Where is the unnamed isle in The Tempest? The literal-minded will say that it’s obviously in the Mediterranean, where a ship headed from Tunis to Italy might have foundered. Those who know Shakespeare’s written sources will mention Strachey’s 1610 letter and other documents that describe a shipwreck which took place on the coast of Bermuda.
Shakespeare seems to have adopted a pick’n mix attitude to the various written sources which he used, including that letter, an essay by Montaigne, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and many others. He’s deliberately contradictory and evasive when describing the magical island, and theatre companies have always grasped the imaginative possibilities it presents.
A new production of the play, starring Ralph Fiennes as Prospero, directed by Trevor Nunn, has recently opened in the West End of London. From the photographs and reviews, Nunn seems to have adopted a traditional approach to the design, the recently-shipwrecked Italians dressed in Elizabethan/Jacobean costumes while Prospero and Miranda wear plainer clothes of an indeterminate period. The question of location has, it seems, been left open.
In 2006 Rupert Goold took the bold decision to set his RSC production in the frozen north. This seemed to be an eccentric choice. Isn’t the island supposed to be hospitable? Or are we conditioned to think it’s some kind of paradise, like that conjured up by the theme music for the Radio 4 series Desert Island Discs, which beguilingly suggests palm trees, blue seas, and golden sands?
Even the characters on the island see it differently depending on their personalities. Of the shipwrecked Italians, Gonzalo and Adrian are positive about their surroundings, while Antonio and Sebastian can see only bad.
Adrian: … the air breathes upon us here most sweetly
Sebastian: As if it had lungs, and rotten ones.
Gonzalo: Here is everything advantageous to life.
Antonio: True; save means to live.
Gonzalo: How lush and lusty the grass looks! How green!
Antonio: The ground, indeed, is tawny!
Sebastian: With an eye of green in’t.
While Goold’s production was admired for incorporating Inuit culture into his “totally coherent vision of the play” Dominic Cavendish wrote that:
Goold is undoubtedly a creative force to be reckoned with but he’s gone overboard here…: the feast magically presented to the oppressed travellers …becomes a dragged-on dead whale, yielding bloody, raw meat, and the nuptial masque for Ferdinand and Miranda… is now a faintly ludicrous tribal ceremony involving the couple being blindfolded and assailed by much incomprehensible chanting.
The audience was left puzzled rather than uneasy, the island unfamiliar and threatening, so Adrian’s comment that the island is “uninhabitable, and almost inaccessible”, certainly fitted with the Arctic setting.
Among the sources for the imaginary island, though not documented, must be stories of voyages to far-off places which would have been brought back to England by travellers. Not all voyages were to the south, east or west. English explorers were also travelling north.
The islands of Jan Mayen, off Greenland, and Spitsbergen, far north of Norway, were discovered during Shakespeare’s lifetime and both were visited by English explorers around 1607. Jan Mayen is a desolate place, dominated by a huge active volcano, the land black as a result of the latest eruption with glaciers stretching down to the sea shore. Spitsbergen is a land of snow and huge jagged mountains, so far north that in the summer the sun never sets, followed by months of perpetual night in winter.
It took several years to organise after those early exploratory journeys, but the first English whaling expedition to Spitsbergen took place in 1611, employing a number of experienced Basque whalehunters to accompany the English crews. Those early sailors might well have agreed with Gonzalo:
All torment, trouble, wonder and amazement
Inhabits here; some heavenly power guide us
Out of this fearful country!
Is it fanciful to think that Shakespeare heard about these islands, and incorporated stories about them into his imaginary isle of The Tempest?
I recently spent a wonderful day researching the early history of whaling at the Scott Polar Institute Library in Cambridge and in a further post I’ll be writing more about the adventures of English sailors in the far north.