Although Columbus had discovered the “New World” in 1492, it is interesting to note how relatively uninterested Shakespeare was in the Americas or the western travel that was sweeping Europe. While some Englanders focused their attention and dreams on the uncivilized land in the west, Shakespeare “dreamed and wrote of the old world, of battles long ago, of an ancient story-land already splendid in its braveries and devotions”. He has left no evidence that might suggest any interest in the voyagers or the dangers faced on the uncharted oceans of the west, but he knew of the colonization endeavors through leaders such as Southampton, his early patron. The disinterest changed, though, when he read of the Sea Adventure shipwreck.
In the year 1609, a year before the estimated writing of The Tempest, nine ships set out from England to strengthen John Smith’s Virginian colonies. En route, though, one of the ships was carried away from the other during a storm. The lost ship, the Sea-Adventure, had on board the operation commanders, and all of the passengers were presumed to be lost at sea. However, a year later, news reached England that the crew and passengers of the Sea-Adventure had been blown to the coast of a Bermudan island, but they survived and rejoined the party the following year. Stunned English journalists reported many accounts of the shipwreck, and it is from these stories that some historians attribute Shakespeare’s initial inspiration for the setting and foundation of The Tempest.
After the shipwreck and news of the amazing survival, there were numerous accounts and reports circulating. Although we will never know with any certainty how many of these travel accounts Shakespeare read, “it is universally agreed that he had read three accounts of a particular shipwreck in the Bermudas just prior to writing The Tempest” (Ebner 166-167). In addition to telling a story about the survivors of a storm while at sea, the records told that “sailors, expecting to perish on the reputedly enchanted islands, were amazed to find that they contained everything necessary for the support of life”.
It would be easy to mistake Prospero’s enchanted island for the newly discovered tropical islands of the Caribbean, especially the one of the Sea Adventure’s shipwreck. In view of the traditional beliefs about uncivilized lands with savages far off in the west, Prosperso’s island might mirror a tropical island yet to be discovered by the people of Milan. Textually, though, the island is located somewhere in the western Mediterranean Sea, not too far from Milan. The Bermudas are mentioned as a place where Prospero once made Ariel fetch dew, but it is clear that the present action is taking place much closer to Prospero’s old place of dukedom. Although the island that contains the action of the play may be in the Mediterranean, there is still a distinct connection between the text of The Tempest and the historical events of the times.
Not only does the geographic depiction of the island inspire thoughts of the New World, but Caliban’s character also incites the reader to think of the traditional savage from the uncivilized world. “He is especially suggestive of a New World savage, since Setebos, his ‘dam’s god’, was a malignant deity worshipped by the American Indians” (Ebner 163). His name, usually explained as an anagram of Cannibal, has been another frequently used connection between Shakespeare’s character and the stereotypical savage men of the Caribbean (Franssen 27). In addition to Caliban’s beast-like physical description, Shakespeare used Caliban’s name and his deity to display the cultural paradigms of the society regarding the new-world savages.
Although the ethnocentricity obviously affected the mindset of Shakespeare, he authored the play at a time when other historical events and attitudes may have also affected the play’s composition. Caliban’s character took “shape under the influence of conflicting opinions held on the American Indians during Shakespeare’s lifetime” (Sharp 267). The idea of a savage who needed to be Christianized was a traditional belief, but as the English read the accounts of abhorrent Spanish treatment towards Native Americans, there was an increase in the disapproval of the actions. “With the growing anti-Spanish feeling in England went an increasing sympathy for the Indians victimized by Spanish conquerors”. The sympathy that the English were beginning to feel for the savages may have been instrumental in the dichotomy of Caliban’s character evoking both sympathy and disgust. Shakespeare did not just create a savage, beast-like man; he gave him human traits and qualities. Caliban’s character forces the reader or audience to contemplate the morality of slavery and oppression. “Prospero’s efforts to recover the dukedom which is legitimately his from the usurper Antonio are mirrored by Caliban’s attempts to recover his native island from its usurper, Prospero” (Delabastita 9). The mirroring creates a double standard that every reader must resolve internally. In doing so Caliban’s character must be dehumanized and seen only as evil for his enslavement to be acceptable. If Shakespeare developed Caliban’s character, though, then Prospero’s actions become morally questionable. This relationship between Caliban and Prospero invite many readers to think about the slavery and expansionism contemporary to Shakespeare’s time.
While the explorations of the New World gave inspiration to Shakespeare’s ideas, another powerful influence on his writing was the work of Montaigne and other utopian philosophers. Partially stemming from the Biblical Eden, Plato’s Republic and other famous utopias, “an extensive body of utopian literature sprang up in the Renaissance with the hope that the reason of man could find the conditions necessary for the establishment of a new social order”. The newly created model of paradise allowed for a simple lifestyle devoid of corruption. This pattern was evident in many different fictional writings from the time period, but most exciting to those seeking out a utopian society had to be the many travel accounts from the new world depicting the tribal communities as contemporary utopias. The idea of utopias that existed among the primitive cultures triggered some of the famous writings by Montaigne.
The crown of all such Renaissance primitivism is Montaigne’s Essays, and especially that on the Cannibals, where the criticism of Spanish Christianity has become a libertin critique of modern European civility. Shakespeare, in The Tempest, seems to show a knowledge of this essay, and certainly The Tempest reveals a searching interest in the status of Western civilization parallel to Montaigne’s, and a concern to understand the point of reconciliation between innocence and sophistication, ignorance and knowledge.
While Montaigne may have seen a simplistic correlation between good people and a utopian society untouched by civilization, Shakespeare was less willing to draw such distinct lines. When Shakespeare read the travel accounts from the Sea Adventure shipwreck, he learned of more than just an enchanted island. According to a letter written by William Strachey that Shakespeare is believed to have read, the people living on the island witnessed attempted mutinies and an increasingly animalistic nature. Those accounts and others by voyagers who dealt with the Native Americans gave Shakespeare a “view of primitive man that was diametrically opposed to that advanced by Montaigne”. Shakespeare’s conclusion was simply that good and evil could survive equally in primitive and civilized societies. The connection between Montaigne’s work and Shakespeare’s play extends beyond a common exploration of the utopian society which led to different conclusions. In Gonzalo’s speech about the island in 2.1.139-164, Shakespeare borrows directly from one of Montaigne’s essays about the ideal utopian land. As Gonzalo describes the utopian possibilities that the island offered, the action of the play will prove Gonzalo wrong. Through this obvious contradiction of Montaigne’s hypothesis, Shakespeare blatantly rejects the work and opinion of Montaigne is most of his utopian literature.
Shakespeare also discredited the thought that good existed only in one society or the other by introducing good characters to both the primitive island and the civilized society of Milan. Through the existence of Miranda and Gonzalo goodness is portrayed in both types of people. Likewise, evil is not limited to being a civilized or primitive trait. Caliban represents evil, but so do many of the shipwrecked nobility. Throughout act I the reader learns that Miranda is truly naïve to the ways of the civilized world. Although she remembers vague pieces of her life in Milan, all of her development and knowledge stems from her life on the enchanted island. Likewise, Caliban never experienced life away from the island. It was not until Prospero’s influence that Caliban even learned to speak. Through the starkly opposing traits of Miranda and Caliban, the influence that a freedom from civilization has on an individual is obviously not universal. The affect of living as a member of a developed society also does not preclude goodness. Although many of the people on the ship were Prospero’s foes and described as evil people, Gonzalo’s character redeems the supposed evil nature plaguing all who come from any civilization.
Shakespeare’s Life and Times: A Pictorial Record – Roland Mushat Frye