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by Elizabeth Ofosuah Johnson, at 05:00 pm, December 18, 2018, Art Attack

How Bermuda inspired William Shakespeare’s last known play

Bermuda is a small island in the Caribbean discovered in 1505 by a Spanish sea captain, Juan De Bermúdez, who the island is named after. Despite being discovered by the Spanish, the island was inhabited and controlled by the British who traded in goods, animals and slaves. 

The island is home to people of African descent who make up close to 60% of the country’s population. The rest of the population is mostly British with a smaller percentage being from other parts of the world including the U.S.A, Portugal, Spain and France.

Much of the country’s political and colonial history is closely tied to Europe, especially Great Britain. The influence of the British is very evident in the culture of the people. However, a lot of African culture has been able to stand the test of time and be preserved to date.

Aside all these, the island also served as an inspiration to several artists including Britain’s biggest literary figure William Shakespeare whose works are highly celebrated and studied all over the world.

So how did an Island miles away from England influence the biggest name in literature?

The island’s name features in one of the most popular and widely read plays of William Shakespeare, The Tempest, written between  1610 and 1611.

In the play, Bermuda is referred to as Bermoothes in the first act. In addition to its mention, the storyline is very much inspired by a real-life incident that occurred on the island in 1609.

Stamps of 1984 showing Departure from Plymouth in 1609 and Admiral Sir George Somers. Photo-bermuda-online.org

According to several accounts, on May 9, 1609, nine vessels under the command of Sir George Somers sailed from England with provisions and five hundred settlers for the newly founded colony of Virginia. They were met with a storm on July 25 close to the island and later ended up shipwrecked on the island on July 28. The surviving crew stayed on the island and rebuilt the ships until 1610 and continued their journey arriving in Virginia in May of 1610.

The storyline of the Tempest is very similar to the shipwreck of 1609. Mixed with the inspiration of royalty and Greek mythology, the play tells the tale of a shipwreck, survival, love and betrayal on an island.

The island in the play by William Shakespeare is very much inspired by Bermuda and it created a mystery about it as it was not inhabited until its discovery. In the play, the island is not inhabited and rather hosts several gods and goddesses. The character of Caliban, the deformed monster seeking his own freedom from his master, Prospero, has been described by several scholarly articles as a representation of the African enslaved in the island and seeking freedom.

an illustrated depiction of Caliban from The Tempest

Though one of his most read plays, The Tempest did not gain as much popularity as his previous works until years after his death. One of the contributing factors to it not gaining enough attention was the ban on theatrical plays enacted by the English Parliament in 1642 which was later lifted in the 1660s during the Restoration period. Shakespeare’s plays were reintroduced into the theatre in the 19th century and gave The Tempest the attention it deserved.

Cover image of a version of the book.

Today, the play is described as one of the best Shakespeare pieces that does an effortless blend of several cultures and history and has been adapted several times. It has been rewritten to fit different cultural settings for stage around the world and has also been adapted for music. 

The island of Bermuda and the incidence of 1609 inspired several other literary pieces. Every year, Bermuda sets time aside to celebrate Shakespeare’s works highlighting the influence the island had on the playwright.

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