RSC Tempest
David Kathman


Though Oxfordians consistently try to deny it, one of the biggest problems for their theory is The Tempest, which can be dated with virtual certainty as having been written between late 1610 and mid-to-late 1611, six to seven years after the death of the Earl of Oxford in 1604. J. Thomas Looney, the originator of the Oxford theory, accepted this dating (one of the few times sense overcame him in the writing of Shakespeare Identified) and thus denigrated the play mercilessly in an attempt to show that it was not written by "Shakespeare" (i.e. Oxford). Later Oxfordians have looked coolly upon this subtraction from the canon, and have tried to show that the play could have been written earlier than 1604; they have done this to their own satisfaction, and so consider the issue more or less closed. However, the issue is anything but closed; all Oxfordian attempts I am aware of to date the play before 1604 (and I think I've looked at the most elaborate, including those of Charlton Ogburn and Ruth Loyd Miller) are in fact astonishingly flimsy, and fail completely to confront the overwhelming evidence that in writing The Tempest, Shakespeare made extensive use of narratives describing the wreck and redemption of the ship the "Sea-Venture" in Bermuda in 1609, and the events which ensued when the crew made it safely ashore. Oxfordian writings tend to misrepresent the facts on this issue rather blatantly; I aim here to set the record straight, and (I hope) convince the reader that the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford could not have written The Tempest.

Table of Contents
  1. Introduction
  2. Correspondences with Strachey's True Reportory
    • Background
    • The Storm
    • The Island
    • The Conspiracies
    • Other Events on the Island
    • Miscellaneous Verbal Parallels
  3. The Significance of the Parallels
  4. Shakespeare's Access to Strachey's Letter
  5. Conclusion
  6. Notes

First, a summary of the historical facts. [note1] In early June, 1609, nine ships set out from England, carrying around 600 people altogether, to strengthen the new English colony in Virginia. The "Sea-Venture" was the lead ship, and carried Sir Thomas Gates, the newly-appointed Governor of the colony, and Sir George Somers, the Admiral of the Virginia Company. For most of the voyage all went well, but on July 25 a violent storm (probably a hurricane) overtook the ships and raged for several days. After the storm had subsided, four of the nine ships found each other and proceeded on to Virginia, and three of the others eventually made it into port as well. The "Sea-Venture" never showed up, and was presumed to be lost; word to that effect made it back to England by the fall and created a public sensation, since interest in the expedition was very high. But unknown to the rest of the world, the battered ship had managed to reach Bermuda before running aground, with all aboard making it safely ashore. The Bermudas had a reputation as a place of devils and wicked spirits, but the colonists found it to be very pleasant, and they lived there for the next nine months while building a new ship out of native wood under Somers's guidance. They set sail on May 10, 1610, and reached Jamestown, Virginia two weeks later. A ship carrying Governor Gates and others left Jamestown two months later and reached England in September; the news of their survival caused another public sensation.

Several accounts of the wreck and survival of the "Sea-Venture" were rushed into print in the fall of 1610. The first of these, A Discovery of the Barmudas, came out in October; it was written by Sylvester Jourdain, who had been aboard the "Sea-Venture" and had returned to England with Gates. A month later A True Declaration of the Estate of the Colonie in Virginia was published. This was edited together from various documents as a piece of pro-Virginia propaganda on behalf of the Virginia Company, the consortium of investors who had underwritten the trip; the subtitle indicated that it included "a confutation of such scandalous reports as have tended to the disgrace of so worthy an enterprise." [note2]Shakespeare almost certainly read the two above pamphlets and used them in writing The Tempest, but more important than either was William Strachey's True Reportory of the Wrack, and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates Knight. Though it was not published until 1625, Strachey's account is dated July 15, 1610, and circulated among those in the know; it is addressed to an unidentified "Excellent Lady," who was obviously familiar with the doings of the Virginia Company. As I will show, William Shakespeare had multiple connections to both the Virginia Company and William Strachey, and it is not at all surprising that he would have had access to Strachey's letter. As I will also show, this letter saturates The Tempest, providing the basic scenario, many themes and images, and many details of plot and language. The first recorded performance of The Tempest was at Court on November 1, 1611, allowing us to date the play's composition with remarkable accuracy to the roughly one-year period between the fall of 1610 and the fall of 1611.


Correspondences with Strachey's True Reportory

The following is a list of thematic, verbal, and plot correspondences between Strachey's account and The Tempest; in some cases, parallels are also noted with Jourdain's Discovery of the Barmudas and the anonymous True Declaration, in general only when they are closer to the play than Strachey. [note3] I have grouped them according to general categories: Background, The storm, The Island, The Conspiracies, Other Events on the Island, and Miscellaneous Verbal Parallels.

For completeness' sake, I have tried to include all the significant parallels I could find, even though not all of them are of equal importance. Many of these are quite striking, involving similar wording in similar or identical contexts. Others are less impressive when looked at in isolation, since they are of a type that might be found in other travel narratives, but their sheer number and breadth (much greater than in other narratives) is significant. Taken as a whole, these parallels constitute very strong evidence -- virtual proof, I would say -- that Shakespeare had read Strachey's account closely and had it in mind when he wrote The Tempest.



The "Sea-Venture" was one of a fleet of nine ships which set out in 1609 to strengthen the English colony in Virginia; it carried Gates, the newly appointed Governor of Virginia, and his entourage. A storm separated the Sea-Venture from the other ships, and the rest of the fleet continued on safely to Virginia, assuming that Gates had drowned. The situation in The Tempest is exactly parallel: the ship is part of a fleet on its way to Naples; it carries Alonso, King of Naples, and his entourage; a storm separates the ship from the rest of the fleet, which continues on to Naples, assuming Alonso has drowned:

                    and for the rest o' th' fleet 
	(Which I dispers'd), they have all met again, 
	And are upon the Mediterranean float 
	Bound sadly home for Naples, 
	Supposing that they saw the King's ship wrack'd, 
	And his great person perish.  (1.2.232-37)


The Storm


  • Strachey describes the storm as "roaring" and "beat[ing] all light from heaven; which like an hell of darknesse turned blacke upon us . . . The sea swelled above the clouds, which gave battel unto heaven" (6-7). In The Tempest, Miranda describes the waters as being in a "roar," and says that "The sky it seems would pour down stinking pitch, / But that the Sea, mounting to th' welkins cheek, / Dashes the fire out." (1.2.1-5) 
  • Strachey says that "Our clamours dround in the windes, and the windes in thunder. Prayers might well be in the heart and lips, but drowned in the outcries of the officers" (7); in the play the boatswain says, "A plague upon this howling; they are louder than the weather, or our office" (1.1.36-7), and a few lines later the mariners cry, "To prayers! To prayers!" (1.1.51). 
  • Strachey tells how "in the beginning of the storme we had received likewise a mighty leake" (8); Gonzalo says the ship in the play is "as leaky as an unstanched wench" (1.1.47-48). 
  • Strachey says that "there was not a moment in which the sodaine splitting, or instant oversetting of the Shippe was not expected" (8); the mariners in the play cry, "We split, we split!" (1.1.61). 
  • Strachey tells how "we . . . had now purposed to have cut down the Maine Mast" (12); the boatswain in the play cries, "Down with the topmast!" (1.1.34). 
  • Strachey says that "who was most armed, and best prepared, was not a little shaken" (6); Prospero asks, "Who was so firm, so constant, that this coil / Would not infect his reason?" (1.2.207-08). 
  • Strachey says that "Our Governour was . . . both by his speech and authoritie heartening every man unto his labour" (10); as soon as he appears, King Alonso says, "Good boatswain, have care. Where's the Master? Play the men" (1.1.9-10). 
  • Strachey has a description of St. Elmo's fire that corresponds in many particulars to Ariel's description of his magical boarding of the King's ship. Strachey: "Sir George Somers . . . had an apparition of a little round light, like a faint Starre, trembling, and streaming along with a sparkeling blaze, halfe the height upon the Maine Mast, and shooting sometimes from Shroud to Shroud, tempting to settle as it were upon any of the foure Shrouds . . . running sometimes along the Maine-yard to the very end, and then returning . . . but upon a sodaine, towards the morning watch, they lost the sight of it, and knew not which way it made . . . Could it have served us now miraculously to have taken our height by, it might have strucken amazement" (11-12). Ariel:
