BBC 4 is putting on something of a Shakespeare extravaganza at the moment, headlined by the new adaptation of the Hollow Crown sequence of plays which I have not yet seen.  But the other night they screened a brilliant and moving  examination by Trevor Nunn of The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last complete play and, Nunn assured us, his most autobiographical. Prospero and playwright were both 50, both in their way magicians at the height of their powers, and in control of their globe.

Nunn explained why The Tempest can be regarded as Shakespeare’s most experimental play, telling how it was written specifically for an indoor theatre, its special effects not compatible with an afternoon performance at the Globe, open to the sky.  Shakespeare and his company took over another theatre – the Blackfriars – in order to present the play in candlelight and with special aerial effects. He visited rehearsals for an American production of The Tempest in a replica of the Blackfriars in Virginia that uses 17th century staging techniques and special effects.

Nunn also delved into the inspiration for the story – uniquely for a Shakespeare play, there was no existing fictional story that he drew upon.  It’s possible, Nunn suggests, that Shakespeare was influenced by a real event – the wreck and stranding of Sir Thomas Gates and 500 others from the vessel The Sea Venturer on the island of Bermuda in 1609 that had been described in several contemporary accounts.

Heathcote Williams as Prospero in Derek Jarman’s film of The Tempest

Trevor Nunn incisively explores the themes of magic, revenge and forgiveness that are expressed through the story of the magus Prospero, abandoned on an island with his daughter Miranda. One of the main questions of the play, Nunn explains, is will Prospero be capable of forgiveness?  He has used his great powers to bring his enemies ashore on the same island, and now they are at his mercy. But, as Nunn explains, the opportunity for Prospero to wreak revenge upon those who abandoned him ultimately leads to a profound exploration of love and forgiveness.

Turning to the question of Caliban, Nunn was not especially impressed with the tendency of modern criticism and productions to make European colonialism the central theme of this play.  He suggested that the play is located much more firmly in a Mediterranean context than in the New World.  Furthermore, aspects of Prospero’s character and circumstance do not sit easily with any interpretation that portrays him as ‘another white colonialist’, when he has, in fact, been cast adrift and the island has been his lifeline, while Caliban is not a native of the island. No-one is native to the island.

In the most deeply felt part of his presentation, Nunn analysed The Tempest as an intensely autobiographical piece.  So his depiction of the relationship between Miranda and her father was, Nunn suggests, informed by the imminent marriage of his own daughter to a man whose reputation was not exactly solid.  Above all, Shakespeare seems to have had a presentiment that this might be the last play he would ever write, and so felt the need to speak of his life: the decades in the theatre, and his achievement as a writer.

Nunn regards Prospero’s speech at the marriage of his daughter to Ferdinand as ‘one of the most poetic and consoling speeches Shakespeare ever wrote’.   Addressing the young couple, Prospero talks about the fragility and transience of life itself:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And—like the baseless fabric of this vision—
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. …

Nunn feels ‘100% certain’ that there is an autobiographical ingredient here, drawing attention to Shakespeare’s use of the phrase ‘the great globe itself’ – partly meaning, of course, the world, but being also the name of his theatre, the Globe.  Shakespeare is saying, ‘all of our shows, all of these things we’ve created here: they won’t be around any more’.

Something powerful is stirring in Prospero as he tries to come to terms with those who have wronged him.  Nunn analyses the scene in which Ariel describes the fear and distress of those Prospero has under his spell:

Confined together
In the same fashion as you gave in charge,
Just as you left them; all prisoners, sir,
In the line-grove which weather-fends your cell;
They cannot budge till your release. The king,
His brother and yours, abide all three distracted
And the remainder mourning over them,
Brimful of sorrow and dismay; but chiefly
Him that you term’d, sir, ‘The good old lord Gonzalo;’
His tears run down his beard, like winter’s drops
From eaves of reeds. Your charm so strongly works ’em
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.

To which Prospero responds, ‘Dost thou think so, spirit?’  Nunn sees Ariel’s reply as the key moment when Prospero decides to relinquish his magical powers, as his non-human spirit talks about human compassion: ‘Mine would, sir, were I human’.  Nunn sees a special poignancy in Prospero’s surrender of his powers, since he feels that Shakespeare is, in part, writing about himself.

