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A Jamestown Shipwreck 400 Years Ago this Month Awakened Shakespeare’s Muse

Historians/History




Hobson Woodward is the associate editor of the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston.

News of  shipwrecks reached London regularly during the lifetime of William Shakespeare. The frequency of travel by water and the fragility of wooden sailing vessels made disaster at sea a relatively common occurrence. Thus it is all the more striking that the playwright chose one particular wreck—the loss of a Jamestown ship on uninhabited Bermuda four centuries ago this month—as an inspiration for his ethereal Tempest.

The Sea Venture was voyaging from London to the two-year-old colony on the Virginia coast in the summer of 1609 when it encountered an intense hurricane. After four days of punishing violence the ship came to rest on a Bermuda reef. All 153 people aboard survived to be remembered as the first to occupy the mid-Atlantic isle. A year later when some of them returned home and told their story, Shakespeare ensured they would also make literary history as a source for his last solo play.

Timing had much to do with the castaways’ unexpected foray onto the London stage. As Shakespeare neared retirement, plague had shut down the theaters and curtailed the revenue of his King’s Men players. The playwright needed a fresh story, and as usual he began by looking for a contemporary topic that might be explored in a classical setting. Few subjects were of greater interest to the people of London than England’s fledgling colony in America. In fact, the overseas ambitions of the country so dominated current conversation that it would have been surprising if the city’s leading playwright had not written them into a play. Colonial adventure would be a fine general theme, but he needed specifics, and the Sea Venture story apparently provided them.

Shakespeare certainly recognized that the Bermuda wreck was no ordinary event. The tale was thrilling—a leaking ship in an unremitting storm, a rogue wave sweeping the vessel and filling it with water, St. Elmo’s fire glittering on the masts at a time that sinking seemed assured, land sighted in the middle of the ocean to the shock of all on board, a miraculous wedging of the ship upright between coral ridges in the Bermuda shallows, nine months on a deserted isle, and the reappearance in London of castaways long thought dead. Here was a story that an inventive playwright might fashion into stagecraft that would excite the masses.

Another element that apparently attracted Shakespeare was Bermuda’s history as an enchanted isle. The magical qualities of Prospero’s island likely had their origin in stories told by generations of Atlantic sailors who heard eerie cries in the night when sailing past Bermuda. The Sea Venture castaways discovered that a nocturnal bird called the cahow was responsible for the ghostly racket. Shakespeare did not have to make too great a leap to transform the shrieks of the seabirds into the Tempest isle’s “noises, sounds and sweet airs.”

As the battered Sea Venture headed for an island grounding on July 28, 1609, the voyagers guessed that they were landing on haunted Bermuda. To their relief they soon discovered that their sanctuary was more a realm of angels than devils. The very birds that had frightened passing sailors were easy game for hunters. Giant sea turtles provided feasts of meat when they came ashore to nest. Succulent prickly pears grew on the rocky shore. Palmetto sap and cedar berries were available for fermentation. Shakespeare seemed intrigued by this aspect of the story, apparently incorporating it into his play as the spells Prospero used to hide a bucolic isle within a conjured storm.

In addition to taking possession of general aspects of the Sea Venture narratives, Shakespeare also seems to have transformed specific elements. In his nimble mind the St. Elmo’s fire that voyager William Strachey described as a “little round light like a faint star, trembling and streaming along with a sparkling blaze half the height upon the mainmast” became the luminous character Ariel. In a brilliant appropriation of Strachey’s image, Shakespeare recast the sparkling glow as a shimmering apparition who visited the Tempest ship and reported to Prospero that “on the topmast, the yards and bowsprit would I flame distinctly.”

The enigmatic Caliban also seems to have Bermuda roots. There is a peculiar passage in Strachey’s narrative that combines human and bovine imagery in a description of a sea turtle. Shakespeare joined the same three elements when he fashioned the features of his wild man, giving him arms like turtle fins and the nickname “mooncalf”—a term meaning deformed child but one evoking heifers nevertheless. Caliban’s murderous disposition may also have arisen from the stories of the returning castaways. As I show in my new book, A Brave Vessel: The True Tale of the Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare’s The Tempest, there is fresh reason to believe that two Powhatans from Virginia were aboard the Sea Venture and that the English believed—perhaps falsely—that one of them murdered the other on the island.