    	I boarded the King's ship; now on the beak, 
    	Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin,
    	I flam'd amazement.  Sometimes I'ld divide, 
    	And burn in many places; on the topmast, 
    	The yards and boresprit, would I flame distinctly, 
    	Then meet and join.  Jove's lightning, the precursors
    	O' th' dreadful thunder-claps, more momentary 
    	And sight-outrunning were not;   (1.2.196-203)
  • Jourdain says that "all our men, being utterly spent, tyred, and disabled for longer labour, were even resolved, without any hope of their lives, to shut up the hatches" (4-5) and "were fallen asleepe in corners" (6); Ariel describes "The mariners all under hatches stowed, / Who, with a charm joined to their suff'red labor / I have left asleep" (1.2.230-32). Strachey mentions "hatches" four times (10, 10, 13, 25); Shakespeare in Act 5 again mentions "the mariners asleep / Under the hatches" (5.98-99), and the boatswain says, "We were dead of sleep, / And (how we know not) all clapp'd under hatches" (5.230-31). 
  • Jourdain says that the sailors "drunke one to the other, taking their last leave one of the other" (5); in the play the boatswain says, "What, must our mouths be cold?" (1.1.52), after which Antonio complains, "We are merely cheated of our lives by drunkards" (1.1.56), and Sebastian says "Let's take our leave of him" (1.1.64). 
  • Strachey tells how the sailors "threw over-boord much luggage . . . and staved many a Butt of Beere, Hogsheads of Oyle, Syder, Wine, and Vinegar, and heaved away all our Ordnance on the Starboord side" (12). Stephano says that "I escap'd upon a butt of sack which the sailors heav'd o'erboard" (2.2.121-22), and later tells Caliban to "bear this away where my hogshead of wine is" (4.1.250-51); both Caliban (4.1.231) and Alonso (5.1.299) call the stolen apparel "luggage." 
  • Strachey says that "death is accompanied at no time, nor place with circumstances so uncapable of particularities of goodnesse and inward comforts, as at Sea" (6); Gonzalo says, "Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground, long heath, brown furze, any thing. The wills above be done! But I would fain die a dry death" (1.1.65-68). 
  • Strachey tells how "we were inforced to run [the ship] ashoare, as neere the land as we could, which brought us within three quarters of a mile of shoare" (13); Jourdain adds that the ship "fell in between two rockes, where she was fast lodged and locked, for further budging" (7). Ariel in The Tempest, after confirming for Prospero that the ship was "nigh shore" (1.2.216) says, "Safely in harbor / Is the King's ship, in the deep nook" (1.2.226-27). 
  • In both cases everybody on board made it safely ashore. Strachey attributes this to the benevolence of God: "that night we must have . . . perished: but see the goodnesse and sweet introduction of better hope, by our mercifull God given unto us" (13); "by the mercy of God unto us, making out our Boates, we had ere night brought all our men, women, and children, about the number of one hundred and fifty, safe into the Iland" (13). In The Tempest, the safe landing is attributed to the benevolence of Prospero:
    	The direful spectacle of the wrack, which touch'd
    	The very virtue of compassion in thee, 
    	I have with such provision in mine art 
    	So safely ordered that there is no soul-- 
    	No, not so much perdition as an hair
    	Betid to any creature in the vessel.    (1.2.26-31)
  • Jourdain tells how they "had time and leasure to save some good part of our goods and provision, which the water had not spoyled" (7-8); Gonzalo mentions how "our garments, being (as they were) drench'd in the sea, hold notwithstanding their freshness and glosses, being rather new dy'd than stain'd with salt water" (2.1.62-65). 
  • In Strachey the shipwrecked party is split up into two groups; in The Tempest they are split up into two main groups, plus Ferdinand.


