The Tempest, generally accepted to be William Shakespeare’s last play, tells a magical tale of a mystical island, inhabited by forces light and dark. Typically of Shakespeare’s late romance plays, magic and mysticism play a significant role, but the setting of The Tempest gives many historians pause. Where Shakespeare got the story or idea for the play is a great mystery, although several prominent Shakespearean scholars have put for their own ideas as to what The Bard is referencing.
The most common theory is that Shakespeare’s play was inspired by the true-life tales of a shipwreck in the Bahamas in 1609. The Sea Venture a main ship for the powerful Virginia Company, left port in June for the New World, carrying settlers to the new town of Jamestown in Virginia. Nearly two months into the trip, the ship was caught in a hurricane, leading the captain to ground it on the reefs of an island. By crash landing on Bermuda, 150 people and a dog were saved from the storm.
In London, accounts of the shipwreck and the events that followed it were published in pamphlet form by an eyewitness, William Strachey. Many believe that Shakespeare not only had access to Strachey’s tales, but drew on them extensively to write The Tempest. The timing certainly matches, as the play was first performed in 1611 and is believed to have been written no more than a year before.
Some scholars suggest that the island of The Tempest may not be in the New World at all, but considerably closer to England. Ireland has been suggested as a possible setting for the play, which deals at least partially with concepts of colonization and home rule. Many of the mystic creatures that appear in the play have a Celtic origin or Irish counterpart to which parallels may be drawn.
A controversial theory is that the island is actually a metaphor for London, and the morally obtuse figure of Prospero is a version of Shakespeare himself. Prospero is a man of great power and prestige on the island, the ruler of all creatures, yet he chooses to leave his domain behind and return to a life of peaceful, family rule. Similarly, Shakespeare quit the stage after The Tempest returning to his family estates in Stratford to live his few remaining years in relative peace. Experts cite the epilogue of the play as strangely direct, and have even suggested that it may be Shakespeare bidding farewell to the theater and asking forgiveness and love from his audience.
Some scholars dismiss the idea that The Tempest has a direct geographical source. Shakespeare’s last plays were characterized by their originality; he drew less and less on classic stories as he grew in skill and fame. Many consider his last work to be among his greatest, and chief among the romance plays. Where the play is actually set, the answer is no doubt lost to history as are most of the Shakespeare mysteries. What posterity is left with is the tremendous gift of the play itself, and the magical atmosphere that pervades the setting wherever it may really be.