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Art and Images in Psychiatry
January 2010

Miranda—The Tempest

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2010;67(1):7-8. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2009.189

 . . . Oh I have suffered with those that I saw suffer—a brave vessel, (who had, no doubt noble creatures in her) dashed all to pieces! O, the cry did knock against my very heart  . . .

—Miranda, The Tempest1(act I,scene 2,p13)

We found it to be the dangerous and dreaded island, or the islands of the Bermuda. . . . They be called commonly the Devil's Islands and avoided of all sea travelers alive above any other place in the world.

—William Strachey, 16092

In 1609, seven ships and two pinnaces (light sailing ships) left Plymouth, England, to supply the newly established Jamestown colony in Virginia. On July 24, 1609, within 7 or 8 days of their expected arrival at Point Comfort, the gateway to Jamestown at the mouth of the James River,2(p4) the ships were caught in a tropical hurricane off the Azores and separated from one another. The flagship, Sea Venture, carrying on it the acting governor, Sir Thomas Gates; the admiral of the fleet, Sir George Somers; and the governance plan for the colony, was battered for 4 days by wind and rain. The sky became pitch black; “it was a dreadful storm and hideous,” an “unmerciful tempest.”2(p4) To the consternation of those on board, the ship began to leak with water rising on the deck, requiring continuous pumping around the clock and the dumping overboard of much valued cargo. The passengers were frightened and awestruck to see St Elmo's fire, created by static electricity, on the mast. Finally, Somers saw land. Mariners knew the land as Devil's Island for its threatening rocky inlets and strange nighttime sounds. Remarkably the ship reached the island and wedged in between rocks, initially remaining upright. All 150 men, women, and children on board survived. Passenger William Strachey, an aspiring playwright, was on board and recorded the lives of the survivors over the ensuing 10 months while they built 2 new small ships, Deliverance and Patience, which allowed them to finally reach Jamestown 10 months later in May 1610. Many did not want to leave Bermuda, for it was not a Devil's Island but had an abundance of fish, wildlife, and pigs; the mysterious night sounds were those of birds that made sounds unfamiliar to them.3Article

					John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), English. Miranda, 1916. Oil on canvas, 45.7 × 60 cm. Private Collection/© The Maas Gallery, London, United Kingdom/The Bridgeman Art Library.

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), English. Miranda, 1916. Oil on canvas, 45.7 × 60 cm. Private Collection/© The Maas Gallery, London, United Kingdom/The Bridgeman Art Library.

Their doubts about leaving Bermuda were confirmed on arrival to Jamestown. The colony was decimated, with only 60 survivors among the original colonists and those from the 5 ships of their original convoy that landed following the hurricane. Eighty percent had died during the winter of 1608-1609, known as the starving times, when men ate plants and their horses and a few turned to cannibalism. The colony had suffered from lack of leadership after Jamestown's early and renowned leader John Smith was evacuated to be treated for severe burns. The colony could not cope with the influx of new settlers from the 5 other ships and 2 pinnaces that survived the hurricane. Both settlers and local Indians suffered from lack of food in a drought that winter, the worst in centuries. The colonists had expected to find gold in Virginia but did not; they had hoped to find the Northwest passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the sea route to Asia, but learned from the Indians that there was none across North America. They had expected to trade for food with the Indians, but the drought also affected the Indians, who were suspicious of their coming and hostile to their settlement. Moreover, Jamestown Island did not have a good source of fresh water. The Powhatans, the term settlers used for the local Algonquin tribes, constrained them from moving further inland. They were tolerated on the island but often attacked when they sought to move further inland. There was a clash of cultures, with the Powhatans seeing them as intruders and having no intention of being colonized.4

The food brought from Bermuda saved the colony from starvation but was insufficient. Seeing the hopelessness of the situation, a decision was made to abandon the colony that was only averted when Thomas West, Lord de la Warr, the permanent governor of the colony, arrived with 3 new supply ships. William Strachey was assigned as secretary of the colony. Strachey, as secretary, wrote a long letter about the colony's survival with details of the Bermuda tragedy. Completed on July 15, 1610, it was taken to London by Gates.

