‘Let’s go oﬀ / And bear us like the time’ (5.6.136–7: this play also has an epilogue, but most scholars attribute that to Fletcher as co-author). Further, ideas of Shakespeare’s decisive retirement from the stage may have been exaggerated. In 1613 Shakespeare bought property in Blackfriars, near to the theatre. This is the ﬁrst time he appears to have purchased property in London, thus giving the lie to the sentimental idea that he was withdrawing from the hurly-burly to the quiet of Stratford (and setting aside that the movement for Prospero is quite the opposite: he is supposedly returning from retirement to resume active life as Duke of Milan).
We can see here, then, that chronology and interpretation become mutually enforcing and mutually constitutive. The Tempest must be Shakespeare’s last play, because it depicts his own renunciation of the art of theatre in the guise of Prospero; because Prospero is Shakespeare, The Tempest must be Shakespeare’s last play. We can extend this to notice that all authorial chronologies, including the one traced by the order of the chapters in this book, are in a sense biographical ones. The Tempest is not the only play to have its meaning determined by its assumed place in Shakespeare’s writing career: early plays are read through the lens of youth, inexperience and experimentation, whereas later ones carry associations of summation, detachedness and philosophizing. For some reason we don’t yet understand, The Tempest was the ﬁrst play in the collected volume of the First Folio of 1623: this led earlier commentators, not unreasonably, to assume that it was Shakespeare’s ﬁrst, rather than his last, play, and to judge it accordingly. This critical moment oﬀers a revealing insight into critics ﬁnding what they expect to ﬁnd. When seen as an early play, The Tempest’s brevity became the sign of immaturity, rather than a sign of advanced reﬁnement and compression. The fact that it deals ﬂeetingly with issues dealt with elsewhere in his work was suggestive of a ﬁrst attempt, and so too its ﬂat characterization was seen as more akin to that of early comedies.
Readings of The Tempest as Shakespeare’s last play, by contrast, recast these same observations within a framework of the culturally charged associations of lateness. For many critics, it has seemed a summation or retrospective on his career. Unusually for Shakespeare, there is no major source for this play – but perhaps we should see the play as cannibalistic (calibanistic?) in reusing themes and motifs from his own oeuvre. It’s a retelling of Hamlet in the context of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: a revenge quest between brothers in which forgiveness ultimately trumps violence through an encounter with the magical. Its young lovers recall Shakespeare’s comedies; its magus ﬁgure recalls the patriarchs Lear and Pericles; its structure – conforming to the unities of time, place and action – recalls The Comedy of Errors.
These Shakespearean echoes suggest that, as in other plays of this ﬁnal period, Shakespeare is revisiting the themes and inﬂuences of his early career in the 1590s – and not just his own plays. In some ways, The Tempest’s closest kin is the devilish Dr Faustus, by his brilliant contemporary Marlowe. Like Prospero, Faustus is a man of great learning who turns to magic, promising desperately to burn his books just as Prospero anticipates drowning his. Shakespeare’s imitation of and rivalry with Marlowe plots the course of his early career, as he writes Richard III in the shadow of The Jew of Malta, Richard II to Marlowe’s Edward II, and Venus and Adonis to Marlowe’s Hero and Leander. Marlowe’s violent death in 1593 gives Shakespeare the artistic space to develop his own style, but it also makes it impossible for him to supersede the now legendary young playwright who will never grow old.”
From THIS IS SHAKESPEARE by Emma Smith. Copyright © 2019 by Emma Smith. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Buy this book