Written between 1610 and 1611, The Tempest is William Shakespeare's final play. (OK. If you're nitpicky, it's the last play he wrote entirely by himself.) In it, Shakespeare portrays an aging magician who has been living in exile with his young daughter on a remote island for the past twelve years. Over the course of a single day, Prospero uses his magic to whip up a 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 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, 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 of Shakespeare is speaking through this character here.
Regardless of whether or not our boy 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." Of course, you'll be wanting some examples, so be sure to check out "Allusions" and "Themes."
Why Should I Care?
As we discuss in "In a Nutshell," The Tempest was the last play that William Shakespeare ever wrote, and Prospero's decision to move to Naples and break his magic staff is similar to Shakespeare's decision to let go of his art. We could argue that Shakespeare is one of the most popular figures in the entire universe – we'd even bet money that astronauts never forget to bring some Shakespeare with them to outer space. So, the fact that we get to watch this genius take a bow and say adieu through this play makes us care big-time. It's like watching a comet that only comes around every three hundred years – we hang on Shakespeare's every word, listening for last drops of wisdom.
If Shakespeare is like Prospero, then playwriting is similar to being a lonely magician on an island. 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. If giving up playwriting is akin to giving up magic, making peace with your sworn enemy, and moving to Naples (where there are lots of people), then we might infer that the life of an artist is a lonely one.
So just what does it mean to be an artist? Do you have to be alone, separated from society in order to be a good one? For the love of seaweed, why do we, the audience, have the power to release Prospero with our applause at the end of the play? We thought Prospero was the one at the wheel, the one with all the ammo. What does it mean that the most powerful character is at the mercy of his audience? Work on those queries for us, Shmoopster, and let us know what you think.