Shakespeare’s Final Play

by Julia Grigorian

In taking a class solely focused on one author and their written body of work, one is able to develop a holistic understanding of their journey as a writer. It is in such a setting that an author’s honors and accolades can be acknowledged alongside their flaws.

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One of the reasons why I was so glad to work on The Tempest was because of the speculation on whether or not this is Shakespeare’s last play, and the implications that one notion leaves on the interpretations and analysis of the play itself. It helps the class as a whole come full circle for myself, while allowing the opportunity to see where Shakespeare started, and where he ended.

The Tempest is believed to have been written sometime during 1611-12 (Jordison). This was a time of abundant discovery, a decisive time of proliferation, particularly for England, where Shakespeare was located. This was also a period in which the English language flourished and grew in prestige. During both the 16th and 17th centuries, the time of Shakespeare’s life, vast amounts of scientific discoveries opened the world to exploration. These new ideas circulated around, causing people to continually question. Shakespeare’s challenges on common thought were not the only of his time but also inspired fellow poets such as Marlowe, Jonson, and Donne (Malek). People no longer faltered back onto religion for all of their answers, but instead allowed for literature to help instigate new thoughts into their own lives. This is why works like The Tempest have left such a lingering impact and were published in the first place.

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The Tempest was first published into print in 1623 in what came to be known as the first folio of Shakespeare’s collected works. This can also be known as F1 by some scholars (Jordison). Within Shakespeare’s body of work, it is often distinguished as an individual amongst his other plays, particularly within his later “mature” plays (Malek). This can be credited to the use of new and strange characters, such as Ariel, who is a transfigurative spirit, or Caliban, who falls somewhere along the spectrum of being quasi-human, quasi-creature. A “demi-devil,” as he is described (5.1.315). The anthropomorphic features combined with animalistic behavior sets the stage for something unlike any of the common tragedies and comedies so often associated with Shakespeare. The Tempest is in stark contrast to the theatrical norms of this 17th century society. This is especially intriguing when looked at through the perspective of The Tempest being Shakespeare’s final published solo work.

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Speaking to the practice of theatre in the 17th century, my research led me to something I found particular eye-opening. According to The Artifice, a common practice at theatre was the honor of receiving applause. It was not a customary act of respect as is the case for modern times. The audience had much more power, as plays, “were performed once, and if they didn’t receive sufficient applause, never again.” (Carter). The control audiences had is unnerving in comparison to today’s society where a play expects the applause following their acts, whether warranted or not. But, more than the juxtaposition this element of theatre has on today’s terms, this is entirely relevant to The Tempest, as many scholars like to compare Shakespeare to Prospero, commenting that Prospero is a mirror image of the Bard (Carter).

Most notably, reasons for scholars so closely linking Shakespeare to Prospero are centralized in Prospero’s final speech, where he alludes to this exact aspect of the theatre culture of his time.

EPILOGUE – SPOKEN BY PROSPERO

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.    (Epilogue 1-20)

Here, by taking on the lens of Shakespeare being Prospero, this epilogue takes on a much richer meaning. Shakespeare is begging the audience to let him free, to relinquish him of the barriers of his position in society. He no longer wants to be bound to them, constantly seeking their approval. It’s a powerful plea. The play in and of itself concludes with themes of forgiveness and succinct resolution, which is an intense shift in play dynamics. The same is true of Shakespeare’s career, and he admits it here. By asking for mercy, for it will “free all faults,” further emphasizes Shakespeare’s primitive craving to move on from this. He asks for pardons for all his wrongs, begs for it even, backtracking to a devalue of his own writing. He insists his writing was merely to entertain and nothing more.

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In addition to this striking final message of the play, Prospero’s demeanor throughout the entirety of The Tempest is cast in a particular light. Shakespeare takes great care in distinguishing Prospero apart from the common day thought of magic. The main thoughts related to magic were not kind in this time. To speak of magic was against the status quo. Back then, magic was controversial, sometimes leading to dire consequences such as death by burning at the stake for one’s heresy (Neil). In both the Catholic world and Protestant England, it appears magic was taboo. Audiences would have found comfort in seeing a mystical character portrayed poorly, as is the case with Sycorax, another character in The Tempest who utilizes magic. Her twisted and “malignant” character supports Prospero by allowing him to stand in direct comparison to her. While Sycorax is said to worship the devil and be “filled with abhorred commands,(1.2.326)” Prospero is “reputed in dignity (1.2.91)”. This helps show that Prospero is rational and exalted, and by extension, Shakespeare is as well. By Prospero ending the play with doing away with his magic, the idea of moving on from playwriting is difficult to miss.

All of the textual inferences, in congruence with the historical context of what scholars have come to understand about Shakespeare’s career, serve the idea of Shakespeare intentionally writing himself into The Tempest, fully aware this was his last play for the public. Shakespeare understood himself as Prospero, by dramatizing an old man’s wish to join back in with the main body of humanity, forgiving all past transgressions. Prospero, as did Shakespeare, exercises control over the elements and other characters, just as any playwright would. The parallels are comparable to a playwright’s control over the world in which his play. From what scholars know, The Tempest, written sometime in 1611-12 is indeed his last known solely conceived play. His final message is a farewell to the island, solidarity, magic, and writing for the public’s approval.

Works Cited

Carter, Conian. “The Tempest: Shakespeare’s Final Stage Magic.” The Artifice. N.p., 22 July 2014. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.

Jordison, Sam. “A Real Character: Is Prospero Shakespeare?” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 15 Apr. 2014. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.

Malek, Leslie Prospero the Magician. n.p.: 1981.

Neil, Forsyth. “Shakespeare and Méliès: Magic, Dream and the Supernatural.” Études Anglaises, 2 (2002): 167.

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