When considering The Tempest as an allegorical look at theatre life, it is necessary to look outside the words and discover meaning behind the characters, thoughts and places within the play. The first concept to contemplate when considering theatre is the stage, where all of the action occurs. Prospero’s magic island is the ideal illustration of a Shakespearian stage; a place where stories are told, conflicts are brought to an end, and magical things happen. The island, which Prospero inhabits for the duration of the play, is one of magic, as the stage is a place of magic and illusion. In conventional theatre, the playwright controls his stage, and it becomes what he tells it to become. This is largely reflected in Prospero’s control of the island. Prospero has complete control of his island and all who inhabit it. The island grows to be his centre stage. If a playwright manipulates a stage, and Prospero manipulates his island, consequently it can be concluded that Prospero is representative of the playwright, and perhaps even of Shakespeare himself. It has been said that a true playwright has the power to harness the magic of the theatre and to present that magic to the common person. By reading his books, Prospero has gained the knowledge needed to harness the magic of the island. Throughout the play, Prospero uses his magic to control those living on his island, including those who he brings to the island for the specific purpose of gaining control of. The playwright uses his power to control those inhabiting his stage, gaining control of the actors he brings in to his theatre to train.
Another curiosity is the connection between the length of the story and the duration of the play. While Shakespeare is renowned for his complex storylines that bridge years of history, The Tempest covers a mere three hours, the duration of the actual performance of the play. Throughout the play there are constant references to time: the time in which Prospero has to seek his revenge, the time limit that Ferdinand has to court Miranda, the time that Caliban has to prove worth to Prospero. Shakespeare is attempting to demonstrate that all the magic seen by an audience takes place in a short span of time; of course, there are years of work put into the play before opening night, but the audience will never know of that effort, they will merely enjoy the three hours that they experience. Similarly, Prospero’s audience – the other characters in the play – are unaware of the time he has spent planning his revenge and bringing them to the island. They are only aware of the action as it happens. In this way, Prospero and Shakespeare can both be seen as playwrights – they have written their stories to end in a particular way, and are always aware of those endings, although their audiences are not.
At the end of Act Five, Prospero retires his magic by breaking his magical staff, removing his cloak, and ‘…drown[ing] my book’. The Tempest is known to be the last work of Shakespeare, his final farewell to the theatre. Through his representation of Prospero as himself, Shakespeare is therefore retiring the magic of the playwright. Prospero states in his epilogue, ‘Let your indulgence set me free.’ Shakespeare yearned for nothing more than to please his audience. He is encouraging them to applaud his efforts one final time.
The most conspicuous reference to theatre can be found in Prospero’s epilogue: ‘But release me from my bands; with the help of your good hands.’ Prospero’s comment can be traced back to traditional Renaissance theatre, where the finale of the play was signified by an epilogue of the main character for applause. Rather than closing his play with Prospero’s journey back to Naples, Shakespeare instead draws in to a close with his central character, the wizard Prospero, thanking the audience and inviting applause. This is obviously not traditional – a play is normally written with the characters being unaware of the presence of the audience; therefore Prospero’s direct address to the audience seems to place him directly in the role of playwright.
A reader of The Tempest can easily see how Shakespeare uses the characters of Prospero to say goodbye to his audience for the last time. It can be assumed that Shakespeare found this type of farewell to be the most appropriate form to give the followers of his theatre. What better way to say goodbye than through what the audience desire? By writing an allegorical look at the life of theatre as a final tribute, not only is Shakespeare saying goodbye in an original way, he is also paying respects to those he leaves behind. One thing is certain: Shakespeare will live on through within the dreams and hopes of those who read his work. As Prospero, he says: ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made one, and our little life is rounded with sleep.’