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Bermuda Ghosts

Such stuff as dreams are made on.

—Prospero, The Tempest

As the second act of The Tempest opened, William Strachey and the rest of the Tempest audience watched Ferdinand and his father, Alonso, wander Prospero’s island, both unaware that the other was alive. Both were under the impression that the other had perished, even though—perhaps not surprisingly, given the play’s origin in the Sea Venture story—no one on the Tempest ship had actually suffered harm. As he grieved for his son, Alonso imagined that a grotesquely large fish had eaten his castaway son, lamenting, “What strange fish hath made his meal on thee?” The line is oddly reminiscent of Strachey’s aside about the remora—a fish that in legend grows to enormous size and intervenes in human affairs.

The scene suggested another parallel between the Sea Venture story and The Tempest. Publications put out by the Virginia Company after the loss of the flagship suggested that its voyagers might have survived on some remote shore. In light of the facts then known, the suggestion was excessively optimistic, even if in hindsight it proved to be entirely accurate. William Shakespeare included in The Tempest a similar case of misplaced optimism that turned out to be true. In the play, Alonso’s servant Francisco tried to comfort him by arguing without rational basis that Ferdinand had survived the wreck, which in fact he had. Sebastian had trouble believing Francisco’s overly cheerful assessment, saying that the cities to which the Tempest voyagers would return would “have more widows in them of this business’ making than we bring men to comfort them.” Furthermore, as the king and his handlers wandered after the wreck, Adrian called the Tempest island “uninhabitable and almost inaccessible.” The statement is a succinct echo of the Sea Venture voyagers’ assessment of Bermuda (or more precisely, their perception of the island before they landed and found it eminently habitable if accessed by luck). Few ocean islands in the world were inaccessible, and so Shakespeare’s use of the term to describe the Tempest isle would have been especially telling to Bermuda veteran William Strachey.

The action of The Tempest then shifted to yet another band of castaways wandering the island unaware that others had survived the storm. Now began a dual story line of plots against the leaders—one a serious conspiracy by Prospero’s brother Antonio against King Alonso, and the other a comic scheme against the life of Prospero by the drunken butler Stephano, the court jester Trinculo, and Caliban. The manner in which the three comic mutineers met reinforced Caliban’s origin as a sea-turtle man. As the scene opened, Caliban mistook an approaching Trinculo for a spirit of the isle and lay down to feign death. When a thunderstorm threatened, the jester climbed on top of the prone Caliban, joining the wild man underneath his cloak to avoid the rain. Stephano then came upon the other two, unaware that Trinculo had survived the wreck. All that was sticking out from under the cloak—turtlelike—was Caliban’s head between Trinculo’s feet at one end and Caliban’s feet at the other. Stephano mistakes his find as “some monster of the isle, with four legs,” until he recognizes Trinculo’s voice and pulls him out from under the cloak.

Trinculo’s entrance reinforced the frivolous tone of the scene, his costume cuing the audience that he was a comedian. During the course of the play Caliban would insult him as a “pied ninny” and a “scurvy patch.” True to those hints, when the jester appeared onstage he wore the patchwork apparel of a court comedian, including the classic belled cap of a motley fool. The costume of his companion Stephano was nothing unusual, but his name may have struck one member of the audience as curious. William Strachey may have sensed an echo of the inept mutiny of Stephen Hopkins of Bermuda in the comic rebellion of Stephano of The Tempest. In reading Strachey’s narrative of the castaways’ time on Bermuda, Shakespeare may have seen a clownish stage character in the pathetic supplications of Hopkins. The conspiracy of Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban would serve as a comic version of the more significant machinations of Antonio and Sebastian against Alonso. In the plot of the Bermuda mutineer named Stephen, Shakespeare may have seen the possibility of a slapstick rebel named Stephano.

Stephano’s method of getting to shore from the distressed Tempest ship may also have had an origin in Strachey’s chronicle. Strachey wrote that when Sea Venture voyagers lightened the leaking ship, they threw overboard trunks, chests, and heavy guns, and dumped the contents of “many a butt of beer, hogshead of oil, cider, wine, and vinegar.” While casks of wine were dumped over the side of the Sea Venture, at least one had been pitched intact from the Tempest ship. “I escaped upon a butt of sack,” Stephano said, “which the sailors heaved o’erboard.” The cask of wine proved a double benefit, serving Stephano both as a float at sea and a source of drink on the island. He gave Caliban his first drink of alcohol, and the servant monster so enjoyed the result that he proclaimed Stephano to be heaven-sent and pledged his loyalty.

