The Tempest and the literature of wonder

Martin Butler shows how Renaissance travel, trade and colonisation shaped the portrayal of Caliban and the Italians in The Tempest.

The Tempest is Shakespeare’s travel drama, a play responding to the enlarged geographical and mental horizons created by European exploration into distant places. It stages the disconcerting effects of surprise and estrangement provoked by the burgeoning literature of global discovery, with its reports of new and wonderful lands. Set on an island lying somewhere between North Africa and Italy, the play’s action takes place amidst the increasingly busy shipping lanes which criss-crossed the Mediterranean, through which exotic goods from Asia and the Middle East were pouring into Europe. The North African ports mentioned in the dialogue, Tunis and Algiers (2.1.72, 1.2.265), were places where European traders encountered representatives of other nations and felt the disturbance involved in crossing cultural divides. When Trinculo and Antonio meet Caliban, they react like profit-hungry merchants, weighing up his value as a commodity, a ‘strange fish’ that would be ‘marketable’ at home (2.2.27, 5.1.266). But other characters respond to the island with astonishment, experiencing its marvels as a challenge to their inbuilt habits and assumptions. The island makes them confront the way they live as if from an alien perspective, reappraising the familiar from the standpoint of the world’s margins.

Eden's Decades of the New World, 1555

Eden's Decades of the New World, 1555

Richard Eden reveals a distinctly colonialist perspective in his Decades of the New World (1555). He compares the people of these lands to a blank piece of ‘white paper’ on which you can ‘paynte and wryte’ whatever you wish.

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Trans-Atlantic discovery: ‘O brave new world’

Shakespeare’s perspective in The Tempest stretches far beyond the Mediterranean, for his imagination was caught by stories of trans-Atlantic discovery. The ‘nimble marmoset’ (2.2.170) which inhabits the island is one of those creatures brought back to Europe by Portuguese explorers in South America. Caliban’s name suggests ‘cannibal’, a practice found amongst the native peoples discovered in Brazil, and depicted in gruesome images by the Belgian artist Theodor de Bry. Caliban’s mother worships a Patagonian god called Setebos (1.2.373), a deity that Shakespeare found in the account of Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe anthologised in Richard Eden’s travel collection, Decades of the New World or West India (1555). When Gonzalo muses about making ‘plantation’ of the island (2.1.144), he is using language associated with the English colonial settlements in Virginia, and Ariel remembers fetching dew ‘from the still-vexed Bermudas’ (1.2.229), stormy islands which lay en route to the new English colony at Jamestown. Fittingly, Miranda’s naïve but resonant phrase, ‘O brave new world’ (5.1.183), has come to symbolise the mix of promises and disappointments in Europe’s discovery of the Americas. Ironically, however, she is not addressing persons from the New World but from the Old, the Europeans that she has never previously met. Shakespeare upsets our assumptions by presenting the colonial encounter as if from the point of view of the soon-to-be disenchanted native. ‘’Tis new to thee’, Prospero wearily replies.

Engravings of Native Americans and Europeans in de Bry's America

Engravings of Native Americans and Europeans in de Bry's America

Theodor de Bry’s images of cannibalism, published in America (1590), played a crucial role in shaping European ideas of the so-called ‘New World’.

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One recent incident associated with Virginia probably provided the impetus for the plot, for in 1609 an English fleet heading there was caught in a three-day tempest and broken up. A report by the colonist William Strachey (not printed until 1625, but accessible to Shakespeare in manuscript) describes how his ship, the Sea Venture, was overwhelmed by the storm. He recounts the mariners’ helplessness and terror, and notes the seemingly supernatural phenomenon of St Elmo’s fire – which, in the play, Ariel imitates by running along the masts in the form of a flame (1.2.196–201). Eventually the colonists were cast ashore in the Bermudas, uninhabited islands reputed to be the home of devils but which turned out to be unexpectedly hospitable. With his narrative see-sawing between moments of desperate catastrophe and miraculous redemption, Strachey presents these events as mysteriously determined by Providence: ‘It pleased our merciful God’, he says, ‘to make even this hideous and hated place both the place of our safety and means of our deliverance’. Shakespeare’s characters are similarly haunted by a sense of supernatural forces over which they have no control, though spectators of the play have a different view, as we can see that much of the mystery is created not by God’s hand but by Prospero’s.

Strachey's 'A true reportory of the wreck' in Bermuda

Strachey's 'A true reportory of the wreck' in Bermuda

William Strachey’s dramatic account of a shipwreck off Bermuda in 1609 was probably a source for Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest.

