Shakespeare's Farewell to Theatre: The Tempest

A Shakespearean goodbye.

Throughout his life, William Shakespeare wrote numerous memorable plays that included various topics, from types of love to colonialism. His plays were multilayered and he masterfully discussed both universal and topical issues disguised under beautiful tales of love or gruesome stories of revenge in distant islands or dark, misty castles. In his time, he was very much liked and looked upon, making his plays popular among society. People filled the theatres to hear Hamlet's famous to-be or not to be speech, to teleport into the magical world of A Midsummer Night's Dream, or to witness the effects of religious discrimination of the time through the character Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. His devotion to theatre sadly came to an end with his play The Tempest. Thought to have been written in 1610-1611, it is considered Shakespeare's last play and his emotional farewell to the magical world of theatre.

The Tempest starts with a scene of a violent storm followed by a shipwreck, watched from afar by the plotter Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, who, with his daughter Miranda, has been marooned on a distant island previously owned by the monstrous creature Caliban, who later plots the murder of Prospero to take his revenge. Prospero was betrayed by his brother, leading him to live a secluded life and master magic while plotting his revenge, awaiting the day his brother's ship would appear on the horizon. The day finally comes and in the opening scene, magician Prospero destroys his brother Antonio's ship, scattering all aboard to different parts of the island. Among them, is Miranda's future husband Ferdinand, who gets married to her toward the end of the play, in accordance with Prospero's plans.

Among the many references in the play such as colonialism through the plot of Caliban, there are two outstanding elements that display Shakespeare's initial intent in writing the play which are the symbolism of magic, and the two important speeches, in which William Shakespeare directly speaks to the audience through Prospero, saying his final words on theatre.

In the play, Prospero, in a way, represents William Shakespeare himself. Being a magician, his magic represents the magic of theatre, the ability to create the art of illusion that Shakespeare has mastered. Thanks to his magic, Prospero is able to create the illusion of the shipwreck, leading him to his revenge. He also organizes a masque, a form of entertainment of the time, filled with performing spirits for Miranda's wedding. The masque scene is important as the masque represents the magical world of theatre. During the wedding masque, everyone sets aside their hostility and has fun, Prospero even forgets about the murder plotted against him by Caliban and two other sailors, therefore resembling the theatre audience, leaving reality behind to dive into the magical world of theatre, free from earthly worries. However, with a sudden realization, Prospero ends the masque, saying,

I had forgot that foul conspiracy

Of the beast Caliban and his confederates

Against my life: the minute of their plot

Upon the ending of the masque, everyone comes back to earth, just like how the theatre audience returns to reality when a play ends.

In the following, Prospero gives his first important speech,

...The cloud-capp'd 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. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Here, after talking about how the masque now ended, Prospero talks about how all the flamboyant towers, palaces, and solemn temples, the pageant wagons (traveling theatres of the 10-16th centuries), and even the globe, which is The Globe Theatre, have faded away in time despite their thought-to-be ever-lasting glory. Just like them, our lives are bound to end, resembling dreams, beginning and ending with sleep. Therefore, emphasizing the transience of life and everything in it. And just like our lives, the magic of theatre is bound to give in to this transience, as nothing lasts forever. Through Prospero, Shakespeare speaks to the audience: Although he lived a life devoted to theatre, everything has to end; and theatre, even for Shakespeare, is something temporary: it is something that takes you to another world, only to return to reality when the play is over.

At the end of the play, there is an epilogue of Prospero, which is the very last farewell of Shakespeare: his last words before the curtain closes.

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 confin'd 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 reliev'd by prayer,

Which pierces so that it assaults

Mercy itself, and frees all faults.

As you from crimes would pardon'd be,

Reading his last lines, one tends to imagine Shakespeare in Prospero's image, standing on stage in a theatre full of people, rather timid but proud, sad to say goodbye but happy to see such a crowd, speaking gently but theatrical.

And Shakespeare,