In order to impress his new master, Caliban promised to gather them the fine things of the island. To the ear of the Virginia voyager, the bounty the monster pledged to gather was something that sounded suspiciously like the cahows the Sea Venture castaways found living in holes in the Bermuda ground. What Strachey probably heard that afternoon from the Blackfriars stage was Caliban say he would gather nuts, capture marmosets, and “get thee young seamels from the rock.” The word is presumably pronounced “sea-mell,” a variation of the term Strachey used in his narrative to identify the cahow—“sea-mew.” Twelve years after the Tempest debut, the word would apparently be inadvertently changed to “scamel” when a typesetter misread Shakespeare’s now-lost manuscript, mistaking an “e” for a “c” and in the process adding a new word to the English language. The highly influential First Folio version of The Tempest would give the word as “scamel,” evidently enshrining a casual error as a new word that has been dutifully included in dictionaries ever since.

The cries of sea-mews seemed to be heard in more ways than one on the afternoon Strachey watched The Tempest. The nighttime hunting technique of the Sea Venture survivors, which Strachey in his narrative called “lowbelling,” has a corollary in The Tempest as well. From the stage Sebastian proposed that the shipwrecked Tempest party go “bat-fowling,” or nocturnal hunting with clubs and lights. The haunting calls that the voyagers heard on those hunting trips also seemed to echo in the play. On Prospero’s island Sebastian reported hearing a “hollow burst of bellowing, like bulls, or rather lions.” Later the theater was filled with music played by the invisible Ariel. “Be not afeard,” Caliban told Stephano and Trinculo as the music began. “This isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments will hum about mine ears.” Still later, the boatswain described being awakened by “strange and several noises of roaring, shrieking, howling, jingling chains and more diversity of sounds, all horrible.” Strachey would surely have heard all of these mysterious wails as the nocturnal cries of Bermuda birds transformed into enchanted airs on the Blackfriars stage.

Just as William Strachey had written about “bloody issues and mischiefs” arising in the Bermuda camp of the castaways, so, too, did Shakespeare put “bloody thoughts” in the heads of his Tempest mutineers. Life on Bermuda also featured punishment imposed by a leader who was at once harsh and indulgent, and so did Shakespeare’s drama on the stage. Strachey described discontent among the Sea Venture castaways as a “desire forever to inhabit here”; in The Tempest he may have recognized his phrase transformed into Ferdinand’s declaration “Let me live here ever!” and the musings of Gonzalo on what life would be like “had I plantation of this isle.” In Ariel and Caliban the Virginia voyager in the audience may have sensed a kinship with the laborers and artisans of the Sea Venture, whose indentures to the Virginia Company served as their tickets to Jamestown. In The Tempest Ariel acted as the loyal indentured servant to the most powerful man on the island, chafing under onerous contractual terms but nevertheless serving without complaint. Ariel is the descendant of William Strachey and his ilk, including the informants who betrayed mutinies hatched by their compatriots. At the other end of the spectrum, Caliban’s plots of murder mirror those of the rebellious voyagers of the Bermuda expedition.

As Strachey mulled the ideas put forth in the speeches of the characters onstage, the stark contrast of Jametown’s inexplicably apathetic populace in the midst of an imagined paradise also may have come to mind. The failure of expectations to match reality in the New World was a principal point of contention in an ongoing public debate about the value of exploration, and Strachey would not be surprised to find that it was a theme of The Tempest, as well. Sure enough, the issue emerged in explicit form when Gonzalo launched into an extended rumination on what he would do “had I plantation of this isle.” Gonzalo pictured a Golden Age on Prospero’s island—using the signature phrase of philosopher Michel de Montaigne, who suggested that the people of the New World lived in an uncorrupted Eden. The Tempest counselor said that were he to possess the Tempestisle he would establish a society in which there was no need for a legal system; poverty would cease to exist, food would be plentiful, and there would be “no occupation, all men idle, all; and women, too, but innocent and pure; no sovereignty.” Sebastian and Antonio served as foils in the scene, badgering Gonzalo as he mused. When Gonzalo said the Tempest isle offered “everything advantageous to life,” Antonio sarcastically responded, “True, save means to live.” Gonzalo’s proposal that the ideal state would feature “all men idle” in particular drew the derision of the wits. “All idle—whores and knaves,” said Antonio.

