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Blackfriars Surprise

Into something rich and strange.

—Ariel, The Tempest

As William Strachey awaited the beginning of The Tempest in the Blackfriars, he may have mulled the associations evoked by the very title of the play. Those connections may have been truer than he realized, as the title is the most conspicuous of the language Shakespeare may have drawn from the Virginia chronicles. “Tempest” was a common synonym for “storm,” but one example of its use in the Sea Venture narratives stands out. The anonymous author of a Virginia Company pamphlet gave the word special emphasis even by the standards of the day. In listing the problems caused by the storm that scattered the Gates fleet, the writer capitalized and italicized the word: “First, the Tempest: and can any man expect an answer for that?” Perhaps Shakespeare answered the rhetorical question with a storm of his own.

The Tempest opened on the deck of a ship at sea in a storm. “A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning” filled the theater, according to the play’s stage directions. Pebbles rolled in a drum created the rumbling and a hand-cranked canvas fan just offstage provided wind. The Blackfriars was too small for pyrotechnic squibs, so sound and wind effects sufficed to create the Tempest storm. As the stage directions also specify, when the Tempest actors appeared onstage their hair had been doused with water.

Wind, rain, and thunder—to Strachey the stage action would already have been a reminder of the hurricane of July 1609. Then the parallels began to appear. One of Shakespeare’s storm-swept wayfarers—in one of only two times the playwright used the word glut—said the ocean did “gape at widest to glut” the boatswain of the Tempest ship. Strachey may have recalled that in his narrative he had described the air as filled with a “glut of water.” The Tempest passengers then expressed their fear that the ship would break up in the violent sea, saying, “Mercy on us!—We split, we split!” That seemed odd to Strachey, since he had written of the Sea Venture passengers that “there was not a moment in which sudden splitting or instant oversetting of the ship was not expected.” On the stage the boatswain complained that the cries of the passengers were louder than the storm or the calls of the mariners: “A plague upon this howling. They are louder than the weather or our office.” Why he, too, had written that the lamentations of the Sea Venture passengers were lost in the wind and shouts of the officers. Both ships, too, were taking on water. The pervasive leak that hampered the Sea Venture was a relatively rare occurrence, yet one of Shakespeare’s characters said the Tempest vessel was “as leaky as an unstanched wench.” This was a revelation to Strachey—it was almost as if the storm that tossed the Sea Venture was swept in its tumultuous whole from the pages of his own narrative to the seas surrounding the Tempest ship. Shakespeare had his attention now.

As the opening scene of the play continued, noblemen arrayed in the finery of an Italian court joined the sailors on deck. The characters revealed that the ship was carrying Alonso, the king of Naples, and his son Ferdinand. The king’s adviser, Gonzalo—called in the cast list “an honest old councillor”—then began a testy exchange with the boatswain. Gonzalo told the mariner to keep in mind that the king was aboard his vessel, and the annoyed boatswain told the elite passenger to get out of the way and allow him and his sailors to battle the storm. To Strachey the appearance of Gonzalo, the aged adviser to the king in The Tempest, may have reminded him of George Somers, the gray-haired counselor of the governor on Bermuda. Both Gonzalo and George established early on that they were as comfortable wrangling with sailors as they were advising leaders. Each straddled the visceral world of the sailors and the intellectual world of the colony’s noblemen.

Next the enchanted Tempest isle was revealed to Strachey and the other patrons in the Blackfriars audience. The action moved to the island of the magician Prospero, who emerged onstage attired in a long robe. With him was his daughter, Miranda, who was played by a boy dressed as a noblewoman. Miranda asked her father whether he conjured up the storm and, seeing the ship in distress offshore, pleaded with him to calm the waters. The description of the storm by the fair Miranda, to Strachey’s ear, sounded remarkably familiar. Strachey remembered that he had written of a “roaring” storm that was “a hell of darkness turned black upon us.” Miranda seemed to evoke those images when she asked her father whether he “put the wild waters in this roar” and created a sky as black as “stinking pitch.” Furthermore, Strachey knew he had written “the sea swelled above the clouds, and gave battle unto heaven” and “at length did beat all light from heaven.” Thus it added to his surprise when Miranda used a similar image, saying “the sea, mounting to th’ welkin’s cheek”—in other words, to the edge of heaven—“dashes the fire out.”

