Trevor Nunn’s Oxford Shakespeare Lecture

I just attended Sir Trevor Nunn’s inaugural lecture as the new Cameron Mackintosh Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford, held at St Catherine’s College. Before I give my notes of the lecture below, here’s a quick update on my professional life:

-Became the new Reviews Editor for the C.S. Lewis Chronicle, the peer-reviewed, MLA-indexed journal of the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society. (If you would like to see a book reviewed in the Chronicle, or would like to review a book yourself, please e-mail me.)

-Submitted my first book review for said journal. This is my first book review for any peer-reviewed journal, so it’s quite exciting. I reviewed Letters to a Diminished Church, a 2004 collection of Dorothy L Sayers’ essays.

-Wrote another guest post for the St Andrews’ Institute for Theology, Imagination & the Arts student blog, Transpositions. It’s called ‘Harry Potter & the Eucharist of Empathy’, and will most likely be published this Friday. I had to edit the original post down to meet Transpositions’ length guidelines, so I’ll be linking to the Transpositions post here when it’s published, and then publishing the full-length post on this blog a week later. Edit: You can now view my post at Transpositions here.

-Began Michaelmas Term with a high 2:1 on my medieval history/theology collections, a class on Thomas Aquinas, and an essay on Julian of Norwich and prayer. Partway through my tutorial on Julian, my tutor, the venerable Sister Benedicta Ward SLG, asked, ‘By the way, do you read any C.S. Lewis?’ When I answered, after a pause, that I was the Vice-President of the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society, her face lit up, my face lit up, and we proceeded to go through Narnia, the Space Trilogy, and more, relating Lewis’ stories to Lady Julian’s teachings. Best tutorial I’ve had, I can tell you. It’s love.

Now to the notes.


Sir Trevor Nunn, ‘All the World’s a Stage – Shakespeare, the Player Poet’, St Catherine’s College, Oxford – 18 Oct 2010

Began by debunking the various ‘claimants to [WS’s] work’:

-Earl of Oxford: died in 1604 – several WS plays were written after this date

-Christopher Marlowe: died in 1593, again too early

-Francis Bacon: style is completely different – is it at all likely he would write in one prose style in all his public work, and then lead a secret life as a verse playwright?

-Edward VI: died in 1553 at age 15; this theory (propounded by one person) claims that he didn’t die, but instead went into hiding, and wrote the plays from his secret location. He put a secret code as to his identity on every page of the First Folio, BUT the code is different on every page (since of course he couldn’t have anyone finding out who he was and causing trouble for the supposedly deceased king!).  Not only that, but in the 1609 quarto edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, when the cover page says they’re printed ‘by G. Eld for T.T.,’ that T.T. doesn’t stand for Thomas Thorpe, the publisher, but for none other than the (by now elderly) ‘Ted Tudor’!

-The source of all these conspiracy theories is that educated scholars can’t quite believe that a relatively uneducated Warwickshire boy could actually have written these brilliant plays. Only an ‘educated man’ could have done so.

-Ben Jonson, fellow playwright and author of a eulogy to WS printed in First Folio, calls him ‘my Shakespeare,’ ‘my gentle Shakespeare’, ‘sweet swan of Avon’. Jonson was known for upsetting the establishment and being willing to be locked up for telling the truth and speaking his mind. Is it likely he would cover for some educated nobleman (e.g. Oxford) and write a lie of a eulogy? It’s not in his character.

Instead, WS was an actor:

-Theatrical jargon throughout plays (Rude Mechs in Midsummer, players in Hamlet, many more instances in Shrew, Titus, Love’s Labour’s, Henry IV Pt 1, All’s Well, Lear, Tempest)

-Theatre in WS’s time like early days of Hollywood – ‘new creative language being invented’ –> Elizabethans invented blank verse, soliloquoies, scene breaks within acts, etc. –> there was a ‘culture of collaboration’

-‘This special relationship with his audience was vital to his success as a dramatist’ –> WS knew that theatre was a business, and wrote crowd-pleasers [WS is prime example of how pleasing the audience doesn’t mean lowering one’s standards and selling out! Writing for the audience made his plays better.]

-Being part of a company (the Lord Chamberlain’s Men) meant he needed to write crowd-pleasers to bring in box office, and also needed to write meaty parts for members of his company –> the lead character’s age keeps ‘migrating upwards’ as WS writes through the years, probably because of the need to write parts for his lead actor, Richard Burbage –> as the actor grows older, the leads grow older (might explain why Hamlet is necessarily younger in earlier versions, but WS perhaps inserted lines to allow for an older actor in later versions –> did RB demand to play the part?)

-Hamlet’s Advice to the Players = evidence that WS was the first director of his own plays, and possibly the first director in England (extremely unlikely that Burbage candidate for company’s director, because he was too busy playing leads, whereas WS both knew the story and had smaller parts –> their relationship caricatured in Midsummer’s Rude Mechanicals, with Burbage=Bottom and Quince=WS)

WS as humanist [not Nunn’s word, but what he seemed to describe]:

-‘doesn’t depend on an afterlife to make sense of this one’, doesn’t identify himself with any particular religious or political belief [I might quibble with this one, as would others – he speaks the language of religion as one who is within it, though I would agree not partisan]

-classless –> knows the language of both the pub and the court

-believes that we can be redeemed by love

Discovering how Shakespeare could write such timeless work is ‘not about foreign travel, classical education, or English aristocracy’, it’s about one word, ‘and that word is: GENIUS.’


+1 bonus story: Sir Trevor was talking about his difficulty with the passage ‘I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw’ in Hamlet (II.ii.). A hawk seems so different from a handsaw, that it’s not the discriminating judgement of the sober-minded that Hamlet seems to be implying to his friend that he can make. Is he really crazy? If not, what does he mean?

