SHAKESPEARE’S LAST WORD

Shakespeare’s last play is generally considered to be THE TEMPEST, first performed in 1611, and if that’s the case his last word is the last word of that play. I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company production at the Barbican in London a few weeks ago. The production stood out for two reasons: First, the extraordinary special effects, including an amazing hologram of drowning men, during the storm scene that kicks everything off. Secondly, for the remarkable performance of Simon Russell Beale as Prospero. Simon Russell Beale is a man who speaks Shakespearean verse as if it’s his first language which makes him very easy to understand.

20521thetempeste1

Simon Russell Beale as Prospero

If you want to read a quick precis of the play before going any further you’ll find it here. Incidentally the children in the video are incredibly sweet.

https://www.rsc.org.uk/the-tempest/the-plot

Now back to that last word. At the end of the play Prospero has a speech which he delivers directly to the audience. Parallels have been drawn between Shakespeare and Prospero. Prospero’s mastery of the island has been seen as a mirroring of Shakespeare’s dominance of the English stage. So when Prospero steps away from the other actors at the end of the play and speaks directly to the audience this is what Prospero/Shakespeare says to us:

 

“Now my charms are all o’erthrown,

And what strength I have’s my own;

Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,

I must be here confined by you, 

Or sent to Naples. Let me not,

Since I have my dukedom got

And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell

In this bare island by your spell;

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 reliev’d by prayer,

Which pierces so that it assaults

Mercy itself and frees all faults.

As you from crime would pardon’d be,

Let your indulgence set me free.”

*lack

THE TEMPEST: EPILOGUE

So if you’ve got this far there we have it  – the last word is free. It’s an unbearably  sad speech, I think, although it’s often spoken with a light touch. When I heard Russell Beale deliver it I thought I understood it but reading through it now I stop and puzzle over it more. What is meant by a ‘prayer which pierces so that it assaults Mercy itself …’? Does that simply mean a prayer so loud that God hears it? But I can’t imagine that Shakespeare thought a loud prayer would be more likely to be heard than a quiet one, can you? And what exactly is a prayer that pierces, let alone assaults? Or am I over complicating matters? This is the wonderful thing about Shakespeare – you can think you’ve got a hold of him and then he slides out of your understanding, like a feather on a breeze. But follow the feather and a whole new world opens up. Prayer. Pierce. Assault. Mercy. Contemplate those four words for a while and they may lead to some interesting places. And don’t forget that to Prospero this prayer matters because otherwise, ‘my ending is despair.’

A final word on the use of special effects in Shakespeare. THE TEMPEST, because the main character is a powerful magician and there is a strong supernatural element, lends itself to this kind of production. The storm and also the depiction of Ariel trapped in a tree by Sycorax the witch will stay with me for a very long time. But you need exceptionally good actors to act with avatars and holograms otherwise the special effects overwhelm the verse. Fortunately there aren’t any special effects that I can imagine overwhelming Russell Beale, so this production is a triumph! It’s on until the 18th August and I highly recommend it.

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4 thoughts on “SHAKESPEARE’S LAST WORD

  1. I must find out if they’re doing a live film version – I love Simon Russell Beale. You’re right about him being made for Shakespeare. Seeing him as Hamlet was one of the theatrical highlights of my life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oooooh I’m very envious you saw him as Hamlet. I became aware of him after that. He’s a wonderful actor and in terms of Shakespeare, the heir to Derek Jacobi I think if that doesn’t sound too horrendously pretentious!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I saw this a couple of times in Stratford and was left very underwhelmed by all the special effects. It may have been better in the Barbican but in the RST the effectiveness was very dependent on where about sin the theatre you were sitting and as someone who has a theatrical background, I find that unacceptable. I couldn’t agree more though about Russell Beale. I would lay to hear him read the proverbial telephone directory.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Cafe Society and thanks for the comment. How extremely irritating that must have been. I was sitting fairly centrally and in the balcony at the Barbican and the effects were excellent. Glad you enjoyed S R-B he’s had very good reviews playing Beria in the film The Death of Stalin so I hope he doesn’t disappear from the theatre altogether because that would be a sad loss.

      Like

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