The Tempest – Making Poetry

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This is the first in a series of Blogs about Shakespeare’s play The Tempest which will be posted here and at http://findingshakespeare.co.uk/

Shakespeare’s play The Tempest was probably written in the autumn of 1610, 400 years ago. In writing The Tempest Shakespeare was tapping into contemporary interest in traveller’s tales which circulated in London and were greedily devoured. Shakespeare’s play shows the influence of a number of these tales but one particularly stands out that that is a letter from Strachey Dated 15th July 1610. Telling the story of his voyage in Bermuda and describing a terrible storm this letter probably reached London in September of 1610.

Shakespeare used images and even phrases from the letter when he came to imagine the terrible storm that Prospero creates with Ariel’s help.

Strachey’s letter tells how the sailors saw St Elmo’s fire, which as Strachey knew was not uncommon in storms, and which we now understand to be an electrical charge which gathers round the masts of ships in storms

Strachey describes the apparition as follows “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.”

Without today’s scientific explanations these fiery lights were seen as signs but it was not known if they were sinister harbingers of doom or signs of miraculous protection, they therefore inspired both curiosity and fear.

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest however St Elmo’s fire is not a natural phenomenon, nor a sign from the Gods but rather the embodiment of Ariel himself becoming fire and frightening the sailors. Ariel seems to relish describing his fiery role in the tempest and explains

ARIEL

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.

Although there is a clear echo of Strachey’s account in Shakespeare’s text apart from a few technical terms describing the ship there is no direct borrowing. Strachey writes of shooting, sparkling, blaze, and running, where as Shakespeare writes of flame, divide, burn and flame. Yet from Strachey’s description Shakespeare has created poetry. How?

Firstly compare the rhythm of the two pieces. Shakespeare’s is faster paced: “Now on the beak, Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin”  is the verbal echo of the light Strachey describes as ‘streaming’ speedily along. The lines based on Shakespeare’s regular iambic pentameter rhythm are too long, giving the reader a slightly uncomfortable feeling of with unexpected rhythm or unexpectedly long words. The rhythm itself is stormy. And then we have Shakespeare’s typically creative use of language in ‘I flamed amazement’ not my flames were amazing, but ‘I flamed amazement’. Shakespeare’s typical boldness with the language in this passage helps to create something magical and otherworldly from a terrifying traveller’s tale.

If you enjoyed that find out more at http://findingshakespeare.co.uk/ where my colleagues from the collections team will share their perspective on the Strachey letter.

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT

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