One of the not-quite-fixed points in Shakespearean studies is the inspiration for The Tempest. For a couple of hundred years, it has been widely believed that Shakespeare wrote it after reading William Strachey’s account of a shipwreck in Bermuda in 1609 (A True Reportory of the wracke, and redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, Knight; upon, and from the Ilands of the Bermudas). Strachey in not the play’s “source” in a conventional sense: He drops no hints of Prospero or Ariel or Miranda or Caliban, and nothing supernatural occurs. Rather, the playwright seems to have taken the mundane events of the True Reportory and transferred them to a fantasy realm. Bermuda was sometimes called “the Isle of Devils”, so he imagined an island where magical beings dwelled. A modern parallel is Fletcher Pratt’s novel The Blue Star, in which late 18th Century Europe and America are transformed into a parallel world where witchcraft is a reality.
The resemblances between what happened to Strachey and his companions and what happens in The Tempest have been spelled out many times. A convenient on-line article is David Kathman’s “Dating The Tempest”. The case is not, and in the nature of things could not be, absolutely water-tight. Still, if Shakespeare did not read Strachey (or someone else who presented the same facts in very much the same way) before writing The Tempest, we have a remarkable literary coincidence.
Strachey’s tale, in the form of a letter addressed to an unnamed “excellent lady”, was not published until 1625, as part of Samuel Purchas’s huge collection of travel and exploration narratives. Purchas dates it “July 15, 1610”. Its narrative ends on that date, when a flotilla is on the eve of sailing from the Jamestown colony to England. The conventional opinion is that Strachey’s letter went back with the ships. How a copy then found its way into Shakespeare’s hands is unknown, but the degrees of separation between the traveler and the dramatist were almost zero. Strachey was a would-be litterateur with a strong interest in the theater. He published several poems, for a time owned an interest in the Blackfriars Theater, and wrote a puff for Ben Jonson’s play, Sejanus His Fall. On the other side, Shakespeare, as Dr. Kathman details, was well acquainted with a number of shareholders in the Virginia Company. Moreover, both the form and content of the missive to the “excellent lady” strongly suggest that Strachey intended it for publication and thus had an incentive to send it to parties other than just his employers; for instance, to William Shakespeare, a partner a leading acting company and, perhaps more pertinently, a fellow townsman of the prolific printer Richard Field.
All of the preceding is of interest, for the most part, only to scholars and Shakespeare buffs, but one group finds it exceedingly troublesome, namely, the devoted believers in the theory that the works ascribed to the Bard were really written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxenford. Oxenford unfortunately died in 1604. William Strachey’s sea adventure took place five years later, and the first recorded performance of The Tempest was on November 1, 1611, when it opened the Court season.
A dead man writing strains even the vast credulity of the Oxenfordians. The originator of the sect, J. Thomas Looney, conceded that the evidence for a post-1604 date for the play was irrefutable, so he denied that it belonged with the works of Shakespeare. In his opinion, it was the inferior work of some unknown hack, accidentally annexed to the canon. The more imaginative Paul Streitz, who has a Supreme Court Justice in his camp, declares that Oxenford was able to write the play after all, because his death was a hoax. In reality, he was spirited off to the Isle of Wight, where he lived covertly and, among other projects, ghost-translated the King James Bible.
Those may not be the most fruitful lines of argument. Better for the Oxenford camp if it could divorce The Tempest from Strachey, leaving room for the possibility that the play’s real date was years earlier than commonly thought. A recent essay by two fervent Oxenfordians, Roger Stritmatter and Lynne Kositsky, “Shakespeare and the Voyagers Revisited” (in The Review of English Studies (Sept. 2007)), makes that attempt. So far as I can tell, it isn’t yet available on-line without paying for it, but I’ve perused it; you can save your money. (N.B.: Tom Reedy, co-author of the useful “How We Know That Shakespeare Wrote Shakespeare: The Historical Facts”, is preparing a properly scholarly response to the Stritmatter-Kositsky article. He has allowed me to read a draft, from which I have borrowed a number of observations. His approach is, however, somewhat different from mine, and he is not responsible for any of this post’s inadequacies.)
I understand that Dr. Stritmatter and Mrs. Kositsky (S&K from now on) are embarked on a series of pieces that will argue that The Tempest first appeared in 1598 under the name The Spanish Maze and presents a political allegory centered on early 16th Century Italian politics. Hence, there may be some strange stuff to come, but this first installment has a relatively sober thesis: that Strachey’s letter is a fabrication, ostensibly sent from Virginia in 1610 but actually put together in London in 1612 or later. Hence, it postdates Shakespeare’s play.