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Coloured engravings of Native Americans and Picts bound with Strachey's New World 'Dictionary' and 'History'

Coloured engravings of Native Americans and Picts bound with Strachey's New World 'Dictionary' and 'History'

William Strachey wrote a manuscript account of colonial life in Virginia and a dictionary of the indigenous Powhatan language. It is bound with hand-coloured versions of de Bry’s engravings of Virginians.

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The issues raised by global discovery are brought into focus in the relationship between Prospero and Caliban, the European intellectual and his ‘savage’ foster-child (‘savage’ being Miranda’s word for him: 1.2.355). The representation of Caliban raises difficult questions about how members of colonised cultures are perceived by those who find them, and on what basis a colonising culture justifies wielding power over them. Shakespeare is careful to leave Caliban’s appearance and origins enigmatic. Prospero says he is the child of an Algerian witch and the devil, but we never learn quite what he looks like or where he comes from, and he cannot easily be pigeonholed. Although the play does not associate him directly with the New World, the combination of fear and fascination which he inspires echoes at a distance the public reaction to the trickle of American natives being brought to Europe as curiosities – the most famous being Pocahontas, who married an Englishman and arrived in London with a dozen fellow Algonquians in 1616. Caliban’s fishy smell perhaps links him with the Inuit brought back from Baffin Island by Martin Frobisher in 1577, whose clothes were made of sealskin. Other figures he recalls include the native peoples of Roanoke painted by the colonist John White in 1585, and engraved by Theodor de Bry for the second edition of Thomas Hariot’s A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1590). For the play’s Europeans, Caliban’s determining factor is his strangeness, which they take as a licence to treat him as little more than an animal. But by foregrounding his category-defying identity, the play forces us to reflect on where, and to what effect, the imagined boundary line between human and non-human is being drawn.

Paintings of London in the friendship album of Michael van Meer, c. 1614-1615

A Virginian Indian in St James's Park, from the Friendship Album of Michael van Meer

A small number of Native Americans were brought to England by explorers and exhibited as curiosities. This miniature painting shows a Virginian man in St James’s Park, c. 1614–15.

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Copyright: © The University of Edinburgh

Engravings of Native Americans and Picts in Harriot's Brief and True Report

Engravings of Native Americans and Picts in Harriot's A Brief and True Report, 1590

Virginian people dancing, engraved by Theodor de Bry, and reproduced in Thomas Harriot’s A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia, 1590.

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The most influential response to New World visitors came from the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592), who saw Tupinamba Indians from Brazil at Rouen in 1562. This encounter inspired his essay ‘Of the Cannibals’, which Shakespeare read in John Florio’s English translation (1603). For Montaigne, the strangeness of the Tupinamba did not confirm the supposed superiority of European culture but called it into question. Far from seeming savage, they struck him as dignified and intelligent. He was impressed that they had their own customs, language and even poetry, and he admired the harmonious natural simplicity of their lives, which (he thought) put to shame the false sophistication of contemporary Europe, torn apart as it was by violence and greed. Montaigne came to suppose that the Tupinamba retained a state of Edenic plainness which Europe had lost: ‘We have so much by our inventions surcharged the beauties and riches of [Nature’s] works, that we have altogether over-choked her; yet wherever her purity shineth, she makes our vain and frivolous enterprises wonderfully ashamed’. Shakespeare ventriloquises similar sentiments, with direct echoes from Montaigne, when he has Gonzalo speculate about how he might create a perfect state on the island, free from the corruptions of ‘civilised’ society (2.1.144–69). Of course, to the other courtiers Gonzalo’s ideas seem sentimental and unrealistic, and, crucially, Caliban, for all his delight in music, is no noble savage. However, the Europeans’ repulsive behaviour, their ambition, conspiracy, drunkenness and exploitation of others, prevents us from taking for granted the idea that they have a God-given superiority to the ‘native’.

Montaigne's Essays translated by Florio

Montaigne's Essays translated by Florio

Gonzalo’s speech has clear echoes of Michel de Montaigne’s essay ‘Of the Cannibals’, first translated into English by John Florio in 1603.