Strachey may have noticed a clever twist in Miranda’s description of the storm. The play had been originally written for the Masquing House, and in that well-appointed venue squibs hanging above the stage would have flashed lightning during the storm scene. Smoke from the squibs would have drifted over the audience, and the scent of gunpowder would have permeated the hall as Miranda spoke her lines. The aroma would have given special meaning to her description of the black sky as “sulphurous” and resembling “stinking pitch.” Those words best describe stage effects used to create a theatrical storm rather than a real one. The playwright thus subtly reinforced to the audience that Prospero created the Tempest storm with magic tricks, just as the stagehands had created the theatrical storm they were watching onstage.

The scene continued with Prospero reassuring his daughter that, while he did use his magic to create the storm, the people on the ship were in no danger. “No more amazement,” he told Miranda. “Tell your piteous heart there’s no harm done.” Prospero’s use of the word amazement likely pleased Strachey. Amazement was a favorite word of his, too—in fact he had used it three times in his description of the reaction of the Sea Venture passengers to the storm. By the closing act of The Tempest, Strachey would learn that three times, too, Shakespeare’s characters would use the word.

Twelve years earlier, Prospero told Miranda, he was the rightful duke of Milan. His brother Antonio, in league with Alonso, the King of Naples, overthrew him and set Prospero and Miranda adrift at sea. His friend Gonzalo managed to smuggle them the magician’s treasured books and clothes before they were set to sea in a small boat. Father and young daughter eventually shipwrecked on the island, and there Prospero raised Miranda. Now, by chance, Alonso and Antonio’s ship was passing the island, and so the magician raised a storm to bring his enemies to the island.

Using his magic Prospero then induced Miranda to fall asleep and called for the sprite Ariel. Ariel entered dressed in a costume that probably featured a multicolored silk tunic and silver wings. The young man playing the part would have several costume changes as the play progressed, appearing later as a water nymph in a crown of seashells, in a cape depicting invisibility, and as a giant batlike harpy. As Ariel and Prospero talked, it was revealed that a now-dead witch named Sycorax had come to the island before Prospero and imprisoned the sprite in a split pine trunk. The magician had released the nymph and now treated him as an indentured servant whom he promised one day to set free. At the bidding of his master, Ariel had flown to the storm-tossed royal ship to put a fright into those on board. He reported to an eager Prospero that he haunted the vessel as a glowing apparition: “I boarded the King’s ship: now on the beak, now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin I flamed amazement. Sometime I’d divide and burn in many places—on the topmast, the yards and bowsprit would I flame distinctly, then meet and join.”

The image left William Strachey bemused. The mariners of the Sea Venture who saw St. Elmo’s fire in the rigging were apparently not the only ones to “make many constructions of this sea fire.” Shakespeare’s description of the flitting sprite appeared to be a brilliant reworking of his own account of the darting light on the masts and ropes of the Jamestown-bound ship. Strachey had written of “an apparition of a little round light like a faint star, trembling and streaming along with a sparkling blaze half the height upon the mainmast, and shooting sometimes from shroud to shroud, tempting to settle as it were upon any of the four shrouds, and for three or four hours together, or rather more, half the night it kept with us, running sometimes along the main yard to the very end, and then returning.” Though the buoyant sprite of The Tempest came of age in the imagination of the master playwright, it seemed he was born in the early morning hours of Friday, July 28, 1609, in the rigging of the distressed Sea Venture.

Shakespeare enhanced his portrait of Ariel by giving him an attribute of St. Elmo’s fire not mentioned in the Virginia chronicles but known to mariners of his day. Through the ages, those who have seen the mesmerizing electrical glow have told of a bizarre side effect: the luminescent force can also make the heads and hands of people glow and cause their hair to stand on end. Ariel described just such an effect in his report to Prospero: “All but mariners plunged in the foaming brine and quit the vessel; then all afire with me, the King’s son Ferdinand, with hair up-staring (then like reeds, not hair), was the first man that leapt.” The line makes it clear that Strachey and Shakespeare both had St. Elmo’s fire in mind as they wrote.