When I say “relatively sober”, I mean, relative to many of S&K’s other beliefs. Their hypothesis demands fairly odd behavior by William Strachey. We are asked to accept that, for no discernible reason, he carefully devised a narrative whose internal evidence points to a date at least two years prior to composition and that he plagiarized important details about incidents to which he had been an eyewitness. These extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. Do S&K supply it?
They certainly think so. At the end of their essay, they write, “In view of the extensive evidence cited here it may safely be concluded, we submit, that Strachey’s True Reportory is no longer even a possible source for Shakespeare’s Tempest.”
To reach this bold conclusion, S&K must overturn conventional wisdom, which holds that Strachey wrote the True Reportory in Virginia and sent it to England with the ships that departed the colony on July 15, 1610. (Strachey himself stayed there for another year.) It reached London in time to serve as one of the sources of a pamphlet issued by the Council of Virginia in November 1610, titled A True Declaration of the estate of the Colonie in Virginia. Because the two works contain passages that are identical almost to the word, it has hitherto been assumed that the anonymous author of the True Declaration borrowed from Strachey. The heart of S&K’s case lies in their attempt to demonstrate vice versa. On their theory, the composition date of the True Repertory is some time after Strachey returned to England in the fall of 1611. He is there supposed to have put it together largely by borrowing passages from other writings, with the True Declaration as a principal source. If one accepts their case in full, the terminus a quo is mid- to late 1612.
S&K do not bother to address the reasoning behind the standard chronology. Indeed, they imply that it was cobbled together simply in order to give adequate time between the True Reportory’s arrival in England and the opening night of The Tempest. That is hardly the case. The scholarly world doesn’t revolve around Shakespearean authorship (contrary to what many anti-Stratfordians imagine), and there is straightforward proof of Strachey’s priority.
Internal evidence strongly suggests that the True Reportory’s text dates from 1610:
The last part of the letter consists of a chronicle of events in the Virginia colony from early June through July 15, 1610. It ends on that day, as Sir Thomas Gates is about to set sail for England, and refers to no later event.
Discussing complaints that the location of Jamestown rendered it unhealthy, Strachey writes:
. . . some experience we haue to perswade our selues that it may be so; for of foure hundred and odde men, which were seated at the Fals the last yeere when the Fleete came in with fresh and yong able spirits, vnder the gouernment of Captain Francis West, and of one hundred to the Seawards (on the South side of our Riuer), in the Country of the Nansamundes, vnder the charge of Captaine Iohn Martin, there did not so much as one man miscarry, and but very few or none fall sicke, whereas at Iames Towne, the same time, and the same moneths, one hundred sickened, & halfe the number died.
These events took place in 1609, so, unless Strachey was extremely confused, he was writing in 1610 (or to be precise, no later than March 24, 1611, as the English civil year then began on March 25th).
Strachey records the dispatch of ships to Bermuda to fetch provisions:
In Counsell therefore, the thirteenth of Iune, it pleased Sir George Summers Knight, Admirall, to propose a Voyage, which, for the better reliefe, and good of the Colony, he would performe into the Bermudas, from whence he would fetch six moneths prouision of Flesh and Fish, and some liue Hogges to store our Colony againe: and had a Commission giuen vnto him the fifteenth of Iune, 1610, who in his owne Bermuda Pinnace, the Patience, consorted with Captaine Samuell Argoll, in the Discouery (whom the Lord Gouernour, and Captaine Generall, made of the counsell before his departure) the nineteenth of Iune, fell with the Tyde from before our Towne, and the twenty two left the Bay, or Cape Henry a sterne.
That is the last that the True Repertory has to say of the admiral. As it fell out, he died in Bermuda on November 9, 1610, and his son took his body back to England for burial “with pomp and ceremony” [Oxford DNB s.v. “George Somers”]. Given that he is one of the major figures in Strachey’s narrative, the silence about his fate is strange, if it occurred before the book was finished.
Strachey’s last recorded incident is a stern message sent to Chief Powhatan (well known to history and fable) threatening his tribesmen with murder, pillage and arson unless he releases a number of English captives and enters into peace negotiations with the colony. He continues:
What this will worke with him, wee know not as yet, for this was but the day before our ships were now falling to Point Comfort, and so to set sayle for England: which ships riding before Weroscoick to take in their fraight of Cedar, Clap-boord, Blacke Walnut, and Iron Oare, tooke Prisoners likewise the chiefe King of Weroscoick, called Sasenticum, with his Sonne Kainta, and one of his chiefe men. And the fifteenth day of Iuly, in the Blessing, Captaine Adams brought them to Point Comfort, where at that time (as well to take his leaue of the Lieutenant Generall Sir Thomas Gates, now bound for England, as to dispatch the ships) the Lord Gouernour and Captaine Generall had pitched his Tent in Algernoone Fort.