To a Jamestown veteran such was William Strachey, the musings of Gonzalo would have seemed a virtual recapitulation of the Virginia Company pamphlets that depicted Jamestown as a paradise awaiting the establishment of an ideal commonwealth. Gonzalo’s imagined plantation was Shakespeare’s distillation of the arguments of the colonialists at their wildly optimistic peak. The playwright, demonstrating why his literature would be so enduring, presented both sides of the question in equally strong terms. The pointed repartee of Sebastian and Antonio perfectly reflected the pessimism of reports that depicted drought-ravaged Jamestown as a barren and spiritless colony of helpless laggards. These were arguments the people of London would recognize, and Shakespeare delivered them as usual with the best and worst aspects of both positions fully explored. Here was an example of his ability to penetrate a debate on current events and lay it gleamingly bare in a way that is eminently entertaining.

To Strachey the coincidences were tumbling from the Blackfriars stage. He would probably have noticed that the characters of the play were preoccupied with water quality. Both Prospero and Caliban threatened to punish others by withholding fresh water and forcing them to drink salt water. Caliban especially seemed to evoke Strachey’s fears of the Jamestown well when he wished Prospero to suffer the consequences of poor drinking water: Strachey described “fens, marshes, ditches, muddy pools,” while Caliban in The Tempest said, “all the infections that the sun sucks up from bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall, and make him by inch-meal a disease!” Ariel also commented on the questionable water of the Tempest isle, mentioning a “filthy-mantled pool” near Prospero’s cave from which Trinculo emerged to complain, “I do smell all horse piss.” Like the briny flow of the James River, it seemed, the contaminated water of Prospero’s island was a source of illness.

Shakespeare and Strachey were equally fond of classical allusions, and the playwright may have written one into The Tempest that he read in the voyager’s account. Strachey was drawing on Virgil’s Aeneid when he said the Jamestown fort was located on “a low level of ground about half an acre (or so much as Queen Dido might buy of King Hyarbas, which she compassed about with the thongs cut out of one bull hide and therein built her castle at Byrza).” Queen Dido makes an appearance in The Tempest, as well, when the play’s characters debate whether she was from Carthage or Tunis on the Barbary Coast. Though Shakespeare needed no excuse to draw on one of his favorite classical texts, his prominent allusion to Dido suggests that he was reading Strachey’s chronicle at the time. Perhaps Strachey’s aside even nudged the playwright’s attention to the Mediterranean coast of Africa when he was considering places in which to set The Tempest.

While Shakespeare resisted the trend toward including audience-participation masque dances in his play, he could not avoid the spectacle associated with the masques if he hoped to maintain the favor of the king and queen. The Tempest therefore included the lavish dance and music interludes marked by special effects that the royals had come to expect, even if they were never invited to leave their seats. In the debut of the play at the Masquing House, Shakespeare and the set designers did not disappoint the royal family. Complex scenery and costume were used during the onstage masque in the third act of the play. At the Blackfriars it was a lesser version of the pageantry, but dramatic nevertheless.

At the Masquing House a full consort of musicians had provided the music. Bandoras and citterns with their wire strings and lutes with their gut strings composed the plucked instruments. A musician played the keyboard of a virginal, while others used bows to play viols and violins. Wind instruments included cornets, flutes, recorders, sackbuts, and shawns. Drummers provided percussion on kettledrums, side drums, and tabors. The Blackfriars had no keyboard musicians, but it did feature a small group on string, wind, and percussion instruments.

