Skip to 0 minutes and 5 seconds The Tempest is Shakespeare’s last solo-authored play. It’s one of his shortest plays, but it’s also one of his richest, most complex, and most rewarding, especially if we think about it in the context of Shakespeare’s world.
Skip to 0 minutes and 24 seconds The origin of the play seems to have come with the publication of a series of pamphlets and other documents regarding the wreck of a ship. A new governor was on the way to the recently founded colony in Virginia, and there was a shipwreck. And they landed in the Caribbean, in Bermuda. Word of this got back to England, and a pamphlet was published. In the opening scene in Shakespeare’s Tempest, there is a storm, and some of the technical, nautical terms are taken from those so-called Bermuda pamphlets. Shakespeare had contacts with members of the Virginia Company, who had established the colony in the New World.
Skip to 1 minute and 10 seconds The paradox comes in the fact that the play is not explicitly set in the New World, in the Bermudas. Unusually, when the play went into print, it did have a location, and the location said it was a deserted island, a desert island, a wild place. But it’s not specific about the location. And what we learn in the course of the dialogue is that the shipwreck takes place when the King of Naples and his family and followers are returning on a sea voyage from Tunis, in North Africa, where he’s married his daughter off to an African King.
Skip to 1 minute and 54 seconds Now if you’re going on the way back from Tunis, in North Africa, to Naples, in Italy, it seems pretty unlikely that, however vigorous the storm might be, you’ll find yourself diverted to Bermuda, to the islands of the Caribbean. So in one sense, the play is clearly set on a deserted island somewhere in the Mediterranean. At the same time, a number of references inevitably draw the minds of the audience towards the New World. Prospero acts through the agency of an airy spirit called Ariel, who can fly around the world. And at one point, Prospero asks him what’s happened to the ship after the wreck.
Skip to 2 minutes and 37 seconds Because it’s Prospero who has conjured up the storm, in order to bring his enemies to the island, where he’s been exiled, so that he can then confront them. The ship, says Ariel, is “safely in harbour… in the deep nook, where once thou called’st me up at midnight to fetch dew from the still-vexed Bermudas”. There, he says, the King’s ship is hidden. “The still-vexed Bermudas.” Immediately, the mind’s eye is taken to the Caribbean, to the New World.
Skip to 3 minutes and 11 seconds And again, at the climax of the play, when Prospero’s daughter, Miranda - who was only a baby when she came to the deserted island, and so who has never seen an ordinary human being before - when she does see the courtiers, the dukes, and the prince, Ferdinand, with whom she’s fallen in love, she says “O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in it!” Prospero, knowing that many of those people are actually of a villainous nature, says ironically, cynically, “Tis new to thee.” But that phrase, “brave new world,” inevitably conjures up the New World of the Americas. Because Shakespeare lived through a time of discovery, of exploration.
Skip to 4 minutes and 6 seconds It was in the reign of Queen Elizabeth that English travellers began to explore the New World, to plant the English flag on the coast of America. And of course it was while Shakespeare was in his teens that Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe. He came back, in 1580, a celebrity. He had shown, once and for all, that the world genuinely was round, and that it was possible to sail all the way around it. The fascination with the New World is also apparent in the mapmaking of the period. This is the period when globes began to be made for the first time, the kind of globe that a gentleman would have in his library.
Skip to 4 minutes and 49 seconds And it must be significant, in this respect, that when Shakespeare’s acting company got a new theatre, in 1599, they chose the name for it, the Globe. It was also the period when the world began to be mapped. Mercator had done the first projections of the world in a map, earlier in the 16th century. But that had then fallen out of favour. And the map of a man called Ortelius had been the favoured one. But a Dutchman called Joost van Hondt got hold, from Mercator’s grandchildren, of Mercator’s original projections. And he used them, and added his own mapmaking skills, to produce a series of new maps. Joost van Hondt, who latinised his name to Hondius, was a very interesting figure.
Skip to 5 minutes and 42 seconds He was born in the Netherlands, but because of the religious wars there, the war between the Protestant Dutch and the Catholic Spanish Empire, he went in exile to London. And in the 1580s, he was very instrumental in publicising Drake’s voyage. And indeed he did a map, a detailed map, based on consultations with maps taken on the actual voyage of Drake, where he showed Drake had landed on the west coast of America. He went back to his native Holland in the 1590s, based himself in Amsterdam, and that was where he produced his maps, including this beautiful map of the Americas– the New World. The Caribbean islands are drawn with a kind of precision that had very rarely been seen before.
Skip to 6 minutes and 30 seconds And there are all sorts of wonderful details, details showing different kinds of ships. The ships from Florida, ships from Greenland, even, on the far side, a Japanese ship. The ship in the middle of the Atlantic is very like the one on which we would imagine the voyagers in The Tempest to have undertaken their fateful journey. Equally, Hondius shows interest in the inhabitants of the New World. At the bottom of his map, there are some wonderful pictures of the Indians of Brazil, who we’re going to be meeting again, later in this week’s sessions. So here is an image of the New World. The Caribbean. The “brave new world.” England and Ireland, Spain, are in the top right corner of the map.
Skip to 7 minutes and 20 seconds And they’re remarkably small. From being the centre of the world, all of a sudden Europe was only part of the world. Horizons were widened. And Shakespeare’s Tempest is one of the key texts for exploring those widening horizons in the London of Shakespeare’s England.
The Tempest and the New World
Featured SBT item: Map of the Americas by Jodocus Hondius
- Reference no: 83427371
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CORRECTION: Bermuda is not located in the Caribbean as stated in the video.
© The University of Warwick and The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust