“The Tempest” is indubitably the final play that William Shakespeare wrote. Why did Shakespeare, who was still in good health, bow out in such an apparently premature fashion? What might have induced such a decision to leave his career in theatre?
One of the many mysteries surrounding the life of William Shakespeare is the reason for his early retirement, perhaps as early as 1610 and certainly no later than 1612, at a time when he was still at the height of his powers and while he was still apparently in good health. He announces his retirement in dramatic fashion at the end of his final play, The Tempest, when Prospero walks on stage alone, after the final curtain has fallen, to announce that he has relinquished his powers. The fact that a character addresses the audience directly, breaking the spell that had sustained the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, is seen by most critics as the playwright himself appearing in the persona of Prospero to take his final bow.
The Tempest was written late in 1610 or early in 1611 and is indubitably the final play that Shakespeare wrote. His alleged collaboration with John Fleming on three subsequent plays, including Henry VIII, is more likely to be a case of Fleming bringing to fruition unfinished fragments of plays which Shakespeare had abandoned than any formal collaboration in the sense of the two playwrights working together.
So why did Shakespeare bow out in such an apparently premature fashion? What might have induced such a decision?
The answer is to be found in the vituperative attacks being made on the theatre in general, and on Shakespeare in particular, by the increasingly powerful Puritans who considered both plays and players to be “heathen” and “papist.”
The fact that the Puritans considered the theatre to be a dangerous disseminator of papist ideas can be gleaned from a sermon by the Puritan preacher, William Crashaw, delivered at St. Paul’s Cross in London in 1608: “The ungodly plays and interludes so rife in this nation: what are they but a bastard of Babylon [a euphemism for Rome in puritanical Biblespeak], a daughter of error and confusion; a hellish device—the devil’s own recreation to mock at holy things—by him delivered to the heathen and by them to the Papists, and from them to us?” Apart from its relevance to Shakespeare, this attack on “papist plays” by the puritanical Crashaw is noteworthy as being one of the pithiest putdowns of Western culture ever made. In one terse, bombastic sentence, the entire legacy of the West is dismissed as being a contagious disease, passed from the devil to the Greeks, and then to the Romans and the Catholics until finally, via Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights, it had contaminated modern England.
Two years later, in February 1610, Crashaw was again equating Shakespeare and his ilk to the devil in a sermon he preached to the Lord Governor of Virginia. On this occasion he fulminated that the greatest threat to the newly-founded colony was to be found in Catholicism, culture, and other satanic manifestations: “We confess this action hath three great enemies: but who be they? even the Devil, Papists, and Players.” Considering William Crashaw’s shrill attack on Catholic poets, such as Shakespeare, it is ironic that his own son, Richard, one of the greatest of the metaphysical poets, would convert to Catholicism, dying in lonely exile in Italy.
Responding to these puritanical attacks upon plays and players, Phillip Rosseter, a Catholic actor and lessee of the Whitefriars Theatre, retorted in December 1610 “that a man might learn more good at one of their plays or interludes than at twenty of our roguish sermons.”
In addition to these general attacks on the theatre, Shakespeare’s own plays came under scrutiny in 1610 following the conviction of a Catholic recusant gentleman for hosting a group of players who performed “papist” plays at his own and at other recusant houses. Intriguingly, King Lear and Pericles were among the plays performed at these secret gatherings, indicating that recusant audiences readily deduced the Catholic meaning of the plays, and suggesting also that Shakespeare’s faith, however discretely practiced, was known to his fellow Catholics.
Further evidence of the disdain with which the Puritans held the theatre in general, and Shakespeare in particular, emerged in the History of Great Britain by John Speed, which was published in 1611. Discussing the Lollard leader, Sir John Oldcastle, Speed was at pains to discredit attacks upon his reputation by papists and playwrights. Complaining that the Jesuit, Robert Persons, had described Oldcastle as “a ruffian, a robber and a rebel,” Speed riposted by suggesting that Persons was a liar, along with “his poet,” Shakespeare:
And his [Persons’] authority, taken from the stage-players, is more befitting the pen of his slanderous report than the credit of the judicious, being only grounded from this Papist [Persons] and his poet [Shakespeare], of like conscience for lies, the one ever feigning and the other ever falsifying the truth.
