The Tempest and Colonialism.


There is much in the topical dressing of The Tempest which relates it to the colonial adventure of the plantation of Virginia and with the exotic Bermudas. Critical opinion has varied as to whether The Tempest is closely related to colonialism as undertaken in the Jacobean period; E.E. Stoll wrote in 1927 that ‘There is not a word in The Tempest about America… Nothing but the Bermudas, once barely mentioned as faraway places.’ On Stoll’s side we can say that the action takes place somewhere between Tunis and Naples, presumably therefore in the Mediterranean, and that the characters who are shipwrecked are returning from Tunis after a wedding, not in the least intending to set foot upon, let alone settle or conquer, uncivilised lands.

Against this, we must say that The Tempest participates in a contemporary cultural excitement about the voyages to that Americas and the exotic riches of remote places. There are traces in The Tempest of a number of colonial and Bermuda voyage narratives, such as Sylvester Jourdan’s ‘Discovery of the Bermudas’ (1610)[1], The Council of Virginia’s ‘True Declaration of the state of the Colonie in Virginia’ (1610), a letter by William Strachey which circulated under the title ‘True Reportory of the Wrack’, but was not published until 1625, and stories collected by Samuel Purchas in Purchas his Pilgrimage (1613). Caliban’s god Setebos is reported from Magellan’s voyage as being a Patagonian deity.

There is little doubt that the extraordinary shipwreck of some would-be Virginian colonists on the Bermudas flavours Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Shakespeare’s patrons the Earls of Southampton and Pembroke were investors in the Virginia Company. The Essex group at court supported a Protestant-expansionist foreign policy which did not suit King James, who was anxious not to antagonise Spain. Relations with Spain were one of the main reasons that James executed the Elizabethan imperial hero Sir Walter Ralegh, who...