Continuing my series on Shakespeare’s sources I turn my attention to one of my favorite plays The Tempest. The story of The Tempest was crafted by Shakespeare, but it is not without references to letters, documents and essays which were circulating at the time. In this way Shakespeare is being a bit like a magpie collecting twinkling ideas from around him and building his play around them.
One of these jewels is what is now called the Strachey letter. Strachey was an explorer and he was exploring the Americas when he was shipwrecked near Bermuda. Surviving the shipwreck by making landfall on an island he wrote a letter including an account of his experiences. This letter, which it is assumed Shakespeare saw, was later published in Purchas his Pilgrimes (1625) from which the following extract is taken
…We were within seven or eight days at the most…of making Cape Henry upon the coast of Virginia when on st James his day, July 14, being Monday (preparing for no less all the black night before) the clouds gathering thick upon us and the winds singing and whistling most unusually, …a dreadful storm and hideous began to blow from out the north-east, which swelling and roaring as it were by fits some hours with more violence than others, at length did beat all light from heaven, which like a hell of darkness turned black upon us, so much the more the fuller of horror, as in such cases horror and fear use to overrun the troubled and overmastered senses of all, which, taken up with amazement, the ears lay so sensible to the terrible cries and murmurs of the wind and distraction of our company, as who was the most armed and best prepared was not a little shaken. Only upon the Thursday night, Sir George Summers being upon the watch, had an apparition of a little round light, like a faint Star, trembling, and streaming along with a sparkling blaze, half the height upon the Main Mast, and shooting sometimes from Shroud to Shroud, attempting to settle as it were upon any of the four Shrouds; and for three or four hours together, or rather more, half the night it kept with us, running sometimes along the Mainyard to the very end, and then returning. At which, Sir George Summers called divers about him, and showed them the same, who observed it with much wonder, and carefulness: but upon a sudden, towards the morning watch, they lost the sight of it, and knew not what way it made. The superstitious Seamen make many constructions of this Sea-fire, which nevertheless is usual in storms…
In The Tempest Shakespeare takes us onboard the stricken ship and we share the fear of the sailors who believe themselves about to drown. We then meet Prospero and Ariel and Ariel, the sprite, explains to his master Prospero how it was he that created the ‘sea fire’ or as we call it St Elmo’s fire.
I boarded the king’s ship; now on the beak,
Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin,
I flamed amazement: sometime I’ld divide,
And burn in many places; on the topmast,
The yards and bowsprit, would I flame distinctly,
Then meet and join.
It is not only are these words a close echo of Strachey’s they are also a wonderful insight into Shakespeare making magic from an adventurers tale. St Elmo’s fire was a recognized phenomenon which as Strachey points out is not uncommon in storms. In reality, we now know, it is a form of lightening – an electrical charge which gathers around the masts of ships. But it is Shakespeare’s genius that reinvents it as the manifestation of a sprite to give it personality and back-story. In the way Shakespeare turns many sources into creative elements of his play we see the craftsman at work.