The pagan confusion in Jarman’s “The Tempest”

Derek Jarman’s The Tempest (1979), his first cinematic attempt at Shakespeare adaptation, is steeped in an inexplicable pagan etherealism. The film opens with a list of the dramatis personae along with the Stephen Crane editorial descriptions of each of the characters. This is perhaps an attempt on Jarman’s part to recreate the readerly experience of knowing precisely how each character relates to another without even being introduced to them yet. Once shipwrecked, many of them wander throughout the island in class-based groups (the nobles, the drunken servants). However, part of the intellectual exercise of this play is the slow unravelling of the relationships between characters. This opening is our first clue that Jarman does not see it that way, and will go on to emphasize individual characters rather than intersubjective relationships.

Derek Jarman's "The Tempest"
Derek Jarman’s “The Tempest”

The only thing in this film that remains honest to the source text is the casting of Ariel (Karl Johnson), Prospero’s helpful island spirit, as male. (Since the Victorian period Ariel is predominantly cast as female despite the use of male pronouns in the playtext.) Prospero (Heathcote Williams), written as a wizened and elderly father, is cast extremely young. In fact, one could make the mistake of him being a brother, not a father, to Miranda (Toyah Willcox). The Caliban (Jack Birkett) character is equally unremarkable. For him, Jarman emphasizes a Post-Colonial class reading of him as a slave rather than beastly: he is not particularly deformed or different than any other human person, with bad teeth, sunken eyes, and noticeable accent Like most of the cast, Prospero has an especially flat academic and unremarkable delivery.

The cast seems to have been coached specifically in a stylized diction which is very staid, dry and flat. While nearly an all-male cast, some especially deep voices are prone to muttering and petering out at the end of lines. Most of the dialogue is indecipherable due to this lack of inflection, suggesting a lack of care for the script. Dialogue seems to serve the only purpose of sonically coloring the scenes that are intermittently punctuated by Caliban’s maniacal laughter–insane, inane, and often wholly inexplicable.

It is hard to miss the general disdain or dislike of women in the film. While Shakespeare’s play does only have one female role–and two women are made reference to but never appear–Jarman seems to tug out these in particular. More than half of the original text is cut, along with several characters, and so it is really not much of a surprise that most of Miranda’s speaking line are cut. She merely serves to wander around the set in semi-dreadlocks like an adult child with intermittent moments of toplessness.

Likewise, the shipwrecked court of Naples wander about the island to no purpose but to expound theories of procreation and “natural” governance, interrupted by attempts to murder the Duke. While the court is only in a handful of shots, Jarman makes sure to emphasize the Duke’s dismay at being stranded on his return trip from marrying off his daughter to a foreign prince–so much so that he wishes he never had a daughter to marry off in the first place. Much is made of Sycorax (Claire Davenport) when only passing reference is made to this witch-monster and mother of Ariel and Caliban. Instead of leaving his audience to their own imagination, Jarman includes an extended flashback of Sycorax and her brood literally chained to her in a scene of grotesque and gratuitous nudity. While Caliban is made to salivates on his mother’s breast while Ariel’s fights his literal chains of primordial incest, she reminds me of a kind of female Jabba-the-Hutt. There are no vindicating women in the film to speak.

First still from Taymor's "Tempest"
Mirren working magic for Taymor’s “Tempest”

What can be said for Jarman’s film is the clear aesthetic vision: sets mostly draped in darkness, what we do see is of a neo-Victorian flair constructed of feathers and highly naturalized. For example, Miranda’s hoop-skirt is made of long ostrich feathers, and from those bizarre dreadlocks hang pearls like tear drops. In fact, everyone seems a bit feral in the film as they crouch about in the thrush- and straw-covered mansion. Caliban giggles as he eats raw eggs. Many characters exist to deliver environmental monologues and often in voice-over. Miranda’s only dialogue and that of many others are environmental monologues, often in voice-over. Ferdinand, the love interest, rises up out of the sea inexplicably naked like primordial slime come to form. If you can keep track of Ariel’s mutterings, you could track the plot development but otherwise the film seems purposeless.

The naturalizing techniques are thrown in contrast to Venetian/Italianate accessories. For example, the wandering drunkards end up at the home of Prospero and loose themselves, along with Caliban, in a room filled with over-sized porcelain dolls, rocking horses, toys, and Carnival masks. There is a clear interest in wilderness and a semi-naturalness rather than the plot itself. All of these juxtaposing images collide in the final pageant masque to celebrate the marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda (anachronistically moved to the end of the film). Dozens of men in child-like sailor suits run and dance about in pairs to flute arias and bird song. The Naples court sleeps through it all, having somehow found their way. The drunkards stumble into the reunion half nude, covered in feathers, and dressed in drag but not much is made of them either. In the midst of marriage all are reunited. However, Prospero’s usurping brother is not present and there is no reconciliation to speak of to resolve the reason why he and his daughter came to the island in the first place. Miranda has lost her dreadlocks and slowly made civilized in her dress by her union with Ferdinand. The only remnants of her earthy state is a wedding ring made of shell. In a final stroke of absurdity, jazz singer Elisabeth Welch enters to sing “Stormy Weather” (see the clip below). She walks to each of the male dancing sailors, partnered up, and sings to them but ignores the wedding couple completely. The film ends with Ariel singing to himself in an empty room, and Prospero sitting asleep while a voice-over mutters, “we are such stuff as dreams are made of.” The credits roll silently and austerely.

This film is painful, not only to watch, but also emotionally for the viewer. The viewer feels negatively implicated in wanting some cohesion, some meaning to be made from a play that, ironically, adheres strictly to the classical unities of action, place, and time. Jarman works to thrust apart any sense of unity in this film, and then camp-ify the final scene of resolution as an inditement of heteronormativity. A fair critique, but the film does not hold up thirty years later. It is slow, trying, and ceases to make meaning for multiple kinds and types of audiences.

The supernatural qualities and tight texture of Shakespeare’s The Tempest have attracted artists and painters since the eighteenth century, and more recently filmmakers. There are nearly a dozen film iterations. Jarman seems to have been caught up in the magical qualities of this play, but pushed to hard in searching for places to draw it out fantasy where none existed. Now that Helen Mirren’s Prospera has finally got a release date from Miramax (after its own tempestuous sale by Disney), we can only hope Julie Taymor hasn’t fallen prey to the same allure of her own cinematic illusionary capabilities at the sacrifice of her source.


  • This film is available from Netflix.
  • In Chicago, The Tempest, by William Shakespeare and performed by the Shakespeare Project of Chicago, will be staged only on 30 April and 1 May 2011.