The Island


  • Strachey writes about how it had been thought that the Bermudas were "given over to Devils and wicked Spirits" (14); Jourdain calls it "the Ile of Divels" (title page) and "a most prodigious and enchanted place" (8); A True Declaration says that "these Islands of the Bermudos, have ever beene accounted as an enchaunted pile of rockes, and a desert inhabitation for Divels; but all the Fairies of the rocks were but flocks of birds, and all the Divels that haunted the woods, were but heards of swine" (10-11). Such references certainly could have been the germ which suggested to Shakespeare the magic elements of the play; note that Ariel at 1.2.214-15 quotes Ferdinand as saying, "Hell is empty, / And all the devils are here," and that "devils" are mentioned a dozen times altogether in the play. 
  • Strachey writes of the "great strokes of thunder, lightning and raine in the extremity of violence" (15). Trinculo says of Caliban, "I took him to be kill'd with a thunder-stroke" (2.2.108); and earlier Antonio says, "They dropp'd, as by a thunder-stroke" (2.1.204). (These are Shakespeare's only two uses of the word "thunder-stroke"; he usually--seven times--used "thunderbolt.") 
  • Strachey also writes of the "many scattering showers of Raine (which would passe swiftly over, and yet fall with such force and darknesse for the time as if it would never bee cleere again)" (16). In the course of Trinculo's monologue at 2.2.18-41, a storm with "black cloud[s]" (20) passes over quickly. 
  • Strachey mentions palm trees of which "so broad are the leaves, as an Italian Umbrello, a man may well defend his whole body under one of them, from the greatest storm raine that falls" (19). This suggests Trinculo hiding under Caliban's "gaberdine" (2.2.38) to escape the above rainstorm. 
  • A True Declaration calls the Bermudas "a place hardly accessable" (10) and "an uninhabited desart" (11), but Jourdain says, "yet did we finde there the ayre so temperate and the Country so aboundantly fruitful of all fit necessaries" (9). In the play, Adrian says, "Though this island seem to be desert . . . Uninhabitable, and almost inaccessible . . . Yet . . . It must needs be of subtle, tender, and delicate temperance" (2.1.35-43). 
  • Strachey says that "There are no Rivers nor running Springs of fresh water to bee found upon any of [the islands]"; their "Wels and Pits" were "either halfe full, or absolutely exhausted and dry," though eventually the men found "some low bottoms" which "we found to continue as fishing Ponds, or standing Pooles . . . full of fresh water" (20). Fresh water is similarly hard to find on the island of The Tempest: Caliban reminds Prospero how "I lov'd thee / And show'd thee all the qualities o' th' Isle, / The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile" (1.2.336-38); later he offers to show Trinculo "the best springs" (2.2.160), and still later he threatens, "I'll not show him where the quick freshes are" (3.2.66-67). 
  • Strachey tells of the "high and sweet smelling Woods" (19), yet also mentions "Fennes, Marishes, Ditches, muddy Pooles" and "places where much filth is daily cast forth" (21); A True Declaration similarly tells of the "temperat aire," but also the "fennes" and the "salt water, the owze of which sendeth forth an unwholsome & contagious vapour" (14). In the play Adrian says, "The air breathes upon us here most sweetly," to which Sebastian retorts, "As if it had lungs, and rotten ones," and Antonio adds, "Or, as 'twere perfumed by a fen" (2.1.47-9). Fens are mentioned twice more in The Tempest -- "from unwholesome fen" (1.2.322); "bogs, fens, flats" (2.2.2) -- but only twice more in the rest of the canon. 
  • Strachey tells how the ship they built on Bermuda was made of "Cedar" and "Oke" (40); Prospero, in his speech at 5.33-57, mentions "oak" and "cedar" within four lines of each other. 
  • Strachey mentions the "Berries, whereof our men seething, straining, and letting stand some three or four daies, made a kind of pleasant drinke" (18); Caliban says that Prospero "wouldst give me / Water with berries in't" (1.2.333-34). 
  • Strachey mentions, among other animals, "Toade" (17), "Beetell" (18), and "Battes" (22); Caliban curses Prospero with "toads, beetles, bats" (1.2.340). 
  • Strachey also mentions "Sparrowes" and "Owles" (22), both of which are mentioned in passing in the play (4.1.100, 5.1.90). In fact, the relevant passage of Strachey mentions owls and bats consecutively: "Owles, and Battes in great store"; and Ariel's song in Act 5 mentions them in consecutive lines: "There I couch when owls do cry. / On the bat's back I do fly" (5.1.90-91). 
  • Strachey has a lengthy passage about a bird called the "Sea-Meawe" which the men caught "standing on the Rockes" (22); Caliban tells Stephano that "I'll get thee / Young scamels from the rock" (2.2.171-72). Scamels" is usually taken to be a misprint for "Sea-mells," a variant of "Sea-mews." 
  • Strachey has a paragraph about the "Tortoyse," which he says "is such a kind of meat, as a man can neither absolutely call Fish nor Flesh, keeping most what in the water, and feeding upon Sea-grasse like a Heifer" (24). Prospero calls Caliban "thou tortoise" (1.2.316), while Trinculo wonders whether he is "a man or a fish" (2.2.25), and Stephano repeatedly calls him "moon-calf" (e.g., 2.2.106, 2.2.135-6).


The Conspiracies

In both Strachey's account and The Tempest, much of the action once the parties safely reach shore involves conspiracies. A True Declaration says that "the broken remainder of those supplies made a greater shipwrack in the continent of Virginia, by the tempest of dissention: every man overvaluing his own worth, would be a Commander: every man underprising an others value, denied to be commanded" (14-15), making the connection between the tempest at sea and the tempest of conspiracies which must have inspired Shakespeare. Elsewhere (8) the same tract speaks of "this tragicall Comaedie." Many elements of the conspiracies in The Tempest are directly suggested by Strachey.

