In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Shakespeare and the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • New World Sources
  • Depiction of the New World
  • New World/Old World
  • Postcolonial Readings
  • Race and Gender
  • Language, Knowledge, and Memory
  • Economics, Trade, and Law
  • Land and Sea
  • The Tempest’s Adaptations and Appropriations
  • The Atlantic without The Tempest

Atlantic History Shakespeare and the Atlantic World
David McInnis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0242


Shakespeare’s career as a playwright for the Lord Chamberlain’s men, later the King’s men, coincided almost exactly with England’s first attempts at establishing a colonial presence in the New World of the Americas. In 1585, shortly before the young Shakespeare is thought to have arrived in London, Sir Walter Ralegh’s first expedition across the Atlantic attempted to settle on Roanoke Island, a venture that proved ultimately to be doomed. Various subsequent attempts were made by Ralegh and others, and in 1607 the first lasting settlement was established at Jamestown, Virginia. News of the English colonial exploits reached home via a number of publications, but Shakespeare scholarship has taken the most interest in the miraculous survival of Sir Thomas Gates, Sir George Summers, and others aboard the ship The Sea Venture, which was wrecked off Bermuda in 1609. New ships were built by the crew, who eventually made it safely to the mainland. These events and others reported in the Virginia Company’s official publication, A True and Sincere Declaration of the Purpose and Ends of the Plantation Begun in Virginia (1609); Sylvester Jourdain’s A Discovery of the Bermudas, Otherwise Called the Ile of Divels (1610); A True Declaration of the Estate of the Colony in Virginia (1610); and William Strachey’s famous letter, A True Reportory of the Wracke and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, Knight (15 July 1610, published in Purchas His Pilgrimes, 1625) are thought to have influenced Shakespeare as he wrote The Tempest (1610–1611). Though none of these can be considered a complete source, critics have identified numerous points in Shakespeare’s play that appear indebted to these accounts for various details. The island in The Tempest is bordered by Mediterranean geography (Naples and Tunis), but references to a Patagonian god named Setebos, to the “still-vexed Bermudas,” and to dead Indians have encouraged scholars to read the island as symbolically engaged with the Atlantic. These topical references, when yoked to the master-slave power dynamics embodied in the figures of Prospero and his servants Caliban and Ariel, have generated numerous postcolonial readings of Shakespeare’s play. Such readings turn on questions of race, psychology, memory, historical contexts, and discursive strategies of description and of control. Scholarship concerned with The Tempest and the New World was especially prominent in the 1980s and 1990s, although even then there were a number of vocal opponents who critiqued the New Historicist and postcolonial approaches and argued forcefully for the reorientation of the play to the Mediterranean (a focus that now dominates criticism of that play). This article surveys the key contributions to these fields, beginning with examples of traditional “source hunting” and vocal opposition to the possibility of New World Sources. A variety of critics have attended to the more aesthetic and epistemological issues pertaining to The Tempest’s possible New World interests (see Depiction of the New World), while a related group of critics read the New World engagement as more ambivalent (at best), and more closely tied to the Old World (see New World/Old World). Postcolonial Readings focuses on those critics who do view the play as an allegory of colonial relations (in the Americas or in Ireland), including psychological, historicist, and discursive approaches. At the heart of colonial readings of the play are the representation of Race and Gender. These include historical overviews of Caliban and American Indians from the perspective of the English; considerations of the fundamentally inchoate position occupied by Caliban, which renders him available to a variety of interpretations; and psychological readings of the lack of women in the play. Despite disagreements about the fundamental location and significance of the island in The Tempest, critics are invariably drawn to the representation of Language, Knowledge, and Memory in the play. The growing shift away from postcolonial readings of the play is represented here by those critics who explore the economic, trade, and legal contexts (see Economics, Trade, and Law), as well as the environmental contexts of 17th-century voyaging (Land and Sea). The Tempest’s afterlife is considered in The Tempest’s Adaptations and Appropriations; however, critics have largely conformed to the postcolonial readings (some notable exceptions, including the science fiction film, Forbidden Planet, are not covered here). Finally, in the Atlantic without The Tempest, the article concludes with a consideration of Shakespeare’s engagement with the Atlantic world beyond the confines of this most celebrated of cases.

