Age of Exploration

Brave New World

As noted in the Arden edition of The Tempest, despite its “unique panoply of visual wonders, very little happens” in this little play (the second shortest of Shakespeare’s works, second only to The Comedy of Errors)–and yet it serves as an emblem for the age of discovery in which Shakespeare was living, a period of geographic, political, and artistic resurgence:

“The Tempest’s spectacular opening storm ostensibly splits a shit and all its passengers drown, but we soon learn that the storm was only an illusion crafted by Prospero and that the castaways are all safe. For the remainder of the play, the shipwrecked Europeans and the savage Caliban wander in clusters around the island, while Ariel flits from one group to another; Propsero and Miranda barely budge. The last scene brings everyone to Prospero’s cell for a final revelation, but they were always nearby. A sense of newness, of wonder, of exciting discovery nonetheless pervades the play, transcending its restricted geography and paucity of action. Those limitations notwithstanding, the island to some degree epitomizes Europe’s age of discovery. Gonzolo’s amazement at Ferdinand and Miranda’s sudden appearance, as  well as Miranda’s joyous surprise at a “brave new world” with “such people in’t” (5.1.183-4), echo the response of European explorers to such exotic peoples, fauna, and flora in a remote new world. While the The Tempest is not primarily about America, the play’s wondrous discoveries link the drama thematically to the travelers’ tales that so delighted readers.

…The action of the island…is mainly geographic movement writ small. The first four acts conclude with an invitation to move on: “Come, follow” (1.2.502); “Lead the way” (2.2.183); “Follow, I pray you” (3.3.110); “Follow and do me service” (4.1.266). The characters perambulate in small groups from one part of the island to another; only at Prospero’s final invitation, “Please you, draw near” (5.1.319), do they join in one place. Although their physical and psychological journeys through the island’s maze have ended, the play concludes with plans for a sea journey back to milan that roughly parallels the journeys that brought all the Europeans to the island.”

Voyages and Discoveries

Excerpted from Alden T. Vaughan, “Shakespeare Discovers America, America Discovers Shakespeare,” Shakespeare in American Life exhibition catalog. Folger Shakespeare Library, 2007″:

sea-venture-in-the-storm-by-william-harringtonThe story of the Sea Venture‘s wreck on the Bermuda Islands has often been told, but it bears a brief summary here because it opened Shakespeare’s works to the influences of English colonization and, perhaps more important, because it undergirds the theory—espoused intermittently since the late nineteenth century—that Shakespeare set The Tempest on Bermuda and intended the characters to reflect early American persons and events. Bermuda, to this day, reminds visitors of its reputed Tempest connections with venues like Prospero’s Cave (a night club), Caliban’s Bar, and the Ariel Sands Beach Club.

The five hundred potential colonists in nine ships that departed England in early June 1609 expected to sail north of Bermuda on their westward route from the Canary Islands to Virginia. When they were several days short of their destination, a massive hurricane scattered the fleet. One vessel sank; seven ships straggled into Jamestown, weeks overdue. The flagship Sea Venture, carrying the fleet’s admiral, Sir George Somers, and Virginia’s new governor, Sir Thomas Gates, never arrived at Jamestown and was presumed to have been lost.

News of the tragedy reached England when the surviving ships headed home from Jamestown, “laden with nothing but bad reports and letters of discouragement.” England’s only American colony, readers learned, was beset by Indians, ravaged by sickness, on the verge of starvation, and shorn of legitimate leadership. Its “headless and unbridled multitude,” lamented the Virginia Company of London (the colony’s supervisory body), had succumbed to “disorder and riot.” Company spokesmen blamed everything, directly or indirectly, on “the Tempest.”

Against all expectations, the Sea Venture had weathered the storm—barely. Among the survivors, William Strachey described the experience most vividly in a very long letter (twenty-two folio pages when finally printed), written in Virginia to an unnamed lady in England. For three days and four nights, Strachey remembered, all hands—crew and passengers, noblemen and commoners—pumped, bailed, cast trunks and barrels overboard, and jettisoned much of the ship’s rigging, while sailors, lighting their way with candles, stuffed the leaking hull with whatever came to hand, even beef from the ship’s larder. Many distraught souls, resigned to a watery death, bid their friends farewell or took refuge in drink. But “it pleased God,” another survivor gratefully recalled, to push the Sea Venture within three-quarters of a mile of Bermuda, where it “fast lodged and locked” between coral boulders. All 150 passengers and crew rode the ship’s boats to solid land. No humans, European or aboriginal, inhabited the Bermuda archipelago when the Sea Venture fortuitously arrived. During the previous century, ships of many nations had crashed on its reefs, and a few survivors had lived to describe the “Isle of Devils,” but the most tangible signs of those accidental visits were the wild hogs whose ancestors swam ashore from shipwrecked vessels. Yet Bermuda was, as the Sea Venture‘s passengers quickly realized, an island paradise strategically located for transatlantic commerce or piracy and free for the taking. Instead of the reputed devils and malicious spirits, the English encountered docile and abundant birds, fish, tortoises, and the immigrant hogs; fruits and berries were ubiquitous. The climate was salubrious, the environment healthy. During the next nine months, Admiral Somers supervised the construction of two seaworthy vessels from Bermuda cedar and the Sea Venture‘s salvageable timbers and tackle.


Elizabeth leading explorers to the New World, from a cartography and navigational book by Dr John Dee, the famous magus and advisor

Not everyone pitched in. Some men preferred a life of ease on Bermuda to the imagined perils of Virginia and refused to build the ships. Other men objected to cutting and carrying cedar logs, still others resented Gates and Somers’s firm authority, and a few cast covetous eyes on the survivors’ valuable goods. Strachey’s letter bristles with charges of “conspiracy,” “Mutinie,” “Rebellion,” and “bloudy issues and mischiefes.” By the time the Sea Venture‘s passengers and crew sailed to Jamestown in the newly completed Deliverance and Patience in May 1610, one man had been executed, one (maybe two) had been murdered, and two men who hid from harsh punishment were left behind.

The Virginia Colony, Strachey discovered on arrival, was comparably chaotic. “[W]e found the Pallisadoes torne downe,…the Gates from off the hinges, and emptie houses…burnt” for firewood. Outside the fort, “theIndian[s] killed as fast…if our men stirred but beyond the bounds of their blockhouse, as Famine and Pestilence did within.” With only sixty men and women surviving from the several hundred who had reached Jamestown since 1607, Gates and the disheveled remnant abandoned the colony; only the unexpected arrival of fresh settlers and supplies under a new governor, Francis West, Lord De La Warr, saved the day. With order largely restored, Sir Thomas Gates left for England in early September 1610, carrying Strachey’s letter. It was too candid for the Virginia Company of London to permit publication, but the manuscript fascinated many readers, including William Shakespeare.

The Tempest (completed in late 1610 or early 1611) borrowed some of Strachey’s words, phrases, and themes, as well as touches from Silvester Jourdain’s less revealing pamphlet (1610), and many other—mostly non-American—texts and ideas. In 1613, Shakespeare and John Fletcher would take a leaf from Ben Jonson’s Epicoene by invoking an Indian from England’s colonial sphere. A muscular captive named Epenow, displayed frequently in London “as a wonder,” almost surely inspired Henry VIII‘s porter to smirk: “have wee some strange Indian with the great Toole, come to Court, the women so besiege us?” (5.3) English America had entered Shakespeare’s literary source book.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s