  • The conspirators in Strachey question the governor's authority and threaten his life: "one Stephen Hopkins" said "that it was no breach of honesty . . . to decline from the obedience of the Governour" (30-31); and we are told that "the life of our Governour, along with many others were threatened" (32). Similarly in The Tempest, the two sets of conspirators question the authority of, and threaten the lives of, both Alonso and Prospero. 
  • However, Strachey also tells how the conspiracies never got very far because someone always gave them away: "Humphrey Reede (who presently discovered it [a plot] to the Governour" (30); "some of the association . . . brake from the plot it selfe, and (before the time was ripe for the execution thereof) discovered the whole order" (33). Similarly, Ariel foils both of the plots in The Tempest: the first by singing a warning in Gonzalo's ear, the other by flying off and telling Prospero ("This will I tell my master" (3.2.115)). 
  • Strachey tells how "so willing were the major part of the common sort (especially when they found such a plenty of victuals) to settle a foundation of ever inhabiting there," and notes that "some dangerous and secret discontents nourished amongst us, had like to have bin the parents of bloudy issues and mischiefs" (28). This parallels the plot of Stephano and Trinculo ("the common sort" among the shipwrecked party) to stay and rule the island: Stephano says, "we will inherit here" (2.2.175), and Caliban later urges them to "Do that good mischief which may make this island / Thine own for ever" (4.1.217-18), to which Stephano responds, "I do begin to have bloody thoughts" (4.1.220-21). 
  • Strachey tells how some of the rebels "by a mutuall consent forsooke their labour . . . and like Out-lawes betooke them to the wild Woods" because of "meere rage, and greedinesse after some little Pearle," after which they demanded that the Governor give them each "two Sutes of Apparell" (35). In the play, after Stephano and Trinculo have convinced Caliban to abandon his labors for Prospero, Ariel leads them through "Tooth'd briers, sharp furzes, pricking goss, and thorns" into "th' filthy-mantled pool" (4.1.180-82) (Strachey on page 21 mentions "muddy Pooles"), after which they try to steal the "glistering apparel" (4.1.193) that Prospero has set out for them. 
  • Strachey describes how one Henry Paine, "his watch night comming about, and being called by the Captaine of the same, to be upon the guard," violently refused to do so, going on to say "that the Governour had no authoritie of that qualitie" (34-35). Later Strachey describes how some of the men, "watching the advantage of the Centinels sleeping" (38), freed one of their fellows who was bound to a tree after being accused of murder. This is suggestive of how Antonio, after telling Alonso that "We two, my lord, / Will guard your person while you take your rest, / And watch your safety" (2.1.196-98), goes on to plot with Sebastian against the sleeping king's life; it also suggests Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo's plotting to murder Prospero while he sleeps. 
  • In Strachey, a plot against the Governor is discovered "before the time was ripe for the execution thereof" after which "every man [was] thenceforth commanded to weare his weapon . . . and every man advised to stand upon his guard" (33). In the play, the plot of Sebastian and Antonio against the King is foiled before they can execute it, after which Gonzalo says, "'Tis best we stand upon our guard, / Or that we quit this place. Let's draw our weapons" (2.1.321-22). 
  • Strachey describes how one of the conspirators "was brought forth in manacles" (31); Prospero threatens Ferdinand, "I'll manacle thy neck and feet together" (1.2.462).


Other Events on the Island


  • Much of Strachey's narrative describes the building of a new ship to reach Virginia, a project which involved much cutting and carrying of wood. In the play, both Caliban (in 2.2) and Ferdinand (in 3.1) are made by Prospero to carry wood:
    • The men in Strachey "were . . . hardly drawn to it [chopping and carrying wood], as the Tortoise to the inchantment, as the Proverbe is" (28); Caliban is similarly reluctant ("I needs must curse" (2.2.4)), but has no choice because of Prospero's magic. 
    • On the other hand, Strachey describes how "the Governour dispensed with no travaile of his body, nor forbare . . . to fell, carry, and sawe Cedar . . . (for what was so meane, whereto he would not himselfe set his hand) . . . his owne presence and hand being set to every meane labour, and imployed so readily to every office, made our people at length more diligent" (28). Ferdinand is similarly enthusiastic:
      	There be some sports are painful, and their labor
      	Delight in them sets off; some kinds of baseness 
      	Are nobly undergone; and most poor matters 
      	Point to rich ends.  This my mean task 
      	Would be as heavy to me, as odious, but 
      	The mistress which I serve, quickens what's dead,
      	And makes my labors pleasures.   (3.1.1-7)
  • Strachey tells how in Virginia, the Indians killed one of the Englishmen whose canoe ran aground near their village. This murder troubled Gates, "who since his first landing in the Countrey (how justly soever provoked) would not by any meanes be wrought to a violent proceeding against them, for all the practices of villany, with which they daily endangered our men, thinking it possible, by a more tractable course, to winne them to a better condition: but now being startled by this, he well perceived, how little a faire and noble intreatie workes upon a barbarous disposition, and therefore in some measure purposed to be avenged" (62-63). This is paralleled in the play by Prospero's initial kindness toward Caliban, turning to anger and revenge after Caliban's attempted rape of Miranda.
    	                       I pitied thee, 
    	Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour 
    	One thing or other . . .
     	                          But thy vild race 
    	(Though though didst learn) had that in't which good natures 
    	Could not abide to be with; therefore wast thou 
    	Deservedly confin'd into this rock, 
    	Who hadst deserved more than a prison.  (1.2.353-62)

