Friday, August 21, 2009

Recommended New Book: "Brave Vessel: The Tale of the Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare's The Tempest"

Hobson Woodward’s very readable new book, Brave Vessel: The Tale of the Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare's The Tempest, tells three stories: the shipwreck of the Sea Venture (for another account, see our post of May 27), the saving of Jamestown after the Starving Times, and how Shakespeare used the first one in writing the Tempest.

While its subtitle mentions only the castaways, Woodward focuses on William Strachey, a Shakespeare contemporary and would-be poet whose real forte was as an acute observer and chronicler of the shipwreck and Jamestown’s early years. Where his poetry and other works would otherwise relegate him to the oblivion of forgotten mediocrity, he stands out as an extraordinary and original source for those events.

For those of us interested in the Jamestown saga, Strachey is known as the scribe who, after surviving the shipwreck and coming upon the remnants of Jamestown’s Starving Times, narrated the primary accounts of the efforts of Sir Thomas Gates and Thomas West, Lord de la Warre (a/k/a Delaware by Woodward) to save, resuscitate and restore the failed and abandoned settlement. As the nascent colony’s secretary, he provided us with the details of Thomas Dale’s governance by strict civil and military regulations that brought order to a dysfunctional embryonic society.

Woodward peoples his stories with some of the lesser-known personages in Jamestown’s early history, such as the two Powhatans who were returning from England on the Sea Venture, and settler William Pierce, whose wife and daughter were on a separate ship in the Sea Venture’s fleet and went on to the Starving Times.

He describes his extensive and scholarly research for this book thus: “My foray into Virginia and Tempest history took me across the Atlantic, where I visited the libraries of London and Oxford and stood on the Thames riverbank where Strachey’s ship departed for Jamestown. I saw Shakespeare’s work on the stage of the rebuilt Globe Theater and wandered the sites of his London haunts. In Bermuda, I searched for beach glass in the cove where the castaways launched one of their homemade ships and visited museums and archives to examine artifacts from 1609. Back in America, I went to the Historic Jamestown Archaearium museum to see artifacts of the settlement and the bones of Bermuda birds eaten by the colonists. Nearby, I saw Shakespeare’s characters come alive again within the walls of Virginia’s replica Blackfriars Playhouse.”

The odyssey of the Sea Venture’s complement and passengers usually receives a mere mention in Jamestown histories, and rarely has been more than a remark as a Shakespeare inspiration, but here Woodward characterizes it as “…one of the great sea stories of Atlantic history.” And, as he says in his Preface, “The use of William Strachey’s narrative of the wreck of the Sea Venture as the framework of The Tempest is a prime example of Shakespeare’s craft…My goal is to present for the first time the complete story of Strachey’s remarkable account and Shakespeare’s transformation of that narrative into his magical Tempest.” This he has done in a well-paced, page-turning style.

It would serve one well to re-read The Tempest along with this fine book.

Brave Vessel: The Tale of the Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare's The Tempest, by Hobson Woodward. Published by Viking, $25.95 (288p; actually 199 p, plus acknowledgments, notes, a bibliography and an index) ISBN 978-0-670-02096-6

For an interview with the author, go to

For more reviews, go to

Shakespeare’s Storm, by Jonathan Yardley in the 7/19/2009 Washington Post at


“A Brave Vessel” by Hobson Woodward floats The Tempest on research and imagination, by Daniel Dyer in the 8/10/2009 Cleveland Plain Dealer at

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