This astonishing attack upon Shakespeare, calling him a falsifier of the truth and a sidekick of the Jesuits, demonstrates the general suspicion with which he was held by the Puritans. The specific connection between Persons and Shakespeare, upon which Speed was grounding his attack, is to be found in Persons’ account Of Three Conversions of England, published in 1603, and its connection with Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I. Persons’ work was effectively a piece of revisionist history in which he refutes John Foxe’s version of England’s religious history. In his discussion of Oldcastle, Persons dismisses him as “a ruffian knight, as all England knoweth, and commonly brought in by comedians on their stages.” This is seen by most scholars as an allusion to Shakespeare’s depiction of Oldcastle, under the tactful alias of Sir John Falstaff, whom Prince Hal addresses as “that father ruffian, that vanity in years.” The fact that Falstaff is Shakespeare’s alias for Oldcastle has been generally accepted by scholars ever since the connection between Oldcastle and Falstaff was made by James O. Halliwell-Phillips in 1841. The connection is not only deduced from Oldcastle’s appearance in The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, which is generally thought to be Shakespeare’s source play, but also from Shakespeare’s punning reference to Falstaff, by Prince Hal, as “my old lad of the castle” in the play’s second scene.
Persons’ “ruffian knight” is clearly a reference to the “father ruffian” in Shakespeare’s play, and shows, equally clearly, that Shakespeare shared the Jesuit’s view of Oldcastle as a heretic and a rogue, not Foxe’s and Speed’s view that he was a hero and a martyr. It is, therefore, of little wonder that Speed attacks Persons and Shakespeare as feigners and falsifiers of the truth, the former “feigning” the truth in his history of England and the latter “falsifying” it in his history plays. Nor is it any wonder that he should seek to shackle them together as “this Papist and his poet,” endeavouring to tar Shakespeare with the Jesuit brush.
In the same year of 1610, a Royal Proclamation “for the due execution of all former laws against recusants” ushered in a new wave of persecution against Catholics, tempting many recusants to conform to the state religion as the only way of avoiding the payment of increasingly crippling fines. Amongst those who did so was Shakespeare’s friend, Ben Jonson, who formally rejoined the Anglican Church after the years of recusancy that had followed his earlier conversion to Catholicism, perhaps under Shakespeare’s influence.
But what of Shakespeare himself? Did he succumb to this new trend of capitulation? Did he follow Jonson’s example, surrendering the faith of his fathers and accepting, however reluctantly, the new religion? Was he, like so many of his co-religionists, tiring of the tempest of religious persecution? Was he willing to surrender his principles and beliefs in order to gain the worldly peace that could only come with conformity to the dictates of the Jacobean state? These questions would be answered in March 1613 when Shakespeare purchased the Blackfriars Gatehouse, a major hub of Catholic recusant activity in London. Although this solitary act illustrates that Shakespeare remained a Catholic, it is likely that he had tired of the unwelcome and potentially dangerous attention he was receiving from the increasingly powerful and vituperative Puritans. Perhaps he perceived the writing on the wall. Perhaps he could see that the Puritans, who were gaining power in Parliament, would eventually succeed in shutting down the theatres.
Desiring a peaceful life, Shakespeare turned his back on the tempest, returning to his home and family in Warwickshire and disappearing into the sunset of his own life. As he bid farewell to London and the stage, taking his final bow, his last words to posterity were spoken in the last words of his last play. Fittingly, they were a request for prayers.
And my ending is 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.
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The featured image is Prospero and Ariel (from Shakespeare’s The Tempest) (1797) by William Hamilton (1751–1801) and is in the public domain. It has been brightened for clarity and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.