  • Strachey says that "It pleased God to give us opportunitie, to performe all the other Offices, and Rites of our Christian Profession in this Iland: as Marriage" (37-38), and goes on to describe a wedding between Thomas Powell (a cook) and Elizabeth Persons (a maid servant). This may have suggested the love story between Miranda and Ferdinand, culminating in marriage; cf. especially Prospero's warning not to "break her virgin-knot before / All sanctimonious ceremonies may / With full and holy rite be minist'red" (4.1.15-17). 
  • The debate among Gonzalo, Antonio and Sebastian in act 2, scene 1 about the nature of paradise parallels the public debate in England in the wake of the attempted colonization of Virginia beginning in 1607, three years after Oxford's death. It is well known that Shakespeare got the wording for Gonzalo's speeches from Florio's English translation of Montaigne's De Cannibales, published in 1603, but the references cited in note 3, particularly Cawley and Gayley, show in detail how the debate in the play parallels the public debate in England c. 1610, and how it was explicitly recognized that "Plaiers" were involved in the discussion.


Miscellaneous Verbal Parallels

None of the following parallels would have much value as evidence taken by themselves, but combined with the mass of correspondences noted above, I think they can be taken as further evidence of Shakespeare's knowledge of Strachey's account:

  • Strachey has a digression (55) in which he mentions Aeneas, followed closely (56) by a digression in which he mentions Dido; the discussion among Antonio, Sebastian, etc. in act 2, scene 1 has a puzzling digression on Dido and Aeneas (77-86). 
  • Strachey at one point cites "Gonzalus Ferdinandus Oviedus," the Spaniard who had written the first description of the Bermudas ninety years earlier (14); this suggests the names of Gonzalo and Ferdinand. 
  • Strachey mentions "the sharpe windes blowing Northerly" (16); Prospero mentions "the sharp wind of the north" (1.2.254). 
  • Strachey repeatedly uses the word "amazement":
    • "taken up with amazement" (6),
    • "with much fright and amazement" (8),
    • "strucken amazement" (12);
    as does Shakespeare
    • "No more amazement" (1.2.14),
    • "I flam'd amazement" (1.2.198),
    • "All torment, trouble, wonder, and amazement / Inhabits here" (5.104-05).
  • Strachey uses the phrase "bear up" twice: "bearing somewhat up" (10), "our Governour commanded the Helme-man to beare up" (13); and so does Shakespeare: "to bear up / Against what should ensue" (1.2.157-58), "therefore bear up and board 'em" (3.2.2-3). Shakespeare's only other use of "bear up" is in The Winter's Tale: "bear up with this exercise" (3.2.241). 
  • Strachey describes the newly rebuilt ship "when her Masts, Sayles, and all her Trimme should be about her" (39); in the play the boatswain, in exactly the same context (Ariel has just magically rebuilt the ship), tells how "we, in all our trim, freshly beheld / Our royal, good, and gallant ship" (5.236-37). 
  • Strachey mentions "Fluxes and Agues" (58); Stephano in act 2, scene 2 repeatedly mentions Caliban's "ague" (66, 93, 136). 
  • Strachey, in the description of the storm, mentions a "glut of water" (7); Gonzalo, in the same context, says "He'll be hang'd yet, / Though every drop of water swear against it, / And gape at wid'st to glut him" (1.1.58-60), the only appearance of the word "glut" in Shakespeare. 
  • Strachey also mentions "hoodwinked men" (12), and Shakespeare's use of the word "hoodwink" at 4.1.206 ("hoodwink this mischance") is one of three in the canon. 
  • Strachey mentions "Boske running along the ground" (48); in the masque in The Tempest, Ceres mentions "my bosky acres" (4.1.81), Shakespeare's only use of this word.


The Significance of the Parallels

As the above list shows, Strachey's True Reportory (and to a lesser extent the other two narratives) pervades the entire play. It provides the basic premise and background of the shipwreck, many details of the storm, the general characteristics of the island along with many details, the basic elements and many details of the conspiracies, many verbal parallels (most of them involving similar or identical contexts), and direct suggestions of the magic, love story, wood-carrying, and Prospero vs. Caliban elements of the play. Moreover, it is obvious that Shakespeare could only have borrowed from Strachey, Jourdain, and A True Declaration rather than the other way around; this was not another work of fiction Shakespeare was basing his play on, but three independent accounts of actual events which did not happen until 1609-10.

