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.

2 thoughts on “Trevor Nunn’s Oxford Shakespeare Lecture

  1. Concluding that a man who had little or no education, whose children were illiterate, who never left any writing other than six unreadable signatures with his name spelled differently in each one, who never traveled outside of London, who spent much time and effort engaging in petty lawsuits, who could not read books in French, Italian, or Spanish yet used untranslated material as his source material, who never left any books in his will, who left no letters, no correspondence, who did not elicit a single eulogy at his death is about one word and that word is: FANTASY

  2. Of course, you know where I am on Shakespeare’s religion. A religious partisan? Not particularly. Adherent to the sixteenth century Church of England? I think very likely.

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