The Kings Sonne Kainta the Lord Gouernour and Captaine Generall, hath sent now into England, vntil the ships arriue here againe the next Spring, dismissing the old Werowance, and the other with all tearmes of kindnesse, and friendship, promising further designes to bee effected by him, to which hee hath bound himselfe, by diuers Sauage Ceremonies, and admirations.
Note that Gates’s imminent departure is stated as the reason why Strachey does not know how the threat to Powhatan will work out. Could these paragraphs have been written, as S&K contend, over a year later, after “the next Spring” had passed and the writer himself was back in London? Only if he was engaged in an incomprehensible mystification!
S&K assert that Strachey’s language can be taken as putting the ships’ departure in the past (“now bound for England”, “hath now sent into England”). Their reading goes well beyond what grammar demands. Even if it were sound, it would be of little use to their case, for their crucial hypothesis is that Strachey had the Council of Virginia’s True Declaration open in front of him as he wrote. But Strachey was in Virginia until the autumn of 1611. Assuming that a copy of the True Declaration was superfluously dispatched to the colony, would he have received it before any developments occurred in the standoff with Powhatan and the English ships returned in the Spring? S&K are at pains to emphasize only one English vessel is known to have called at Jamestown “between Gates’ departure in July 1610 and Sir Thomas Dale’s arrival from England in May 1611”. That was “a small ship called The Hercules[, which] may have left England sometime after December and arrived in Virginia on or around 20 April 1611”. It might have brought the True Declaration, and Strachey might then have composed his True Reportory during the few weeks before Dale’s fleet came, and he might for some reason have left out all incidents between Gates’ departure and the time of writing. By that thread S&K’s whole theory is suspended. Absent the improbably timely apparition of the True Declaration in the New World, the only conclusion reconcilable with the internal evidence is that the True Reportory was written and sent to England in July 1610, in plenty of time to serve as a basis for the True Declaration.
Let us now turn to the relationship between those two works. As noted before, Strachey’s work takes the form of a letter to an “excellent lady”. The epistle closes just after the paragraphs quoted above regarding the return voyage to England:
And thus (right Noble Lady) once more this famous businesse, as recreated, and dipped a new into life and spirit, hath raysed it (I hope) from infamy, and shall redeeme the staines and losses vnder which she hath suffered, since her first Conception: your Graces still accompany the least appearance of her, and vouchsafe her to bee limmed out, with the beautie which wee will begge, and borrow from the faire lips: nor feare you, that shee will returne blushes to your cheekes for praysing her, since (more then most excellent Ladie) like your selfe (were all tongues dumbe and enuious) shee will prayse her selfe in her most silence: may shee once bee but seene, or but her shadow liuely by a skillfull Workman set out indeed, which heere (bungerly as I am) I haue presumed (though defacing it) in these Papers to present vnto your Ladyship.
In Purchas’s edition, these words are followed by –
After Sir Thomas Gates his arriuall, a Booke called A true Declaration of Virginia, was published by the Company, out of which I haue heere inserted this their publike testimonie of the causes of the former euils, and Sir Thomas Gates his Report vpon Oath of Virginia.
Then comes a long extract from the True Declaration, printed in italic type. S&K insist that this appendix must be part of Strachey’s original text, proving that the whole of the True Reportory was written after the True Declaration. They offer only two feeble arguments, both circular. One turns on the pronoun “I”: It supposedly “raises significant questions concerning True Reportory’s authenticity and integrity” to posit “the insertion of the first person pronoun by Purchas into a text ostensibly written in its entirety by Strachey”, but that is true only if one begins by assuming that the appendix belongs to Strachey’s ostensible text, which is the point to be decided.
Similarly question-begging is S&K’s argument that the True Declaration’s priority is demonstrated by the fact that “material redacted [sic] from the concluding excerpt of True Declaration is sprinkled throughout Strachey’s text”. It is their a priori assumption that Strachey was the borrower.
No one who did not have a thesis to prove can regard it as probable that the appendix is anything other than an insertion by the editor, Samuel Purchas, designed to record the Council of Virginia’s view of the causes of the Jamestown colony’s early misfortunes. Apart from the indications already mentioned – its placement after the formal close of the letter to the “excellent lady” and its printing in a different typeface from the letter – another sign of its independence is the bald reference to “Sir Thomas Gates”, whose name is throughout the letter adorned with his various titles. Out of dozens of references to him, there is only a single exception. Yet in the appendix, where his official declarations to the colonial council are being reproduced, he is merely “Sir Thomas”.
