Since I started What’s Past is Prologue, I’ve had many visitors find this site by searching for its title. I presumed they were not searching for my blog in particular, but for information about who coined the famous phrase. That’s understandable, because not many of us were fortunate enough to study The Tempest in high school or college. However, many people add “meaning” after the search term, so it may not be that they are searching for which of Shakespeare’s plays the phrase comes from, but instead what the phrase means.
My non-genealogy visitors desperately searching for what “past is prologue” means increased dramatically on Friday – thanks to Senator Biden. In response to an accusation that his camp always looks to the past instead of keeping an eye on the future, he flashed his million-dollar smile and proclaimed, “Past is prologue.” I was watching, and I laughed out loud. But, I didn’t realize that 500 people would visit my blog the next day. So, thanks Joe, for the surge in visitors here. I do apologize that I won’t be voting for you, but I have admired you in the past. Because of this increase, I decided to tell the poor folks looking for answers what “what’s past is prologue” means.
In The Tempest by William Shakespeare, Act II, scene i, the character of Antonio utters the phrase “what’s past is prologue”. In Antonio’s speech, he was trying to convince the character of Sebastian to murder his sleeping father so that Sebastian could become king. All that had happened up until then – their past – was merely a prologue to the great things to come if they went through with the deed. A prologue was a preface to a play or novel that “set the scene” and provided some background information.
The phrase that Shakespeare invented came to mean that the past is a preface to the future – we can’t forget the lessons of history. The National Archives and Records Administration has a dramatic sculpture entitled “The Future” which has the phrase inscribed on its base (albeit with “what is” in lieu of the contraction that Mr. Shakespeare used in his play).
I chose the title for this blog years before blogs were invented – I wanted to use it for a genealogy web page that I never got around to creating. For me, the phrase emphasizes the importance of our own personal genealogy and history as a force in shaping our own lives. We can’t forget our ancestors that have gone before us; history has lessons to teach us about how we can live today.
So, if you are visiting this blog to find out where the now famous sound bite came from, there you have it. If you searched for the term because you’re writing about the play, you may want to visit The Tempest Study Guide. But do read the play. Better yet – see it! That’s how it was meant to be “heard” and it’s one of the best.
And now back to our regularly scheduled genealogy blogging…