The invention of the printing press made it possible for Renaissance “memes” to reach Shakespeare and influence his loudest and weirdest play, The Tempest.
Let’s begin with a review of the standard Shakespeare play. Characters: a guy, his best friend, his girlfriend, and a random jerk. Plot: the best friend is also the jerk, and if the guy doesn’t figure it out in time, everyone dies. Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing, to name a few, follow this format (with some slight variations). But just when we think the world’s favorite playwright has fallen into a comfortable groove, he writes something like The Tempest. This play certainly bears Shakespeare’s formula, but also contains a lot of ideas that isolate it from his other works. For example, there’s a supernatural shipwreck, a powerful sorcerer, a fairy-slave named Ariel, an island savage with a prolific talent for cursing and drinking, and two comedians. If you’re not doing a double-take, you should be.
Any Shakespeare scholar will tell you that none of the bard’s ideas are really his own. He swiped most of his plots and characters from historical texts, classical plays, and folk tales. So where did the magic and spectacle of The Tempest come from? Well, more than likely, from the Renaissance’s favorite viral genre: travel literature.
Yes, I mean viral. Viral like a tiny hamster eating tiny burritos, viral like Emma Stone’s lip-sync battle, viral like “Let It Go” from Frozen. And this genre was viral in the strongest sense of the word. Some of it reads like a 17th-century Buzzfeed article (“A Sailor Hath Discovered These 10 Wonders on an Atlantic Island—Thou Wilt Not Believe Number 7!”)
How did things go viral before the Internet? It was all possible because of a device called the printing press, which was introduced to Europe in 1440. This printing press, predecessor of the common office InkJet, could copy off hundreds of pages of viral news stories in record time. By the time Shakespeare began to write, the printing presses of England were so well-oiled that a story told by a drunk sailor on Monday could be posted at every tavern in London by the end of the week.
Take, for example, essayist Michel de Montaigne’s treatise Of Cannibals. He explains that he employed a servant who had lived for several years among the indigenous people of Brazil, and frames the tales of their society with cool, flippant remarks denying any sort of barbaric labels on them. Before describing their practice of roasting and eating their enemies, he says, “I do not find that there is anything barbaric or savage about this nation, according to what I've been told, unless we are to call barbarism whatever differs from our own customs” (De Montaigne). He also praises their simple society, saying, “This is a people. . .among whom there is no commerce at all, no knowledge of letters, no knowledge of numbers, nor any judges, or political superiority, no habit of service, riches, or poverty, no contracts, no inheritance, no divisions of property, no occupations but easy ones. . .” This is considered by many scholars to be the direct source of a speech in Act 2 of The Tempest (Go, Ellrodt). Gonzalo, the play’s archetypical preachy old man, dreams of a world with
no kind of traffic
. . .no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard – none;
. . .No occupation, all men idle, all (2.1.149-155)
Sound familiar? Don’t let anyone tell you that Shakespeare always cited his sources. So how did Montaigne’s essay, written in French in the 16th century, reach Shakespeare, who wrote The Tempest in English in the 17th century? It comes right back to the printing press. John Florio translated Of Cannibals into English in 1603, only seven years before The Tempest was written. The essay would have been well-known and widely-read—thanks to the rapid spread of sensational printed works—by the time Shakespeare invented Caliban, the play’s barbaric island native.
Before I send you off to read The Tempest, here’s one more evidence of the impact of the printing press on the play. You’ll find that it begins with the story of a shipwreck caused by Ariel (the magical water sprite, not the mermaid). The sailors talk of a terrible storm and fire upon the masts, and, miraculously as it seems, all of them survive. One very likely source for this scene was a popular shipwreck story about a vessel known as the Sea Venture, which wrecked in Bermuda in 1609 (Woodward). The passengers all survived and returned to England to tell stories of shrieking winds, St. Elmo’s fire (a weather phenomenon similar to lightning), and their miraculous survival thanks to a nearby island. Coincidence? We’ll find out if we ever discover Shakespeare’s “Works Cited” page. But in the meantime, we have reason to suspect that there is a cause-and-effect relationship here.
The takeaway from all of this: “going viral” didn’t start with the Hamster Dance in 1998. It really began with the roots of the English Renaissance in the 15th century, and one of the greatest evidences for a viral culture in Shakespeare’s time is the way that popular legends from the same decade that The Tempest was written in tend to surface in the play’s plot and dialogue.
Want to learn more? There’s plenty of viral travel literature to be found in the character of Caliban and the flora and fauna of the island. The Tempest is full of interesting bits of 17th-century pop culture. Give it a read; it might change the way you look at your Facebook page.
Borlik, Todd Andrew. "Caliban and the Fen Demons of Lincolnshire: The Englishness of Shakespeare's Tempest." Shakespeare 9.1 (2013): 21-51. ProQuest. Web. 5 Oct. 2015.
D'Amico, Jack. "'Where the Devil should He Learn our Language?' Travel and Translation in Shakespeare's the Tempest." Ed. Carmine G. Di Biase Rodopi, 2006. 239-253. Approaches to Translation Studies 26. ProQuest. Web. 5 Oct. 2015.
Ellrodt, Robert. Montaigne and Shakespeare: The Emergence of Modern Self-consciousness. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2015. Print.
Go, Kenji. "Montaigne's 'Cannibals' and the Tempest Revisited." Studies in Philology 109.4 (2012): 455-73. ProQuest. Web. 5 Oct. 2015.
Hulme, Peter, William H. Sherman, and Robin Kirkpatrick. The Tempest and its Travels. U of Pennsylvania P, 2000. ProQuest.Web. 5 Oct. 2015.
De Montaigne, Michel. "Of Cannibals." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. Print.
Sandrock, Kirsten. "Medieval Vs. Early Modern: Travel Narratives and Other Genres in the Tempest." Shakespeare Seminar 9 (2011): 15-25. ProQuest. Web. 5 Oct. 2015.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Ed. Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T. Vaughan. New York: Bloomsbury, n.d. Third. Amazon.com. Web. 5 Oct. 2015.
Woodward, Hobson. "A Jamestown Shipwreck 400 Years Ago This Month Awakened Shakespeare's Muse." History News Network. History News Network, 14 July 2009. Web. 08 Sept. 2015.
About the Author
Isaac Lyman is finishing his last semester as an English major, and he is very tired. [Pictured: the Bahamas, where he would like to be right now.]