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Shakespeare still belonged to the King’s Men, and in 1611 he wrote the last play that is completely his own work, The Tempest. It is another play about forgiveness and, as in The Winter’s Tale, the happy ending is produced by a marriage between the children of two men who are enemies.
In this play, Shakespeare found a different solution to the problem of time passing. Instead of having a break of sixteen years in the middle of the play, Prospero, the main character, explains to his daughter, Miranda, how they arrived on the island where they live. Prospero was the Duke of Milan but when Miranda was a baby, his brother Antonio, with the help of the King of Naples, rebelled against him. Prospero was put into a boat with the baby and came to the island. But he brought his books with him, and as a result of studying them he now has magic power. Before this scene, we have seen all his enemies on a ship in a storm. Prospero says that he caused the storm because he wanted to bring them to the island.
The play is complicated for many people today for two reasons. First, Prospero has a servant, Caliban, who is half human and lived on the island before he arrived. Prospero was kind to him until he attacked Miranda. Second, Shakespeare invented this story himself but included details from a report of a voyage to America by a man called Strachey. At that time, the English were trying to build a town in Virginia. Some modern directors see Prospero as the villain, not the hero, connecting Caliban with Native Americans. But Shakespeare’s island, as the characters’ names suggest, is in the Mediterranean, not far from Italy, and the subject of the play is forgiveness.
Many writers have imagined that Prospero is Shakespeare himself. Towards the end of the play he makes a speech forgiving his enemies and promising not to use magic again. This was the last play that Shakespeare wrote by himself. He had used the magic of words for many years but perhaps he had now decided, like Prospero, to return to his family. There his strength, as Prospero says, would be his own. This may be partly true, but Shakespeare took Prospero’s speech about magic from a speech made by Medea in his favourite Latin poem, Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
In fact, he continued to write for two more years with the help of John Fletcher, who took his place as the main dramatist for the Kings Men. Only one of these plays, Henry VIII, appears in his collected works. Shakespeare was still a partner in the company, but in 1613 the Globe theatre burned down during a performance of Henry VIII, and after that it seems that he ended his connection with them.
Shakespeare lived quietly in Stratford until 1616, but in March of that year he became ill. He died a month later, on 23 April, just after his fifty-second birthday. There has been a lot of discussion about his will, especially because he only left his wife the ‘second-best bed’. It seems that he first made his will in January 1616, but did not sign it at that time and changed it when he realized that he was dying.
In that time he had a very worrying experience. His second daughter, Judith, who was then thirty-one, married a man called Thomas Quiney on 10 February. Shakespeare’s family had known the Quiney family for many years. But a month later another woman, Margaret Wheeler, died giving birth to a child and Quiney was named as the father. When he signed his will on 25 March, Shakespeare clearly thought about this.
He left almost everything to his older daughter, Susanna. She and her husband, Dr Hall, were given responsibility for the will. He was probably afraid that his wife’s relatives, the Hathaway family, would come to her for money, and Judith’s husband, Quiney, was clearly not a good man. He did not leave ‘the second-best bed’ to Anne as an insult to his wife, but as a memory of their marriage. It was the bed that they slept in. They kept the best bed for guests!
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