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The earliest copy of “ The Tempest” known is that in the folio of 1623. To the precise date of its production we have no clue, but the following memorandum from the " Accounts of the Revels at Court," is almost positive testimony that it was written before 1611:By the King's
Hallomas nyght was presented att Whithall before
ye Kinges Matie, a play called the Tempest.. And the speech of Gonzalo, Act II. Sc. 1,
“ ['the commonwealth I would by contraries,” &c.
which is obviously taken from a passage in Florio’s translation of Montaigne's Essayes, first printed in 1603, is equally decisive as to its having been written after that year. The story upon which “ The Tempest” is founded, was most probably derived, according to Shakespeare's usual practice, from an existing play or from some popular chronicle or romance. Collins the poet, indeed, informed T. Warton, that he had met with a novel called Aurelio and Isabella, printed in Italian, Spanish, French, and English, in 1588, which he conceived to have formed the basis of “The Tempest.” When he spoke of the circumstance, however, Collins was labouring under mental debility, and so far as the particular novel he mentioned was concerned his memory deceived him, for the fable of Aurelio and Isabella bears no resemblance to that of the play; yet it is remarkable that a friend of James Boswell declared that he had once perused an Italian novel which answered to Collins's description. In an article on the early English and German dramas published in the New Monthly Magazine for January, 1841, Mr. Thonis pointed out a dramatic piece by Jacob Ayrer, à notary of Nürnberg, contemporary with Shakespeare, entitled Die schöne Sidea, (The Beautiful Sidea,) which bears some resemblance to “ The Tempest,” and which Tieck conjectured was a translation of some old English drama from which Shakespeare borrowed his idea. How far this is probable the reader must judge from the following outline of the German play: Ludolph having been vanquished by his rival, and with his daughter Sidea driven into a forest, rebukes her for complaining of their change of fortune, and then summons his spirit Runcifal to learn from him his future destiny and prospects of revenge. Runcifal, who is, like Ariel, somewhat “moody," announces to Ludolph that the son of his enemy will shortly become his prisoner. After a comic episode, most probably introduced by the German, we see Prince Leudegast, with his son Engelbrecht and the councillors, hunting in the same forest ; when Engelbrecht and his companion Famulus, having separated from the associates, are suddenly encountered by Ludolph and his daughter. On his commanding them to yield themselves prisoners, they refuse; but on attempting to draw their swords, Ludolph renders them powerless by the touch of his magical wand, and gives the prince over to Sidea to carry logs of wood for her, and to obey her commands in all respects. The resemblance between the German and English plays is continued in a later part of the former production, when Sidea, moved by pity for the labours of Engelbrecht in carrying logs, exclaims, she would “feel great joy, if he would prove faithful to me, and take me in wedlock ;” an event which, in the end, is happily brought about, and leads to the reconciliation of their parents, the rival princes.
The title of “ The Tempest” is supposed by some commentators to have been determined by the shipwreck of Sir George Sommers and Sir Thomas Gates on the coast of the Bermudas in 1609; of which an account was published by Silvester Jourdan, one of the crew, in the following year:. Discovery of the Barmudas; otherwise called the Isle of Divels ; by Sir Thomas Gates, Sir George Sommers, and Captayne Newport, with divers others. It is highly probable, too, that Jourdan's and other accounts of the Bermudas, by some of which they are said to be enchanted and inhabited by witches and devils, suggested the expression “ still-vexed Bermoothes,” and induced the poet to possess his hero with necromantic influence and supernatural agency. Mr. Hunter, in his “ Disquisition on the Scene, Origin, Date, &c. of Shakspeare's Tempest," has laboured with great ingenuity to prove that the actual scene of the play was Lampedusa,
an island of the Mediterranean lying not far out of a ship’s course passing from Tunis to Naples,” and which is uninhabited, and supposed by sailors to be enchanted. The same idea was suggested, or occurred to Douce, who thus speaks of it:-“ The Island of Lampedusa is near the coast of Tunis; and from its description, in Dapper, and the real tract of the King of Naples' voyage in Shakespeare's Tempest, will turn out to be the veritable island where he was shipwrecked, and to which Prospero had been banished, whenever the Italian novel on which the play founded shall be discovered.” We fervently hope not; being contented to believe it rose, like a new Atlantis, at the summons of the poet, and when his magic work on it was done :
“ From that day forth the Isle has beene
By wandering sailors never seene :