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Shakespeare & Beyond

“More strange than true”: Finding America among the fairies


Woodcut map and plan of TenochtitlánWoodcut map and plan of Tenochtitlán
Woodcut map and plan of Tenochtitlán, in Praeclara de Nova maris Oceani Hyspania Narratio (Nuremberg, F. Peypus, 1524). Courtesy of Edward E. Ayer Collection, The Newberry Library.

The following post contains adapted excerpts from Muñoz’s first monograph, Spanish Romance in the Battle for Global Supremacy: Tudor and Stuart Black Legends, forthcoming from Anthem Press in its “World Epic and Romance” series. (Update: The book was published in January 2021.)

Portrait of Bernal Diaz del CastilloPortrait of Bernal Diaz del Castillo
Portrait of Bernal Diaz del Castillo. Bernal Diaz del Castillo [texto impreso]: being some account of him, taken from his True history of the conquest of New Spain by R[obert] B[ontine] Cunninghame Graham. (London: Eveleigh Nash, 1915). 2/85449. Image property of Biblioteca Nacional de España.

For a generation of English readers thoroughly fascinated with the European conquest of the Americas, the (in)famous destruction of Aztec México by Iberian conquistadors (1519–1521) was captivating subject matter, as were the imperial foot soldiers who made this so-styled golden conquest a reality. One of these men was Bernal Díaz del Castillo. His Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (The True History of the Conquest of New Spain) adopted forms and styles of Spanish chivalric romance to translate the incomparable wonders of Tenochtitlán, the imperial capital of Aztec México, which was built upon a salt lake:

During the morning, we arrived at a broad Causeway and continued our march towards Iztapalapa, and when we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land and that straight and level Causeway going towards Mexico, we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments they tell of in the legend of Amadis, on account of the great towers and cues and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream. It is not to be wondered at that I here write it down in this manner, for there is so much to think over that I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about.[1]

This explanation cast México as an American Promised Land, drawing language indirectly from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians: “Eye hath not seen, neither eare heard, neither haue entred into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that loue him” (2:9).[2] A parallel observation also appears in William Shakespeare’s comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595–1596). In Act 4, Nick Bottom returns from his sensual romp with the fairy queen, Titania, in the forest of Athens, remarking, “I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was […] The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was!” (4.1.214–224). The mocking reference to Corinthians, so central to the colonizer ethos, underscored America’s allegorical presence in romance as a “most rare vision” of the Promised Land, a mystery so inscrutable as to seem a dream.

Bottom and Titania in A Midsummer Night's DreamBottom and Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream
Bottom (in donkey form) and Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act IV, Scene 1, surrounded by fairies. Drawing by Felix Octavius Carr Darley, 19th century. Folger ART Box D221 no.27 (size L)

An unconscious witness to unknown wonders, Bottom chooses the form of a ballad to present his testimony to Theseus, Duke of Athens. But Theseus will fail to glean the truth of Bottom’s poetry, for he deems as “More strange than true” all such “fairy toys” (5.1.2, 3). Strange was the conquistador’s preferred descriptor for America. Hernán Cortés repeatedly used the word to describe “la grandeza, extrañas y maravillosas cosas de esta gran ciudad” (the grandeur, strange and marvelous things of this great city) of Tenochtitlán in his widely circulated second letter to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.[3] Strange was furthermore a preferred term to describe contemporary romance’s colonial promised lands, especially Amadís’s own Ínsula Firme (Firm Island), which related to the readers “such strange and marvailous things as are to be seene”[4] in this great city on the water.

For Shakespeare/Theseus, chief among America’s contemporary fairy-mongers is the poet, whose boundless imagination “bodies forth / The forms of things unknown” and whose pen “gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name” (5.1.15-18). This allusion to exploration and cartography comes from the preface to Book II of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590), in which the poet addresses concerns that his work be interpreted as “th’aboundance of an ydle braine” (1).[5] He wrote:

But let that man with better sence aduize,
That of the world least part to vs is red:
And daily how through hardy enterprize,
Many great Regions are discouered,
Which to late age were neuer mentioned.
Who euer heard of th’Indian Peru?
Or who in venturous vessell measured
The Amazons huge riuer now found trew?
Or fruitfullest Virginia who did euer vew?

This verse playfully challenges the historicizing of knowledge based solely on firsthand experience. (In fact, ancient writers like Aristotle, Seneca, and Virgil had inferred America’s existence long before it was first observed.) As ironically referenced in Midsummer, Theseus’s faulty reasoning about fairies therefore further proves the common assertion that “of the world least part to vs is red” and that men of “better sence” did not “so much misweene / That nothing is, but that which [they] hath seene” ( Indeed, “th’Indian Peru,” the “Amazons huge riuer now found trew” and “fruitfullest Virginia” had turned skeptics into believers.

[1] Bernal Díaz del Castillo, et al., The History of the Conquest of New Spain, Translated with, with an Introduction and Notes, by Janet Burke and Ted Humphrey (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008), 156.

[2] The Holy Bible (King James Bible) (London: Robert Barker, 1611).

[3] Hernán Cortés, Cartas y relaciónes de Hernan Cortés al emperador Carlos V, Pascual de Gayangos, ed. (Paris: A. Chaix y Ca., 1866), 101-102. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “strange” described “persons, language, customs, etc.: Of or belonging to another country; foreign, alien.” Alternatively, “Of a country or other geographical feature: Situated outside one’s own land.” “strange, adj. and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press.

[4] Amadis de Gaule, translated by Anthony Munday, Helen Moore, ed., (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 311.

[5] Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, second edition, A. C. Hamilton, ed. (London: Routledge, 2007). All quotations derive from this edition.