Hobson Woodward

 

On his book A Brave Vessel: The True Tale of the Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare’s The Tempest

Cover Interview of April 09, 2010

The wide angle

I discovered the story of the Sea Venture while I was researching the life of Pocahontas, whose future husband was one of the Bermuda castaways.  Soon after learning the broad outline of the episode, I came across William Strachey’s account of the hurricane and shipwreck.  His description of the storm and his time marooned on Bermuda is a rich narrative that is rare for the era. I was captivated and never stopped digging for more details until I had researched and written A Brave Vessel.

I approached the project as an historian, but a real bonus for me was the exploration of the connections between The Tempest and the New World chronicles.  Examining those correlations provided an opportunity for a greater understanding of the creative methods of the greatest playwright of the English language, insights I delight in sharing with my readers. 

The search for those connections dates back to 1797, and Shakespeare scholars continue to debate their extent and significance.  After immersing myself in the subject, I came away convinced that the correlations are inescapable and that they were an important catalyst in the creation of the play.

Learning about the life of William Strachey and his fellow voyagers was just as intriguing as meeting Shakespeare’s muse.  The two Williams were remarkably alike in some ways: each of their families had recently become wealthy as sheep farmers; each had a mid-level education and was versed in the classics; each left a family in a country village when he came to London—Strachey leaving a wife and two sons and Shakespeare a wife and two surviving daughters; and each tended to draw upon other writers in creating their works, a common practice of the day.  In the most important way, however, the two could not be more different. Few had ever heard of William Strachey, and William Shakespeare was renowned throughout the land.

Nonetheless, Strachey possessed something Shakespeare did not have—a taste for travel.  He was one of the few willing to risk everything on a voyage to the New World.  Strachey got more adventure than he had bargained for with a detour to Bermuda before he finally made it to Virginia.  The chronicles he and his fellow adventurers wrote are a fascinating look at their lives in a wild land.  They tell of what they ate, what they argued about, who they married, how two women gave birth to children on Bermuda’s sandy shore, and why they mutinied—rebelling three times before a firing squad squelched dissent. 

When the castaways finally reached Virginia in two island-built boats, the chronicles tell of famine and bloody wars with the Powhatan. They also describe making wine in Jamestown, picking strawberries outside the Jamestown fort, and gorging on Chesapeake shellfish.  What emerged in my research and unfolds on the pages of A Brave Vessel is a living portrait of an infant America.