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Against this, Prospero’s claims to rule the island rest on his cultural advantage, the intellectual and moral pre-eminence which underwrites his authority. Being a learned European, he has a civility which automatically subordinates Caliban, who can see how much Prospero’s supremacy depends on his knowledge: ‘Burn but his books’, he urges Stephano (3.2.95). The play’s shorthand for Prospero’s pre-eminence is his ‘Art’, the magic which gives him ideological heft and practical power. Prospero is a ‘magus’ – that is, a wise man expert in the most esoteric forms of learning, often of a hermetic or obscurely philosophical cast. The famous English magus was John Dee (1527–1609), an astronomer, mathematician and astrologer who was renowned for his scientific and technological skill. Dee was an early advocate for overseas exploration, and his General and Rare Memorials Pertaining to the Perfect Art of Navigation (1577) is the first printed book to imagine the idea of a ‘British empire’ – something that would have seemed fanciful to most readers at the time, given how undeveloped England’s overseas trade still was. Dee’s scientific interests also extended into occult fields, such as alchemy and angelology, for he believed the pursuit of knowledge should encompass the supernatural as well as natural sphere. He practised divination with spirits, by ‘scrying’ or gazing into an obsidian disk (probably a trophy brought back to Europe from Mexico), and he had magic seals of wax through which he tried to communicate with the archangels Michael and Uriel. Dee’s varied interests demonstrate how porous the borderline was at this time between science and magic, and suggest the anxieties that modern technological advances could provoke amongst those who feared and misunderstood them. A more negative image of a scientist/conjurer rather like him can be seen in Christopher Marlowe’s tragedy Doctor Faustus, in which the title-character’s knowledge and pride lead him to dabble with devils. Interestingly, the names Prospero and Faustus both mean the same thing: ‘fortunate’.

John Dee's General and Rare Memorials bound with a signed manuscript

John Dee's General and Rare Memorials bound with a signed manuscript

John Dee’s General and Rare Memorials Pertaining to the Perfect Art of Navigation (1577) was the first printed book to imagine the idea of a ‘British empire’.

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Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, 1631

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, 1631

The title page of Christopher Marlowe’s play, The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus, shows a magician with his robes, book and staff, alongside a devilish figure.

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Prospero’s magic raises questions about his intentions and power, but what it particularly does to the play’s design is prevent us from taking anything for the reality that it purports to be. The double vision that it creates is evident from the spectacularly deceitful opening. The storm scene does all it can to promote an impression of realism. No other play begins with quite such a coup de théâtre, plunging us without preparation into violent action which is at once pitiful and terrifying. The emphasis is on authenticity and believability. Shakespeare ransacked the glossaries of seamanship to ensure that his sailors spoke the language of nautical life and that the events seemed technically convincing. Yet within an instant the weather clears and it becomes evident that all this menace has been merely an illusion. After this opening, in which apparently tragic circumstances turn out to be a magician’s charm, we can never be quite sure where the reality ends and theatre begins. It makes the whole play provisional, an act of imaginative collusion, in which whatever resolutions are achieved will always be understood on one level as effects of art.

The masque

Prospero’s claim to the island may be problematic, but his magic echoes at one remove the technological advantages that Europeans took to the New World. It evokes the compasses, navigational tools and gunpowder that helped them to conquer. On another level, it gestures towards the utopian idea of the philosopher-king, who aspired to make his court a centre of learning and a beacon of culture. The play’s projection of this is yet another species of wonder: the masque in Act 4. Here Prospero conjures up a marvellous operatic festival of the kind that was frequently performed at the contemporary English court, with song and dance, performers dressed as deities, magnificent costumes and stage wizardry such as flying effects or sudden magical transformations. Such masques, danced by courtiers in honour of the prince, were home-grown examples of the political power of wonder, adapting modern technology to celebrate the dignity of the state. Masques publicised the court’s claims to civility, its wealth, learning and pomp, and they underwrote the power of monarchy by projecting the illusion of a world under perfect sovereign control. But in The Tempest, the world beyond bites back: Prospero suddenly plunges into anxiety, the masque is cut off, and his family is left troubled at this unexpected turn of events. In the famous set-piece speech, ‘Our revels now are ended’ (4.1.166), Prospero reflects on the limits of his art and the evanescence of the world of power over which he presides. In the final act, he will abjure his magic, resume normal clothes, and go back to life as an ordinary man in Milan, where ‘every third thought shall be my grave’ (5.1.312). The world to which he returns is stripped of its illusions, and is a less magical place. Nonetheless, he and everyone else are changed, their identities enlarged by their temporary exposure to wonder.

Inigo Jones designs for masque costumes

Inigo Jones designs for masque costumes

Inigo Jones’ design for a costume worn by a female masque performer, 1610.

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Copyright: © Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth. Reproduced by permission of Chatsworth Settlement Trustees.

  • Martin Butler
  • Martin Butler is Professor of English Renaissance Drama at the University of Leeds. He has edited The Tempest for the Penguin Shakespeare (2007).

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

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