Shakespeare and the Shipwreck
Bermuda Maritime Museum
In 1609, the ship Sea Venture wrecked near the Bermudas on its way to Jamestown. Hear more about its possible link to The Tempest in this excerpt from the Shakespeare in American Life radio documentary.
The Tempest is far more closely tied to the New World than any other Shakespeare play. Some modern scholars see the story of Prospero, Caliban, and Ariel as a metaphor for the strained relationships between English colonists and peoples of other races, including local inhabitants and imported slaves.
But The Tempest most likely has another connection to American history, too. Most researchers believe that Shakespeare was inspired to write this story of a violent storm and subsequent shipwreck by accounts of a real tempest—a savage storm that struck an English fleet sailing for Jamestown in 1609. The passengers and crew of the fleet’s flagship, the Sea Venture, were stranded for months on a deserted island in the Bermudas, during which time they were believed to be lost at sea. Although The Tempest is above all a work of the imagination, Shakespeare weaves through it many details from accounts of this storm and the castaways’ life on the island, as well as reports from Jamestown and the earlier English colony at Roanoke.
Choose from the list at left to learn more about Shakespeare and the shipwreck, read an eyewitness account of the wreck, or enjoy the storm scene from The Tempest.
Shakespeare. Comedies, histories, tragedies. London, 1623. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Candlestick from the Sea Venture. Bermuda Maritime Musuem