24 January 2009

Prospero revealed?

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-capp'd tow'rs, 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

According to today’s Times an amateur historian may have identified the person who was the inspiration for The Tempest’s Prospero, one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. (Left is John Gielgud as Prospero in Prter Greenaway's Prospero's Books)

Until now no one has been able to say with certainty what, or who, inspired the creation of the exiled Duke of Milan though many of Shakespeare's characters were based on real people and events. Retired policeman Brian Moffat, claims to have said he stumbled upon the basis for Prospero after he and his wife bought an old chest that turned out to be the marriage trunk of Francis Stewart, the Earl of Bothwell, whose extraordinary antics and rebellious behaviour caused a political and religious scandal.

Now does my project gather to a head: My charms crack not; my spirits obey; and time Goes upright with his carriage. How's the day?

Stewart believed that his cousin, James VI, should invade England to avenge the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. When the King refused to consider it, he turned against him. Stewart was implicated in plots to kill the King and was rumoured to be heavily involved in witchcraft and sorcery. In 1590 he was said to have dressed as the devil during a witches' sabbath, and cast a spell, summoning up a storm - just as Prospero did - in an attempt to wreck the king's ship. He failed, and James survived to ascend the English throne as well 13 years later. Stewart was imprisoned.

Mr Moffat believes that Shakespeare may have heard the stories of his eccentric behaviour from King James's jester, Archie Armstrong, a high-ranking member of the king's court who is thought to have inspired the character of the fool in King Lear. “In 1590 Francis Stewart appeared in a pulpit at North Berwick Kirk dressed as the devil and summoned a storm to sink the King's ship,” said Mr Moffat. “That incident is the starting point of The Tempest. There you have an exiled nobleman, who is also a necromancer, who summons up a storm to sink the ruling Duke's ship. The similarities between the accounts and Shakespeare's plot are striking. It is very likely Stewart is the inspiration for Prospero.”

A devil, a born devil, on whose nature Nurture can never stick.

Like Prospero, Stewart was finally exiled by his political rival, James VI. He was charged with treason for his part in a plot to abduct the King from Holyrood Palace in 1589, and also stood trial in 1591 on charges of witchcraft after the North Berwick Kirk incident. In 1594 he fell out with the King again. He was finally exiled in 1595 and died penniless in Naples in 1612.

Dr Sarah Carpenter, who lectures on Shakespeare at the University of Edinburgh, said Moffat's theory could not be proved beyond doubt, but a link with Stewart was possible. I have no idea whether there is any truth in this or not but it is an intriguing idea. but now:

There, sir, stop: Let us not burthen our remembrance with A heaviness that's gone


Anonymous said...

Also interesting

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

"The Tempest" is one of my favourite plays too, so I found this very interesting.

jams o donnell said...

It is a fascinating idea isn't it Welshcakes?

Anonymous said...

Again, a very interesting post!

How does one happen to purchase the trunk belonging to someone of such note!? (Not that I am doubting it...) If only I could pick something like that up, by chance!

jams o donnell said...

I wish I had a break like that too Anneke!