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"This Insubstantial Pageant"

The first post in "The Tempest: 400th Anniversary" celebration series sheds light on the potential inspiration for the actual tempest in Shakespeare's last solo play.

Jo Wilding

Shakespeare’s magical and last solo play The Tempest was probably written, most scholars believe, between 1610 and 1611. So to celebrate this 400th anniversary, we are running a post on it once a week from now until Christmas.

The first recorded production shows that it was performed before King James I at Whitehall Palace on 1st November 1611. The Tempest was not published until Shakespeare's First Folio was produced in 1623, however, where it then took pride of place as the first play. Without the First Folio, it would otherwise have been lost! The Tempest does not have a main source for its plot or themes, and it seems that Shakespeare was influenced by an eclectic mix of sources to create it.

The image of the storm is one of the most vivid drawn by Shakespeare, and has always inspired artists and theatre designers. The illustration is the first edition of the play to include pictures dating from 1709, and from there, right up to the RSC’s modern 2006 production, the tempest itself has often dominated the early part of the play.

One of the most important sources for the storm is William Strachey’s narrative letter "A True Reportary of the Wrack and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, Knight". This was an account of a real shipwreck and its aftermath in the West Indies, which became available between July and November 1610. “A dreadfull storme and hideous began to blowe from out the North-east, which swelling, and roaring as it were by fits, some houres with more violence then others, at length did beate all light from heaven; which like an hell of darknesse turned blacke upon us….”

Cambridge educated and an acquaintance of Ben Jonson, Strachey was a member of the Virginia Company expedition of 500 colonists which sailed for Virginia in 1609. They were caught in a terrible storm in which the flagship, the Sea-Adventure, with the leaders of the expedition and Strachey on board, was apparently lost. However, the ship had been driven ashore on Bermuda, and, after overwintering there and living off the island’s abundant resources, the group finally reached Jamestown in May 1610.

Although the letter was not published until the 1625 edition of Samel Purchas’s Purchas his Pilgrimes, it is described in the 1614 edition of the book (which is in our Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive). Purchas comments that, “William Strachie in a large discourse with his fluent and copious pen has described that Tempest which brought them to this Iland”.

The letter was clearly well known, and Shakespeare’s noble patrons – the Earls of Southampton, Pembroke, and Montgomery – were all involved in the Virginia Company, making it likely that Shakespeare would have seen the manuscript.

A detail from Mercator's Map of the Americas
A detail from Mercator's Map of the Americas

During the Tudor period, as it says in the introduction to the Arden edition, “the voluminous literature of European exploration was rife with tempests, wrecks, miracles, monsters, devils and wondrous natives… The Tempest may… be his oblique dramatization of Europe’s age of discovery”. (The Tempest, Arden Shakespeare, 3rd series, 1999, edited by Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T. Vaughan).

The Library & Archive has a beautiful item connected to the age of discovery – a hand-coloured Map of the Americas dated 1619 from the Atlas of Gerard Mercator. A detail of this map shows a ship sailing next to a whale-like sea monster.

See Liz Dollimore’s blog on the Strachey letter at We’ll be looking later at other sources for The Tempest, so do come back.

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