Shakespeare: A Bibliographical Guide

This guide was written by the students of English 431: Shakespeare and His Age. All copyrights belong to the authors. All rights reserved.


Dating The Tempest: The Authorship Debate

by Brian Flynn

One of the most important issues facing Shakespeare's The Tempest is the accurate dating of it's writing. Dating The Tempest is a key argument to both the Statfordians (those who believe William Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare's plays), and the Oxfordians (those who believe that Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford actually wrote Shakespeare's plays). A leading spokesperson for the Stratfordian argument is Dave Kathman. Kathman wrote an essay, Dating The Tempest, presenting arguments that The Tempest was inspired by William Starchey's account of his voyage on the "Sea Venture," an ill-fated ship that was stranded on the Bermuda islands while en route to Virginia. However, Oxfordian philosopher Vulker Molthopp argues that Shakespeare (or whoever wrote Shakespeare's plays) inspired Strachey's account. His main argument is that Shakespeare used the parallels in language long before The Tempest, while dismissing the similarities in events as coincidence. However, Molthopp only succeeds in casting doubt on one small part of Kathman's argument, therefore he is unsuccessful in bringing forward convincing evidence that The Tempest was written before 1610.

In his essay, David Kathman presents several arguments in favor of the Stratfordian theory of authorship. His overall theory states that The Tempest was inspired by William Starchey's account of being stranded in Bermuda. The facts are as follows: In June of 1609, six hundred people and nine ships set sail from England en route to the Virginia Colony. Aboard the "Sea
Venture," the flagship of the fleet, was Sir Thomas Gates, the newly appointed governor of the colony, and Sir George Somers, admiral of the Virginia Company.
On July 25, a fierce storm, probably a hurricane, overtook the fleet. Afterwards, four out of the nine ships found each other and their way to Virginia. The Sea Venture was not one of them, and it was presumed lost at sea. Actually, the Sea Venture washed upon the shore of Bermuda with all of its passengers. Over the next year, they built another ship and set sail for Virginia
on May 10, 1610. They arrived two weeks later.

Two months later, a ship leaves Virginia for England. They arrive early in September. The expedition was the attention of much public interest, so the news of the disappearance and survival of the ship's passengers causes public uproar.
According to Kathman, The Tempest must have been written in the brief time frame between the news of the survival in September 1610, and the first performance of the play on November 11, 1611. Kathman further claims that The Tempest was inspired by William Starchey's account of his experiences on the island. These arguments lead us to the conclusion that The Tempest was written six years after Edward de Vere's death, therefore disproving the Oxfordian theory of authorship.

Kathman's key evidence supporting his theory is the similarity of the language between Starchey's True Reportory of the Wrack and The Tempest. However, Vulker Molthopp argues that the language parallels Kathman uses to support his argument are found elsewhere in Shakespeare. Although Molthopp admits that the verbal parallels are undeniable, he claims the Shakespeare influenced Starchey, not the other way around. He basically calls Starchey a
plagiarizer, and concludes that The Tempest may have been written up to a decade or more before the wreck of the Venture.

Basically, Molthopp is making Kathman's argument out to be something that it is not. All Molthopp manages to accomplish is arguing the validity of the verbal parallels that Kathman points out. In fact, Molthopp has the nerve to challenge the vailidity of Kathman's argument by examining the word "amazement." Kathman points out "amazement is used three times in both the play and Starchey's letter. He also challenges the use of terms such as "bear up, "hoodwink," and "fluxes and stagues." Although there are similarities in the verbal parallels, Molthopp points out that these words are frequently used elsewhere in the canon. Molthopp fails to even address the many other points brought out in Kathman's argument.
First, Kathman describes the similarities between Starchey's account of the storm and the description of the storm in the play, including a description of St. Elmo's fire. In Starchey's account:

"Sir George Somers . . . had an apparition of a little round light, like a faint Starre, trembling, and streaming along with a sparkeling blaze, halfe the height upon the Maine Mast, and shooting sometimes from Shroud to Shroud, tempting to settle as it were upon any of the foure Shrouds . . running sometimes along the Maine-yard to the very end, and then returning . . but upon a sodaine, towards the morning watch, they lost the sight of it, and knew not which way it made . . Could it have served us now miraculously to have taken our height by, it might have strucken amazement" (11-12).

In the play:

Ariel: I boarded the King's ship; now on the beak,
Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin,
I flam'd amazement. Sometimes I'ld divide,
And burn in many places; on the topmast,
The yards and boresprit, would I flame distinctly,
Then meet and join. Jove's lightning, the precursors
O' th' dreadful thunder-claps, more momentary
And sight-outrunning were not; (1.2.196-203)

The similarities in these two descriptions are almost too uncanny to be coincidental. Another striking similarity among many others, comes between the two descriptions of the events that took place on the inland. Starchey writes about a "Tortoyse," which he says "is such a kind of meat, as a man can neither absolutely call Fish nor Flesh, keeping most what in the water, and feeding upon Sea-grasse like a Heifer." (24) In the play, Prospero calls Caliban "thou tortoise" (1.2.316), while Trinculo wonders whether he is "a man or a fish" (2.2.25), and Stephano repeatedly calls him "moon-calf" (e.g., 2.2.106, 2.2.135-6).

There is also the question of how Shakespeare could have read Starchey's letter, since it was published in 1625. Although the letter was not published until 1625, it circulated throughout the Virginia Company in 1610-11. Shakespeare and Starchey shared many common acquaintances. Some of Shakespeare's own playwrights knew Starchey. Also, William Levison, the person responsible for attracting investors to the Virginia Company, was a business associate of Shakespeare's. Also, Shakespeare's friend's stepson was an active member of the Virginia Company. It is in fact very probable that Shakespeare could have obtained a copy of Starchey's letter before it's publication because Shakespeare and Starchey were members of the same social circle.

The Shakespeare authorship debate has gone on for more than three hundred years and shows no signs of stopping soon. The is an enormous wealth of information for anyone who is interested in learning more about this controversy, and there is certainly much, much more that can be learned. I personally feel that the Oxfordians fail to refute enough of the Stratfordian's arguments to make their case credible. In fact, that's what Stratfordians find so disgraceful.

Kathman, David. Dating The Tempest.

Thekey document for the Stratfordian theory, Kathman's essay claims that The Tempest was written between 1610 and 1611, and was inspired by William Starchey's account of being stranded in Bermuda.

Molthopp, Vulker. Undating The Tempest. July 24, 1999.

The key document for the Oxfordian theory, Molthopps' essay attempts to disprove Kathman's claims, saying the verbal parallels occur throughout Shakespeare, while failing to address any of Kathman's other arguments.

Kathman, Dave, and Ross, Terry. The Shakespeare Authorship Page. April 23, 1996.

The main page for Stradfordian scholars, this site provides a wealth of information on the Stratfordian theory of authorship.

The Shakespeare Oxford Society Homepage. <>

The main page for Oxfordian scholars, this site provides a wealth of information on the Oxfordian theory of authorship.

Frontline, the Shakespeare mystery. 1998, PBS.

PBS program on Shakespearian authorship, this site provides many authorship links and information on the authorship controvers