Ariel then noted from the Blackfriars stage that Prospero used his magic to hold the king’s ship unharmed in a “nook,” a place that sounded suspiciously like the cleft in the rock that held the Sea Venture upright in the Bermuda surf. “Safely in harbour is the King’s ship,” Strachey heard Ariel tell Prospero when the magician asked about the location of the Tempest vessel, “in the deep nook where once thou called’st me up at midnight to fetch dew from the still-vexed Bermudas; there she’s hid.” Bermudas—the word came as a shock to William Strachey. Why had Shakespeare chosen to include in a play set on a Mediterranean island a reference to another island thousands of miles away, an allusion that was inexplicable unless The Tempest was inspired by the startling news of the survival of the Sea Venture castaways on the mid-Atlantic isle. Here in another guise was the gentle wreck of the flagship of the Virginia fleet, a ship that had grounded in a “nook” while its passengers removed in safety to “the still-vexed Bermudas.” Strachey needed no more convincing. Now he knew he was watching his letter to the “Excellent Lady” transformed by Shakespeare into his latest stage magic.

To Strachey, Bermuda’s enchanted reputation seemed to survive within The Tempest as the magical qualities of Prospero’s isle. The origin of Bermuda’s charmed character lay in the oft-reported stories of generations of sailors who believed Bermuda a stormy place of treacherous shallows and strange howlings. Strachey and his fellow castaways had long before marveled at the contrast between that reputation and the miraculous delivery of the Sea Venture voyagers from a foundering ship to an island of bounty. The Devil’s Isle that was Bermuda before the wreck seem to provide the darker facets of The Tempest—indeed, Strachey probably noticed that characters on the stage would repeat the word devil a dozen times in the play. From the bountiful paradise discovered after the wreck seemed to have come the lighter elements. The Tempest artfully combined the two faces of Bermuda that Strachey knew so well—the Devil’s Isle it once was and the gentle land it became.

Onstage the dialogue between Ariel and Prospero continued. The people who the magician had wanted to come ashore had done so, the sprite told his master, and the others were put to sleep inside the ship. If Strachey had read the pamphlet his fellow Sea Venture passenger Silvester Jourdain had published after arriving back in London, he may have noticed that the sleeping mariners of The Tempest may have had an origin in the Sea Venture chronicles as well. Strachey himself had written that the people on the flagship were in such despair that they nearly resolved to “shut up hatches” and wait for the vessel to sink. Jourdain added the detail that may have caught Shakespeare’s eye when he said that the passengers and crew of the Sea Venture “were so overwearied” during the final hours at sea that they had “fallen asleep in corners and wheresoever they chanced first to sit or lie.” In the combination of the two passages Shakespeare may have found the kernel of the weariness that would afflict his Tempest sailors—the place coming from Strachey and the overwhelming drowsiness from Jourdain. “The mariners all under hatches stowed, who,” Ariel said, “with a charm joined to their suffered labour, I have left asleep.” Toward the end of the play Prospero would order Ariel back to the ship to wake the crew: “To the King’s ship, invisible as thou art; there shalt thou find the mariners asleep under the hatches.” After they emerged from their slumber, a bleary-eyed boatswain would be mystified as to why they had fallen asleep: “We were dead of sleep and—how we know not—all clapped under hatches.”

The image of a broken fleet bereft of its governor was another image that William Shakespeare apparently could not resist. Once again, a detail of the Jamestown story reemerged in the playwright’s remaking of the Sea Venture chronicles of the New World. Ariel reported to Prospero that after the magical storm scattered the ships of King Alonso’s convoy, “the rest o’th’ fleet, which I dispersed, they all met again, and are upon the Mediterranean float, bound sadly home for Naples, supposing that they saw the King’s ship wrecked and his great person perish.” Thus Shakespeare seemingly recapitulated the story of a leader lost on a rain-whipped night and a dispirited fleet reuniting and sailing on without him. The image reminded Strachey of the stories he had heard in Jamestown about the reuniting of the Third Supply after the hurricane and their sadness at apparently losing their leader in the wreck of the flagship. Perhaps the playwright even drew on Strachey’s description of the castaways sailing “sadly up the river” when they finally reached Point Comfort and learned of the difficulties Jamestown had experienced after the disappearance of the governor.

