The Tempest Introduction
In A Nutshell
Give Big Billy Shakespeare a standing ovation: The Tempest is his swan song. It's hard to think of Shakespeare as being "over" when he’s considered to be the best playwright in English (daaang)—this guy's plays still transcend fashion or style or faddishness. It's as ridiculous to say that Shakespeare's plays are over as it is to say that, oh, picnics or roller coasters or stargazing is over. Some things are immortal.
Sadly, though, the bald man himself was very much mortal. And The Tempest, written between 1610 and 1611, was William Shakespeare's final play. (If you're nitpicky, it's the last play he wrote entirely by himself.)
Its action revolves around an aging magician who has been living in exile with his young daughter on a remote island for twelve years. Over the course of a single day, Prospero uses his magic to whip up the titular tempest to shipwreck the men responsible for his banishment. He then proceeds to dazzle and dismay the survivors (and the audience) with his art as he orchestrates his triumphant return home… where he plans to retire in peace.
For a lot of audiences and literary scholars, Prospero seems like a stand-in for Shakespeare, who spent a lifetime dazzling audiences before retiring in 1611, shortly after The Tempest was completed. Not only is the play chock-full of self-conscious references to the workings of the theater, but its epilogue seems to be a final and fond farewell to the stage.
When Prospero (after giving up the art of magic he's spent a lifetime perfecting) appears alone before the audience he confesses, "Now my charms are all o'erthrown, / And what strength I have's mine own," we can't help but wonder if Shakespeare is speaking through this character here.
Regardless of whether or not our man Shakespeare intended for us to understand the epilogue as a big adios to his own art, the play does seem to be a nice capstone to a brilliant career because The Tempest revisits some of the most important issues and themes to have emerged from Shakespeare's previous plays.
Literary scholar Stephen Greenblatt, who calls the play an "echo-chamber of Shakespearean motifs," points out that The Tempest resonates "with issues that haunted Shakespeare's imagination throughout his career."
But even if motifs and allusions (or spooky echo-chambers) ain't your cup of tea, The Tempest is almost guaranteed to be. Whether you’re a magical realism nut or a sucker for a good love story, a fan of drunken mayhem or obsessed with devious plots, a bitter cynic or a wide-eyed believer in the milk of human kindness, The Tempest will deliver.
Come on. What else could you possibly expect from the play that capped the career of a guy so talented in the play-penning department that he’s known simply as The Bard?
Why Should I Care?
What do Greta Garbo, Steven Soderberg, Grace Kelly and William Shakespeare have in common?
They all retired early.
Grace Kelly went on to become a dang princess. Steven Soderberg might just be faking us out. Greta Garbo, because she's the coolest person in the world, just said "I want to be alone," and bounced. And Billy Shakespeare? He went out with a bang: he wrote The Tempest.
So, uh, why should you care that this was the last play he wrote? Well, besides the fact that it’s a brilliant work of magical comedy… for sheer voyeuristic reasons: Shakespeare pretty much wrote a character based on himself.
The Tempest's main man Prospero is a lonely magician on an island who makes a decision to break his magic staff and move to Naples. This is eerily similar to Shakespeare's decision to let go of his art.
If Shakespeare is like Prospero, then playwriting is similar to being a magician. Writing is like performing magic. This is not just pull-a-bunny-out-of-a-hat magic—we're talking storm-inducing, ship-splitting magic: Shakespeare was a genius.
But like being a magician, being an artist is a pretty isolated and intense life. After a while, even Shakespeare wanted to give up his claim to fame and just lie around in the garden with some buddies rather than sit up alone at night wringing his inky hands.
After all, underneath all that brilliance and weird Elizabethan clothing, he was just a human.
Through The Tempest's Prospero, we get to glimpse what it must be like to be Shakespeare: the lonely, fallible, tired, cranky man William himself was. This isn't just juicy insight into one of the world's most famous writers. It's also deeply humanizing and will give you shivers of insignificance even as it makes you feel warm n' fuzzy inside: we really are just… humans. Humans who sometimes just need a vacay.
But don’t worry too much about getting overwhelmed with feelings or existential crises. The Tempest is a comedy—the drunkity-drunk buffoonery, weird fairies and demons and aww-inducing romance will keep you too entertained to worry for long about how tuckered out Willy Shakespeare was at the end of his career.
And if you do get worried, just imagine Shakespeare as a happy go lucky retiree playing shuffleboard, eating dinner at 5 p.m. and spending all day parked in a lawn chair drinking daiquiris.