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The Modest Roots Of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest

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In the grand scheme of things, it seems quite odd that the vast majority of people have decided it is important to perform, study, and read plays written by a man who has been dead for over four hundred years. This of course, refers to William Shakespeare. For many people, the mention of his name brings up a faded memorized line or two from high school, but his impact on the world stretches farther than the perimeters of a classroom. Shakespeare revolutionized the English language to the point where half the time people are blissfully unaware of the fact they are quoting him. Whenever someone says, “What a sorry sight,” or, “I’m tongue tied”, they are not only empirically unoriginal, they are spouting Shakespeare. However, in Williams’s lifetime his overall mark on society had not yet been forged. And while he got some pretty sweet patronages from the upper class, it’s crucial to remember that most of his audience couldn’t read a word if their donkey’s life depended on it. Which leads to The Tempest, one of his most popular plays. Many scholars believe that this play is based off of the real life voyage of The Sea Venture, which occurred a few years before The Tempest would be etched from Shakespeare’s mind and onto paper. And it makes sense, William Shakespeare had to appeal to the gossiping, illiterate, superstitious masses, what better way to do that than take a widely talked about adventure story, and add magic to it? Shakespeare’s inspirations are far and wide, but he regularly pays homage to his favorite poet, Ovid. In his first play, Titus Andronicus, and in a Midsummer Night’s Dream he includes direct references to Ovid, by revamping the stories of Philomel, Pyramus and Thisbe. So naturally, The Tempest isn’t the only one of Shakespeare’s plays to be inspired by outside events. Others include: The Merchant of Venice which may have been inspired by an alleged love affair with an Italian Jew, and Hamlet, which is widely believed to be written about Shakespeare’s deceased eleven year old son, who was intriguingly named Hamnet. The list goes on. Shakespeare plays are like the cut out letters in a ransom note. Each individual element may be from somewhere else, but together they make something cohesive and thrilling. So what was The Sea Venture wreck, and why did it set forth from the English harbor and into the perilous Bermuda waters? First, a little background information is needed on the nature of exploration in Shakespeare’s time. By the early 1550s, the English were beginning to launch expeditions in the hopes of gaining access to markets and goods overseas.

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At the time of Shakespeare’s birth in 1564, England was nowhere close to the international powerhouse it would soon become. In contrast, Spain and Portugal had been profiting from sponsored voyages since the 1400s. Britain was just beginning to catch up. Attitudes the English people had towards exploration would change dramatically during this time period. Thanks in part to The Sea Venture. The Sea Venture was the flagship of a convoy that set sail in June of 1609 to resupply and revive the failing Jamestown colony. On July 24, the fleet sailed into a hurricane. One hundred fifty passengers escaped death but found themselves marooned on the uninhabited island chain of Bermuda. For ten months the castaways remained on the island, but Bermuda turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because while the castaways spent the winter of 1609–1610 feasting, the settlers in Virginia endured the ‘Starving Time’. A time that saw a mortality rate of 70 percent. Survivors resorted to cannibalism, often raiding the growing grave site. The Sea Venture crew built two small boats, which they aptly named Patience and Deliverance. They then sailed to Virginia, arriving on May 24, 1610. As exciting as the original Sea Venture wreck is, the delectable workmanship of the Tempest usurps it in brilliance. But when examined closely, the underlying threads can be seen weaving between both stories. Which is why many scholars believe the Sea Venture’s tale was able to seduce London’s most famous playwright. Much of the evidence on these common threads comes from William Strachey’s account of the wreckage. Strachey was just one of the men who had taken part in the experience, in 1610 his account would have been the most convincing and accessible to Shakespeare. The likelihood of Shakespeare obtaining Strachey’s original manuscript is quite high, considering it seems to have been brought to England by Sir Thomas Gates, a friend of Shakespeare’s. In Strachey’s account, The True Repertory, there are several coincidences both in account of the storm and the specific flora and fauna of the island. These include immense details and similarities between the Bermuda birds and berries.

In terms of character, Ariel was probably inspired by what William Strachey saw shortly after the wreck of The Sea Venture. “An apparition of a little round light, like a faint star, trembling and streaming along with a sparkling blaze,…shooting sometimes from shroud to shroud, tempting to settle as it were on any of the four shrouds:…half the night it kept with us, running sometimes along the mainyard to the very end, and then returning.” What William Strachey most logically saw was a weather phenomenon called “St. Elmo’s Fire” — This bright plasma originates from an electric field. The electric field was probably created from a volcanic eruption. Strachey and his fellow survivors’ accounts of the event add to the plausibility that The Tempest was based off of The Sea Venture. But beside the personal accounts, another piece of compelling evidence to consider is the lore that surrounded the Bermudas at the time. The Bermuda’s history as an enchanted isle no doubt attracted Shakespeare’s attention and the magical qualities of Prospero’s island (The main island in The Tempest) which were likely to have been based on stories from Atlantic sailors who heard loud eerie cries in the night when sailing past Bermuda. Strachey himself writes about how it had been thought that the Bermudas were ‘given over to Devils and wicked Spirits’. Prospero, Caliban, and Ariel (Characters in The Tempest) are sometimes seen as a metaphor for the difficult relationships between colonists and local inhabitants. From the Sea Venture, Shakespeare derived color and atmosphere for his enchanted island. But above all The Tempest is the work of his imagination. Shakespeare was a master at incorporating news of the day into stories with appeal to the masses, and while using the stories to incorporate broader themes such as colonialism. It is the wider context that keeps him relevant through the ages.

Works Cited:

  1. In Search of Shakespeare. Directed by David Wallace, performances by Michael Wood, Gregory Doran, and Ray Fearon, PBS, 2004. Glover, Lorri. ‘Sea Venture.’ Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 6 Dec. 2012. Web. 22 May. 2018. Blakeney, Katherine. ‘Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Plays of Shakespeare.’
  2. Inquiries Journal/Student Pulse 1.12 (2009). Shmoop Editorial Team. ‘William Shakespeare: Hamnet & Hamlet.’ Shmoop. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 22 May 2018. Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Ed. Henry Norman Hudson. New York: Ginn and Company, 1909. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2010. http://www.shakespeare-online.com/keydates/tempestbermuda.html . Sorewa, Alexandra. “The Sea Adventure Influence on The Tempest.”
  3. Orewa College, WordPress, 7 Aug. 2015, alexandrasorewa.wordpress.com/2015/08/07/the-sea-adventure-influence-on-the-tempest/. Andrews, John F., ed. Shakespeare’s World and Work. Vol.1. New York: Charles Scribbner’s Sons, 2002. Print.
01 February 2021

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