The Tempest

by: William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s Sources for The Tempest

Although The Tempest portrays a fantastical world of fairies, magic, and monsters, Shakespeare most likely used a variety of factual sources in writing the play. For example, Shakespeare’s portrayal of the catastrophic storm that opens the play probably derives from reports of a shipwreck that occurred in Bermuda in 1609. The Tempest directly references Bermuda in Act I, scene ii, when Ariel says Prospero asked him to “fetch dew / from the still-vex’d Bermooths.” The most famous report of the Bermuda shipwreck is a letter written by William Strachey, a writer-explorer who witnessed the storm, which he describes as “a most dreadfull Tempest.” The other sources included Sylvester Jourdain’s book A Discovery of the Bermudas as well as a report by Virginia Company regarding land claims in America, both of which referenced the Bermuda shipwreck. All of these sources would have been available in London by late 1610, which is when scholars believe Shakespeare wrote the play.

Of the many sources that exerted an influence on The Tempest, the most significant is Michel de Montaigne’s “Of the Cannibals,” which Shakespeare would have read in John Florio’s English translation from 1603. Montaigne (1533–1593) was a French statesman and philosopher whose essays influenced European literature and philosophy from the time of his death through the nineteenth century. In “Of the Cannibals,” Montaigne discusses the apparent opposition between primitive and civilized societies. Whereas the common wisdom of the Renaissance period assumed that European culture was inherently superior to so-called ‘savages,’ Montaigne challenged this view. Montaigne had met a group of Tupinambe Indians from Brazil in the French city of Rouen, and rather than seeming like barbarians, the Indians struck him as intelligent, dignified, and exhibiting a refined culture of their own. Montaigne’s attraction to the “pure simplicity” of the Tupinambe Indians may sound like romanticization to modern readers. However, the philosopher clearly believed that the Indians “natural innocence” made them superior to Europeans, whose violence and greed gave the lie to their supposed sophistication.

Shakespeare clearly draws on “Of the Cannibals” in Gonzalo’s speech in Act II. Envisioning how he would rule the island, Gonzalo describes a paradise that rejects the usual trappings of a civilized society, such as labor and commerce, echoing the kind of primitive society that Montaigne championed. Yet the influence of Montaigne’s essay on The Tempest also proves ambiguous, even contradictory. On the one hand, the play as a whole seems to uphold Gonzalo’s optimism. The way the play ends, with the promise of a new beginning, also indicates an approval of Gonzalo’s utopian spirit. On the other hand, whereas Gonzalo envisions a society that is more primitive than civilized, the play emphasizes that “primitives” like Caliban are nothing like the noble savages Montaigne described—hence Caliban’s name being a near anagram of the word “cannibal.” In the end, then, Shakespeare leaves it unclear what kind of society will emerge in the “brave new world” yet to come.