When is Shakespeare most Shakespearean?

It sounds like the sort of riddle Hamlet might grapple with on a particularly esoteric day. Or maybe a line Rosalind might use to test Orlando in the Forest of Arden? The question, however, is not a rhetorical one, and we only have to look to his plays to find the answer: Shakespeare is never more himself than at the end of his career. We glimpse quintessential Shakespeare just at the point when he hangs up his quill. The Tempest – his last complete play – was conjured almost entirely from his imagination. This is eau de parfum de Bard. As potent and distilled as anything that came earlier in his career.

The Tempest, along with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, are the plays where Shakespeare is being completely himself,” says Sir Jonathan Bate, from Oxford University (oft-described as the world’s foremost living Shakespeare scholar). “The great majority of Shakespeare’s plays were based on pre-existing stories… He always did new things with his source material but, in the end, he was working with pre-existing material…”

Not so The Tempest.

The elements in this play – from its opening squall to its closing manumission – are magicked up by sorcerer Shakespeare. There is no literary precedent for it. Even A Midsummer Night’s Dream leans a little on Ovid’s Metamorphoses (insofar as the mechanicals perform Pyramus and Thisbe); but The Tempest is wholly his.

So then, could this be why John Heminges and Henry Condell, two of Shakespeare’s fellow actors and closest friends, had such a soft spot for The Tempest? After Shakespeare’s death in 1616, Heminges and Condell compiled the first complete collection of his plays, and in doing so they ignored chronology and gave special preference to The Tempest. They chose the last play to go first.

“It might simply have been because they had a nice clean script of it [The Tempest] so it was an easy job for the printer, but there’s got to be more to it than that,” says Bate. “I think the reason is that The Tempest is a showcase for Shakespeare’s art, for all aspects of his achievement, so they put it first. It’s like if a musician is putting an album together you think very hard about what’s the first song on the album because that’s the first impression.”

Dr Nick Walton, from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-Upon-Avon, agrees The Tempest is something of an exemplar of Shakespeare’s plays. “What excites me about The Tempest is the idea of Shakespeare spinning plates… It’s Shakespeare giving it as you like it. You’ve got a bit of it all!”

Here he cites the various oscillating elements of the play. There is, in no particular order: a supernatural element, political drama, revenge drama, a story of paternal love, a story of first love, poetry, music and song, clowning, satire, and a biting social commentary. What’s more they’re packed into just five acts, rising and falling within each scene as seamlessly as the tide on Prospero’s island.

“You’ve even got a shipwreck,” Walton notes. “The Tempest has a bit of everything that Shakespeare could do very well.”

For John Bell AO OBE, who is directing The Tempest for Bell Shakespeare in 2015, this cornucopia is a gift: “I love the range of choices you have as a director with this play,” he says.

“You can put this play on for children and they’ll understand it completely.” (By way of illustration, Bell narrates: “On this island there lives a magician with his daughter who is a princess. It’s a fairy tale. There’s goodies and baddies and the crooks get their comeuppance. Then they all sail home. What could be more appealing to a child’s imagination?”

“Yet for older audiences,” Bell says, “it can mean so many different things. You can take away from it what you will. More than you can with many other Shakespeare plays, you can make up your own mind.”

But was this the only appeal for Heminges and Condell? When they chose The Tempest for page one of The First Folio was it because they saw so much that was quintessentially Shakespearean in it?

Or rather, did they see Shakespeare? Could it be that they glimpsed the great man himself?

You see, it’s just possible that Heminges and Condell – two men who knew Shakespeare better than just about anyone – could spy something of Will in the play. Striding about the island with Prospero, raising the seas with a wave of his staff, just as the Bard manipulated the action on stage with the maven stroke of his pen. Did Prospero remind them of their dear, lost friend?

People have long speculated that The Tempest is autobiographical and that Prospero, that great conjurer, is Shakespeare himself. That the Bard is thinking of his retirement from theatre, and in particular his Globe Theatre, with Prospero’s speech:

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.

It’s a tempting analogy. And while Bate and Bell warn against a strictly autobiographical reading of the play, both can see that the dualities between Prospero and the playwright are palpable.

“We have to be wary of reading Shakespeare autobiographically because a play is a play,” says Bate. “…But having said that, there has got to be a sense in which Prospero conjuring up the world of the play, commanding the stage, is seen as a kind of symbol, a kind of figure of Shakespeare himself…”

“After The Tempest Shakespeare retired to Stratford-Upon-Avon to live the life of the country gentleman and, at the end of the play Prospero speaks of retiring to Milan and thinking about death. There’s got to be something of Shakespeare in that…”

Bell agrees: “I like to think that there was a degree of autobiography about it. In that last speech of Prospero’s, where he talks about giving up his book and his staff and his magic – it [Shakespeare’s own retirement] must have been somewhere in his mind… It is simply beyond coincidence.”

But whether we’re looking for Shakespeare on the island of The Tempest – or merely basking in the Shakespeareness of it all – the play reveals another castaway: ourselves. The wonder of this play is the way it uses a desert island, devoid of civilisation, to reveal so much about humanity. Prospero may or may not be Shakespeare, but he is indisputably everyman. He is any one of us. Flawed, frail, hopeful human beings, capable of great wrongs but also with the capacity to forgive.

The Tempest is the macro played out in the micro. A spectacle of the imagination, yet of the heart.

In short, it’s classic Shakespeare.

John Bell directs The Tempest for Bell Shakespeare at the Sydney Opera House 19 August – 18 September.

Sir Jonathan Bate is the author of several books about William Shakespeare and his work.

Dr Nick Walton is Courses Development Manager at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Felicity McLean is a freelance journalist and author based in Sydney.