The Tempest, widely regarded as William Shakespeare’s final play, tells the story of a mystical island inhabited light and dark forces. Magic and mysticism play an important role in The Tempest, as they do in many of Shakespeare’s late romance plays, but the setting gives many historians pause. It’s unclear where Shakespeare got the story or idea for the play, though several prominent Shakespearean scholars have proposed their own theories as to what The Bard is alluding to.
The most popular theory is that Shakespeare’s play was inspired true-life accounts of a 1609 shipwreck in the Bahamas. The powerful Virginia Company’s main ship, the Sea Venture, left port in June for the New World, carrying settlers to the new town of Jamestown in Virginia. The ship was caught in a hurricane nearly two months into the journey, forcing the captain to land it on the island’s reefs. 150 people and a dog were saved from the storm crashing landing on Bermuda.
An eyewitness to the shipwreck and the events that followed, William Strachey, published accounts of the shipwreck and the events that followed in pamphlet form in London. Many people believe Shakespeare not only had access to Strachey’s stories, but also heavily drew on them when writing The Tempest. The play was first performed in 1611, and the play is thought to have been written no more than a year before that.
Some scholars believe that The Tempest’s island is not in the New World at all, but rather much closer to England. The play, which deals at least partially with concepts of colonization and home rule, has been suggested as a possible setting for the play. Many of the mystic creatures in the play have a Celtic or Irish counterpart with which they can be compared.
One controversial theory claims that the island is a metaphor for London, and that Prospero, the morally obtuse figure, is a reincarnation of Shakespeare himself. Prospero is the ruler of all creatures on the island, but he chooses to leave his domain and return to a life of peaceful, family rule. Similarly, after The Tempest, Shakespeare retired from the stage and returned to his family estates in Stratford, where he spent his final years in relative peace. Experts describe the play’s epilogue as unusually direct, suggesting that it could be Shakespeare bidding farewell to the theater and begging forgiveness and love from his audience.
Some scholars argue that The Tempest does not have a direct geographical source. Shakespeare’s final plays were notable for their originality; as his skill and fame grew, he drew less and less on classic stories. Many people consider his final work to be one of his best, especially among the romance plays. As with most Shakespeare mysteries, the answer to where the play is set is likely lost to history. What is left for posterity is the play’s immense gift, as well as the magical atmosphere that pervades the setting, wherever it may be.