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"THE Tempest and the Midsummer Night's Dream (says Warburton) are the noblest efforts of that sublime and amazing imagination, peculiar to Shakspeare, which soars above the bounds of nature, without forsaking sense, or, more properly, carries nature along with him beyond her established limits."
No one has hitherto discovered the novel on which this play is founded; yet Collins the poet told Thomas Warton that the plot was taken from the romance of "Aurelio and Isabella," which was frequently printed during the sixteenth century, sometimes in three or four languages in the same volume. In the calamitous mental indisposition which visited poor Collins, his memory failed him; and he most probably substituted the name of one novel for another: the fable of Aurelio and Isabella has no relation to the Tempest. Mr. Malone thought that no such tale or romance ever existed; yet a friend of the late Mr. James Boswell told him that he had some years ago actually perused an Italian novel which answered Collins's description; but his memory, unfortunately, did not enable him to recover it.
My friend, Mr. Douce, in his valuable "Illustrations of Shakspeare," published in 1807, had suggested that the outline of a considerable part of this play was borrowed from the account of Sir George Somers's voyage and shipwreck on the Bermudas in 1609; and had pointed out some passages which confirmed his suggestion. At the same time, it appears that Mr. Malone was engaged in investigating the relations of this voyage; and he subsequently printed the results of his researches in a pamphlet, which he distributed among his friends; wherein he shows, that not only the title, but many passages in the play, were suggested to Shakspeare by the account of the tremendous Tempest, which, in July, 1609, dispersed the fleet carrying supplies from England to the infant colony of Virginia, and wrecked the vessel in which Sir George Somers and the other principal commanders had sailed, on one of the Bermuda Islands.
Sir George Somers, Sir Thomas Gates, and Captain Newport, with nine ships and five hundred people, sailed from England in May, 1609, on board the Sea-Venture, which was called the Admiral's Ship; and on the 25th of July she was parted from the rest by a terrible tempest, which lasted forty-eight hours, and scattered the whole fleet, wherein some of them lost their masts, and others were much distressed. Seven of the vessels, however, reached Virginia; and, after landing about three hundred and fifty persons, again set sail for England. Two of them were wrecked, in their way home, on the point of Ushant: the others returned safely to England, ship after ship, in 1610, bringing the news of the supposed loss of the Admiral's ship and her crew. During a great part of the year 1610, the fate of Somers and Gates was not known in England; but
the latter, having been sent home by Lord Delaware, arrived in August or September. The Council of Virginia published a narrative of the disasters which had befallen the fleet, and of their miraculous escape. Previously, however, to its appearance, one Jourdan, who probably returned from Virginia in the same ship with Sir Thomas Gates, published a pamphlet entitled "A Discovery of the Bermudas, otherwise called The Isle of Divels; by Sir Thomas Gates, Sir George Somers, and Captain Newport, with divers others;" in which he relates the circumstances of the storm. "They were bound for Virginia, and at that time in 30° N. latitude. The whole crew, amounting to one hundred and fifty persons, weary with pumping, had given all for lost, and began to drink their strong waters, and to take leave of each other, intending to commit themselves to the mercy of the sea. Sir George Somers, who had sat three days and nights on the poop, with no food and little rest, at length descried land, and encouraged them (many from weariness having fallen asleep) to continue at the pumps. They complied, and fortunately the ship was driven and jammed between two rocks, fast lodged and locked for further budging." One hundred and fifty persons got on shore; and by means of their boat and skiff (for this was half a mile from land) they saved such part of their goods and provisions as the water had not spoiled, all the tackling and much of the iron of their ship, which was of great service to them in fitting out another vessel to carry them to Virginia.
"But our delivery," says Jourdan," was not more strange in falling so opportunely and happily upon the land, as [than] our feeding and provision was, beyond our hopes, and all men's expectations, most admirable; for the Islands of the Bermudas, as every man knoweth that hath heard or read of them, were never inhabited by any Christian or heathen people, but ever esteemed and reputed a most prodigious and enchanted place, affording nothing but gusts, storms, and foul weather; which made every navigator and mariner to avoid them as Scylla and Charybdis, or as they would shunne the Divell himself: and no man was ever heard to make for this place; but as, against their wils, they have, by stormes and dangerousnesse of the rocks lying seven leagues into the sea, suffered shipwracke. Yet did we finde there the ayre so temperate and the country so aboundantly fruitfull of all fit necessaries for the sustentation and preservation of man's life, that, most in a manner of all our provision of bread, beere, and victuall being quite spoiled in lying long drowned in salt water, notwithstanding we were there for the space of nine months, we were not only well refreshed, comforted, and with good satiety contented, but out of the aboundance thereof provided us some reasonable quantity and proportion of provision to carry us for Virginia, and to maintain ourselves and that company we found there; wherefore my opinion sincerely of this island is, that whereas it hath beene, and is still accounted the most dangerous, unfortunate, and forlorne place of the world, it is in truth the richest, healthfullest, and [most] pleasing land (the quantity and bignesse thereof considered), and merely naturall, as ever man set foote upon."
The publication set forth by the Council of Virginia, entitled, "A true Declaration of the Estate of the Colony of Virginia, &c. 1610," relates the same facts and events in better language, and Shakspeare probably derived his first thought of working these adventures up into a dramatic form from an allusion to the drama in this piece.
"These Islands of the Bermudas," says this narrative, "have ever been accounted as an inchaunted pile of rocks, and a desert inhabitation for divells; but all the fairies of the rocks were but flocks of birdes, and all the divells that haunted the woods were but heards of swine.—What is there in all this Tragicall Comedie that should discourage us?"