One exciting part of Shakespeare’s life was the almost constant focus on exploration to the New World which saw both Elizabeth I, and later James I of England, send companies of explorers across the ocean to try and settle in what was known as Virginia.
Named after Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, Virginia was a broad term applying to most, if not all, of what is now the Eastern Seaboard of the United States north of Florida.
There were several attempts to settle the new land and establish a colony, and specifcally three voyages to Jamestown to try and build a successful colony there. After the first two voyages failed, James I chartered the Virginia Company to travel to the new world and establish a new colony anywhere from what is now North Caroline all the way up to New York State.
The group of 105 explorers who set out for the new world in December of 1606 included Christopher Newport, who was the captain of the ships for their voyage over; Bartholomew Gosnold, one of the initiators of the Virginia Company; Edward-Maria Wingfield, a major investor; John Ratcliffe; George Kendall; John Martin; and Captain John Smith, a former mercenary who had fought in the Netherlands and Hungary. John Smith is famous today for being a friend of Pocahontas and a founder of early colonial America.
With all of this going on right as Shakespeare was writing plays like The Tempest, we are exploring Did Shakespeare Know About Jamestown?
First under Elizabeth, then subsequently under James, colonization and sending people to the new world was a huge part of the economic focus and political strategies of the world in which Shakespeare lived. Explorers were courting investors at the royal court where Shakespeare was performing plays, and they were delivering their reports to the crown on how those explorations were faring at these same court displays as well. So not only were they a huge part of life in England during the early 1600s, but they were also an essential part of Shakespeare’s life–so YES the bard knew about Jamestown, but do you know the whole story? Here’s a few things you may not know about the founding of Jamestown in 1607, when William Shakespeare was 43 years old and just 4 years before the first recorded performance of The Tempest.
When the explorers set out from England to establish Jamestown, they landed in present day Massachusetts on April 26, 1607–3 days after Shakespeare’s 43 birthday—they setup what is now Jamestown, naming the settlement after King James I of England.
When they arrived, the area was marshy and humid, which was detrimental to health and harbored a great many mosquitos, but it was also deep enough water for the ships and highly defensible position with the narrow waterways.
On June 22, 1607, Christopher Newport returned to England on the Susan Constant and the Godspeed to report back to the royal court about the budding settlement. The colonies leadership at the time wrote, and believed, that there was hope for the new settlement, but their optimism proved premature.
Shortly after Newport left for England, Jamestown was beleagured by plague and dysentery which came close to eradicating all the inhabitants. The colonists had not done the work which was required to thrive long term, such as building up food stores and digging a fresh water well. At one point there were as few as 5 able bodied men available to bury the dead. As a result, three members of the council voted to remove the acting President, Edward-Maria Wingfield and he was replaced by John Ratcliffe in September of 1607.
By 1608, Newport had returned to Jamestown with fresh colonists and a few supplies, but believing the colony to be successful, the ships were grossly under supplied to support the desperate needs they discovered upon return to Jamestown.
Having been funded by investors who were promised gold in return for their efforts, Newport has brought with him experts in gold mining and refinement. In a moment when they needed food and shelter, the focus was on finding gold. One council member, Captain John Smith specifically objected to the search for gold as a distraction to more practical matters of providing food, shelter, and clothing for the new settlement.
One colonists wrote “ There was no talke, no hope, no worke, but dig gold, refine gold, load gold,” (source)
At some point the tides shifted in Smith’s favor, probably as a result of decisions Ratcliffe was making as a leader. He ordered the building of an elaborate capitol building in Jamestown, which was the epitome of mismanagement for the colonists who were dying of starvation, relying heavily on the Indians for their basic needs at this point. While it is unclear if he resigned or was removed, Ratcliffe was replaced as the leader of James town by Captain John Smith on Sept 10 1608.
Smith leaned on the biblical principle from Thessalonians 3:15 and installed a rule that “He that will not worke shall not eate (except by sicknesse he be disabled).” While Smith was in charge, no settlers died of starvation, and the colony survived the winter with minimal losses.
