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Prospero in Massachusetts?

Posted by Christopher Shea  September 16, 2008 11:07 PM

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After a vacation on Cuttyhunk Island, the Inside Higher Education columnist Scott McLemee decided to dig into an old local tale: that the tiny Massachusetts island -- better known these days for being the last stop on the statewide tour of the 2004 World Series trophy -- helped inspired Shakespeare's "The Tempest." Where did that idea come from, and how has it fared?

Caliban's home?
[Photo: American Digital, Inc.]

To take the second question first: Not so well. McLemee reports that no recent work of scholarship takes seriously (or even unseriously) the claim that Shakespeare incorporated into his play details of a voyage by English explorers to Cuttyhunk and other parts of New England in 1602. That expedition, led by a man named Bartholomew Gosnold, was financed by the Earl of Southampton, a patron of the Globe theater, to whom Shakespeare dedicated two long poems in the 1590s -- giving the idea that Shakespeare knew of the trip to America at least surface plausibility. The Earl had hoped to fund a permanent settlement, but the fractious potential settlers demanded to be taken home -- though not before trading with Wampanoag Indians on Cuttyhunk and harvesting a large supply of sassafras there.

A member of the expedition published an account of the venture in late 1602. Might Shakespeare have read it?

Evidently, the first to say so -- and among the only to adduce evidence for the "Tempest" link -- was the prolific clergyman and social critic Edward Everett Hale, in a 1902 lecture called "Gosnold at Cuttyhunk" (later leaned on heavily in "The Story of Cuttyhunk," by Louise T. Haskell, published in 1953). Reading the original lecture, however, McLemee begins to wonder "if the old Brahmin might be pulling his audience’s collective leg, in however refined a manner." Hale's "evidence," after all, is of the following sort:

On Cuttyhunk, the explorers had cut up sassafras logs to transport to England. "I took down my Tempest," writes Hale, "and read the stage directions which represent Ferdinand entering Prospero’s cave 'bearing a log.'" Then he quotes various bits of log-related dialog.

Indeed, Cuttyhunk has logs. The one truly suggestive piece of evidence is that Hale observes that "The Tempest" appeared only months after the expedition's return to England. Alas, scholars now date the play 8 years later, to 1611.

Having enjoyed his island vacation, however, McLemee declines to diss Haskell's conclusion about Hale's lecture: "His argument seems sound to us," the local historian wrote some 55 years ago. "We like to think so anyway and it adds lustre to our island."

Anyway, read the whole thing, which is both stylish and informative. (The centennial of Hale's death is next year.)

UPDATE: As a commenter points out, there are still some dissenters who adhere to the earlier date for "The Tempest." Also -- though you have to accept the later date for this to work -- there is an alternative candidate for the inspiration of the play: In 1610, a ship thought to have been lost off the Bermudas the year before dramatically reappeared. The story was a sensation in England.

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2 comments so far...
  1. Should one assume that the phrase "scholars now date the play... to 1611," is a gratuitous instigation? or perhaps an honest display of ignorance.

    Posted by jhm September 17, 08 10:42 AM
  1. Yes, of course you are right. Everyone knows the plays were actually written by Mark Twain.

    Posted by Scott McLemee September 17, 08 01:21 PM
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