Even small touches were apparently transferred from the Sea Venture chronicles to The Tempest. Strachey wrote of the castaways’ fermented cedar-berry drink that was brewed to replace the beer of England. The voyagers collected “berries whereof our men seething, straining, and letting stand some three or four days made a kind of pleasant drink.” Shakespeare was apparently taken with the image, for in The Tempest Caliban makes the otherwise inexplicable statement that when he was thirsty Prospero “wouldst give me water with berries in’t.”

Thus it may be said that July 28 marks two quadricentennials. One is the unintended founding of Bermuda by castaways who came ashore on a rain-whipped day in 1609. The other is the birthday of a sprite, a wild man, and a mercurial magician, characters given life when a Jamestown shipwreck captured the imagination of a literary master and inspired an enduring tale called The Tempest.


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Elliott Aron Green - 7/22/2009

Here is a ditty from Caliban:

Act 2, Scene 2:

No more dams I'll make for fish;
Nor fetch in firing
At requiring;
Nor scrape trencher, nor wash dish;
Ban Ban Cacaliban
Has a new master; --get a new man
Freedom, hey-day! hey-day, freedom! Freedom, hey-day, freedom!

The author of these lines is not a democrat nor an egalitarian. He ridicules the very notion of freedom.

Methinks that Shakespeare would want Caliban to jump to it "at requiring."


Elliott Aron Green - 7/22/2009

I see that both Lynne Kositsky and Roger Stritmatter refer to both Erasmus and Ariosto, and other ancient sources.
My apologies to Ms Kositsky for omitting her name.


Elliott Aron Green - 7/22/2009

One thing obvious to this non-specialist in The Tempest is that Shakespeare [whether he was Oxfordian or Stratfordian] has a clear aristocratic outlook, contemptuous of the lower classes, of manual laborers and the like. Whether the physical appearance of Caliban --as a deformed human-- was imagined by the author from the aspect of the giant sea turtles or his projection onto the Caribbean slaves of the Spaniards, the character Caliban is a caricature of the workingman or slave who aspires to equality and democracy. Think of Caliban's ditty: Ca Ca Ca Caliban... This prejudice on the author's part might also apply to workingmen in England itself.

Caliban as a character is meant as a parody of democratic and egalitarian aspirations. This understanding could serve as support for identifying the play's author with the aristocratic Earl of Oxford, rather than Will Shakespeare of plebeian origins. Likewise, the author's knowledge of Latin and Italian sources [Erasmus & Ariosto] --as suggested by Strittmater-- would also tend to support the authorship of the well-educated, well-traveled Earl of Oxford.

Now, just to be politically correct, I would point out that the motif of a desert isle as the locus for the growth and development of an exemplary human being seems to first appear with Hayy the Son of Yaqzan by the Spanish Muslim, Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Tufayl [Ibn Tufayl], written circa 1150. Ibn Tufayl was, inter alia, a mentor of Averroes [Ibn Rushd].

The translator of the work, George N Atiyeh, suggests: "A number of the names and the elements of the story are borrowed from popular Hellenistic stories and from Avicenna's story that bears the same title." [p 135 in Lerner & Mahdi, eds., Medieval Political Philosophy].

However, any direct influence by Ibn Tufayl's work on The Tempest's author would seem to require a Latin translation available before the deaths of the Stratfordian and Oxfordian candidates. Atiyeh points to Edward Pococke's as the first British translation into Latin, published in 1671, that obviously came too late. Atiyeh does not clarify whether this was the first Latin translation.


Lynne Kositsky - 7/18/2009

"The Sea Venture castaways discovered that a nocturnal bird called the cahow was responsible for the ghostly racket..."

As far as I can tell, the cahow is not mentioned in any of the Bermuda narratives--not in Strachey, not in Jourdain, and not in A True Declaration. The first mention of the bird by a voyager comes in Smith, around 1623, possibly from an earlier work of his. But since the real source for Caliban's speech is Munster in Eden, and not Strachey at all, it is of little moment.


Roger Stritmatter, PhD - 7/17/2009

Woodward confidently ascribes the Tempest theme of music to Strachey: “Shakespeare did not have to make too great a leap to transform the shrieks of the [Bermuda] seabirds into the Tempest isles ‘noises, sounds, and sweet airs.’”

But a June 2008 Notes and Queries article by David McInnis points out that the Tempest music motif is almost certainly inspired by Eden’s translation (1553, 1572) of Sebastian Munster’s Treatise of the New India, more commonly known as Cosmographia. More specifically, McInnis compares Caliban’s famous speech, “Be not afeard. The Isle is full of noises,/ Sounds and sweet airs that give delights and hurt not” (III.ii.135-36), to a corresponding passage from Eden’s 1553 translation: “There is often tymes heard in the ayre, as it were a noyse of musicall instrume[n]tes; but more often like the sounde of drumslades or timbrels.” As McInnis notes, the 1572 translation even more closely approximates Tempest language: “there be hard some times in the ayre the consents and harmonye of musicke instruments.”

