From Shakespeare's withdrawal to Oscar Wilde's imprisonment, here are some of the most celebrated last bows in literature
The most celebrated retirement is Shakespeare's return to Stratford after the staging of The Tempest in 1611. In the play, he has Prospero speak, thrillingly, of resigning his powers as a magician. "This rough magic, I here abjure … And deeper than did ever plummet sound, I'll drown my book." Within a year, Shakespeare had followed Prospero into the civilian life of a distinguished country gentleman. It was as though he knew he was done. A few minor theatrical collaborations followed, but that was it.
The polar opposite of Shakespeare's graceful withdrawal from the fray, but in its way just as momentous, was George Orwell's determination to write and rewrite Nineteen Eighty-Four in defiance of a bleak medical prognosis (he was suffering from TB). Much of the novel was completed, amid conditions of spartan simplicity, on the Scottish island of Jura. In the end, Orwell would correct the proofs on his deathbed, and not receive full recognition until after his death. There's a sense in which he killed himself to write the book he knew he had to write.
More recently, the threat of oblivion almost certainly inspired Ted Hughes's brilliant and moving last collection, Birthday Letters. He certainly knew he was unwell. Addressing his relationship with Sylvia Plath was something he had to do, as an artist. Finally, he wrote as if he had nothing (or everything) to lose, and the result is astonishing. Within a year of publication, he was dead.
Orwell and Hughes were responding in an unconscious way to the approach of eternity, and with a certain defiance. Roth, who seems in fairly good health, enjoys the luxury of choosing his exit strategy. However, there have been crisis moments of great literary significance when writers have chosen their destiny, making choices that have tragic dimensions.
The classic case is Oscar Wilde's refusal to flee to France when faced with the certain prospect of arrest after the collapse of his libel suit against the marquess of Queensbury. This moment, memorably recaptured in John Betjeman's poem The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel, was a kind of martyrdom by the great dramatist. He was, in 1896, at the peak of his powers. The Importance of Being Earnest had been a sell-out sensation in the West End. To let himself be taken into custody by the police was to terminate his career as a playwright with brutal finality.
Another trial followed. Wilde was convicted and given two years, with hard labour. This was effectively a death sentence. The poignant literary dividend of Wilde's submission to his fate was The Ballad of Reading Gaol and, posthumously, his extraordinary apologia, De Profundis. His reputation continues to grow and flourish: Wilde now stands as one of the 19th-century greats.
Philip Roth is neither Shakespeare nor Wilde, but he has always possessed the knack of confounding his audience. Is there, one wonders, one last piece of literary magic up the old entertainer's sleeve ?
We shall have to wait and see.