The first act of The Tempest continued with Prospero’s dismissing Ariel and awakening his daughter to tell her they would visit Caliban. The Tempest cast list calls Caliban “a savage and deformed slave.” He is the son of the witch Sycorax, who arrived pregnant on the island. By the time Prospero and Miranda arrived, Sycorax was dead and Caliban was wandering the island alone. At first the father and daughter treated the wild man kindly, until he attempted to rape Miranda. From that time on he was a slave for life.

Caliban’s entrance on the Blackfriars stage was the most dramatic of the afternoon. The servant monster’s costume was of the earth and sea, probably consisting of a leather tunic, long hair, and beard. The Tempest was peppered with comments about the appearance of the “savage and deformed slave.” He was called a “deboshed fish,” “half a fish and half a monster,” “puppy-headed” (meaning foolish looking rather than literally having the features of a dog), and “mooncalf.” To Antonio he was “a plain fish”; to Alonso “a strange thing as e’er I looked on”; and to Prospero a “misshapen knave.” Despite all of those word portraits, Caliban’s costume was relatively simple, and it was the skill of the actor that animated his character.

As Strachey watched Caliban onstage, he kept coming back to the descriptions of sea turtles he had included in his Sea Venture narrative. Caliban had a strange mix of attributes that seemed a hodgepodge of animal allusions from a particular line of Strachey’s narrative. Strachey wrote that the sea turtle is “a kind of meat, as a man can neither absolutely call fish nor flesh,” and that it spends its days “feeding upon sea grass like a heifer, in the bottom of the coves and bays.” In The Tempest Prospero called the slow-moving Caliban “tortoise,” and another character wondered whether he was “a man or a fish.” Caliban appeared to be “half a fish and half a monster” and a kind of sea-turtle man—“legged like a man and his fins like arms.” Strachey’s suggestion that sea turtles were like grazing cows also seemed to reemerge in Caliban. On five occasions Stephano and Trinculo called the Tempest monster a “mooncalf,” a term for a deformed child born on a full moon, but one also with bovine overtones that may have reminded Strachey of his own image of a marine heifer.

Bermuda cedars may have made an appearance that day on the Blackfriars stage, too. The idea of seething berries in fresh water seemed to have piqued Shakespeare’s interest. In a reference that seemed odd to Strachey unless the source was the Sea Venture chronicles, Caliban mentioned that when Prospero first came to the island the magician “wouldst give me water with berries in’t.” True, in describing their homemade liquor the castaways had spent most of their time talking about bibby, a libation made from the sap of the palmetto tree. Strachey, however, had written of a second drink made from cedar berries. As he watched The Tempest he may have even been able to recall the passage. He remembered writing about the cedar tree, “the berries whereof our men seething, straining, and letting stand some three or four days made a kind of pleasant drink.” Remarkably, the fermented berry liquor he himself had drunk on Bermuda seemed to be a favorite of the monster he was watching on the Blackfriars stage.

The birthplace of the mother of the Tempest monster was also familiar to William Strachey. Shakespeare set the play in the Mediterranean, and a mention of a city on its coast seemed to link the play to Strachey even though the Sea Venture was far removed from those waters. Strachey stopped in Algiers on the North African coast in 1606 as he voyaged to Turkey to serve as secretary to the British merchant company there, and in his account of the Sea Venture storm he mentioned that he did so. In describing the hurricane, Strachey recalled that he experienced less violent storms “upon the coast of Barbary and Algeere, in the Levant.” Shakespeare seemed to have picked up on that allusion, for twice in The Tempest it was mentioned that Caliban’s mother, the witch Sycorax, was banished from Algiers before she came to Prospero’s island.