Prospero watched from the stage balcony as the masque scenes began that afternoon at the Blackfriars. As instructed in the stage directions, to “strange and solemn music” wraiths of “several strange shapes” carried a fully set banquet table onstage and danced around it with “gentle actions of salutations,” inviting Alonso and his entourage to feast. After the dancers withdrew and Alonso and the noblemen moved toward the table to eat, they were interrupted by Ariel emerging from the clouds in the shape of a harpy. In a costume resembling a giant bat, Ariel descended from the rafters of the theater with the assistance of a hidden levitation machine. Such devices were new to the English stage, recently copied from Italian designs by the king’s stage technicians. At the Masquing House heavy post-and-beam frames covered by scenery supported small movable platforms. Hidden stagehands operated ropes and pulleys to raise and lower the actors. The Blackfriars lacked such expensive equipment, and so Ariel descended on a simple rope and pulley. Truly, it was a bit of an awkward entrance—one theatergoer likened the appearance of a Blackfriars descent to watching the lowering of “a bucket into a well.”

Ariel descended from the Tempest clouds, landed on the stage, approached the table, and enveloped it with his wings. The cover of the giant wings allowed other actors surreptitiously to turn a revolving panel in the tabletop that made the dishes of food and drink seem to vanish when the wings were withdrawn. Ariel then proceeded to break the tension of the play by telling the king and his noblemen that Prospero still lived and that they had been brought to the island to answer for their crimes against him. Ariel then exited to the sound of thunder, and the dancing wraiths returned and carried the table out. Prospero, hidden from the other characters on his balcony perch, then declared to himself that his spells were working and exited the stage.

Grand spectacle continued in the fourth act of the play. The action opened with Prospero embracing Ferdinand and welcoming him to the family. An engagement celebration then commenced, featuring more dancers. The most elaborate costumes were reserved for the goddesses Iris, Juno, and Ceres, who continued the masque with more levitation, dance, and song. Their appearance on the Masquing House stage likely resembled Ben Jonson’s presentation of Juno in a production three years earlier: “Sitting in a throne supported by two beautiful peacocks; her attire rich and like a queen, a white diadem [crown] on her head from whence descended a veil, and that bound with a fascia [chinstrap] of several-colored silks, set with all sorts of jewels and raised in the top with lilies and roses; in her right hand she held a scepter, in the other a timbrel [tambourine]; at her golden feet the hide of a lion was placed.”

A less richly attired Juno entered from the heavens and descended slowly to the Blackfriars stage. A succinct stage direction—“Juno descends”—calls for the character to enter from above the stage over the course of several lines. Stagehands behind the scenes worked the pulleys while musicians played to cover the creaks of the apparatus. Nymphs who served the goddesses did the dancing this time, along with “sunburned sicklemen, of August,” costumed as “reapers properly habited.” The dance played out for two or three minutes as the main characters watched, until Prospero recalled that Caliban and his accomplices were plotting to kill him and ended the revelry with a clap of his hands. A stage direction suggests that the scene change is barely covered by music, saying of the dancers that “to a strange hollow and confused noise, they heavily vanish.”

Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano appeared next on the stage, and their costumes again contributed to the spectacle. As the trio approached Prospero’s cave they were distracted by “glistering apparel” that Ariel had hung on a linden tree. Stephano and Trinculo took down the clothes from the branches and tried them on, and as they did so mirrored spangles sewn on to the costumes reflected the light of the candelabra. Caliban urged his two cohorts to ignore the clothes and proceed with their plan to murder Prospero, but the butler and jester put on the garments and marveled at their good fortune.

Strachey in the Blackfriars audience may again have been taken back to his time on Bermuda. The newfound clothes of the Tempest mutineers seemed to recapitulate the unexpected request of the last group of Bermuda mutineers for “two suits of apparel.” Strachey probably found it hard to believe, but his account of the rebels’ request seemed bizarrely close to the Tempest trio’s comic interest in the glittering clothes on the tree. Perhaps Shakespeare paused at the section of the Bermuda narrative where Strachey derided the apparel request of the Sea Venture mutineers as “the murmuring and mutiny of such rebellious and turbulent humorists.”

There were more tidbits, too, that seemed to mimic the Sea Venture experience. The conspiracy of the Tempest’s comic trio failed when Prospero confronted them. In an echo of the Bermuda hog hunts, the three were chased from the stage by dancers costumed as baying hounds named Mountain, Silver, Fury, and Tyrant. Musicians behind the screen provided “a noise of hunters” as the dancers in dog masks pursued the mutineers offstage. A reminder of the Bermuda hog hunts had already come to Strachey’s mind earlier, when Caliban accused Prospero of holding him prisoner by saying “you sty me.”

