Misquote and Context

Misquote and Context

She that is Queen of Tunis; she that dwells
Ten leagues beyond man’s life; she that from Naples
Can have no note, unless the sun were post—
The Man i’ th’ Moon’s too slow—till new-born chins
Be rough and razorable; she that from whom
We all were sea-swallow’d, though some cast again
(And by that destiny) to perform an act
Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come
In yours and my discharge.

    Antonio in The Tempest (II.i.210-8)

The part I got sucked into, proof that I do listen — and read — carefully? I was listening to that second act of Shakespeare’s — putatively — final play, The Tempest, which, I might add, concludes my third trip through the plays. Chronologically, there are other plays, but so much has been written about The Tempest as Shakespeare’s final play, the character Prospero breaks his staff, shattering the magic. It’s not hard to see (non-Freudian) analysis, that this is the author breaking his pen.

Someone else picked up the single phrase, “What’s past is prologue,” and while that’s both contextually and factually correct, look who is doing the talking. It is the character Antonio, basically a sociopath with no moral compass. Anything to get ahead. Huh. However…

“what’s past is prologue”

It’s a very catchy phrase to me. What’s past is prologue, like “It’s history, man.”

It’s context that bothers me.

My most recent prior exposure to Shakespeare’s The Tempest was Atwood’s Hag-Seed, arguably a brilliant tale based on The Tempest, and to some, a re-telling of Shakespeare’s final play. It doesn’t require a working knowledge of the play, as, I suppose, the book is capable of standing on its own as a tale. However, that book can help tease out interpretations and nuances that I was clearly unaware of, previously.

Misquote and Context

Notes, academic, and performance notes, tend to gloss this passage:

Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come
In yours and my discharge.

The standard, if there is such a thing, but a consensus is that the character speaking is ready to marry off his young charge in order to gain favor, power, and wealth.

The Heuristic Shakespeare — Mercury has lost its serpentine craft — I fired up that app to listen to the play’s passages and read the notes.

Misquote and Context

Out of the passage, “What’s past is prologue” has a remarkably zen feel to it.

“43. As a river consisting of all things that come into being, aye, a rushing torrent, is Time. No sooner is a thing sighted than it is carried past, and lo, another is passing, and it too will be carried away.”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 4.

Yes, there is always a zen-like feel to that Roman Emperor. That, too.

Misquote and Context

So, the point is, after some short meandering thoughts, the point is, the quote is — in context — correct. Then, just taken as a commonplace quote, quite quotidian, quite quotable quotidian, it works well.

If it wasn’t (the character) Antonio dong the talking, it might be more powerful, but the sentiment remains, “What’s past is prologue…”

In strictly theatre terms, too, the prologue is the beginning, with the most monumental prologue delivered by Derek Jacobi at the beginning of Branagh’s Henry V. Think both actors are now knights. Call them “Sir.”

Clad in an overcoat, wintery forces behind him as the kingdom crumbles with the boy king, Hal, Jacobi reels through the opening lines, painting such a vivid picture with the words of the prologue, and then opening to the scene. Now that’s a prologue. However, think in more current terms, I’m just an iteration of the sum total of my experiences.

“What’s past is prologue.”


Heuristic Shakespeare – The Tempest – Heuristic Shakespeare Limited

The Tempest (2010) – Julie Taymor


Pink Cake: The Quote Collection – Kramer Wetzel

Pink Cake: A Commonplace Book

“What’s past is prologue.”

Heuristic Shakespeare – The Tempest – Heuristic Shakespeare Limited

Worth the price of the app, alone, to hear Sir Ian read the part of Prospero, but the interlinear notes, true hypertext, with video, and lectures, as well as other greats reading some of the parts?

The text will scroll while the words are being read. Really an easy way to kill a morning, being more educated by the end. Plus, thoroughly enjoyable to hear him read the parts.

Kramer Wetzel

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