William Shakespeare

Last Plays and Final Years

In 1607 Shakespeare’s older daughter, Susanna, married John Hall, a Stratford doctor, and in 1608 Shakespeare became a grandfather. This experience may have been as affecting as Shakespeare’s earlier loss of his son, because his writing changes again around this time. Between 1608 and 1612, Shakespeare wrote four plays, Pericles , Cymbeline , The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest , about powerful, weary old men whose suffering and bad behavior is redeemed by their loving daughters. In these final plays, magic is possible. Wonderful and unexpected things happen to the characters who least deserve it. Critics later termed these final plays romances, because they are more complicated than his earlier comedies, and blend serious themes of mortality with lighthearted scenes. The Tempest, the last play Shakespeare wrote alone, is often seen as Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage. The play’s main character, Prospero, ends the play by turning to the audience. He renounces his magic powers and asks forgiveness for any harm he has done: “As you from crimes would pardoned be/Let your indulgence set me free.”

After writing The Tempest, Shakespeare took on an apprentice, the playwright John Fletcher, who would go on to be his successor as writer for the King’s Men. Together Shakespeare and Fletcher wrote Henry VIII , The Two Noble Kingsmen, and a third play, Cardenio, of which no copies remain. Shakespeare retired from writing in 1613. Around this time he also moved back to Stratford, and continued to look after his business interests and his family until he died in 1616. The cause of his death is unknown, but historians mark the date as April 23, conveniently the same date as his birthday. Shakespeare was buried in the same parish church in Stratford where he had been baptized 52 years earlier. Seven years later, two actors from The King’s Men published 36 of Shakespeare’s plays in a collection that has come to be known as the First Folio. This volume divided the plays into three categories: comedies, tragedies, and history plays, and remains the primary source for Shakespeare’s work.