The play culminated in the fifth and final act when Prospero forgave the enemies who exiled him and announced his plan to return to Milan. After his declaration, the lovers Miranda and Ferdinand were revealed at the back of the stage playing chess. In addition to confirming the play’s romantic association, the scene served to reunite the lost father and son when King Alonso and his son Ferdinand each realized that the other was still alive. The drama ended with the lovers safely betrothed, the enemies of the court neutralized, and the rightful king returning to his land. Ariel was released from servitude and Caliban was presumably left to roam the island alone.

Prospero closed the play with a soliloquy delivered from center stage. As Strachey listened to the closing lines of the ruler of the Tempest isle, he may have been reminded of Thomas Gates of Bermuda. Each was a well-read governor marooned on a wild island; each threatened severe punishment but was ultimately satisfied with spoken assurances of renewed allegiance by the condemned; and each modeled dutiful behavior when his countrymen suggested that expediency trumped responsibility. In crafting the character of Prospero, Shakespeare may have taken special notice of Strachey’s description of the transformation in Gates’s personality after the ambush of Humphrey Blunt. Gates was freshly arrived in Virginia when he sent Blunt to retrieve an errant boat on the James River, only to watch from afar as his man was set upon and killed by Powhatans. The experience steeled Gates’s resolve and precipitated his attack on the unsuspecting people of Kecoughtan. Throughout his narrative Strachey depicted Gates as a patient patriarch who abhorred violence but who was forced into the role of a wounded overseer resigned to delivering punishment. Shakespeare would lead the character of Prospero through a similar passage in The Tempest. In Virginia the killing of Blunt caused the conversion; in The Tempest it was brought on by Caliban’s attempted rape of Miranda. That difference aside, the transformations of Gates and Prospero are remarkably similar. “Thou most lying slave, whom stripes may move, not kindness;” Prospero said of Caliban, “I have used thee (filth as thou art) with humane care and lodged thee in mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate the honour of my child.” In The Tempest as in Virginia, the perceived recalcitrance of the indigenous person moves the interloper to use force instead of the moderate persuasion he prefers.

Prospero may also have received a bit of Shakespeare himself in his personality. In the magician’s closing speech some critics have sensed that the playwright was announcing his own retirement. Prospero told the audience that he would give up his spells and lead a quiet life in Milan, just as Shakespeare mulled an end to his stage magic and a new life of retirement in Stratford-upon-Avon. Carrying the interpretation further, Ariel may be understood as Shakespeare’s creative imagination being released from servitude and Caliban as his darker impulses being left to roam in a private place unseen by the world. There are parallels, after all, between a magician who conjures up storms and manipulates people with magic and a playwright who creates theatrical storms and manipulates characters with stagecraft. Shakespeare might even have been referring to his most famous venue, the Globe theater, when Prospero in his closing speech said, “the solemn temples, the great globe itself, yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, and like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind.”

Strachey would have been amused as he watched a dreamlike version of his Bermuda and Virginia experiences play out in candlelight. Many moments of recognition would have taken place as he heard variations of his own language in the lines of the actors. The play would have seemed strangely familiar yet incredibly distant in the shadowy theater as his thoughts turned to his days in Bermuda and Jamestown. Even so, to Strachey the drama on the Blackfriars stage would have been little more than an ephemeral diversion. While he would have been flattered to see his words so used, he would also have thought that The Tempest was popular entertainment that would soon fade into oblivion as all popular entertainments eventually did. This version of his story would not last; no, it was up to him to create a work of literature that would have the enduring impact that this fleeting stage show would never enjoy.

Perhaps as soon as that evening, in his spare room a few doors from the theater, William Strachey took out his diaries and the memoirs of his Virginia voyage. He may also have reread his introductory letter to the Lawes Divine, Morall and Martial. “I have both in the Bermudas and since in Virginia been a sufferer and an eyewitness,” he had written, “and the full story of both in due time shall consecrate unto your views.” He intended to keep that promise, and so perhaps even that night he put down the book, picked up a quill, and began to write.

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