During this time, back in London, a new form of government was established for the colonies and it was decided that instead of having a President, the colonies would now have a governor. To that end, Sir Thomas Gates was appointed governor of Virginia and was sent in June with a fleet of 9 ships and hundreds of new colonists to go to Jamestown. This is the famous third voyage to Jamestown, and the fleet that included the ship the Sea Venture upon which Thomas Gates was sailing. The fleet was caught in a hurricane and the Sea Venture was wrecked off Bermuda. They spent several months there in Bermuda (there is even a surviving fort there to mark where they landed and spent time) they built new ships to carry them on to Jamestown.
While the sea venture was wrecked, the other ships carried on to Virginia, arriving in August. When they got there, they demanded that John Smith step down but he resisted and they negotiated that his presidency would end at the conclusion of his previously established term. Instead, Smith was injured in mysterious gunpowder accident that caused him to sail back to England for treatment in early September 1609. Because the appointed governor, Sir Thomas Gates, was still en route from Bermuda (and likely no one in Jamestown knew if Gates was even still alive), a nobleman named George Percy stepped up to replace Smith as the colony’s leader.
Word of their odyssey fascinated English men and women, who saw in the story providential design: surely, many concluded, God had saved the Sea Venture voyagers. The tale also attracted London’s leading playwright: the Sea Venture contributed to the inspiration behind William Shakespeare’s last major play, The Tempest
Some great resources to learn more about this topic are:
Woodward, Hobson. A Brave Vessel: The True Tale of the Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Viking (2009).
And Vaughan, Alden T., and Vaughan, Virginia Mason (1991). Shakespeare’s Caliban: A Cultural History, pp. 38–40. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-45817-X.
The sea venture was a popular ship whose voyage was a highly attention grabbing event, because she was the very first purpose built emigration ship. She was built to take colonists to the new settlements and expand England across the ocean. She was also the first single timbered merchantman built ship in England.
On her way across the sea as part of the fleet of 9 ships captained by Christopher Newport and under the helm of Sir Thomas Gates, the Sea Venture was separated from the group in a hurricane. They crashed off the coast of Bermuda, where they stayed for months while they built new ships to carry them on to Jamestown.
Books you can use to learn more.
Sea Venture‘s wreck is widely thought to have been the inspiration for William Shakespeare‘s play The Tempest. This tradition has been confirmed by a detailed comparison to survivors’ narratives such as Sylvester Jordain, and that of historian and author William Strachey, who wrote an account of the storm entitled True Reportory of the Wrack, and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates Knight, was the primary source Shakespeare drew upon.
Our friends at Shakespeare Online share that: once news of the disaster had reached England, there was intense excitement because it was in 1610 when some of those who had taken part in these thrilling experiences returned home to tell their tales. That year saw the appearance of at least four narratives of the wreck, and to all Shakespeare may have had access. It is not unlikely that he would learn some details from the lips of the returned sailors and adventurers themselves. It is worth noting as well that two of Shakespeare’s notable friends and patrons, the earls of Southampton and Pembroke, were among the noblemen interested in the Somers expedition for business reasons. Southampton specifically was involved as an investor in voyages for the Virginia Company.
The four documents Shakespeare likely referenced when writing his play are :
1. Strachey’s True Reportory. The earliest written narrative of the shipwreck of the “Sea Adventure” is in a Reportory, dated July 15, 1610, addressed by William Strachey (Strachy) from Jamestown to some “excellent lady” in England. The full tide of this Repertory as printed, probably for the first time, in Purchas, Part IV, lib. ix, ch. vi, is here given in facsimile:
In the Reportory and The Tempest Shakespeare seems to quote Strachey verbatim. One example is in the description of the birds and berries on the island of bermuda. In Act II, Scene II, Caliban offers to “
|I’ll show thee the best springs; I’ll pluck thee berries;I’ll fish for thee and get thee wood enough.|
Shakespeare Online author Amanda Mabillard calims that the probability is strong that Shakespeare had access to Strachey’s original manuscript, which seems to have been brought to England by Sir Thomas Gates immediately after it was written. She points out as well that Strachey himself was a poet, and lived nextdoor to Shakespeare himself. Strachey bought a house in 1612 at the same BLackfriars lodging where Shakespeare purchased a house in 1613. So that places this account of the Sea venture’s voyage in direct proximity to the bard.
