The Tempest follows the fortunes of Prospero the sorcerer, who was once the Duke of Milan. He has spent 12 years marooned on a distant island since conspirators betrayed him and stole his dukedom. During that time, Prospero’s only companions have been his daughter Miranda, a native island dweller named Caliban, and a spirit named Ariel. In The Tempest, Prospero conjures up a storm to shipwreck his enemies upon the island. He then has to decide between vengeance and forgiveness.

Sir Jonathan Bate has been described as the world’s foremost Shakespeare scholar. He is Provost of Worcester College and Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford. We caught up with him when he was in Sydney recently, to find out what he makes of The Tempest.

You’ve spent much of your career analysing and critiquing Shakespeare’s plays. What makes The Tempest so special?

The Tempest is Shakespeare in complete command of all his powers. It is his last solo authored play and it’s a showcase for his dramatic art. And what is particularly striking is that it puts Prospero at the centre of the play, a man who uses that word “art” a lot. For Prospero, the magician, the word art can refer to magic but it can also refer to the creative art of the writer, or the art of theatre. Prospero, in some senses, stages the play himself. He begins by conjuring up the storm, he brings his enemies together, he brings it to a climax, and he speaks the epilogue at the end of the play.

Prospero is a striking figure, isn’t he. Early on, he’s powerful, angry and authoritarian. Then later on, he’s more compassionate. What do you make of him?

At one point Prospero describes himself as a schoolmaster. And there is a real sense at the beginning that he is lecturing his daughter, that he is lecturing Ariel, that he is lecturing Caliban. He wants to be in control.

Yet, as you say, towards the end he really does seem to recognise the need for mercy. His magic gives him power but he renounces that magic and amazingly what inspires him to do that is the spirit Ariel, this extraordinary character. Prospero has imprisoned his enemies, and he sees the tears of repentance on Gonzalo’s face, streaming down his cheeks. Ariel reflects on the human suffering and Prospero says, “Can you see that? You? You are just air, you are not human”. Ariel replies: “I would feel merciful if I were human” and, in saying that, Ariel makes Prospero human. Prospero renounces the desire for vengeance. He concentrates instead on forgiveness.

And in doing so, Prospero frees himself as well…

Yes, exactly. Then there is that very poignant moment when he realises that he has to let Ariel go. There is that lovely tender farewell when he says, “I shall miss thee” and he addresses Ariel as “chick”. At the moment of releasing Ariel, Prospero realises how much he has loved her.

But then the other thing that he does that is really interesting is that he takes responsibility for Caliban. In the sub-plot of the play, Caliban – this dark creature – has joined with the rebellious Stephano and Trinculo, the butler and the jester, to have a rebellion to overthrow the order of the State. They are caught out. But after that Prospero says, “I, at some level, am responsible for Caliban’s darkness”. That makes the audience think back to his dialogue with Caliban in the opening scene where he has described Caliban as a savage and a slave and so on, and Caliban says, “What has made me behave badly is the fact that you’ve treated me as a slave.” Prospero has educated Caliban into the idea that Caliban is this subservient figure. Caliban thinks, “Well if that’s the role you want me to play, if you are calling me a savage, then I will be a savage.”

He is savage in some senses, Caliban, but then again, he also utters some of the most gorgeous language in the whole play doesn’t he.

Exactly. That is very, very interesting isn’t it. Most of the time he speaks this prose but it does feel as if it is almost like a child’s prose; it’s just been learned. He swears and he is very rough-edged. But then there is this strange moment where unearthly music is heard in the air. Caliban rises to it and speaks beautifully:

 “Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,

Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twingling instruments

Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices

That, if I then had waked after a long sleep,

Will make me sleep again. And then, in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open and show riches

Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked

I cried to dream again.”

Caliban speaking like this sees Shakespeare challenging the prevailing political wisdom of his time, doesn’t it. It was commonly accepted back then that the English were conquering foreign lands and “civilising” the natives. And there’s political satire throughout The Tempest isn’t there?

Yes, absolutely. Shakespeare is almost saying, “Let’s imagine an alternative world, a kind of empty space, an empty island. Let’s bring people here, and see how they behave”. In a way, it’s like when Hamlet speaks of the theatre as holding a mirror up to nature, of holding a mirror up to the audience. It’s a way of exploring power plays in the real world.

The Bell Shakespeare production of The Tempest will be performed at Sydney Opera House (19 August – 18 September). Details at

 Sir Jonathan Bate has published several books about William Shakespeare and his work. Details at

 Interview written by Felicity McLean, freelance journalist and author @FelicityMcLean




How did you feel when you first agreed to direct Hamlet?

A mixture of terror and real joy! Working on any Shakespeare play, I always feel a sense of not owning it, but instead briefly touching something that gets passed on for someone further down the track. I think Hamlet is one of the great human documents, in any form of art. It never ceases to amaze me and fill me with wonder. I also feel a great sense of excitement that I get to share this story with so many Australians. Bell Shakespeare has done Hamlet before, but never toured it to regional Australia. This six-month tour will take us to Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and many regional areas.

What is your vision for this production?

My desire is to create a really contemporary production that’s full of atmosphere. The castle of Elsinore is an incredibly powerful presence in the story. In other Shakespeare tragedies we see streets, battlefields, churches and so on. But Hamlet is different. Most of the play is contained within Elsinore; this brooding, elegant, quite foreboding, strange castle. I wanted Elsinore to feel like a real figure in the story. So the entire set design looks like a giant window into this vast contemporary Scandinavian palace.

Without sharing too many Danish state secrets, is there anything else you can reveal about your production?

I’ve tried to create a world where the surveillance isn’t just tacked on to the production. Instead it’s absolutely insidious. The level to which people’s private lives are intruded upon is quite horrifying at times.

