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A Brave Vessel: The True Tale of the Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare'sThe Tempest

1 rating: 1.0
A book by Hobson Woodward

In this well-written and expertly paced work of popular scholarship, Woodward, an associate editor of the Adams papers, tells the story of William Strachey, an aspiring poet whose chronicle of a disastrous sea voyage and its aftermath had a profound … see full wiki

Tags: Book
Author: Hobson Woodward
Publisher: Viking Adult
1 review about A Brave Vessel: The True Tale of the Castaways...

Not a bad book, just a missed opportunity for a better one.

  • Aug 9, 2009
It is now widely accepted that Shakespeare based his late play "The Tempest" on accounts of the settlement of Virginia, and specifically the wreck of a Virginia-bound ship on the islands of Bermuda. Woodward tells the story of that shipwreck, its survivors, and how they eventually made it to Virginia and into Shakespeare. Unfortunately, along the way he buries the best part of his story.

The story of the settling of Jamestown has been told many other places, most recently in Benjamin Wooley's Savage Kingdom: The True Story of Jamestown, 1607, and the Settlement of America. Woodward's account follows the tale of the boat that never made it to Jamestown, blown eastward in a mid-summer hurricane so common to that part of the Atlantic. The Sea Venture carried the Virginia colony's intended governor, the admiral of the nine-vessel fleet headed for Virginia, and William Strachey, an erstwhile gentleman with literary aspirations who was apparently busy writing down all the fantastic events that transpired. Carried by the gale to the uninhabited Bermuda Islands, then feared by sailors as populated by devils, the Sea Venture grounded within a mile of the coast and miraculously all 150 sailors and colonists (including several women) survived both the storm, the wreck, and the lifeboat trip to the island . . .

. . . Which turned out to be a veritable tropical paradise where people would come to wear knee length shorts with dark socks and dress shoes and putter around in golf carts, althought that was much later. Seriously though, the Sea Venture survivors created a microcosm of English empire on the islands, based on the natural plenty of edible wildlife on land, air, and sea.

After nearly a year, the team built a pair of smaller boats from the trees on the island and the remnants of the still-stuck Sea Venture, and continued their journey to Virginia--which was just a week's sail west. All the while Strachey was duly recording events; he was eventually appointed colonial secretary and sent letters describing the events before returning to England . . .

. . . To find his account memorialized (or plagiarized) by Shakespeare in "The Tempest" which opened just days after Strachey set foot back on his native soil!

Such is Woodward's account, which had great promise of a more interesting tale, but it too was blown off-course and foundered on the rocks of:

--failing to find the story. History is full of fascinating events like this. Fascinating, that is, when the right writer finds the heart of his story with the point of his pen (regards to Jimmy Buffett for that line). The heart of Woodward's story should have been, after a brief thumbnail of what happened in the New World (the journey, the shipwreck, and the aftermath), what happened when the news and the participants like Strachey arrived back in the Old. Instead this story is relegated to the final four of 18 chapters and an epilogue, less than one third of the book by page count. Too much time is spent retelling the story of the Jamestown settlement itself, which is better known and not as interesting today (in a nutshell for those who slept through it: Jamestown struggled but Virginia was settled, America won the Revolution, and the Americans beat the natives to conquer the rest of the continent) in comparison to how the story made it back to England and how it played out there.

--Burying the story in the unreadable footnotes. There is apparently a lot of question about which sources, Strachey's included, that Shakespeare used and how he got them, how much he had read of the New World, and exactly how the play parallels the sources and how audiences reacted to it. But this debate takes place mostly in the poorly formatted footnotes. I've never seen footnotes formatted in sentences and paragraphs, which combined with the parenthetical and numerical syntax common to footnotes makes them very difficult to reference. Which wouldn't be half so bad if Woodward hadn't left too much of the story in his discussions about the sources buried in the footnotes. He should have pulled these discussions about the sources to the body of the book, and relegated much of the Jamestown account to the footnotes.

Not a bad book, just a missed opportunity for a better one.

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