The True Story of “The Tempest”

"Wreck of the Sea Venture" by Bermuda artist Christopher Grimes

“Wreck of the Sea Venture” by Bermuda artist Christopher Grimes

Tonight St. Anne’s Warehouse opens its new all-female production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest by The Donmar Warehouse. Not only that, but it’s Friday the 13th. A suitable time, I adjudge, to spill a few words on the true story on which most scholars believe Shakespeare based his play, one that is particularly interesting in that it is a rare instance of a Shakespearean reference to America.

In 1609 the London Company launched its Third Supply to the struggling Jamestown Colony, for once acceding to the colonists’ requests to send substantial resources. The company sent 5-600 people on a fleet of seven ships, plus two smaller towed vessels. The flagship was the state-of-the-art, 300-ton Sea Venture. On July 24, 1609, when close to the Americas, the fleet encountered a hurricane. The Sea Venture was separated from the fleet, and took on a disastrous amount of water. The next day, land was sighted, and Admiral Sir George Somers beached the ship, saving the 150 people aboard. It turned out to be the island of Bermuda, where Somers and his people were to be stranded for the next nine months. Unlike the island in Shakespeare’s play, Bermuda at the time had no indigenous population, no Caliban for the colonists to lord it over. And between the ship’s stores and the natural resources of the island, there was no threat of starvation. One might be tempted to call the ordeal an extended holiday, but for the fact that there was much work to be done in converting the remains of the Sea Venture into two new, smaller vessels, called Patience and Deliverance which were to carry the survivors to Jamestown in May, 1610. Among the passengers were two of my ancestors Samuel Jordan and Stephen Hopkins, the latter of whom also had the distinction of also being one of the Mayflower passengers a decade later. Now that is a remarkable life. Two of the other survivors, Silvester Jourdaine (possibly Samuel’s cousin, but unconfirmed) and William Strachey, published their account of the adventure as soon as they returned to England in 1610, one of whose avid readers, most scholars believe, was Shakespeare. Everything about this is modern, relatively speaking: a corporation outfits the journey, the ship was a technological marvel for its day, and then the public gets to read about it. As an inadvertent result of the accident, English colonization of Bermuda commenced almost immediately (1612).

Obviously, as he usually did, Shakespeare drew from multiple sources for The Tempest, but accounts of the wreck of the Sea Venture appear to be among them.

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