What's past is prologue

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"What’s past is prologue" is a quotation by William Shakespeare from his play The Tempest.

Contemporary meaning[edit]

"What is past is prologue", inscribed on Future (1935, Robert Aitken) located on the northeast corner of the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C.

The phrase means that history influences and sets the context for the present. The quotation is engraved on the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C.[1]

Senator Joe Biden used the quotation in the 2008 vice-presidential debate against Sarah Palin when he was accused of focusing too much on the past.[2] The phrase is also commonly used by the military when discussing the similarities between war throughout history.[3][4]

Historical meaning[edit]

Although the phrase is now commonly used to mean what's stated above, as the phrase was originally used in The Tempest, Act 2, Scene I, it means that all that has happened before that time, the "past," has led Antonio and Sebastian to this opportunity to do what they are about to do, commit murder. In the context of the preceding and next lines, "(And by that destiny) to perform an act, Whereof what's past is prologue; what to come, In yours and my discharge" Antonio is in essence rationalizing to Sebastian, and the audience, that he and Sebastian are fated to act by all that has led up to that moment, the past has set the stage for their next act, as a prologue does in a play. Therefore, this phrase might be better used in situations where people are attempting to rationalize wicked acts based on the past. It can also be taken to mean that everything up until now has merely set the stage for Antonio and Sebastian to make their own destinies; in this context it does not indicate that their future acts are fated, but rather that everything up to that point was merely like a prologue, not the important story.

In popular culture[edit]

  • "The Past Is Prologue" is the title of a 1967 episode of the TV series Ironside featuring a young Harrison Ford.[5]
  • A portion of the phrase, "Past is Prologue," is the title of episode 11, season 1 of Syfy's original television show Defiance.
  • The phrase appears in Continuum.
  • The phrase appears as text at the conclusion of Oliver Stone's film JFK.
  • The phrase is used as an epigraph for Zadie Smith's novel White Teeth, and relates to one of the large themes of the book.
  • The phrase is the name of the musician Tycho's second album.
  • A slightly modified part of the phrase is used as the title of the comic book Robotech Zero : What's Past is Prelude by Academy Comics.
  • The phrase was used in a commercial for the video game Metroid Other M, indicating it was a prequel to the 2003 title Metroid Fusion because the events of the game explained what happened to Adam Malkovich, Samus Aran's former CO.
  • "What's Past, Is Prologue" is a title from the Built on Secrets' album "Reflection".


  1. ^ Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations. 1989. NUMBER: 1296
  2. ^ "Replied Biden: "Past is prologue." He went on to defend his emphasis on the Bush policies often supported by McCain." 'In debate, both candidates accomplished their primary missions' Miami Herald 10.03.08
  3. ^ The Past as Prologue? A History of U.S. Counterinsurgency Policy in Colombia, 1958-66 [1]
  4. ^ Murray, Williamson The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (May 8, 2006)
  5. ^ Ironside (1967) Full Episode (The Past Is Prologue) IMDb [2]