Jamestown & Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’


A Q&A with Hannah Wojciehowski

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The Sea Venture crashes into an outcropping of rock. Detail from Map of Barmudas by William Janzon Blaeu - Image courtesy  The Mariners' Museum, Newport News, Virginia
The Sea Venture crashes into an outcropping of rock. Detail from Map of Barmudas by William Janzon Blaeu - Image courtesy The Mariners' Museum, Newport News, Virginia

Virginia Humanities Fellow Hannah Wojciehowski – Image courtesy of Hannah Wojciehowski

By Nora Pehrson

Hannah Wojciehowski is a Virginia Humanities Fellow in Residence this fall researching the connection between the Virginia Company’s venture in Jamestown and Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Hannah teaches at the University of Texas, Austin, where she is Arthur J. Thaman and Wilhelmina Doré Thaman Professor of English. Her interests outside of Shakespeare are wide-ranging, encompassing multiple disciplines such as cultural studies and cognitive science. This project is her first foray into American Studies.

She has been a Virginia Humanities Fellow before; In 2002, she worked in residence on a book titled Group Identity in the Renaissance World.

How are Shakespeare and the Virginia Company related? Is the link between them well known?

Shakespeare’s The Tempest was likely inspired by a shipwreck that occurred on the island of Bermuda in 1609. The ship, part of a Virginia Company resupply mission headed to Jamestown, went through a terrible hurricane. It ran aground off the coast of Bermuda. The people disembarked and found themselves on a deserted island. That is, no people, but lots of animal life and plenty to eat.

Since the early 19th century, scholars have thought that Shakespeare was probably engaging with this story and recasting it in The Tempest. The setting of The Tempest is not in the Atlantic at all, it’s in the Mediterranean, so the play is not directly about the events in Bermuda, but it does seem loosely based on them.

How did Shakespeare know about this story? Were these events documented in the news?

There were no newspapers in the 17th century, but there were pamphlets and broadsides, and the Virginia Company put out lots of them promoting the Jamestown venture. Bad news kept coming back from Virginia—much of it to do with the starvation of the colonists and terrible conflicts with the American natives. The Virginia Company was stuck in damage control mode, particularly during the two years leading up to the production of this play in 1611.

Shakespeare seems to have known a lot about what was going on with the company’s colonization effort in Virginia. He knew several people who were highly placed in the company, including his former patron the Earl of Southampton, who was very heavily invested. Might Shakespeare have intervened on behalf of the company in order to help keep it financially afloat at a time when it was on the verge of collapse? There are good reasons to ask that question, though it cannot be answered conclusively. I am not the first to ask it.

How exactly would Shakespeare’s play have helped the Virginia Company?

The Tempest is an amazing story with a happy ending. Even though it isn’t set in America, the play may have helped to put a more positive spin on England’s early colonialism. Scholars have asked whether the audience would have recognized America in the scenario of the play, and there’s no consensus on that. I think that it is unlikely that the people watching the first performances of The Tempest would not have thought of the Virginia Company, as well as Bermuda, when they saw the play. How would The Tempest, an enormously popular play, have spoken to audiences circa 1611 and beyond, in the years of nascent British colonialism? That’s what I’m working on and building on a long tradition of scholarship around these questions.

Another issue I am interested in is the way that certain traumas relating to Jamestown registered back in England. How these events were represented on stage, how they were represented in promotional pamphlets by the Virginia Company, how people felt about them. Other scholars are talking about this right now, too, but there is more to add.

The 1609 shipwreck of the Sea Venture was a trauma for the country, as was the starvation at Jamestown. The conflicts between the English and the American natives, and the atrocities that were being committed also registered on a national level, albeit in a distorted manner. That’s the story that Shakespeare isn’t telling, at least not directly. But they’re very closely connected, and I’m arguing that the imprint of that history can be found in the play.

What attracted you to these topics?

I have studied the global sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for a long time, but I only came to the Jamestown narratives recently. Edward Haile’s 1998 edition of these narratives made them readily available to a new generation of scholars and students. I found them stunningly interesting. Historically, there’s sort of been a firewall between the discipline of Renaissance studies, Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, and whatever happened over here in the earliest years of colonization. But in the last ten or fifteen years, the field of Transatlantic Studies has come into being. It’s all about interconnectedness, and it’s breaking down the old disciplinary boundaries. I’m moving into an area of study I never expected to find myself in, which is American Studies, so that is really exciting to me.

Detail from the title page of John Smith’s “Generall Historie of Virginia” (1627 edition). Original housed in UVA Library Special Collections.

Other than reading the Virginia Company tracts, how do you do your research? Do you use other primary sources?

One reason I wanted to come to Virginia Humanities is that it would give me access to the phenomenal resources of the UVA libraries. UVA’s Special Collections Library has first editions of most of the Virginia Company’s tracts, and books by its members—John Smith, notably, was a very prolific writer. Many of the first editions are beautifully digitized and available either in the library or in Encyclopedia Virginia.

The general libraries also have tons of sources. It’s really easy to work here; it just takes time to read everything. I’m combing through sources to see what I can add to our understanding of the past, as well as its impact on the present.

Why did you choose Virginia Humanities?

The best part of it, apart from just being back here in Charlottesville, is the proximity to historic sites like Jamestown. It really helps to see what the landscape and geography of the Tidewater region looks like. There’s no substitute for physically visiting a site where things have happened; you get the energy of the place, and it makes it easier to imagine what happened in the past. The landscape is its own archive, and an excellent companion to the written sources.

Working here, I also have opportunities to communicate with and meet other scholars working in Virginia on Virginia topics. This is the place to be. It’s a real adventure for me.

Explore More

See the Encyclopedia Virginia  entry on the Virginia Company.

Learn more about our Residential Fellows Program.