With pages of articles, images, interviews, and activities, this Context Guide is designed to help audiences of all ages connect with the play. Read it here or grab a paper copy during the show!
My guess is that most modern readers do see something of the ageing playwright in the wizard. How not to find metaphors in the way he moves characters around the island, conjures visions, makes pointed comments about “the great globe itself” and eventually throws aside his staff and foreswears his art? What greater last words could there be for the genius from Stratford than that famous speech about how “our revels now are ended”, or his final lines in the play asking for the audience to give him their applause and so “set him free”? Following on from that, who wouldn’t find it poignant that The Tempest is widely thought to be one of Shakespeare’s final plays (and many say his very last)? That he probably lived no more than five years after its composition? And that he did indeed quit the stage just as Prospero quit his enchanted island?
Once you start seeing autobiography in these final speeches, it follows that Shakespeare might have written more of himself into Prospero. Bardolators have loved this idea from the late 19th century onwards. Writing in 1875, for instance, Edward Dowden said: “We identify Prospero in some measure with Shakespeare himself … because the temper of Prospero, the grave harmony of his character, his self-mastery, his calm validity of will … and with these, a certain abandonment, a remoteness from the common joys and sorrows of the world, are characteristic of Shakespeare as discovered to us in all his latest plays.”
It’s easy to be cynical about the idea that we know Prospero is Shakespeare because he shares characteristics with all the other characters we’ve also identified with the playwright. Yet it’s also easy to see why this line of thought is so tempting. Shakespeare is a uniquely tantalising historical figure. He gives us a feeling of remarkable kinship and understanding. He stretches out to us, through the ages, and shows that he thought and felt much as we do; he saw his world as we see ours. What’s more, he still speaks our minds. We can still identify with Hamlet, Othello and even Macbeth. And as a result, few historical figures feel closer than the man who created them. Except, of course, we know next to nothing about him.