Rather than dealing with the mass of evidence we have just seen, Oxfordians usually attack straw men and present badly distorted versions of what Shakespeare scholars actually say. To hear Ruth Loyd Miller tell it, the only connection between the Bermuda pamphlets and The Tempest is Ariel's reference to the "still-vex'd Bermoothes" at 1.2.228-9, and she goes on to triumphantly note that there had been other accounts of shipwrecks in the Bermudas before 1604 which she says Oxford could have used. [note4] I am forced to conclude from this that Miller has simply not bothered to read any of the literature on the sources of The Tempest, for if she had she would not make such an astonishingly ill-informed statement. The evidence that Shakespeare used the Bermuda pamphlets has nothing to do with the "still-vex'd Bermoothes" line, and would be just as strong were that line not in the play. None of the pre-1604 voyagers' accounts offered by Miller or other Oxfordians contain anything remotely like the broad and pervasive parallels with The Tempest found in the 1610 Bermuda narratives; at best they offer only general and sporadic correspondences. Stephen May's account of a shipwreck on Bermuda in 1593, often cited by Oxfordians, mentions the "foule weather" of the Bermudas and "great store of fowle, fish, and tortoises," but the storm bears little resemblance to that of The Tempest, and the closest thing to a conspiracy is when the men demand wine from the captain, get drunk, and run the ship aground. Charlton Ogburn, in The Mysterious William Shakespeare (389), gives a third-hand report of a 1602 voyage to the island of Cuttyhunk, near Massachusetts, which he claims as a possible source for the play. Ogburn gives a few parallels involving the island (e.g. "Mussels, nuts, and crabs appear in both"), but there was apparently no storm involved and no conspiracies, and the fact that Ogburn cites his source as an "undated clipping" from the New York Times Book Review makes it difficult for interested scholars to check the accuracy of what he says or pursue the matter further. Other accounts cited by Oxfordians contain general similarities here and there to some elements of the play, such as one might expect to find in any travel narrative involving shipwrecks and/or islands, but none of them has the entire scenario of the play, many major and minor plot elements, and much of the language, as Strachey's 1610 letter does. This is not to say that Shakespeare used no sources from before 1604 -- Cawley's article, cited in note 3, lists many possible or probable ones -- but these were mostly used for specific details, such as the name Setebos (taken from Eden's Historie of Travayle).

There are a few other arguments which have been used occasionally by Oxfordians in a desperate attempt to deny Shakespeare's dependence on Strachey. Ogburn cites Richard Roe, who pointed out that the play is set in the Mediterranean -- not in Bermuda at all! True, but irrelevant; nobody claims that the play is actually set in Bermuda, only that Shakespeare took many elements of the play from an account of events which happened in Bermuda. Roe also suggests that Ariel's "still-vex'd Bermoothes" line might refer to the seedy area of Elizabethan London popularly known as the Bermudas. It is certainly possible that Shakespeare put in a double-entendre here for the benefit of the groundlings, but if so, so what? As noted above, the "still-vexed Bermoothes" line is very peripheral to the whole question of sources, and Roe's arguments say nothing about the mass of parallels to Strachey.


Shakespeare's Access to Strachey's Letter

Since Strachey's account is dated July 15, 1610 but was not published until 1625, some Oxfordians have dismissed the idea that Shakespeare of Stratford could have used this letter in writing the play. However, there is every reason to believe that he did have access to it, since Shakespeare had multiple ties to both William Strachey and the Virginia Company. Strachey's letter was addressed to an unidentified "Lady," who obviously had intimate knowledge of the expedition and the whole Virginia project; it was sent back to England along with Gates in the summer of 1610 along with a less frank and more upbeat "Despatch" (the manuscript of which still exists in Strachey's handwriting) which formed part of the basis for A True Declaration (cited above). Shakespeare had many connections to members of the Virginia Company, among whom Strachey's letter undoubtedly circulated, and any one of them could have let him see it. For example:

  • William Leveson, who was in charge of attracting investors for the Virginia enterprise, was a business associate of Shakespeare's; he had acted as trustee in 1599 when Shakespeare and four of his fellow Chamberlain's men bought a half share of the Globe theater. 
  • Dudley Digges, one of the most active and important members of the council, was the stepson of Shakespeare's friend Thomas Russell (who oversaw Will's will), brother of Leonard Digges of First Folio fame (who lived in Stratford with his stepfather when not traveling abroad), and friend of both Shakespeare's fellow actor John Heminges (who attended Digges's wedding and signed as a witness) and Ben Jonson (for whose Volpone Digges wrote some commendatory verses). Leslie Hotson pointed out in his book I, William Shakespeare that Digges visited his stepfather in Stratford in late 1610 to attend to some business matters, suggesting that he might have brought along a manuscript of Strachey's letter. 
  • Another member of the Virginia Council whom Shakespeare almost certainly knew was Sir Henry Rainsford of Clifford Chambers, since the two men were part of the same tight circle of friends in and around Stratford. Shakespeare's son-in-law/friend John Hall was the Rainsford family physician; Rainsford was a good friend of Shakespeare's Stratford friend John Combe (both Shakespeare and Rainsford are left bequests in Combe's will, of which Rainsford was executor); and Thomas Greene of Stratford, who lived in Shakespeare's house for a time and referred in his diary to "my cosen Shakespeare," also referred in his diary to many conversations between himself and Rainsford, with whom he was obviously close. 
  • And finally, Strachey himself was heavily involved in the London theater, and he and Shakespeare at the very least knew of each other and had common acquaintances. Strachey was a sharer in the Children of the Queen's Revels, a major rival to the Chamberlain's / King's Men and the "eyrie of children" scornfully alluded to in Hamlet. (Their landlord at the Blackfriars was Shakespeare's longtime friend and colleague Richard Burbage.) In his capacity as sharer, Strachey worked with the playwrights who wrote for the company, including Jonson, Marston, Chapman, and Day; he wrote a commendatory sonnet for the 1605 Quarto of Jonson's Sejanus, a play in which Shakespeare acted. Though Strachey himself did not return to England until the fall of 1611, it seems quite likely that his letter circulated among some of his and Shakespeare's common acquaintances.

