The Inspiration for THE TEMPEST

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly reveals real-world inspiration for one of Shakespeare’s final plays.

The Tempest has an unclear setting: We know simply that it takes place somewhere in the Mediterranean, since Alonso and Antonio are on their way back from Tunis (where Alonso’s daughter has been reluctantly married off) to Naples. The Tempest is also one of the few Shakespeare plays not to have a clear literary source. It is thought to have been inspired by Shakespeare’s reading of a real-life event described by a voyager: On July 24, 1609 a fleet of nine English vessels was nearing the end of a supply voyage to the new colony of the Bermudas when it ran into “a cruel tempest,” presumably a hurricane. The vessels in the fleet couldn’t keep together, and two fared particularly badly. One of them, The Sea Venture, carrying the fleet’s Admiral, ran ashore.

The Sea Venture

"The Sea Venture in a Heavy Sea in 1609," painting by Christopher Grimes

How could they have survived such peril? Ariel conveys the amazement that Shakespeare probably felt in reading of the safe delivery of the sailors to the shore: “Not a hair perish’d,” he says to Prospero in wonderment. Exhausted by battling the tempest and suffering the effects of food deprivation, the sailors huddled on the battered ship in corners or, indeed, as one sailor put it, “wheresoever they chanced first to sit or lie.”[i]  This sailor’s account was most likely the basis for Ariel’s report to Prospero:

The mariners all under hatches stow’d;

Who, with a charm join’d to their suffer’d labour,

I have left asleep…

Moreover, Ariel herself (for whom there is no literary precedent) was probably inspired by what the sailors saw after the wreck of the Sea venture. The Virginia Company Secretary William Strachey, one of the survivors, reports seeing in the aftermath:

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. [ii]

As you’ll read in my program article, what Strachey saw was a phenomenon called “St. Elmo’s Fire”—the luminous plasma created by an electric field emanating from a volcanic eruption or a storm. Ariel describes himself to Prospero, flitting around the shipwreck, “flam[ing] amazement,” “burn[ing] in many places: on the top mast,/The yards and bowsprit….” To the cramped streets of London, Shakespeare brought these images of a sparsely-populated island, a place whose existence had only recently been made known to Europe at all. Not unlike Prospero—whose art contracts the vagaries of life into his magically-controlled universe—Shakespeare contracted the far reaches of the known world to the perimeter of his dramatic stage, using the stage itself to infuse this world with its own far-reaching mysteries.

The Tempest begins previews at our stunning outdoor Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda, CA, on Thursday, May 31, opens Saturday, June  2, and continues until Sunday, June 24.

[i] This account was given by Silas Samuel Jordan, whose job it was to keep a daily log of events on the ship.

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2 Responses to The Inspiration for THE TEMPEST

  1. Don Koue says:

    The trouble I have with “Tempest” is Caliban. It seems he adds little to the play except some low humor. But why would Shakespeare create such a strange character just to sort of throw him away? And is there any fact behind the notion that he is Shakespeare’s anagram of cannibal? If there is, and even if there isn’t, is he a stand-in for all the people enslaved by European imperialism? It is, it would seem, Caliban’s island, and he has the urge to fill it with little Calibans. Prospero claims it as his, apparently because he is the only white man on the island–natives don’t count. And, anyway, they can be seduced with a little firewater. Prospero obviously can’t care for himself and Miranda and needs slaves. Ariel is an indentured servant–the British eventually sent a lot of them to the colonies, essentially white slaves. This may all be a reach and Shakespeare intended no reading into the character of Caliban, but the strangeness of the character invites it, although the part in this telling of “Tempest” does not.

  2. Philippa Kelly says:

    Hello Don,
    It’s great to hear from you. You always put such interesting questions. Yes, ‘Caliban’ is a near- anagram for ‘Cannibal’, an activity that Shakespeare cited throughout his dramatic career as a symbol of human depravity: from Titus’ mother eating her sons baked into a pie, to the ‘Bloody cannibals’ in 3 Henry VI, to Othello’s description of his encounters and travails beyond the safe imagination of Venetian civilization: ‘The Cannibals that each other eat, the Anthropophagi, and men whose heads/Do grow beneath their shoulders…;’ to Coriolanus’ ‘He had been cannibally given, he might have boiled and eaten him too’. There was so much interest in the strangenesses of newly-discovered lands, and, indeed, no small controversy in the hearts of thinkers and writers about the nature of Europe’s relationship to them. Really, Shakespeare was asking questions that Darwin would put centuries later. I have often wondered which actor Shakespeare wrote the part for.

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