I’ve also tried to give as strong and as real a vision of family as you would hope to see in a contemporary play. Shakespeare is a brilliant writer about families. And while all Shakespeare’s great tragedies are as big as nations, they are also just as small as families. I’ve tried to work very hard to give as much texture as I can to the two central families in the play. Aside from all that, our approach to “the play within a play” is quite original. That “mousetrap” for Claudius holds a few surprises!

Why did you choose Josh McConville for the role of Hamlet?

Josh is not only one of the most match-fit, hungry, continuously working stage actors in this country, but he’s also simply a thrilling actor. I’d previously seen him on stage playing characters across such a spectrum – straight drama to very sensitive work to sheer brutality to high clowning, which he’s such a genius at.

Watching Josh in that series of plays, I could see he was somebody who could carry the myriad ideas that Hamlet has to embody. Many actors can do Hamlet with one or two of those qualities, but Josh is capable of all them: sensitivity and nuance, as well as real power and awe and great intellect. That is the difference between a good Hamlet and a great Hamlet.

You’ve never directed Josh before. What is he like to work with?

The main thing that has struck me about working with him has been his humility. He’s terrified of the role, which he openly admits. That keeps him away from one of the great pitfalls for actors who play Hamlet, which is that the role can allow an actor to explore all their vanities – all of their “show off skills”. Whereas Josh is, at every turn, avoiding that. He’ll show little flashes of comic clowning but he never lets that overcome the role and he has this bedrock of grief and emotion that sits underneath everything he’s doing.

Hamlet has just opened in Melbourne. How were you feeling in the days leading up to that?

Pretty terrified! I haven’t been sleeping well. I feel a weight of burden about Hamlet, because people really treasure this play. I just hope the ideas and the approach to the character that we’ve worked on in five brief weeks in the rehearsal room work in front of a live audience. But you’ve got to take risks. Life is too short. And hopefully people enjoy this production.

Damien Ryan directs Bell Shakespeare’s production of Hamlet in 2015, at the Arts Centre Melbourne (14 – 25 July) then regional venues, before the Canberra Theatre Centre (13 – 24 October) and Sydney Opera House (27 October – 6 December). Details at

Interview by Andy McLean, freelance writer and journalist.



How did you feel when you were first offered the part?

When I got the offer I was super excited to do it – but also scared. And I felt overwhelmed by the amount of work that was going to be required. It’s a part I’ve always wanted to play since school. I remember my drama teacher told me, “When you get older and reach the right age, you should definitely play Hamlet”.

How did you begin preparing for the role?

I sat and thought about what it must be like to lose your dad. The play begins with the loss of a father and the suppression of grief. And I know that if I lost my dad and was told to suppress my grief, while my mum went and married my uncle, it would shatter me. That’s where I started. I thought about the emotional journey Hamlet takes, and then imagined the story in my own words.

Did you seek advice from anyone?

I spoke to Ewan Leslie [who has played Hamlet twice] early on, when I was panicking! He said it’s very daunting looking at the script and not knowing all the lines. But he said, “Don’t worry, eventually it will all go in”. And he said that each Hamlet is unique, so don’t try to copy anyone; just do your own thing.

No wonder it’s daunting. The role of Hamlet has 1,495 lines! How do you learn them all?

I went in there knowing most of the soliloquies already, so that helped. Then you learn by repetition and movement. Gradually it all sinks in. But I have no other choice. I have to learn those lines – if I don’t, then I’m in deep trouble!

Speaking of lines, how do you plan to deliver “To be or not to be”?

I’m trying not to think about it being so well known. I really am just playing it for truth, as the words say in the script.

Hamlet has a way of getting under the skin (and into the head) of the actor playing him. How is the character affecting you so far?

In the rehearsal rooms it has been affecting me quite heavily. There’s all this emotion. The constant grieving and the flipping of emotions: from being a clown, to being utterly depressed, to being vengeful, to being ambitious. It does take a toll.

But rehearsing this play, I’ve learned something about myself as an actor. I’ve learned to just be naked on stage; to open up on cue; and play with people and language. I’m learning from Hamlet in this play. There are things I never knew about myself as a human being until now.

Playing Hamlet is not “just another acting part”, is it. When an audience comes to see Hamlet, they’re seeing the real person up there on stage.

Yes. Deep down it is you bringing the truth to the part. When you’re up there on the stage saying “To be or not to be” and it’s just you with the spotlight on you, it doesn’t really get any more vulnerable than that. Luckily that spotlight is bright so you can’t really see heaps of people out there! Still, it’s quite daunting.

What scares you about the role?

[Nervous laugh] The size of it! My voice. My physicality. My wellbeing. Everything! I’ve just got to really look after myself. I’ve got to get through the next six months of this tour. That’s the scary thing!

As we speak, it’s almost opening night. How are you feeling right now?

I’m okay [laughs sheepishly]. We’ve just been given all these props. The costumes have all arrived. There’s so much new stuff going into my head that it’s a little overwhelming; but then again, it’s just a play. I keep telling myself: I’m just an actor on a stage doing shapes and noises!

Why do you think people love this play so much?

It’s the best play ever written, in my opinion, and that’s one reason why we keep coming back to it. There’s so much range in the play; it explores so many different topics. And, if it’s done well, then it leaves a lasting impression on the audience. What you want in a play is for you to leave the theatre still asking yourself questions and Hamlet makes you do that. Yet there are no right or wrong answers; it is a constant struggle to decipher the play. That alone is very exciting.

Josh McConville stars in Hamlet at the Arts Centre Melbourne (14 – 25 July) then tours regional centres, before performing at the Canberra Theatre Centre (13 – 24 October) and Sydney Opera House (27 October – 6 December). Details at

Interview by Andy McLean, freelance writer and journalist.