On his arrival back in London in September 1610, Gates' unexpected news that everyone aboard the Virginia company's Sea Venture had survived an Atlantic hurricane, and that nearly all had reached Virginia, was widely publicized. Strachey's letter was circulated in manuscript in 2 or more copies and later published as True Reportory (“A True Reportorie of the wracke, and redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, Knight; vpon, and from the Ilands of the Bermudas: His Comming to Virginia, and the estate of that Colonie then, and after, vnder the gouernment of the Lord La Warre”).2 William Shakespeare is believed to have been familiar with the letter. His play The Tempest contains striking similarities to Strachey's narrative account. Although Shakespeare used several sources, the play's debt to Strachey has drawn the most comment. Those similarities confirm the traditional dating of The Tempest's composition to 1610-1611.

Strachey's True Reportory is central to the organization of The Tempest. It provides the basic plot for the play with the background for the shipwreck. It repeats many details of the storm, the general features and details of the island, similar conspiracies to those that occurred in Bermuda, parallel word usage in similar or the same contexts, references to magic, and a love story (Miranda and Ferdinand, shown below Ariel in Figure). The interactions between Prospero and Caliban are similar to events that occurred between the settlers and the Powhatans. The play was not simply a work of fiction from Shakespeare's imagination but one with elements derived from independent accounts of actual events by Strachey and several other contemporary sources. Although Bermuda is not the play's setting (Shakespeare locates his story on a Mediterranean island),1,5 reference is made to the “still-vexed Bermoothes.”1(act I,scene 2,p29)

Figure. John Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), Swiss-English. Ariel, ca 1800-1810. FPa22. Oil on canvas, 92.7 × 71.5 cm. By permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Figure. John Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), Swiss-English. Ariel, ca 1800-1810. FPa22. Oil on canvas, 92.7 × 71.5 cm. By permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Shakespeare’s play is an imaginative reconstruction. One striking example is the figure of Ariel and the St Elmo's fire episode (Figure). Strachey reported: Shakespeare's Ariel (Figure), shown riding a bat that he controls with a star-studded cord, says:

Sir George Somers . . . had an apparition of a little round light, like a faint Starre, trembling, and streaming along with a sparkeling blaze, halfe the height upon the Maine Mast, and shooting sometimes from Shroud to Shroud, tempting to settle as it were upon any of the foure Shrouds . . . running sometimes along the Maine-yard to the very end, and then returning . . . the superstitious seamen make many constructions of this sea-fire . . . it might have strucken amazement.2(pp12,13)

I boarded the King's ship; now on the beak, Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin, I flam’d amazement. Sometime I’d divide, And burn in many places; on the topmast, The yards and boresprit, would I flame distinctly.1(act I,scene 2,p27)

Not only does The Tempest illustrate similarities in the text, but it also reflects attitudes toward colonization of the new world. Strachey reports that in Virginia, the Indians killed one of the Englishmen when his canoe ran aground close to their village. Gates, who sought to make peace, was very troubled by this murder. Strachey wrote of Gates that The parallel in the play is Prospero's and Miranda's initial kind treatment toward Caliban, who helps them find food, that turns to anger and to revenge against him after Caliban's attempt to rape Miranda and people the island with Calibans. She addresses him thus:

since his first landing in the Countrey (how justly soever provoked) would not by any meanes be wrought to a violent proceeding against them, for all the practices of villany, with which they daily endangered our men, thinking it possible, by a more tractable course, to winne them to a better condition: but now being startled by this, he well perceived, how little a faire and noble intreatie workes upon a barbarous disposition, and therefore in some measure purposed to be avenged.2