Shakespeare, like Prospero, has spent years conjuring with his imagination.  But after The Tempest he will write no more plays.  Calling up his spirits for one last time, Prospero remembers his extraordinary accomplishments:

… I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book

Shakespeare, too, has summoned countless visions, and brought the dead to life.  ‘The connection I see between Shakespeare and Prospero, makes this for me a particularly moving speech’, said Nunn.  Shakespeare, he suggests, is not saying ‘I’m abandoning you’, but ‘I’m leaving you with everything I have to offer… I want it to stay with you, but I have to go’.  Both Helen Mirren and Dr Rowan Williams speak eloquently of this moment in the play.  Rowan Williams:

With so many great artists, it seems, there comes a point where they seen their own work, their own utterance, as having resolved nothing.  They empty their hands … the the sense of the all-powerful, magical figure manipulating stories, suddenly saying ‘I can’t do this any loner –  I have to become human’ – I think that is something that is bound into the really great artists’ work..

Nunn also pinpoints how potent is the idea that we are call entitled to our freedom in the play.  He gives his spirit slave Ariel the freedom he yearns for:

then to the elements
Be free, and fare thou well!

Prospero forgives those who have wronged him, including his would-be murderer, Caliban.  ‘And so’, said Nunn, ‘at the end of his last play, Shakespeare tells us that the struggle to achieve forgiveness can be won.  Prospero manages to forgive, and in doing so, he frees himself.

Finally, Nunn returns to the parallels between Prospero and Shakespeare.  In the Epilogue, no longer empowered, he makes a plea of great simplicity.  He steps forward and asks us, the audience, to set him free. Prospero, who ends the play by giving up his magic just as Shakespeare gave up his own theatrical magic to return to Stratford where, only two years later, he died. Nunn, barely holding back tears, recites the epilogue, reading from the headstone in the churchyard where Shakespeare is buried:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint …

But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

Trevor Nunn concludes:

For me The Tempest will always be exceptional, not just for its wisdom and humanity, but because more than any of his other plays, it leads us to the essence of the man who wrote them.  My feeling is that it’s in The Tempest, through the character of Prospero, that we get closest to the workings of the mind of that genius, William Shakespeare.

See also

3 thoughts on “Trevor Nunn on The Tempest

  1. Following this post, I was moved to view the original BBC4 programme on I-Player. Alas, I found it completely unwatchable and turned off after five minutes. The problem lies in the utterly annoying contemporary style of presenting TV documentaries.

    First, there is the cod portentousness, clunking dialogue with dramatic breathless pauses. The Tempest. A drama. From the Mind. Of the Greatest Playwright. The World has Ever Seen. His Final Words. Of Wonder and. Imagination.

    Then there is the truly dreadful musical accompaniment, a piano tapping out background muszak as the dialogue progresses. And moody interlude music as scenes shift from one talking head to the next. Ghastly.

    And finally, playing fast and loose with the facts in order to make the script meet its agenda. So ‘The Tempest’ (1610) becomes Shakespeare’s ‘final’ play, conveniently encouraging us to believe we hear his final words. And the claims of ‘The Winter’s Tale’ (1611) to be the last play are airily brushed aside.

    1. Although I agree with your criticisms of much TV documentary these days, I didn’t note those features being particularly marked in this one. Rather, a great authority on Shakespeare presented an intelligent commentary on the play, illustrated with clips from celebrated productions. Most Shakespeare experts agree that The Tempest is his last solo-authored play, though, as Jonathan Bate (who contributed to this film) observes in his The Soul of the Age, Prospero’s words in the epilogue to The Tempest were probably not the final words that Shakespeare wrote for the stage: they come at the end of the co-authored The Two Noble Kinsmen, written and first performed in 1613 or 1614. As for The Winters Tale, the best that can be said is that it is contemporaneous with The Tempest, possibly being written at the same time as The Winter’s Tale. As noted in the post, Nunn refers to the real-life shipwreck of the Sea Venture in 1609 on the island of Bermuda while sailing towards Virginia – an account of which was published in October 1610, considered by most critics to be the likely primary source for The Tempest. The consensus among Shakespeare historians at present seems to be that The Tempest was his last solo play, so I don’t see Nunn as having ‘an agenda’ or playing fast and loose with facts.

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