McInnis observes that this language “anticipates Caliban’s ‘sounds and sweet aires’ from ‘a thousand twangling instruments’ and Ariel’s use of the pipe” (212). This study, conducted independently from ours, strengthens the vital link already posited between Tempest and Eden’s later translation, De Orbe Novo (1555), revealing a Shakespearean imagination shaped by the popular travel literature of the period 1553-1600, not by the Bermuda narratives of 1610-25.


Lynne Kositsky - 7/17/2009

According to Woodward, “even small touches were apparently transferred from the Sea Venture chronicles to The Tempest. Strachey wrote of the castaways’ fermented cedar-berry drink that was brewed to replace the beer of England. The voyagers collected ‘berries whereof our men, seething, straining, and letting stand some three or four days made a kind of pleasant drink.’ Shakespeare was apparently taken with the image, for in the Tempest Caliban makes the otherwise inexplicable statement that when he was thirsty, Prospero “wouldst give me water with berries in’t.”
Just why Caliban’s reference to “water with berries in’t” should be “inexplicable,” Woodward does not say. Even David Kathman, who uses the same quotations and example, does not dress up the facts with superfluous argument-by-adjective. Woodward’s implication that putting berries in water – something human beings have been doing as long as wine has been brewed – is some kind of unique event in human culinary history does little to enhance his credibility. In fact, as our online reply to David Kathman pointed out in 2005, the motif is a commonplace in the literature of the voyagers (no doubt because mixing water with berries was a refreshing recipe, traditional to the natives of the new world, for making a drink in a land without brew pubs or winepresses). It is mentioned five times, for example, in Harriot’s Brief and True Account of The New Found Land of Virginia (1588), viz.:
The fifth sort [of berry] is called Mangúmmenauk, and is the acorne of their kind of oake, the which beeing dried after the maner of the first sortes, and afterward watered they boile them... (29).
Nor was the habit limited to the new world, as the reader of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso soon learns. In this influential Tempest source (as our manuscript article, “Where in the World? Geography and Irony in Shakespeare’s Tempest”
demonstrates) a hermit on a Mediterranean island, midway between Tunis and Naples (Lampedusa) offers Rogero, a shipwreck survivor, berries and water.


Roger Stritmatter, PhD - 7/17/2009

“The enigmatic Caliban also seems to have Bermuda roots…”

It is ironic to claim that Caliban has “Bermuda roots,” since there were no inhabitants on Bermuda when the English were shipwrecked there in 1609. In fact the name is a fairly obvious anagram of the common 16th century word “canibal,” first popularized in English via Eden’s translations. Indeed, it is evident to any unprejudiced reader familiar with Eden’s narrative that the roots of the “enigmatic” Caliban have nothing at all to with Bermuda, but everything to do with Eden’s ethnographic narratives of the complicated power relationships between the Spanish Conquistadores and the Carribean natives enslaved by them during the first decades of European conquest of the “new world.” Copious details supporting this conclusion are forthcoming in our Critical Survey article, "‘O Brave New World’: The Tempest and Peter Martyr’s De Orbe Novo"


Lynne Kositsky - 7/17/2009

For example, Woodward places particular emphasis on the fact that both Strachey’s account and the Tempest refer to the occurrence of St. Elmo’s fire during the storm: “In [Shakespeare’s] nimble mind the St. Elmo’s Fire that voyager William Strachey described as a ‘little round light like a faint star, trembling and streaming along with a sparkling blaze, half the height upon the mainmast’ became the luminous character Ariel. In a brilliant appropriation of Strachey’s image, Shakespeare recast the sparkling glow as a shimmering apparition who visited the Tempest ship and reported to Prospero that ‘on the topmast, the yards and bowsprit would I flame distinctly’.”