Nunn was travelling on the coast of England, and sat in this pub filled with stuffed birds. The proprietor turned out to be the taxidermist. Nunn saw a bird he didn’t know the name of, and asked, ‘What’s this one?’

‘Oh, that’s a hernshaw,’ the man replied. A heron.

So when the wind is southerly and warm, if the bird is soaring on the thermals above you, you know it’s not a hernshaw – it’s a hawk.

Hernshaw=handsaw. ‘Aha,’ Sir Trever thought. ‘Aha.’

Sir Trevor Nunn is the 20th Cameron Mackintosh Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University. He was the youngest ever Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and was Director of the National Theatre from 1996-2003. He has directed most of the Shakespeare canon (30 out of 37 plays), as well as the original productions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, Starlight Express, Aspects of Love, and Sunset Boulevard.

And may I say, the guy in no way looks 70. More like 50.

Dorothy Sayers on Work

This week I’d like to share with you some quotes from Dorothy Sayers’ essay “Why Work?”, which can be found in her essay collection Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine (which I HIGHLY recommend). I was reading this essay in the Bird & Baby and began underlining heavily half-way through:

The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.
Church by all means, and decent forms of amusement, certainly–but what use is all that if in the very center of his life and occupation he is insulting God with bad carpentry? No crooked table legs or ill-fitting drawers ever, I dare swear, came out of the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth. Nor, if they did, could anyone believe that they were made by the same hand that made Heaven and earth. No piety in the worker will compensate for work that is not true to itself; for any work that is untrue to its own technique is a living lie.
Yet in Her own buildings, in Her own ecclesiastical art and music, in Her hymns and prayers, in Her sermons and in Her little books of devotion, the Church will tolerate, or permit a pious intention to excuse work so ugly, so pretentious, so tawdry and twaddling, so insincere and insipid, so bad as to shock and horrify any decent draftsman.
And why? Simply because She has lost all sense of the fact that the living and eternal truth is expressed in work only so far as that work is true in itself, to itself, to the standards of its own technique. She has forgotten that the secular vocation is sacred. Forgotten that a building must be good architecture before it can be a good church; that a painting must be well painted before it can be a good sacred picture; that work must be good work before it can call itself God’s work. (139-140)

The Apostles complained rightly when they said it was not meet they should leave the word of God and serve tables; their vocation was to preach the word. But the person whose vocation it is to prepare the meals beautifully might with equal justice protest: It is not meet for us to leave the service of our tables to preach the word. (140)

The only Christian work is good work well done. Let the Church see to it that the workers are Christian people and do their work well, as to God: then all the work will be Christian work…As Jacques Maritain says: ‘If you want to produce Christian work, be a Christian, and try to make a work of beauty into which you have put your heart; do not adopt a Christian pose.’ (140; Maritain quote from Art and Scholasticism with Other Essays, Ch. 8, “Christian Art,” sect. 2)

The worst religious films I ever saw were produced by a company which chose its staff exclusively for their piety. Bad photography, bad acting, and bad dialogue produced a result so grotesquely irreverent that the pictures could not have been shown in churches without bringing Christianity into contempt. (141)

And a section that really made me pull up short and reconsider my language about the artist serving the community:

…[T]he worker’s first duty is to serve the work. The popular catchphrase of today is that it is everybody’s duty to serve the community. It is a well-sounding phrase, but there is a catch in it…
The catch in it, which nowadays the world has largely forgotten, is that the second commandment [‘Love your neighbour’] depends upon the first [‘Love God’], and that without the first, it is a delusion and a snare. Much of our present trouble and disillusionment have come from putting the second commandment before the first.
If we put our neighbor first, we are putting man above God, and that is what we have been doing ever since we began to worship humanity and make man the measure of all things. Whenever man is made the center of things, he becomes the storm center of trouble–and that is precisely the catch about serving the community…
…There is, in fact, a paradox about working to serve the community, and it is this: that to aim directly at serving the community is to falsify the work; the only way to serve the community is to forget the community and serve the work. There are three very good reasons for this:
The first is that you cannot do good work if you take your mind off the work to see how the community is taking it…
The second reason is that the moment you think of serving other people, you begin to have a notion that other people owe you something for your pains; you begin to think that you have a claim on the community…
And thirdly, if you set out to serve the community, you will probably end by merely fulfilling a public demand–and you may not even do that…
…The danger of ‘serving the community’ is that one is part of the community, and that in serving it one may only be serving a kind of communal egotism. The only true way of serving the community is to be truly in sympathy with the community, to be oneself part of the community, and then to serve the work, without giving the community another thought. (142-145)

The end of the work will be decided by our religious outlook: as we are so we make. It is the business of religion to make Christian people, and then our work will naturally be turned to Christian ends, because our work is the expression of ourselves. But the way in which the work is done is governed by no sanction except the good of the work itself; and religion has no direct connection with that, except to insist that the workman should be free to do his work well according to its own integrity. (145)

If work is to find its right place in the world, it is the duty of the Church to see to it that the work serves God, and that the worker serves the work. (146)

-Sayers, Dorothy L. Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004. (Page numbers in parentheses.)

I’d be interested to hear your responses. It seems to me that C.S. Lewis was focused more on serving the community, and Sayers more on serving the art, though of course they would both agree that first things should be put first, i.e. serving God comes before serving your neighbour. They would also agree that you can’t serve either God or your neighbour by creating bad art. But Lewis seemed to keep more an eye on how his art would serve the community than Sayers did. What do you think? What reaction do you have to Sayers’ statements?