Shakespeare’s changing world in Senate House Library

Shakespeare’s world was one of rapid change, culturally, religiously, and technologically. The spread of print, the rise of mercantilism and expansion of European colonialism were literally changing the availability and topography of maps. Religion was still adjusting practices and faith during this post-Reformation time, and The Tempest was written roughly around the same time the King James Version of the Bible was finished: 1611. 

Shakespeare’s London was at the centre of much of the change, with more printers in London than elsewhere in England and its rising role as an Atlantic hub for trade. This post pulls a single strand from this dynamic tapestry to focus on Shakespeare and the rise of an Atlantic world, in which the many lands and peoples around the ocean interacted and created new relationships. European colonial activity was known to playgoers and other Londoners through plays, print and word of mouth.

Shakespeare’s relation to an Atlantic world is most often examined through The Tempest, a play set on an unnamed island. The identity of the island has been the subject of speculation throughout the centuries, with some arguing that the following lines, spoken by Ariel, raise the possibility that the setting is Bermuda:

Safely in harbour
Is the king's ship; in the deep nook, where once
Thou call'dst me up at midnight to fetch dew
From the still-vex'd Bermoothes, there she's hid
(Tempest 1.2.226-9)

In the words of Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T. Vaughan in their introduction to The Tempest, “The Tempest unquestioningly has American overtones. It may not be Shakespeare’s American play, as some have proposed, but it nevertheless reflects to an indefinable extent the issues and events that had captured European imaginations since the late fifteenth century and had recently acquired new significance for England” (p. 47). The influence of William Strachey’s manuscript about the 1609 wreck of the Sea Venture on Bermuda while en route to Virginia, as well as A Discovery of the Bermudas, by Sylvester Jourdain, another survivor of the Sea Venture wreck, are apparent, along with Richard Rich’s 1610 Newes from Virginia.  

Print was not necessarily the only influence on Shakespeare, as discussed by Hannah Crawforth, Sarah Dustagheer and Sarah Young in their Shakespeare in London. The topic of a chapter from their recent books is the presence of naturalists and Cabinets of Curiosities on London’s Lime Street potentially providing artefacts and evidence to inspire the imagination of a playwright.

While the timing and events seem to ensure the Atlantic case for The Tempest, the Vaughans also discuss Africa and Ireland as potential influences. In fact, “if plotted literally”, the island should lie “one hundred or so miles from a line between Naples and Tunis” (p. 47-8). The Tempest was not the only early modern drama to raise questions of English and European colonial expansion. For example, John Fletcher’s Island Princess and its setting in East Asia also portrayed it on the London stage, so Londoners were certainly aware of English colonial expansion through this mixture or print, theatre and physical objects of study. In fact, in the words of Crawforth et al, “like those first travellers whose accounts were circulating around Lime Street and other parts of London, the characters in The Tempest attempt to understand what they see before them in a strange new land” (p. 202).

Shakespeare, Colonialism and Senate House Library

Studying Shakespeare in the context of European colonial expansion and even early empire raises complex issues of English relationships with indigenous peoples and other cultures, the later enslavement of both African and other peoples, and living in and having an impact on new environments. Senate House Library has various collections to explore the ideas and questions raised in this post through different resources. For example, searching the library catalogue for a historical subject, such as Colonization – History -16th century, or an historian’s work, such as books by Karen Kupperman, will provide you with contextual and secondary works. The issues of colonialism and literature can also be explored on the catalogue, such as searching the subject Postcolonialism in Literature, Shakespeare and women and colonialism, Shakespeare and post-colonial theory, and race and culture in Stuart drama.

The character Caliban has been studied and examined in various ways, with some scholars placing Caliban in the role of the indigenous person and Prospero in that of the European colonizer. Most recently, Crawforth, Dustagheer and Young have returned the relationship between Caliban and Prospero to the early seventeenth-century context, “we can see Shakespeare examining the ways in which individuals respond to encounters with the exotic, and the impact that the heightened interest in the New World (and other foreign locations) was having on contemporary culture” (p. 202).

Online resources also offer readers the opportunity to delve into the topic, from indexes on history, like the Bibliography of British and Irish History, as well as the specific, such as the World Shakespeare Bibliography Online. There are even entire digital collections of primary sources, like Slavery, Abolition and Social Justice, 1490-2007, and Drama Online.

Senate House Library strongly supports the study of Shakespeare’s changing world, providing, Prospero-like, resources, a place of study, and the best of conditions for those who wish to delve into Shakespeare studies.

I'll deliver all;
And promise you calm seas, auspicious gales
And sail so expeditious that shall catch
Your royal fleet far off.
(Tempest 5.1.373-5)

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