Prospero's Island?

September 10, 2008

We reached the island on the morning of Labor Day, as the last of the vacationers were closing up their summer rentals; they caught the afternoon ferry back to New Bedford. At peak times, there may be 300 people on Cuttyhunk. It is a tiny island with a peculiar shape, located about two hours from Boston -- one hour each by land and by sea. A retired academic couple, Marvin and Betty Mandell, had lent my wife and me use of their place for a few days. (Marvin is professor emeritus of English at Curry College, while Betty holds the same position in social work at Bridgewater State College.) By the evening of our first day, the island's population had shrunk to a few dozen people – none of whom, it turned out, was a restaurateur.

We sank into the quiet. Cell phones didn't always work, and we were wireless-less. It was a good place to let your imagination to take over. We began speculating about the puzzling sets of rocks arranged in odd patters, the occasional symbol painted here and there, the graffiti laboriously scratched into the stones of a bridge. We worked out our own myth about the sacrificial traditions of the island – two parts Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and one part H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” (It seemed obvious that worship of sinister fish gods would be involved, given all the yachts). What made the private joke work, of course, was the absolute lack of menace or stress on the island otherwise – unless you counted the occasional need to get out of the way of golf carts putting down the road.

Exploring the local history books on Marvin and Betty’s shelves and in the Cuttyhunk Public Library, I became intrigued by the area's most ambitious claim to fame. This was the theory that it served as the inspiration for Prospero’s island in The Tempest. Since getting back home, to a city with good research collections, it has been possible to explore the matter a little further. By now, it is not so much a case of scholarly fascination as reluctance to surrender all of the vacation mood.

Our story begins on another, rather larger island with a figure who never saw the New World. This was Henry Wriothesley, better known as the third Earl of Southampton. The title was thrust upon him at the age of 8, when he was orphaned by the death of the second Earl. He came under the protection of an aristocrat who enjoyed what must have been an extremely strong connection with Queen Elizabeth’s inner circle. And a good thing for Henry, too -- for he was high spirited, in a bad way. He quickly proved himself to be one of the most annoying people in Elizabeth's court.

One night, while Henry and friends were gambling and whooping it up, the Queen sent out a squire demanding that they hold it down so she could get some sleep. The group broke up, at least upon the second warning. But the next day Henry found the squire and beat him up. Actually it sounds as if the squire gave as good as he got. Henry lost some hair. Her Majesty was not amused.

When not making a nuisance of himself at court, the young Earl was hanging out with the rough elements who frequented theaters, and he showed no great urgency about getting married. (The expression that fits here is probably "gay blade.") That was all bad enough. But then Henry got involved in an effort to foment an armed putsch. The Essex Rebellion was put down, and the conspirators condemned to death. With who knows how many favors being called in, the Earl's supporters were able to get his sentence commuted to life imprisonment in the Tower of London.

This at least gave him a chance to catch up on his reading – in particular, the reports coming back from explorers of the lands on the other side of the Atlantic. A few years later, in 1605, Ben Jonson would get into trouble himself for co-authoring Eastward Hoe, a play that satirized the enthusiasm of aristocrats for the New World, where, as one character put it, “chamber pots are pure gold.”

In hopes of having a fortune waiting if he ever got out of the Tower, Henry decided to fund an expedition to colonize America. It set sail in March 1602. At the helm was a young adventurer named Bartholomew Gosnold, who had recently brought both glory and booty to England as privateer (that is, an officially licensed pirate, expropriating wealth from Spanish ships). By late spring, Gosnold and his crew had reached Maine and were making their way down the coast of what would eventually be called New England. They named places as they went. A cape with plenty of cod became Cape Cod. In honor of his daughter, Gosnold named one island Martha’s Vineyard. Another, very much smaller body of land he called the Elizabeth Island – after Gosnold’s sister, it seems, not his monarch, though it was still a savvy move.

