Merging maritime adventure and early colonial history, A Brave Vessel charts a little-known chapter of the past that offers a window on the inspiration for one of Shakespeare's greatest works. In 1609, aspiring writer William Strachey set sail for the New World aboard the Sea Venture, only to wreck on the shores of Bermuda. Strachey's meticulous account of the tragedy, the castaways' time in Bermuda, and their arrival in a devastated Jamestown, remains among the most vivid writings of the early colonial period. Though Strachey had literary aspirations, only in the hands of another William would his tale make history as The Tempest-a fascinating connection across time and literature that Hobson Woodward brings vividly to life.I am currently reading Rudyard's Lost World, a collection of little know pieces by Rudyard Kipling. On page 48 there is A Letter to the Spectator in 1898 outlining the connection between The Tempest and the Bermuda shipwreck.
To the Editor of the Spectator.Interesting to see the earlier echo of Woodward's later work. Culture and literature are a deeply woven web of connections, ideas and echoes.
SIR:—Your article on ‘Landscape and Literature’ in the Spectator of June 18th has the following, among other suggestive passages:—“But whence came the vision of the enchanted island in the ‘Tempest’? It had no existence in Shakespeare’s world, but was woven out of such stuff as dreams are made of.”
May I cite Malone’s suggestion connecting the play with the casting away of Sir George Somers on the island of Bermuda in 1609; and further may I be allowed to say how it seems to me possible that the vision was woven from the most prosaic material—from nothing more promising in fact, than the chatter of a half-tipsy sailor at a theater? Thus: A stage-manager, who writes and vamps plays, moving among his audience, overhears a mariner discoursing to his neighbor of a grievous wreck, and of the behavior of the passengers, for whom all sailors have ever entertained a natural contempt. He describes, with the wealth of detail peculiar to sailors, measures taken to claw the ship off a lee-shore, how helm and sails were workt, what the passengers did and what he said. One pungent phrase—to be rendered later into:
‘What care these brawlers for the name of King?’
—strikes the manager’s ear, and he stands behind the talkers. Perhaps only one-tenth of the earnestly delivered, hand-on-shoulder sea talk was actually used of all that was automatically and unconsciously stored by the island man who knew all inland arts and crafts. Nor is it too fanciful to imagine a half-turn to the second listener as the mariner, banning his luck as mariners will, says there are those who would not give a doit to a poor man while they will lay out ten to see a raree-show,—a dead Indian. Were he in foreign parts, as he now is in England, he could show people something in the way of strange fish. Is it to consider too curiously to see a drink ensue on this hint (the manager dealt but little in his plays with the sea at first hand, and his instinct for new words would have been waked by what he had already caught), and with the drink a sailor’s minute description of how he went across the reefs to the island of his calamity,—or islands rather, for there were many? Some you could almost carry away in your pocket. They were sown broadcast like—like the nut-shells on the stage there.
“Many islands, in truth,” says the manager patiently, and afterwards his Sebastian says to Antonio:
I think he will carry the island home in his pocket and give it to his son for an apple.
To which Antonio answers:
And sowing the kernels of it in the sea, bring forth more islands.
“But what was the island like?” says the manager. The sailor tries to explain. “It was green, with yellow in it; a tawny-colored country”—the color, that is to say, of the coral-beached, cedar-covered Bermuda of to-day—“and the air made one sleepy, and the place was full of noises”—the muttering and roaring of the sea among the islands and between the reefs—“and there was a sou’-west wind that blistered one all over.” The Elizabethan mariner would not discriminate finely between blisters and prickly heat; but the Bermudian of to-day will tell you that the sou’-west or Lighthouse wind in summer brings that plague and general discomfort. That the coral rock, battered by the sea, rings hollow with strange sounds, answered by the winds in the little cramped valleys, is a matter of common knowledge.
The man, refresht with some drink, then describes the geography of his landing place,—the spot where Trinculo makes his first appearance. He insists and reinsists on details which to him at one time meant life or death, and the manager follows attentively. He can give his audience no more than a few hangings and a placard for scenery, but that his lines shall lift them beyond that bare show to the place he would have them, the manager needs for himself the clearest possible understanding,—the most ample detail. He must see the scene in the round—solid—ere he peoples it. Much, doubtless, he discarded, but so closely did he keep to his original informations that those who go to-day to a certain beach some two miles from Hamilton will find the stage set for Act ii, Scene 2 of the ‘Tempest,’—a bare beach, with the wind singing through the scrub at the land’s edge, a gap in the reefs wide enough for the passage of Stephano’s butt of sack, and (these eyes have seen it) a cave in the coral within easy reach of the tide, whereto such a butt might be conveniently rolled.
(My cellar is in a rock by the seaside where my wine is hid).
There is no other cave for some two miles.
Here’s neither bush nor shrub; one is exposed to the wrath of “’yond same black cloud,” and here the currents strand wreckage. It was so well done that, after three hundred years, a stray tripper and no Shakespeare scholar, recognized in a flash that old first set of all.
So far good. Up to this point the manager has gained little except some suggestions for an opening scene, and some notion of an uncanny island. The mariner (one cannot believe that Shakespeare was mean in these little things) is dipping to a deeper drunkenness. Suddenly he launches into a preposterous tale of himself and his fellows, flung ashore, separated from their officers, horribly afraid of the devil-haunted beach of noises, with their heads full of the fumes of broacht liquor. One castaway was found hiding under the ribs of a dead whale which smelt abominably. They hauled him out by the legs—he mistook them for imps—and gave him drink. And now, discipline being melted, they would strike out for themselves, defy their officers, and take possession of the island. The narrator’s mates in this enterprise were probably described as fools. He was the only sober man in the company.
So they went inland, faring badly as they staggered up and down this pestilent country. They were prickt with palmettoes, and the cedar branches raspt their faces. Then they found and stole some of their officers’ clothes which were hanging up to dry. But presently they fell into a swamp, and, what was worse, into the hands of their officers; and the great expedition ended in muck and mire. Truly an island bewicht. Else why their cramps and sickness? Sack never made a man more than reasonably drunk. He was prepared to answer for unlimited sack; but what befell his stomach and head was the purest magic that honest man ever met.
A drunken sailor of to-day wandering about Bermuda would probably sympathize with him; and to-day, as then, if one takes the easiest inland road from Trinculo’s beach, near Hamilton, the path that a drunken man would infallibly follow, it ends abruptly in swamp. The one point that our mariner did not dwell upon was that he and the others were suffering from acute alcoholism combined with the effects of nerve-shattering peril and exposure. Hence the magic. That a wizard should control such an island was demanded by the beliefs of all seafarers of that date.
Accept this theory, and you will concede that the ‘Tempest’ came to the manager sanely and normally in the course of his daily life. He may have been casting about for a new play; he may have purposed to vamp an old one—say, ‘Aurelio and Isabella’; or he may have been merely waiting on his demon. But it is all Prospero’s wealth against Caliban’s pignuts that to him in a receptive hour, sent by heaven, entered the original Stephano fresh from the seas and half-seas over. To him Stephano told his tale all in one piece, a two hours’ discourse of most glorious absurdities. His profligate abundance of detail at the beginning, when he was more or less sober, supplied and surely establisht the earth-basis of the play in accordance with the great law that a story to be truly miraculous must be ballasted with facts. His maunderings of magic and incomprehensible ambushes, when he was without reservation drunk (and this is just the time when a lesser-minded man than Shakespeare would have paid the reckoning and turned him out) suggested to the manager the peculiar note of its supernatural mechanism.
Truly it was a dream, but that there may be no doubt of its source or of his obligation, Shakespeare has also made the dreamer immortal.