“What’s past is prologue”

At first glance, this line from Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest” suggests that history repeats itself.  This view is written in stone – literally – on the base of the National Archives’ sculpture.  The Harvard Gazette and the University of Chicago Magazine use this quote in articles about the ways history determines the present. A closer look at Shakespeare’s line, however, suggests a different interpretation.  It’s spoken by Antonio, who is trying to convince Sebastian to kill the sleeping king.  In this context, the past is merely a prologue that sets the scene for a much better future – a choice, not destiny.

Shakespeare, William. “The Tempest.” The Riverside Shakespeare. Houghton Mifflin, 1974. Act II, Scene I, p. 1621.

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