New World Sources

Shakespeare’s use of New World material has been hotly contested; numerous scattered references have been identified as plausibly originating in voyage narratives of contemporary events including the famed shipwreck of the Sea Venture off Bermuda (Bullough 1975, Cawley 1926), but none satisfactorily account for the narrative of The Tempest (Stoll 1927). Traditional source hunting has given way to wider questions of oral/aural influence (Kinney 1995) and of discursive fields (Frey 1979) or con-texts (Barker and Hulme 1985), though the argument that the Strachey letter in particular is relevant to the play remains firmly entrenched in the scholarship, featuring as the centerpiece of a contentious claim for The Tempest’s reliance on materials available to the Earl of Oxford (Stritmatter and Kositsky 2007) and a rebuttal of those claims (Vaughan 2008).

  • Barker, Francis, and Peter Hulme. “Nymphs and Reapers Heavily Vanish: The Discursive Con-texts of The Tempest.” In Alternative Shakespeares. Edited by John Drakakis, 191–205. London: Methuen, 1985.

    Barker and Hulme distance themselves from authorial intention and argue that a text accumulates new meaning over time, depending on the context in which it is received/performed. Historicist readings of the play are thus replaced with a political intertextuality in which successive inscriptions of/on the play add to but do not replace the first inscription. The “discourse” of colonialism is offered as a middle ground between text and language.

  • Borlik, Todd Andrew. “Caliban and the Fen Demons of Lincolnshire: The Englishness of Shakespeare’s Tempest.” Shakespeare 9.1 (2013): 21–51.

    DOI: 10.1080/17450918.2012.705882

    Joins Brotton 1998 (cited under New World/Old World) in rejecting New World readings of The Tempest, instead locating the play in the context of Lincolnshire “fen spirits” and the fen-dwelling Anglo-Saxon hermit, Saint Guthlac (who Borlik identifies as the subject of a lost play that may inform The Tempest).

  • Bullough, Geoffrey. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. Vol. 8. London: Routledge, 1975.

    Seminal study identifying sources and analogues to The Tempest, including such New World sources as the Strachey letter and the Virginia Company pamphlets.

  • Cawley, Robert Ralston. “Shakspere’s Use of the Voyagers in The Tempest.” PMLA 41 (1926): 688–726.

    DOI: 10.2307/457623

    An early and thorough listing of the parallels (obscure, generic, and at times somewhat dubious) between travel documents and Shakespeare’s play: e.g., “amazement,” “split,” and “boatswain” as echoed in Strachey’s letter and The Tempest.

  • Frey, Charles. “The Tempest and the New World.” Shakespeare Quarterly 30 (1979): 29–41.

    DOI: 10.2307/2869659

    Cites the obscure term “scamel” as justification for the need to read outside the play and resist the autotelic readings of earlier critics who asserted that The Tempest had little or no New World dimension to it. Rather than hunting for a precise New World source though, argues for alternative models of influence, e.g., the broader discursive/linguistic fields (relevant to the Americas) in operation at the time Shakespeare was writing.

  • Kinney, Arthur F. “Revisiting The Tempest.” Modern Philology 93.2 (1995): 161–177.

    DOI: 10.1086/392301

    As with Frey 1979, expands the concept of “sources,” proposing a closer examination of James Rosier’s tract, A True Relation of the Most Prosperous Voyage Made This Present Yeere (1605), which relates the arrival in London of five Native Americans as spoils of an English New World venture. Seeing these Native Americans in London could have influenced Shakespeare as much as the Jamestown pamphlets or the Strachey letter.

  • Stoll, Elmer Edgar. “Certain Fallacies and Irrelevancies in the Literary Scholarship of the Day.” Studies in Philology 24.4 (1927): 485–508.

    Takes issue with source-hunting critics who find American allusions scattered throughout The Tempest; argues the contrary position that such parallels are dubious and that the cumulative effect of the many minor coincidences has no weight of its own.

  • Stritmatter, Roger, and Lynne Kositsky. “Shakespeare and the Voyagers Revisited.” Review of English Studies 58 (2007): 447–472.

    DOI: 10.1093/res/hgl152

    Attempts to antedate The Tempest (to strengthen anti-Stratfordian authorship claims) by arguing that the Strachey letter was not available to Shakespeare as a source, and that Strachey and The Tempest draw on an earlier, common source.

  • Vaughan, Alden T. “William Strachey’s True Repertory and Shakespeare: A Closer Look at the Evidence.” Shakespeare Quarterly 59 (2008): 245–273.

    DOI: 10.1353/shq.0.0017

    Provides a riposte to Stritmatter and Kositsky 2007, revisits the strong grounds for Shakespeare’s likely reliance on Strachey, and confirms the 1610–1611 date of composition for The Tempest.

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