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Shakespeare's Sources for The Tempest

From The Tempest. Ed. William Allan Neilson. New York: Scott, Foresman and company.

Whence Shakespeare derived the story which forms the basis of the simple plot of The Tempest we do not yet know. Since in all but one or two cases definite sources for his plots have been found, the likelihood is that he did not invent this one. But the stories brought forward as bearing some resemblance to the present play can at most be regarded as belonging to the same family of tales, not as direct ancestors.

Two of these deserve special mention. One is a German play by Jacob Ayrer of Nuremberg, who died in 1605. His Fair Sidea was not printed till 1618, so that Shakespeare could only have known of it by report, such a report as might be brought over by the English players who visited Nuremberg in 1604 and 1606. In both The Fair Sidea and The Tempest we have "a prince given to magic, and driven into exile with a daughter who marries the son of his enemy; an attendant spirit; and - most striking of all - the imposition of log-carrying upon the captive prince, and the fixing of his sword in his scabbard."

But such a summary of points of likeness gives a false idea of the degree of general similarity between the plays. Ariel is utterly different from the devil in the German play, except that both are supernatural servants; there is nothing in common in the characterization; and the whole tone and atmosphere are as different as possible. The force of the argument from the incident of the sword is weakened by the fact that it is a common magician's trick in popular tales. It is difficult to believe that in Ayrer's play we have anything more than a story some of whose features may go back to an old tale from which, at no one knows how many removes, The Tempest may be descended.

Little more can be said for the second analogous version - a Spanish tale published in 1609 in a collection known as Winter Nights by Antonio de Eslava. Here the sea, absent from Ayrer's scene, plays a large part. A King of Bulgaria, who possesses magical powers, being driven from his kingdom by the Emperor of Greece, sails with his daughter into the middle of the Adriatic, strikes the water with his wand, and descends into a gorgeous palace at the bottom of the sea. After two years, the Princess longs for a fitting mate, so her father brings down the disinherited elder son of his enemy and weds him to his daughter in his sea-palace. While the marriage is being celebrated, the fleet of the younger son of the usurper, who has succeeded his father and is returning from his marriage to the daughter of the Emperor of Eome, is smitten by a tempest just over the magic palace.

The exiled King arises and rebukes the Emperor of Greece, who goes home and dies. The disinherited son is sought and found, and he and his bride and father-in-law are restored to their rightful honors. Here again we have clearly only a remote relative of the theme of The Tempest.

If we cannot point to a direct source for the main plot of our play, we can show various documents that have contributed details. Mention has already been made of accounts of the Virginian expedition of Sir George Somers. This gentleman, along with Sir Thomas Gates and Captain Christopher Newport, sailed from Plymouth on June 2, 1609, with a fleet of nine vessels, carrying settlers and supplies to Virginia. In the end of July the fleet was scattered by a storm, and the Sea Venture, in which the three commanders sailed, was cast up on one of the Bermudas, where the crew and passengers lived for nine or ten months. By May of 1610 they had built two small vessels in which they reached their destination. In October of the same year, Silvester Jourdan, who had also been in the Sea Venture, published a pamphlet called, A Discovery of the Bermudas, otherwise called the Isle of Divels; and a fellow passenger, William Strachey, wrote A true reportory of the wracke, dated July 15, 1610, which was finally printed by Purchas in 1625, but which may have circulated in manuscript.

A third document was compiled, A True Declaration of the Estate of the Colonie in Virginia, and was published late in 1610. These pamphlets, and perhaps, as Mr. Kipling has suggested, talks with some of the returned sailors, provided Shakespeare with both incidents and phrases which he used in picturing the storm with which the play opens and the enchanted island on which the rest of the action takes place. Some of the proper names show traces of reading in other books dealing with travel in the New World, such as Raleigh's Discovery of Guiana and Eden's History of Travaile.

Other passages show the influence of the dramatist's miscellaneous reading. The speech beginning "'Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves," (V. i. 33-50), follows closely Golding's Translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, VII, 192-219; and in Gonzalo's account of his ideal state in II. i. 150-167 are traces of Florio's translation of Montaigne's "Of the Caniballes," published in the Essays in 1603. Such names and titles as those of Alonso, King of Naples, and his son Ferdinand, and of Prospero, Duke of Milan, along with incidents of banishment and usurpation he might have gathered from such a work as Thomas's Historye of Italie (1549).

It is with mere fragments and analogies like these that we have to be content in our search for the source of The Tempest. There seems little hope of reaching the fairly precise and complete account which can often be given of the sources of Shakespeare's material.

It is, indeed, possible that the reason why a definite source may never be found is that there was no definite source. The plot is a very simple one, and its elements are such commonplaces of popular tales of enchanters and princesses as Shakespeare may well enough have put together unaided. Certain it is that the invention of a plot like this involves no such exercise of imagination as is shown in the parts of the play which are undoubtedly Shakespeare's own, - the creation of the characters, the conception of the prevailing atmosphere, and the superabundant poetry of the lines. No play gives more convincing proof of Shakespeare's easy mastery of his craft at the close of his career.

How to cite this article:
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Ed. William Allan Neilson. New York: Scott, Foresman and company, 1914. Shakespeare Online. < >.

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