Upon disembarking at Elizabeth, the captain and his men encountered a number of members of the Wampanoag tribe -- who were, with the benefit of hindsight, probably much too genial for their own good. Despite the language barrier, gifts were exchanged. The Englishmen managed not to enslave or exterminate anybody. The two groups parted ways amicably. (In later years the Elizabeth Island would be renamed “Cuttyhunk” as a very rough approximation of its orginal Wampanoag name.)

The explorers did not find any gold, but they harvested an enormous amount of sassafras, which recent advances in medical science had shown to be an effective treatment for syphilis. Alas, not really. But until someone figured this out, sassafras was valuable.

Along the way, Gosnold’s men began noticing that the food they were eating was not just vile but meager in portions. A member of the expedition named Bartholomew Gilbert had been in charge of buying the provisions necessary to establish the settlement. Evidently he had diverted part of the funds to some other purpose. Either that or he had sold off many of the supplies before leaving for the voyage. It was just the sort of thing Gilbert did. He had also been involved, at one point, with some questionable business involving a diamond. Had he been alive 400 years later, Gilbert would have been developing creative approaches to the mortgage market.

In short order, Bartholomew Gosnold had a revolt on his hands. The would-be settlers now feared that investors would just pocket the sassafras profits and never send a ship back. They would be stranded without adequate supplies. The colonization plans fell apart when everyone demanded to be taken back to England. They reached home in July 1602.

Within three months, London bookstores were carrying an account of Elizabeth Island written by a member of the expedition, putting the best possible spin on things. Part of the damage control was an indication that the whole effort had been approved by Sir Walter Raleigh. A letter by Raleigh suggests that this was not the case. In it, the gentleman sounds pretty pissed off – especially about the effect on his own investments of having one ton of sassafras dumped on the London market.

In any case, both Sir Walter and the imprisoned Earl of Southampton would undergo a dramatic reversal of fortunes the following year, when Queen Elizabeth died and King James took the throne. In due course, Raleigh ended up in the Tower, while Henry was a favorite of the new king. And in 1607, the explorer Bartholomew Gosnold helped to establish the new colony of Jamestown, whereupon his luck ran out. He was among those killed by disease within a few months of landing.

Where, then, does The Tempest come in? Ardent Shakespeareans will have noticed part of the connection already. The Earl of Southampton was the patron of the Globe theater. In the 1590s, Shakespeare dedicated two long poems to him. In 1609, Shakespeare published a collection of sonnets; the reference, there, to “the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets, Mr. W.H.” in Shakespeare’s 1609 collection may be a (very) slightly encrypted nod towards the Earl’s given name, Henry Wriothesley. In his best-selling Shakespeare biography Will in the World (Norton, 2004), Stephen Greenblatt makes a case for the sonnets themselves as an appeal by the poet to his aristocratic ex-lover to get married and start having kids.

Without venturing quite that far into biographical speculation, it seems reasonable to suppose that the playwright might have taken an interest in the 1602 book about the Elizabeth Island voyage, given that the trip was sponsored by his patron. But no mention of a possible Tempest connection is to be found in the places one might expect to find it. There are just two incidental references to Shakespeare himself, and none to the play, in Bartholomew Gosnold, Discoverer and Planter (Archon, 1963) by the late Warner F. Gookin, for example. (Gookin, who died in 1952, remains a towering figure in Gosnold studies, which is definitely one of the less crowded fields of historical scholarship.)

Nor is The Tempest singled out for attention in biographies of Shakespeare’s patron, or at least none that I could locate. The most likely seeming monograph for a possible reference to the play's Cuttyhunkian origins is a new book, John Klause’s Shakespeare, the Earl, and the Jesuit, published earlier this year by Farleigh Dickinson Press. Klause, a professor of English at Hofstra University, makes a close analysis of possible biographical and historical subtexts of various plays -- but the book makes just a handful of references to The Tempest, and none to the Gosnold expedition.

Where did the idea that Shakespeare set his play just offshore from Massachusetts come from, then? And what is the evidence for it, if any?

