Dating The Tempest


Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Correspondences with Strachey's True Reportory
  3. The Significance of the Parallels
  4. Shakespeare's Access to Strachey's Letter
  5. Conclusion
  6. Notes


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.

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.

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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.

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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)

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The Storm

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The Island

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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.

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Other Events on the Island

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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:

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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.

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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:

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.

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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

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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.

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