I didn’t see it coming. I was reading aloud Prospero’s final speech to my British Fantasy class when suddenly I broke down in tears. As I struggled to gather myself, I realized that I was seeing Prospero through the lens of my own approaching retirement. I explained the response to my class and told them how much I would miss them.
Many scholars read The Tempest as Shakespeare announcing his retirement. Prospero looks back over his life, admits faults (he sees some of himself in Caliban) and forgives his enemies. Meanwhile, he has set up a peaceful future in which the next generation, Ferdinand and Miranda, will replace nefarious plots and usurpations with good governance. He himself will get out of their way, vowing to “retire me to my Milan, where/Every third thought shall be my grave.”
The “rough magic” that gave him his powers he will now “abjure.” He promises that he will break his staff and “drown” his magic books.
Here’s the passage that caused me to break down:
Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own…
Which is to say, he is asking the audience to no longer see him as a magician but as a simple man. Knowing that he has made mistakes, he asks his audience to be indulgent and forgive him, sending him on his way with one final round of applause. Speaking now as Shakespeare, he makes himself entirely vulnerable to those who he has dazzled with his artistry:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want [lack]
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
I find wonderful the idea of asking the community for permission to retire. One shouldn’t just walk away as others are impacted by the decision. There needs to be a ceremonious leave-taking.