The “onlie begetter” of this school of interpretation appears to be Edward Everett Hale – a New England clergyman, a genteel social critic, and one of the Victorian era’s more appallingly prolific authors. Next year marks the centennial of his death. Hale’s fiction, essays, and historical writings made him a respected and even a popular figure in his day, but almost none of it is still read today. Googling his name turns up a few inspirational quotations at websites devoted to that sort of thing. But while most of his work has been forgotten, he did leave one lasting mark upon American popular culture – a story from 1863 called “The Man Without a Country,” long taught in public schools and adapted numerous times for radio, film, and television.

In 1902, Hale gave a lecture called “Gosnold at Cuttyhunk” that later appeared in a slender volume called Prospero’s Island, published in 1919 by the Dramatic Museum of Columbia University in an edition of just 333 copies. (The copy that should have been on the shelf of the Cuttyhunk town library was missing. I later obtained the book from the Library of Congress.) It appeared with an introduction by Henry Cabot Lodge that ran to 30 pages -- three times as long as the lecture itself.

Hale was a popular speaker on the Chautauqua circuit, and his talk was doubtless meant as food for thought rather than rigorous philology. His method is simply to note parallels between the early narrative of Gosnold’s voyage and Shakespeare’s description of the island in “The Tempest.” On Cuttyhunk, the explorers had cut up sassafras logs to transport to England. “I took down my Tempest,” writes Hale, “and read the stage directions which represent Ferdinand entering Prospero’s cave ‘bearing a log.’” Then he quotes various bits of log-related dialog.

There was a conflict between management and labor once the ship landed at Cuttyhunk -- and a dispute the "gentlemen adventurers" and the rowdy sailors in the play. In 1602, Gosnold's expedition found green meadows, fresh water, and various roots and herbs on the island. You find all of them mentioned in The Tempest. The play contains Shakespeare’s only use of the word marmoset. “Did one of Southampton’s seamen bring home a flying squirrel?” wonders Hale. Maybe!

By this point, it begins to seem as if the old Brahmin might be pulling his audience's collective leg, in however refined a manner. That impression is strengthened when Hale says about Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, that his New England listeners “have a right to claim [her] as a Massachusetts girl.” This is probably a joke – but you have to wonder if perhaps the whole of Prospero's Island might be, too.

To clinch his case – however seriously it was meant – Hale writes, “I think the critics now all unite in saying that the date of the production of ‘The Tempest’ is 1603. This corresponds exactly with the time of Gosnold’s return.” But as of a century later, the consensus is that Shakespeare’s play (often taken as his farewell to the stage) was produced in 1611. The argument thereby loses the saving grace of coincidence.

Finally, the most striking thing about Prospero's Island now – more than a century later – is that Hale shows no interest at all in Caliban, the native enslaved by Prospero’s magic. He quotes only the lines in which Caliban lists the tasty foodstuffs available on the island. As interpreted by Hale, Caliban is more like a waiter than an archetype of the colonial imagination. (Shakespeare’s variation on Montaigne’s theme that “every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to” seems to fly right over the genteel author’s head.)

The best case for keeping Hale’s interpretation alive appears in a booklet called The Story of Cuttyhunk by Louise T. Haskell, first published in 1953 and reprinted some two dozen times since then. Haskell ran the Cuttyhunk school and prepared the volume as a survey of “the history, geography, and legends of the island.”

In a short chapter titled “Is Cuttyhunk the Scene of Shakespeare’s Tempest?” she calls this “one of the unanswerable questions of the ages,” which certainly seems fair. But Haskell does not end on an agnostic note. She points her students to Hale’s landmark study. “His argument seems sound to us,” writes Haskell. “We like to think so anyway and it adds lustre to our island.”

Well, you can’t argue with that. And even less with Henry Cabot Lodge, who, in his introduction to Prospero’s Island, wrote: “We must admit that it is after all merely speculation and guesswork but possest none the less of an unfailing fascination.”

At this point, though, the fascination has less to do with the historical validity of Hale's thesis than its implications for performance. What difference would the Cuttyhunkian interpretation make to how a director would stage The Tempest? My best guess is that it would have to involve golf carts.

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