Caliban and Miranda may have bloodlines in another Jamestown narrative. John Smith’s book True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Noate was published—probably without his permission—in 1608 before Strachey departed on the Sea Venture. The work was available on the shelves of London booksellers when Shakespeare was writing The Tempest. In it Smith tells of a visit to Jamestown by Wahunsenacawh’s daughter Pocahontas: “Powhatan,” Smith wrote, “understanding we detained certain savages, sent his daughter, a child of ten years old, which not only for feature, countenance, and proportion much exceeded any of the rest of his people, but for wit and spirit, the only nonpareil of his country.” Caliban echoes the most distinctive word of Smith’s True Relation account, suggesting that the heart of Pocahontas may beat in Shakespeare’s Miranda. While Shakespeare used the term nonpareil in five of his plays, his use of it in The Tempest just after it had appeared in a work of relevance to the theme of the play suggests the playwright may have read Smith. “And that most deeply to consider is the beauty of his daughter,” Caliban said from the stage as he described Prospero’s view of Miranda, “he himself calls her a nonpareil.” Along with his description of Pocahontas, Smith describes a man that Wahunsenacawh sent to accompany Pocahontas on the visit. Smith characterizes the chaperone as the Powhatan leader’s “most trusty messenger, called Rawhunt, as much exceeding in deformity of person, but of a subtle wit and crafty understanding.” The description is suggestive of Caliban’s description in The Tempest’s list of actors, in which the wild man is described as “a savage and deformed slave.”

Strachey couldn’t help but think that Namontack and Machumps, too, may have contributed to the character of Caliban. The Tempest monster was probably singing about New World fish traps when he celebrated his impending liberation from Prospero with a song that began, “No more dams I’ll make for fish.” While all the printed mentions of the two Powhatans on the Sea Venture were published after Shakespeare composed his play, their presence on the ship and the disappearance of Namontack on Bermuda were a topic of discussion in London while the playwright composed The Tempest. There was good reason to believe it, since characters portrayed on the Blackfriars stage that afternoon explicitly alluded to New World visitors to London when Trinculo suggested that he and Stephano would become rich if they brought Caliban home and exhibited him as a curiosity in exchanges for coins: “When they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar,” Trinculo says, “they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.” When Trinculo alluded to a “painted” Caliban he may have been referring to cosmetics sometimes applied previous to the display of a New World inhabitant (whether alive or dead): “Were I in England now (as once I was) and had but this fish painted, not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver.”

Just as Caliban and Miranda might have roots in Jamestown, so, too, might Ferdinand, the son of the king of Naples and Miranda’s love interest. Hearing the name that Shakespeare chose for his leading man, Strachey would have been reminded of Sir Ferdinando Weynman, the man who had arrived at Jamestown with Delaware and later died there. Weynman was the second man Strachey had mentioned in his letter to the “Excellent Lady” who had a variant of the name Ferdinand, the first being History of the West Indies author Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo (known as “Gonzalus Ferdinandus Oviedus” to the author of the book Strachey carried). Perhaps the repetition of the name had been enough to fix it in Shakespeare’s mind as he mulled what to call the lover of the fair Miranda.

At the close of the first act, Prospero asked Ariel to draw in Ferdinand, who was wandering the island alone. During the curse of the play, Miranda would be smitten with the prince, and the two would fall in love. Ferdinand would choose a peculiar way to prove his love. Miranda would discover him stacking wood on Prospero’s orders, and she would beg him to rest. Ferdinand would refuse, saying he carried the wood on her behalf. His “wooden slavery” was a self-imposed condition for her benefit, he would say: “For your sake am I this patient log-man.” To Strachey the scene was reminiscent of his description of Thomas Gates on Bermuda patiently cutting wood for the construction on the pinnaces. In Strachey’s account, the governor did so to show his workers that he was willing to work himself and thereby convince them by example “to fell, carry, and saw cedar fit for the carpenters’ purpose.”

Early in the play, however, Ferdinand was preoccupied with grief over the supposed death of his father, Alonso. In Ferdinand’s musings, Strachey might have wondered whether Shakespeare imagined the undersea world of the Bermuda pearl divers. Ariel described a tropical lagoon as he sang a lament about the supposedly drowned king. As he did so, he evoked the magic of the Tempest isle: “Full fathom five thy father lies, of his bones are coral made; those are pearls that were his eyes, nothing of him that doth fade but doth suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange.”

At the end of the second act of The Tempest, William Strachey relaxed on his bench and mulled the scenes that had just passed before him. The transformation of his narrative captivated the former Virginia voyager. He was pleased to have a part in Shakespeare’s entertainment, and the insight it provided into the playwright’s literary method fascinated and inspired him. Strachey would watch the rest of the play with interest and see if he could discern more of his own words in the lines and themes of the magical drama unfolding at the Blackfriars.

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