between The Tempest's elaborate
voyage story and its tightly constricted "play" points to
two kinds of travel tales embedded in the drama: ancient, fictional
voyage narratives and contemporary travelers' tales buzzing around London
at the time the play was being written. The Harpy/king encounter is
shaped as a sequence of verbal and visual events that in effect reenact
and thus recall ancient confrontations between harpies and sea voyagers.
In each of these harpy incidentsfrom the third century B.C. Argonautica
through the first century B.C. Aeneid to The
Tempest itselfharpies are ministers of the gods sent to
punish those who have angered the gods ;
they punish by devouring or despoiling food; and they are associated
with dire prophecies. The Tempest's
enactment of the harpy encounter is thus one in a line of harpy stories
stretching into the past from this island and this set of voyagers
to Aeneas, and through Aeneas back to Jason and the crucial encounter
between the terrible harpies (the "hounds of mighty Zeus")
and the Argonauts.
In replicating the sequence of events of voyagers meeting harpies, combining
details from Jason's story and from the Aeneid,
Shakespeare directs attention to the specific context in which such
harpy confrontations appear and within which The
Tempest clearly belongsthat of literary fictional voyages.
same time, he surrounds the encounter with dialogue that would remind
his audience of present-day voyages of their own fellow Londoners. Geographical
expansion, around-the-world journeys, explorations of the new world
of the Americas had heightened the stay-at-homes' fascination with the
strange creatures reported by travelers. Real-world creatures like crocodiles
and hippopotami, fantastic creatures like unicorns and griffins, reported
monstrosities like the men whose heads grow beneath their shouldersall
were, at the time, equally real (or unreal) and equally fascinating.
The dialogue preceding the Harpy's descent in The
Tempest centers on such fabulous creatures. When the supposed
"islanders"creatures of "monstrous shape"appear,
bringing in the banquet, Sebastian says: "Now I will believe /
That there are unicorns, that in Arabia / There is one tree, the phoenix'
throne, one phoenix / At this hour reigning there." "Travelers
ne'er did lie," says Antonio, "Though fools at home condemn
'em." Gonzalo adds, "If in Naples / I should report this now,
would they believe me? / If I should say I saw such islanders . . .
" (3.3.26-36). It is into this dialogue-context that the Harpy
descendsthat is, into a discussion of fantastic travelers' tales
and fabulous creatures.
Harpyone of these creaturesactually appears, claps its wings
upon the table, and somehow makes the food disappear (3.3.69 SD), she
is very real to Alonso and his menas real as the harpies were
to Jason and to Aeneas; as real as the hippopotami and anthropophagi
were to fifteenth-century explorers; as real as is Caliban, the monster
mooncalf, to his discoverers Stephano and Trinculo. The attempts to
kill the Harpy are classical responsesthat is, they are the responses
of Jason and Aeneas when confronted by the terrible bird-women. The
response of Stephano and Trinculo to their man-monster is a more typically
sixteenth-century response to the fabulous. When, for example, Stephano
finds Trinculo and Caliban huddled under a cloak and thinks he has discovered
a "most delicate monster" with four legs and two voices, he
responds with the greed that we associate with Martin Frobisher and
other sixteenth-century New World explorers who brought natives from
North America to England to put on display: "If I can recover him,"
says Stephano, "and keep him tame and get to Naples with him, he's
a present for any emperor that ever trod on neat's leather. . . . He
shall pay for him that hath him, and that soundly" (2.2.69-81).
Trinculo had responded with equal greed to his first sight of the frightened
What have we here, a man or fish? . . . A strange
fish. Were I in England . . . and had but this fish painted, not a
holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver. There would this
monster make a man. Any strange beast there makes a man. When they
will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten
to see a dead Indian
finding and subjugating of "wild men" was a feature that ancient
and new-world voyage stories held in common (for
example, Jupiter promises that Aeneas, as the climax of his sea journeys,
will "wage a great war in Italy, and . . . crush wild peoples and
set up laws for men and build walls"
), Prospero's subjugation of Caliban has a particularly New World flavor.
The play itself, no matter how steeped it is in ancient voyage literature
and no matter how much emphasis it places on its Mediterranean setting,
is also a representation of New World exploration. While it retells
the stories of Aeneas and of Jason, it also stages a particular Virginia
voyage that, in 1610-11, was the topic of sermons, published government
accounts, and first person epistles, many of which Shakespeare drew
on in crafting The Tempest.
