A Brave Vessel by Hobson Woodward

It turns out Shakespeare’s The Tempest was based on a true story.  Who knew?

Shakespeare wrote The Tempest at the end of his career– some say it contains his farewell to the theatre in one of Prospero’s speeches.  The year was 1609 and England’s Jamestown colony was the media sensation of the day.  Things had not gone well for England’s only New World colony.  London was full of satirical accounts, making fun of the on-going failure that was Jamestown.  This made it difficult for those running the colony to find investors and colonists.  One prospective colonist was William Strachey, a respectable gentleman who wanted to be a writer like Shakespeare.  Strachey hoped that by joining the colony he could become a chronicler of it and thereby make a name for himself as a writer.

It did not go well.  A few days from Jamestown’s shore, the expedition  ran into a hurricane.  The Sea Venture, the fleet’s flagship which housed Strachey and over 100 other passengers, survived the storm but did not make it to the Virginia coast.  The ship came aground on the shores of Bermuda, at that time an unihabited island claimed by Spain.  Everyone onboard survived the storm.  Previous explorers had stocked the island with pigs, hoping to make it a regular food stop for future use, so there was plenty of meat for the castaways along with abundant fresh water and various fruits.

Strachey did keep an account of what happened to the castaways on Bermuda.  Eventually they built a ship and finished the voyage to Virginia where they joined the starving Jamestown colony arriving just in-time with a boat full of fresh pork.  Strachey sent detailed letters about the shipwreck and life in the colony to a mysterious woman rumored to be his benefactor.  He hoped she would publish them and later support his poetry as she had done for several other writers.  While she did not publish the letters they were widely circulated and appear to have come to the attention of William Shakespeare who may have based much of the action of his new play The Tempest on them.

Mr. Woodward presents impressive textual evidence to support this theory.  For example there are many striking similarities between the  wreck of The Sea Venture as described in William Strachey’s letters and Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  However, while it is highly probable that Shakespeare was influenced by the letters, there is no smoking gun, nothing that forces the reader to accept Mr. Woodward’s evidence as convincing.  Reasonable doubt remains.

That said, A Brave Vessel is both an interesting and entertaining book.  If you’ve ever dreamed of being marooned on an island paradise, it may open your eyes some.  If you’re a fan of Shakespeare’s, there is much enlightenment regarding the origins of his plays and their production in A Brave Vessel.  I like the idea that Prospero may be based on fact.  He’s long been one of my favorite characters in Shakespeare.  I think maybe because he liked books so much.  After all, his library was one thing he made sure to save from the shipwreck that marooned him and his daughter.  The only thing Prospero valued as much as the life of his child was his books.

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2 Comments

  1. Jeane says:

    That does sound interesting. I knew that Moby Dick was based on a real ship sunk by a whale (the Essex) but I didn’t know the Tempest was also inspired by real events! I’ll have to look for this one.

    1. Over the years I’ve read quite a few books about shipwrecks. This was a good one.

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