Gayley (cited in note 3) notes many other possible connections between Shakespeare and the Virginia Company, some of them more speculative than others. We will probably never know exactly how Shakespeare came to see Strachey's letter, but as the above web of connections shows, he had ample opportunity to do so through his numerous connections with the Virginia Company.



I hope the above has been convincing in showing that the writer of The Tempest was heavily influenced by the Bermuda narratives of 1610, especially Strachey's letter, and thus that the Earl of Oxford (who died in 1604) was not the author. It will not do to suggest, as Charlton Ogburn and some other Oxfordians do, that any passages alluding to Strachey could have been added by another hand after Oxford's death; the later hand would have had to completely rewrite the entire play under such a scenario, leaving one to wonder just what parts these people believe Oxford wrote. The only way out for the Oxfordian theory that I can see is to follow Looney in denying that "Shakespeare" wrote The Tempest, but then you would have to explain who did write it, why it is so closely linked thematically and linguistically with Shakespeare's other romances, and why it was included in the First Folio as Shakespeare's (as the first play in the volume, no less). I will not speculate on these matters, but will merely observe that The Tempest is far more damaging to the Oxfordian case than most Oxfordians would like to believe.

David Kathman



Note 1

The following account is based principally on Joseph Quincy Adams's introduction to the 1940 reprint of Sylvester Jourdain's Discovery of the Barmudas, with some input from the sources listed below in note 3. Some modern sources call the ship the "Sea-Adventure," but both Jourdain and William Strachey, who were aboard the ship, call it the "Sea-Venture" in their written accounts; thus that is the name I will use.

Note 2

A third account of the Gates expedition's adventures in Bermuda and Virginia was published in late 1610: a 22-stanza ballad called Newes from Virginia by "R. Rich, Gent., one of the voyage" (reprinted in 1937 by Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints). This contains nothing noteworthy for our purposes, but it does illustrate the popular interest in the story. Over the next few years a steady stream of publications relating to the Virginia expeditions appeared, including an augmented and retitled version of Jourdain's account published in 1613.

Note 3

Quotations from the play are from The Riverside Shakespeare, edited by G. Blakemore Evans, with act, scene, and line numbers given; quotations from Strachey are from the edition in Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas His Pilgrimes, vol. 19 (1904: James MacLehose and Sons), with page numbers given; quotations from Jourdain are taken from the facsimile reprint edition published by Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints in 1940, and edited by Joseph Quincy Adams; quotations from A True Declaration are from the edition in Tracts and Other Papers, edited by Peter Force, vol. 3 (Washington, 1844; reprinted by Peter Smith, 1963). A modernized edition of Strachey's and Jourdain's accounts was published by The University Press of Virginia in 1964 as A Voyage to Virginia in 1609, edited by Louis B. Wright. Fuller accounts of Shakespeare's sources for The Tempest can be found in Robert Ralston Cawley's "Shakspere's Use of the Voyagers" in Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 41 (1926), pp. 688-726; C. M. Gayley's Shakespeare and the Founders of Liberty in America (1917); Geoffrey Bullough's Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, Volume 8; and the two Arden editions of The Tempest, the first edited by Morton Luce and the second edited by Frank Kermode.

Note 4

The Shakespeare Newsletter, Spring 1990, p. 12. Miller also claims that Jourdain's Discovery of the Barmudas was, "according to Stratfordians, . . . the sole source available for Shakespeare to know of a shipwreck at Bermuda," a patently false statement. Jourdain's account, while probably read by Shakespeare, was very much secondary in importance to Strachey's True Reportory.


Back to Shakespeare Authorship Home Page 

Play Tags