Prospero’s final speech in The Tempest, perhaps the last great play in the Shakespearean canon, iscommonly supposed to be a version of the dramatist’s own farewell to the London theater.
Prospero tells us that all life is drama and all drama ends. All drama is fiction and we, too, are just figments. Like Faustus, Prospero—and his creator—seem to ask: What is the worth of knowledge or power when one is faced with death? Both Prospero and Shakespeare will withdraw to contemplate their final days.
Prospero, a supreme ruler with magical powers, makes this decision from strength of mind, not terror, as Faustus did. He could have retained his power and, perhaps, achieved immortality. But having freed Ariel and made a man out of Ferdinand, his daughter’s future husband, Prospero breaks his staff and vows to return to the world, giving up all comforts for a hair shirt, a monk’s cell, and thoughts of death: Will he die well and at peace?
It is, perhaps, pleasing for us to think that this is Shakespeare himself speaking to us, explaining why he will write no more plays. It’s also frustrating to the world of literature that Shakespeare retired while still at the top of his game.