Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

What’s Past Is Prologue

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 5, 2010

In the 2008 Vice Presidential Debate against Sarah Palin, Senator Joe Biden quipped, “what is past is prologue” when he was accused of focusing too much on the past.  Oliver Stone’s movie JFK ends with the phrase “What is past is prologue.”  The phrase is even incised in stone over the entrance to the National Archives in Washington, D.C.  Surely the phrase must be American!

The earliest publication of the phrase is found in Act II, Scene in The Tempest by William Shakespeare (1564–1616).  The direct quote, spoken by Antonio in lines 253 to 54,  is:   

Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come
In yours and my discharge
.”

So while the phrase is a much-loved American idiom, it originates in England with Shakespeare.

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