Chasing shadows through the new Bob Dylan album, Tempest – with its mirrored halls of old phrases and snatches of song – got me to revisit Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the Bard’s own late-period masterpiece. The last play he wrote himself, it can be read as a paean to the act of creation itself – with Shakespeare as Prospero, the wizard at the heart of his island, all powerful, creating illusions in the air.
Of course, much like Dylan, Shakespeare is far too rich to pin down to one meaning. But Prospero’s final speech in the play seems to echo Shakespeare’s own feelings. The play, and his life itself, are nearly over… all that remains are the hoped for applause – which will “set him free.” It is one of the most memorable of Shakespeare’s speeches, and one of the finest “goodbyes” ever written.
“Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
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.”
John Gielgud as Prospero
-J. Tom Hnatow