2. Jourdan’s Discovery, Silvester Jourdan (Jourdain) came to England with Gates in 1610, and in October published his narrative- of the famous wreck under the following title: A Discovery of the Barmudas, otherwise called the Ile of Divels: By Sir Thomas Gates, Sir George Sommers, and Captayne Newport, with diuers others. Set forth for the loue of my Country, and also for the good of the Plantation of Virginia. Sil. Jourdan, London, 1610, Jourdan’s pamphlet describes the region as “never inhabited” but “ever esteemed and reputed a most prodigious and enchanted place.” “Yet did we find there the ayre so temperate and the country so aboundantiy fruitfull for the sustentation and preseruation of man’s life . . . that we were refreshed and comforted.”
3. A True Declaration. Towards the close of 1610 appeared a third narrative of the shipwreck of the “Sea Adventure,” and a description of the regions involved. The title reads: A True Declaration of the Estate of the Colonie in Virginia, With a Confutation of such scandalous Reports as have tended to the disgrace of so worthy an enterprise. In this anonymous pamphlet, purporting to be published “by Advise and direction of the Councell of Virginia,” the wreck is said to have been caused by a thunderstorm; the after events are called a “Tragicall-Comaedie”; and the Bermudas are described as “an inchanted pile of rockes, and a desert inhabitation for divels”; but, adds the writer, “all the fairies of the rocks were but flockes of birds, and all the divels that haunted the woods were but heardes of swine.”
4. Riches Newes from Virginia. Along with these prose narratives of the year 1610 must be mentioned a set of “butter-women’s rank to market” verses, a ballad with the following title: Newes from Virginia, The Lost Flocke triumphant, with the happy Arriual of that famous and worthy knight, Sr Thomas Gates, and the well reputed and valiant Captaine Mr, Christopher Newporte, and others, into England, With the manner of their distresse in the Hand of Deuils (otherwise called Bermoothawes), where they remayned 42 weekesy and builded two Pynaces in which they returned into Virginia. By R, Rich, Gent,, one of the Voyage, London, 1610. The third stanza repeats the interesting spelling “Bermoothawes” (cf. note, I, ii, 229):
The seas did rage, the windes did blowe,
distressed were they then;
Their ship did leake, her tacklings breake,
in daunger were her men.
But heaven was pylotte in this storme,
and to an iland nere,
Bemioothawes call’d, conducted then,
which did abate their feare.
From such contemporary narratives as these Shakespeare derived color and atmosphere for his enchanted island. Mabillard argues “That he did not intend the Bermudas as the scene of the action is evident from Ariel’s words in I, ii, 228-229.”
Which those lines read:
Safely in harbour
Is the king’s ship; in the deep nook, where once
Thou call’dst me up at midnight to fetch dew
From the still-vex’d Bermoothes, there she’s hid:
The mariners all under hatches stow’d;
Who, with a charm join’d to their suffer’d labour,
I have left asleep; and for the rest o’ the fleet
Which I dispersed, they all have met again
And are upon the Mediterranean flote,
Bound sadly home for Naples,
Supposing that they saw the king’s ship wreck’d
And his great person perish.
I disagree with Amanda on her point about Shakespeare not intending to reference Bermuda. The use of “Bermoothes” seems to suggest Bermuda, and the king’s ship being in “the deep nook” sounds like Jamestown specifically to me. While he is apparently creating a compilation of places, he seems influenced by the tales of Jamestown and the crash off Bermuda by the Sea Venture.
It’s worth noting that Naples and the Mediterranean could have been used by Shakespeare as the location for anything considered “far away” or “Foreign” and does not necessarily mean the bard was indicating Italy instead of Bermuda, but rather that Shakespeare simply did not have a global understanding of England in relation to this “Bermuda” which was literally new territory for anyone at this time. The entire concept of mapping the world and global/spacial distances from one another were new endeavors, and this was the first time England was seeing or hearing about these places on the globe.
So, yes, Shakespeare along with everyone in England were closely following the exploits of Jamestown and the colonists ,The adventures across the ocean were significant occurrences in the life of the bard, even making there way into his plays.
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