A final word on that final word

Yesterday, I talked about the epilogue to The Tempest, and how it is the only Epilogue in the Canon delivered by a non-choric character. Also, I touched upon what we could call a certain sloppiness to the scansion. Which brings us to another aspect of the speech: Is it a valedictory? Is it a good-bye for Shakespeare?

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 pardoned 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 pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
  • Epilogue.1-20

There is a palpable sense of ending here. Overthrown charms. Faint strength. Failing projects. Endings of lost hope. So I suppose that is one reason for seeing this as a valedictory.

There is certainly a feeling of the speaker begging for release, pleading for a merciful end of his trials. He cannot go on: he’s spent. He lacks (“wants”) spirits and art, and without that his project will ultimately fail. And remember his project, his goal, was to please. This sounds like an artist at the end.

And those first three lines are certainly grist for discussion. His power is now just his own strength, which is faint. What had been there before–but now knocked to the ground (“o’erthrown”)? Charms. Of course, in a play about magic, the first assumed meaning here for “charms” is that of spells (“charm, n.2.” OED Online, Oxford University Press.). But there is a specific element to the main meaning that begs to be noted: “The chanting or recitation of a verse supposed to possess magic power or occult influence; incantation, enchantment” (“charm, n.1.a.” OED Online).

Verse. Shakespeare’s superpower.

And in this last speech–as we noted yesterday–that verse is a mess. So is the epilogue’s failed verse true, or is it just a play on words, a kind of meta-reference to his own failings?

And here, maybe, for a moment, I become a Bardolator. I don’t think this faulty verse is real. I think he’s doing this on purpose, for the purpose of telling us–hell, showing us–how great he is, or at least was. He’s going out on his own terms, terms of his devising and defining. This is the last play he’ll write solo. It’s been a great run, but it’s over.

There’s a part of me that wants to doubt that he’d be so heavy-handed, so offhandedly flashy and arrogant. But remember how many of his sonnets talk of how they will live forever.

I don’t think the whole play’s a valedictory (at least not a “hey-look-at-me” one), but this Epilogue? Yeah, I think there’s a bit of that going on.


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