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The Tempest and the Bermuda Shipwreck of 1609

by Peter Moore

This article first appeared in the Summer 1996 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.

This article glances briefly at the question of whether The Tempest is based on the 1609 Bermuda wreck. The method of Stratfordians, beginning with Louis Wright, who bank on The Tempest to refute the Oxford theory is to ignore all other shipwreck literature, and then to dredge through the 114 pages of William Strachey’s and Silvester Jourdain’s pamphlets (in Wright’s 1964 A Voyage to Virginia in 1609) looking for parallels. Naturally they can find some, but Stratfordians who were unconcerned with Oxford were not particularly impressed with the results. Edmund Chambers’ Encyclopedia Britannica article on Shakespeare ignores Strachey’s letter and says of Jourdain’s:

this or some other contemporary narrative of Virginian colonization probably furnished the hint of the plot.

Kenneth Muir’s The Sources of Shakespeare’s Plays (1978) thinks the Bermuda pamphlets are probable sources for The Tempest, adding:

The extent of the verbal echoes of [the Bermuda] pamphlets has, I think, been exaggerated. There is hardly a shipwreck in history or fiction which does not mention splitting, in which the ship is not lightened of its cargo, in which the passengers do not give themselves up for lost, in which north winds are not sharp, and in which no one gets to shore by clinging to wreckage. (280)

Not exactly ringing endorsements.

Muir continues by remarking that Strachey’s account is influenced by St. Paul’s shipwreck and by Erasmus’ colloquy. St. Paul’s account of his wreck at Malta, Acts of the Apostles 27-28:12, takes up less than two pages in either the Geneva or King James Bible, in contrast to the 114 pages of the two Bermuda pamphlets. In those two pages we find the following parallels to The Tempest:

1. A voyage to Italy within the Mediterranean.
2. Discord among the participants; the crew against the passengers.
3. The ship driven by a ‘tempest’.
4. Loss of hope.
5. An angel visits the ship; compare to Ariel.
6. Desperate maneuvers to avoid the lee shore of an unknown island.
7. Detailed description of nautical techniques.
8. The ship runs aground and splits.
9. Passengers and crew swim ashore on loose or broken timbers; compare to Stephano coming ashore on a butt of sack.
10. The island has barbarous inhabitants; compare to Caliban.
11. Supernatural involvement.
12. A seeming miracle; St. Paul immune to snakebite.
13. A safe trip to Italy after a stay on the island.

Another Stratfordian remarked that The Tempest‘s description of St. Elmo’s fire appears to be drawn from Hakluyt. But let us first compare Strachey and Shakespeare on this matter:

an apparition of a little, round light, like a faint star, trembling and streaming along with a sparkling blaze, half the height upon the main mast 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; (Strachey, p.12 in Wright)

…now on the beak,

Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin,

I flam’d amazement: sometime I’d divide,

And burn in many places; on the topmast,

The yards and boresprit, would I flame distinctly,

Then meet and join. (Tempest, I.ii.196-201)

If you gaze at these two passages long enough, you can certainly mesmerize yourself into believing that the one borrows from the other, just as a sentry at night will see a bush move if he stares at it continually. Consequently recruits are taught that they must keep their eyes moving, which is also a good rule for those investigating Shakespeare’s sources. We will now compare Strachey’s account to two from Richard Hakluyt’s The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries, Volume III (London, 1600; Glasgow, 1904, Vol. IX; my emphases), which volume also contains Henry May’s account of the last voyage of the ‘Edward Bonaventure’.

And straightway we saw upon the shrouds of the Trinity as it were a candle, which of itself shined, and gave a light, … it was the light of Saint Elmo which appeared on the shrouds, (Account of Francis de Ulloa, p. 405 in original ed.; p. 228 in 1904 reprint.)

in the night, there came upon the top of our mainyard and main mast, a certain little light, much like unto the light of a little candle, which the Spaniards called the Cuerpo santo, and said it was St. Elmo, … This light continued aboard our ship about three hours, flying from mast to mast, and from top to top: and sometime it would be in two or three places at once. (Account of Robert Tomson, 450; 345.)

an apparition of a little, round light, like a faint star, trembling and streaming along with a sparkling blaze, half the height upon the main mast 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; (Strachey)

It is readily seen that Strachey uses the very words of de Ulloa and Tomson; the only words Shakespeare shares with Strachey are ‘and’, ‘sometime’, ‘the’, and ‘then’. Any argument that Shakespeare borrowed from Strachey is, all the more strongly, an argument that Strachey borrowed from Hakluyt, whose book was easily available to Shakespeare. A balanced view of all suggested sources for the shipwreck in The Tempest leads to the conclusion that Shakespeare used no identified source. Wright and others who look only at the Bermuda pamphlets are like recruits on guard duty staring at a bush.

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