History Now

The Tourist’s Guide To Cape Cod, by William Shakespeare

July 2017


Four hundred years ago this spring, Capt. Bartholomew Gosnold sailed the Concord west from England, intending to start a settlement in the New World. After stopping in Maine, Cape Cod, and Martha’s Vineyard, the passengers and crew landed on the island now known as Cuttyhunk in late May. 9 Facing food shortages and hostile Indians, Gosnold and his crew quickly abandoned the idea of a permanent colony. They loaded the ship with sassafras root and cedar logs and sailed back to England on June 17.

Area historians and local residents have long asserted that Gosnold’s expedition was the basis for William Shakespeare’s The Tempest and that Prospero’s island in that play is based on Cuttyhunk. This view conflicts with the much more widely accepted belief that the play, though set in the Mediterranean, was inspired by a 1609 shipwreck in Bermuda. As with other debates surrounding Shakespeare, all the evidence is circumstantial, but to true believers it is compelling.

A member of the Gosnold expedition, John Brierton, published an account of the journey shortly after returning to England. The book contains one of the first known English descriptions of the New England coast. Shakespeare may well have seen a copy of Brierton’s book, for he and Gosnold shared a patron, the Earl of Southampton. In any case, the book and the play describe similar landscapes.

In Brierton’s journals, Cuttyhunk is described as having “lakes of fresh water … Meadows very large and full of green grass.” Elsewhere he says it is “full of oaks” and “hazel-nut trees.” The journals also list the types of food found on Cuttyhunk: “Herbs and roots and ground-nuts … mussel-shells,” as well as “strawberries, red and white raspberries, gooseberries, whortleberries,” and “fowls … on low trees … whose young ones … we ate at our pleasure.”

In The Tempest , Caliban gives the reader an idea of what Prospère’s island has to offer while trying to persuade the sailors to give him more liquor: “I’ll show thee the best springs; I’ll pluck thee berries; with my long nails I’ll dig thee pig-nuts; show thee a jay’s nest, and instruct thee how to snare the nimble marmoset. I’ll bring thee to clustering filberts; I’ll get thee young sea-mews from the rock.”

These and other similarities were first pointed out in 1902 by the Reverend Edward Everett Hale, who four decades earlier had written “The Man Without a Country.” They have been revived periodically ever since by scholars who conclude that Shakespeare must have cribbed from Brierton. This explanation is a great help to those who believe that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, who died in 1604, wrote Shakespeare’s works, including The Tempest, which was not produced until 1611.

There is no way to be certain whether or not Shakespeare read the journals from Gosnold’s trip. However, it is possible to visit the island with a copy of the play and decide for oneself if Cuttyhunk could have inspired the work. Visitors will find that not much has changed in the 400 years since Gosnold and his crew sailed away: The island is still remote and is still covered with meadows and beaches as well as pine, oak, and cedar trees. Boats leave daily from New Bedford, Massachusetts, in the summertime. Check the Web site of Cuttyhunk Boat Lines (www.cuttyhunk.com) for the schedule.