An Excerpt from "The Tempest: A Modern Perspective"

Barbara Mowat
Folger Shakespeare Library

From The New Folger Library Shakespeare Edition of
William Shakespeare's
The Tempest
New York: Washington Square Press, 1994.

The interplay 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 incidents—from the third century B.C. Argonautica through the first century B.C. Aeneid to The Tempest itself—harpies are ministers of the gods sent to punish those who have angered the gods Click to See a Larger View; 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.1 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 belongs—that of literary fictional voyages.

At the 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 shoulders—all 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 descends—that is, into a discussion of fantastic travelers' tales and fabulous creatures.

When the Harpy—one of these creatures—actually 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 men—as 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 responses—that 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 Caliban:

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


While the 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"2 ), 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 governor—Sir Thomas Gates—to 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 Virginia—except 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.

Among the 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.3

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,4 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 nations—Spain, in particular—had 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"5) argues in effect that American "savages" are in many ways more moral, more humane people than so-called civilized Europeans.

As with 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.6 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, The Tempest, 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.7

  1. See Barbara A. Mowat, "'And that's true, too': Structures and Meaning in The Tempest," Renaissance Papers 1976, pp. 37-50. The pertinent sections of the Argonaut stories are Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 2:178-535, and Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 4:422-636; Virgil's account of the Harpies as encountered by Aeneas and his men is found in the Aeneid 3:210-69. BACK
  2. Aeneid, Book I, lines 261-64 (Guilford trans.). BACK
  3. "A True Reportory of the Wreck and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, Knight," in A Voyage to Virginia in 1609, ed. Louis B. Wright (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1964), pp. 1-101, esp. pp. 88-89. BACK
  4. "Learning to Curse: Aspects of Linguistic Colonialism in the Sixteenth Century," in Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture (New York and London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 23-26. BACK
  5. Stolen Continents: The "New World" Through Indian Eyes (Toronto: Penguin Books, 1993). BACK
  6. See Edward W. Said, "Empire, Geography, and Culture" and "Images of the Past, Pure and Impure," in Culture and Imperialism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), pp. 3-14, 15-19. BACK
  7. For example, in "Nymphs and reapers heavily vanish: the discursive con-texts of The Tempests," Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (pp. 192-205), Francis Barker and Peter Hulme state that "the discourse of colonialism" is the "dominant discursive con-text" for the play. BACK

Suggestions For Further Reading

"The Tempest" and Its Travels. Edited by Peter Hulme and William H. Sherman. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.