The story, in brief, goes as follows: A fleet of ships setsout in 1609
from England carrying a new governorSir Thomas Gatesto the
struggling Virginia colony in Jamestown. The fleet was caught in a tempest
off the coast of Bermuda. All of the ships survived the storm and sailed
on to Virginiaexcept the flagship, the Sea-Venture,
carrying the governor, the admiral of the fleet, and other important
officials. A year later, the exhausted and dispirited colonists in Jamestown
were astounded when two boats sailed up the James River carrying the
supposedly drowned governor and his companions. The crew and passengers
on the flagship had survived the storm, had lived for a year in the
Bermudas, had built new ships, and had made it safely to Virginia. News
of the happy ending to this "tragi-comedy," as one who reported
the story called it, soon reached London, and many details of the story
are preserved in The Tempest.
details may be the disturbing picture of the relationship of the "settlers"
and the "Indians" in Jamestown, represented perhaps in Caliban
and his relationship with Prospero. In one of the documents used by
Shakespeare in writing The Tempest,
William Strachey describes an incident in which "certain Indians,"
finding a man alone, "seized the poor fellow and led him up in
to the woods and sacrificed him." Strachey writes that the lieutenant
governor was very disturbed by the incident, since hitherto he "would
not by any means be wrought to a violent proceeding against them [i.e.,
the Indians] for all the practices of villainy
with which they daily endangered our men." This incident, though,
made him "well perceive" that "fair and noble treatment"
had little effect "upon a barbarous disposition," and "therefore
. . . purposed to be revenged." The revenge took the form of an
attack upon an Indian village.
As we read
Strachey's account today, we find much in the behavior of the settlers
toward the natives that is appalling, so that the account is not for
us simply that of "good white men" against "bad Indians,"
as it was for Strachey. In the same way, whether or not this particular
lieutenant governor and these treacherous "Indians" are represented
in The Tempest, Shakespeare's
decision to include a "wild man" among his island's cast of
characters, and (as Stephen Greenblatt notes) to place him in opposition
to a European prince whose power lies in his language and his books,
raises a host of questions for us about the play. The
Tempest was written just as England was beginning what would
become massive empire-building through the subjugating of others and
the possessing of their lands. European nationsSpain, in particularhad
already taken over major land areas, and Shakespeare and his contemporaries
had available to them many accounts of native peoples and of European
colonizers' treatment of such peoples. Many such accounts are like Strachey's:
they describe a barbarous people who refuse to be "civilized,"
who have no language, who have a "nature" on which "nurture
will never stick" (as Prospero says of Caliban). Other accounts
describe instead cultural differences in which that which is different
is not necessarily inferior or "barbarous." When Gonzalo says
(at 2.1.157-60), "Had I plantation [i.e., colonization] of this
isle . . . And were the king on 't, what would I do?" he answers
his own question by describing the Utopia he would set up (lines 162-84),
taking his description from Montaigne's essay "Of the Cannibals."
In this essay, Montaigne ("whose supple mind," writes Ronald
Wright, "exemplifies Western civilization at its best")
argues in effect that American "savages" are in many ways
more moral, more humane people than so-called civilized Europeans.
so much of The Tempest, Caliban
may be seen as representing two quite different images. Shakespeare
gives him negative traits attached to New World natives (traits that
seem to many today to smack of racist responses to the strange and to
the Other) while giving him at the same time a richly poetic language
and a sensitive awareness of nature and the supernatural. He places
Caliban in relation to Prospero (as Caliban's master and the island's
"colonizer"), to Miranda (as the girl who taught Caliban language
and whom he tried to rape), and indirectly to Ferdinand (who, like Caliban,
is made to carry logs and who will father Miranda's children as Caliban
had wished to do). Shakespeare thus creates in the center of this otherworldly
play a confrontation that speaks eloquently to late-twentieth-century
readers and audiences living with the aftereffects of the massive colonizing
of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and observing the continuing
life of "empire" in the interactions between the powerful
and the formerly colonized states.
As many readers and audiences today look back at the centuries of colonization
of the Americas, Africa, and India from, as it were, Caliban's perspective,
once considered Shakespeare's most serene, most lyrical play, is now
put forward as his representation, for good or ill, of the colonizing
and the colonized.
Suggestions For Further Reading
and Its Travels. Edited by Peter Hulme and William H. Sherman.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.