Tom Reedy’s forthcoming essay elaborates on this and other reasons for attributing the appendix to Purchas. He also details how the True Reportory and the True Declaration agree against other eyewitnesses on key facts about the Bermuda shipwreck. For instance, both give the same date for the beginning of the storm, the same latitude of its onset and identical details concerning the three days of desperate pumping to keep the Sea Venture afloat. On all these matters, they differ from the first hand accounts of Admiral Somers (in a report to Sir Robert Cecil) and the seaman Silvester Jourdain (A discovery of the Bermudas, otherwise called the isle of devils, a pamphlet published in October 1610). The compiler of the True Declaration took his information either from Strachey or from an unknown tertium quid. S&K must assume the latter and then hypothesize that Strachey, who lived through the wreck, turned for information about it not to his own memory but to the True Declaration!
If the True Reportory was a source of the True Declaration, it must have been available in England by late 1610, when the latter was published. Since S&K cast no substantial doubt on the conventional understanding of the relationship between the two documents, their remaining arguments, consisting of alleged anomalies and Strachey’s supposed borrowing of two short passages from Captain John Smith’s Map of Virginia (1612), require no discussion. The anomalies are not very strange, and their only reason for thinking that Strachey was the copyist, rather than Smith, is that Strachey’s major opus, The Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania, “borrowed heavily from the work of earlier authors, including Richard Willes, James Rosier, and John Smith” [Oxford DNB s. v. “William Strachey”]. They repeat “Strachey was a plagiarist” over and over, as if a man who plagiarizes in a work based on research is bound to do the same when he writes about what he himself lived through.
What can one make, then, of S&K’s claim to have proven “that Strachey’s True Reportory is no longer even a possible source for Shakespeare’s Tempest.”? They have, so far as I can see, done nothing more than proffer an alternative reconstruction of the True Reportory’s history, one that cannot, for want of evidence, be conclusively rejected but that is not likely or even plausible. To recap, in the S&K universe, William Strachey perpetuated an elaborate hoax for no apparent purpose but the bafflement of posterity. Writing in late 1611, at the earliest (after 1612, if S&K are serious about his purported plagiarism from John Smith), he cast his mind back to July 1610 and carefully avoided referring to anything that happened after that ostensible date, to the point of leaving such incidents as the tension with the Indians and the fate of Sir George Somers in medias res. He also, in recounting incidents that he had seen himself, turned to the second hand True Declaration and drew on it liberally in preference to his own recollection.
No one who believes that the Earl of Oxenford secretly composed the works of Shakespeare, or that (as Dr. Stritmatter maintains in other writings) he was Queen Elizabeth’s sub rosa paramour, or that (Dr. Stritmatter again) he infused much of “Shakespeare” with bitterness over the Queen’s refusal to acknowledge their illegitimate son as the heir to the throne, will see anything untoward about the theory advanced in “Shakespeare and the Voyagers Revisited”. Elsewhere, I anticipate that it will receive the same credence as its authors’ other peculiar notions of reality.
Addendum (4/8/08): Dr. Stritmatter and Mrs. Kositsky have responded in the Comments. For the most part, I don’t think that what they say needs any sur-rebuttal. I will, however, address their complaint that my article “doesn’t even mention many of our points”. I’ve prepared an appendix that, I believe, covers every substantive argument in S&K’s essay that wasn’t dealt with in my original post.
Addendum (4/9/08): In their essay, S&K claim to have proven “that Strachey’s True Reportory is no longer even a possible source for Shakespeare’s TempestJ [emphasis theirs].” Judging by their replies to this post, they feel that their claim is adequately substantiated by simply bringing forward theories that explain away all contrary evidence. The mere possibility that Strachey wrote (or “embellished”) the True Reportory after his return from the New World supposedly renders it impossible that the composition date indicated by the internal evidence, viz., July 15, 1610, is the true one. This sort of dichotomous “reasoning” is not untypical of
Oxenfordians bold thinkers who challenge the hidebound establishment: The orthodox view is falsified by the existence of alternatives, however many cycles and epicycles the latter necessitate.
Let me supplement that general observation with a specific one. S&K insist that “The Kings Sonne Kainta the Lord Gouernour and Captaine Generall, hath sent now into England, vntil the ships arriue here againe the next Spring” must have been written after the ships departed. I’m afraid that their grammatical analysis is faulty. The “Lord Gouernour and Captaine Generall” is the subject of the verb. He is doing the sending. His act of sending was complete before the ships left, because he had done everything that he had to do to bring it about. Hence, Strachey used the perfect tense, “hath sent”, to show completed action. The addition of “now” implies that the action was completed shortly before the sentence was written. The tense of the verb is thus consistent with the other internal evidence for a July 15, 1610, date. The same analysis applies to the passage that S&K quote, in which Strachey describes his own sending: “I have sent” means that he has completed his part of the action of sending; “I would have sent”, that he had a desire to send but did not.
As for the rest of S&K’s arguments, I have no doubt that careful readers will be able to evaluate their strength and give them such credence as they deserve.
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