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.
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.
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.”
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.