Existentialistic Analysis of the Epilog of The Tempest
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One may find it ridiculous to contrast between Shakespeare and existentialism in its 20th century form, however one must keep in mind, that existentialism does not appear as a single philosophical system. It is more an attitude of life, a general vision - existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre is known to have stated that existentialism was never invented, it has always existed as the ultimate foundation. Upon that light, why not seek the foundations from the work of the forefather of all dramatists?
It is above all naïve to claim Prospero’s Epilogue in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest a mere conventional appeal for applause or the stripping of the imaginary glamour built up by the plays magic. Even the greatest of artists would rather give away his life than surrender his art to be judged solely by the public. Art for an artistic genius is practised for its own sake; art for the purpose of art. Existence for the sake of existence itself - stripped of meaning, of value and of subjective interpretation. In its bear meaningless form, something still remains: the necessary Natural Law, a philosophical concept considered the basis of human well-being, a system of the values that determine human existence.
Throughout The Tempest Prospero’s character portrays an image of a nearly Nietzchean superhuman capable of disclaiming authority, killing God. He is in control of every situation and event as if the chain of causes and effects would be a conductible melody waiting for an artist’s touch. On the other hand he is very human: a wronged duke and a father, a symbiosis which Shakespeare displayed with the use of Prospero’s garment as a theatrical tool. An artist is the creator, the maker of realities yet he remains human, an animal with feelings and urges, ties only waiting to be cut. The view implied is not far from the ideologies that emerged from the great suffering of the second world war: a man is capable of constructing himself a framework of personal and social meaning, but his true animal nature remains unchanged. In the heart of existence, life has no predefined meaning, it is a mere passage of survival from necessary birth to necessary death. Prospero's and his daughter's situation on the island was hopeless, however Prospero had chosen a function for his life - revenge. Prospero created a meaning for his life, built a synthetic reality to keep him sane on the path towards the finality of human death.
Early existentialism begins to appear.
The literatory image behind The Epilogue of The Tempest greatly involves the attitude and interpretation of art. Having constructed a window or more or less a door to an imaginary world for the audience, Shakespeare has succeeded in fusing art and reality. Upon that light it is incomprehensible to assume his need to address the subjective yet neutral third party, the audience - shatter the synthetic reality. However, The Epilogue is a beautiful and humble ending to a story filled with strong magical elements - the control is given to the audience, they are given Prospero’s magical garment. The passive third party is given a choice of interaction, chance to rise beyond spectatorship. An interesting aspect to The Epilogue of The Tempest is the fact that it was Shakespeare’s last play - the final words of a great artist. Due to the lack of historically trustworthy biographical information of Shakespeare’s character, it is difficult if not impossible to determine the effect of his life situation to the message itself. Whether justified or not, The Epilogue seems like a farewell - a humble artist handing over his life to the audience to which he has dedicated his entire life.
When examining The Epilogue with the restriction of intertextuality, one is forced to focus on the character of Prospero. Why does he leave a farewell, why does he become the ultimate link from the world of the play to the world of the third party, the audience. His importance as the narrator of The Epilogue creates a third dimension to his character traits, he becomes the God-figure that seems limited to living on a island yet he can perform metaphysical leaps between dimensions. The person speaking is the author himself, for in his art he has become God.
Rhythmically and structurally The Epilogue follows the same style and pattern as the entire play; rich in rhyme and in wording. The passage can be more or less distinctly separated into three equal parts. However every detail gives space for wide interpretation.
Now my charms are all o'erthrown, / And what strength I have's mine own,
Whish is most faint: now, 'tis true, / I must be here confin'd by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not, / Since I have my dukedom got,
The main structure of The Epilogue can be interpreted as the passage of a life. First the narrator enters the game of existence, appears from the womb: "And what strength I have's my own." As strongly claimed by Jean-Paul Sartre's metaphysics, birth to a person is a subjectively chosen process, emerged from the "charms" that are now, after birth "all o'erthrown". Using the presented division birth is followed by life itself, a search for a meaning and true freedom: "But release me from my bands." The narrator realises his situation on the island of life, in the world derived of meaning and purpose. He wants to be released from his misery - the only way he can achieve that is making his life worthwhile - giving up life would be a crime against Natural Law.
And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell / In this bear island by your spell;
But release me from my bands / With the help of your good hands:
The last segment of The Epilogue requests freedom by final death. The narrator has realised the purpose he has constructed for his life has been fully fulfilled. He wants to die with peace - he seeks acknowledgement for his life's successful passage. " As you from crimes would pardon'd be, / Let your indulgence set me free. "
Gentle breathe 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 in despair, / Unless I be reliev'd 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.
One view The Epilogue can be examined upon is the fact that the artist, be it Shakespeare or Prospero as his creation declares himself detached from moral ties directed to towards the third party and, with refrence to Prospero’s use of power, the other characters of the play. This is a very important aspect in both the general basis of human nature and as the driving force of the artist, in this case Shakespeare. The Epilogue clearly claims that the cause-effect event-chain created by the artist was built free of ties - therefore to be judged with the appropriate honesty and freedom of attitude. One may question the necessity for such a statement, but considering the importance of theatre during Shakespeare’s era it has a certain logicality. Just as a true human, the human of the Natural Laws, is justified to assume a superhuman position, an artist, the creator, is justified to practice unconditional freedom.
Freedom is and element of the Natural Law - the system of necessities to justify a meaningful existence. However as the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre stated, freedom necessarily involves the property of responsibility. Man has unconditional freedom and self-defined moral ties yet he is responsible for following his own will with regard to his own value system. If responsibility is not utilized, man takes s step towards animal qualities, he does not fulfil the Natural Law. A similar pattern of freedom and responsibilities is presented in The Epilogue. Shakespeare has utilized unconditional freedom not only in his art but also in giving respect to the audience as the object of amusement: "Gentle breathe of yours my sails / Must fill, or else my project fails, / which was to please. Now I want / Spirits to enforce, Art to enchant ."
Analyst E. E. Stoll writes about The Tempest’s Epilogue: "One hopes that these sorry lines are not by Shakespeare."
Works Cited and Consulted
Davidson, Frank. “The Tempest: An Interpretation.” In The Tempest: A Casebook. Ed. D.J. Palmer. London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1968. 225.
Kermode, Frank. Introduction. The Tempest. By William Shakespeare. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958. xlii.
Solomon, Andrew. “A Reading of the Tempest.” In Shakespeare’s Late Plays. Ed. Richard C. Tobias and Paul G. Zolbrod. Athens: Ohio UP, 1974. 232.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Ed. Frank Kermode. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958.