Woodward does not appear to be aware that St. Elmo’s Fire was a very common shipwreck motif in both imaginative and historical sources well known before the close of the 16th century. Even a partial list of accounts of this dramatic phenomenon must include Pliny, Eden, Erasmus, Ariosto, De Ulloa, Cortes, Columbus, and Haies. In Strachey’s case, the St. Elmo’s description -- like many other storm elements in Strachey that are apparently derived from literary sources rather than experience -- is not found in the other accounts of the Sea Venture wreck and therefore appears to be a literary elaboration rather than a factual account. This is confirmed by the fact that Strachey’s description seems to originate in Tomson and De Ulloa (who in turn appear to have based their descriptions of the phenomenon at least partly on Erasmus’ “Naufragium,” a dialogue widely circulated as a grammar school text). By contrast, Shakespeare’s account shows clear evidence for an association, like so much else in the play, with the accounts translated by Eden in 1555. Shakespeare may have had a nimble mind, but he is not, in fact, responsible for “recasting” the “sparkling glow” as the first person apparition, Ariel. He found this motif already preformed in Eden’s translation of Antonio Pygafetta’s narrative, which describes ‘certeyne flames of fyre burnynge very cleare…. uppon the masts of the shyppes…which sum ignorant folkes thynke to bee spirites or such other phantasies’ (217v). Although Shakespeare seems to have known more than one account of St. Elmo’s fire, only from Eden could he have taken inspiration for the idea, embodied in his play, that the phenomenon may be caused by “spirits,” an idea Woodward, unaware of Shakespeare’s actual source in Eden, superfluously attributes to Shakespeare’s own creative fancy.


Roger Stritmatter, PhD - 7/17/2009

“Colonial adventure would be a fine general theme, but [Shakespeare] needed specifics, and the Sea Venture story apparently provided them.”

The claim that the Sea Venture episode provided “specifics” manifest in Shakespeare’s play is by now a cliché. Yet it has never been successfully demonstrated. In fact the “specifics” typically cited as unique to Strachey had been available to Shakespeare, in some cases for decades, in such works as Eden’s Decades, Tomson in Hackluyt, Erasmus “Naufragium,” and Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. Many of these sources, unlike Strachey, show unequivocal evidence, in the form of specific language or idiosyncratic episode, which connects them to Shakespeare’s play.

All of the salient characteristics cited by Mr. Woodward as signals for the “extraordinary” nature of the Bermuda wreck were already present in various permutations, in such commonplace Renaissance and classical shipwreck literature as the Book of Acts, The Aeneid, “Naufragium,” and Orlando Furioso as well as Eden’s Decades. None of Woodward’s examples, moreover, is unique to any of the Bermuda narratives or diagnostic of a real relationship between those narratives and Shakespeare’s play.


Lynne Kositsky - 7/17/2009

“Shakespeare insured that the [Bermuda survivors] would also make literary history as a source for his last solo play.”

In order to make the association between the Bermuda wreck and the Tempest seem inevitable, Mr. Woodward ignores the history of English involvement in the new world, which long predates the Jacobean period. Reports of new world shipwrecks had been reaching English readers at least since the 1555 publication of Eden’s translation of de Orbe Novo; since the disappearance of the first English colony at Roanoke circa 1590, such readers had anxiously followed the fate and circumstances of English colonists. Richard Hakluyt had been chronicling these events, including the 1593 shipwreck of Henry May in the Bermudas, since before his Principal Navigations appeared in print 1598-1600. At least by shortly after the turn of the 17th century, English dramatists such as Ben Jonson, George Chapman, and John Marston, writing in Eastward Ho! were already parodying the colonial vogue.


Roger Stritmatter, PhD - 7/17/2009

Ms. Hill seems to be unable to distinguish between “fact” and speculation. Very little of Mr. Woodward’s account is factual, and of his critical points none can withstand careful scrutiny.

It is convenient that Mr. Woodward sees no necessity to defend the claim that William Strachey’s 1625 narrative of the wreck of the Sea Venture in Bermuda formed the inspiration for the Tempest with any actual facts. By now this legend is so well ingrained in modern scholarship that merely asserting it seems to be an acceptable substitute for the kinds of factual and logical argument normally considered requisite in historical scholarship. From its inception this “just so” story of how Shakespeare got his Tempest has never been supported by any convincing evidence. It has gained credibility only in the absence of critical study of Shakespeare’s actual sources of new world imagery, such as Richard Eden’s 1555 translation of Spanish and Portugese travel narratives, Decades of the New World, from which Shakespeare took the name “Setebos,” for Sycorax’ God and numerous other elements of new world detail.


Michael Green - 7/13/2009

I also would highly recommend the exhibit at the Jamestown Visitors Center related to the subject of Mr. Woodward's book.


Caroline Hill - 7/13/2009

and of course those who claim that the Earl of Oxford wrote 'Shakespeare's' plays deny the validity of this excellent account, since Oxford died before 1610 and could not have known the Bermuda castaways' tale. They also have to argue that the play was written earlier. But facts, as presented here, are tough things. . .