I pitied thee, Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour One thing or other . . . But thy vild race (Though didst learn) had that in't which good natures Could not abide to be with. Therefore wast thou Deservedly confin’d into this rock, Who hadst deserved more than a prison.1(act I,scene 2,p39)

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) painted Miranda from The Tempest early in his career and again in the last year of his life when he was gravely ill with liver cancer (cover).6,7 Waterhouse, best known for his paintings of women in dramatic settings, was one of the last of the Pre-Raphaelite artists. He was most productive toward the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, persisting in the Pre-Raphaelite style long after its originators. The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood were artists who scorned the elegant in painting. They found the style of Renaissance artists like Raphael and Michelangelo to be mechanistic. Known as “the modern Pre-Raphaelite,” Waterhouse incorporated techniques borrowed from French Impressionists. Typically Pre-Raphaelites painted scenes from Greek and Arthurian mythology and from dramatic productions like those of William Shakespeare.

Waterhouse first painted Miranda from the second scene in The Tempest in 1875. He chose this play for its romantic story and to illustrate the evocative and transformative power of nature. His first Miranda is an academic study set in soft evening light before sea and sky. Miranda is lightly clothed and is seated on a rock, hands clasped, face averted, as she watches the ship tossing in the distance. The scene is not especially violent and her pose is too calm to be consistent with her frantic pleas to Prospero in the play. She seems almost decorative. The final version, possibly reflecting the violence of World War I, depicts the ferocity of the storm created by Prospero and directed at his evil brother in the ship. Far more engaging than shown 4 decades earlier, Waterhouse's final version more powerfully depicts the 15-year-old red-haired Miranda; her name means wonder. The painting is based on her compassionately begging her father, Prospero, to calm the storm (epigraph), not knowing of his plans to avenge his brother's treachery by bringing Antonio to the island safely to expose him. Miranda's distress is highlighted as she stands near the glistening waves and rocks with the floundering ship in plain view. Her face again is averted, as it was in the earlier painting, to avoid showing her horror6,7; her left hand placed over her heart illustrates her concern.

The Tempest, now considered one of Shakespeare's major romances, is a reminder of the tragic events that underlie the founding of the first permanent settlement in America. Astronomers have memorialized the characters by naming the moons of the planet Uranus after them.3(p191) The story of the original Jamestown settlement is again current, reaching new prominence in 1994 when Jamestown was essentially rediscovered after long being thought underwater.8,9 A grand 400-year centennial celebration took place in 2007 accompanied by the opening of a museum on the island to show thousands of artifacts. Among them is William Strachey's signet ring.3 There is renewed interest in the settlement with the release of the films The New World and Pocahontas, which serve as reminders of its compelling history.

Ultimately the gold discovered at Jamestown was tobacco, known then as the leaf of gold. That crop that financially sustained the first permanent settlement in America ironically has proved to be a mixed blessing for later generations. Global warming has finally opened a Northwest Passage so passionately sought by the British colonists. Yet Shakespeare's The Tempest and Miranda's expression of compassionate concern endure unchanged and serve as a reminder of the struggles that faced the early colonists.

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Strachey  W True reportory.  In: Wright  LB, ed.  A Voyage to Virginia in 1609. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press; 1964:3-101Google Scholar
Woodward  H A Brave Vessel: The True Tale of the Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare's The Tempest.  New York, NY: Viking; 2009
Gleach  FW Powhatan's World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press; 1997
Vaughan  AT William Strachey's “True Reportory” and Shakespeare: a closer look at the evidence  Shakespeare Q 2008;59 (3) 245Google ScholarCrossref
Trippi  P J. W. Waterhouse.  New York, NY: Phaidon; 2002:4
Trippi  PPrettejohn  EUpstone  R J. W. Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite: Gallery Guide.  London, England: Royal Academy of Art; 2009
Kupperman  KO The Jamestown Project.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 2007
Kelso  WM Jamestown: The Buried Truth.  Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press; 2006
Culliford  SG William Strachey (1572-1621).  Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press; 1965