Traveling with The Tempest in the College Classroom

Donovan Tann

Associate Professor of English, University of Dubuque

Image of the ship from The Tempest by Stefano Della Bella (1644)

For many undergraduates, navigating the unfamiliar language in early modern texts can be intimidating. That anxiety can prompt students to lean on teachers—and websites—for the reassurance of ready-made knowledge. This blog post describes my small-scale attempt to use freely-available travel narratives and counter-narratives to support students’ active engagement with the world of The Tempest.  

My broader goal was to equip students to see Shakespeare’s late play as responding to and participating in a broader network of travel and colonization narratives that existed long before (and after) Shakespeare’s time with real-world consequences for both Europeans and Indigenous people. Examining these stories offered further insight into the interactions between different strands of colonial thinking in Shakespeare’s play. While this approach is not novel, my goal is to share a practical example of how I have used these texts in the classroom.1

At the University of Dubuque, our Shakespeare course fills a variety of needs including coverage requirements for English majors and humanities elective credit. This course is many students’ first sustained look at premodern texts, so interpretive practice became a central part of the course. My syllabus describes the course as seeking to “[explore] a wide range of Shakespeare’s works in the vibrancy of their original contexts” in part “by making dissenting voices and underrepresented perspectives and scholarly approaches central to this exploration.” Our small class size allowed us space to reflect on Shakespeare’s stature as a product of canon-formation and to place Shakespeare alongside writers from Rachel Specht and Ben Jonson to Virginia Woolf and Kim F. Hall. 

With this purpose in mind, early modern travel literature provided us with an opportunity to reflect upon the rhetoric that justified European colonial projects. Sarah Davis-Secord, in her essay “Teaching a Diverse and Inclusive Premodern World,” advises teachers to bring students “into the work of creating knowledge in the classroom” to “teach them not only historical and disciplinary content but also help them develop the skills of investigation.” She also suggests that “many pieces of travel literature” translate well to the classroom because they “easily inspire conversations about racialized thinking and the concept of essentialized ethnic groups.”2

By expanding students’ encounters with primary sources, I hoped to construct a fuller picture of what New World “discovery” might have meant for Shakespearean audiences and clarify moments in which colonial violence either erupts or remains encoded beneath the textual surface. Rather than suggest lines of textual influence, I hoped that this activity would illuminate how early modern audiences might have made sense of the competing paternalistic colonial discourses (represented in part by Prospero) and more transparently acquisitive motives (visible in Stephano and Trinculo).3

In previous years, I introduced the play with an excerpt from Raleigh’s Discovery of Guiana (1595) as an example of travel narratives and, by extension, European attitudes towards Indigenous people and North American natural resources. This time, we devoted part of our first class on The Tempest to four related excerpts: the Raleigh passage, Richard Hakluyt’s Discourse Concerning Western Planting (1584), Thomas Hariot’s Brief and True Report (1588), and an English translation of Peter Martyr’s early sixteenth-century De Orbo Novo. 

I began our activity by sharing details from a shipwreck story at the beginning of Peter Martyr’s chronicle of European colonization (which Richard Hakluyt previously translated into Latin). The passage, which translator Richard Eden describes as crucial “for the better understanding of the whole worke,” begins Martyr’s colonial narrative with the story of an unknown ship “driven to a land unknowne, and not described any any Map or Carde of the sea,” from which “only the Pilot, with three or four other, remained alive.” The passage then explains how Christopher Columbus eventually receives the shipwreck survivors’ story as a kind of intellectual inheritance. Our class considered how this shipwreck origin story creates a sense of colonial inevitability and compared it to the providential shipwreck in The Tempest.456

I then gave students a handout with excerpts from Hariot’s Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588), Raleigh’s Discovery of Guiana (1595), and Caliban’s account of his past and captivity. After close reading Caliban’s description of the island’s natural resources in Act I, scene 2, students annotated these sixteenth-century travel texts in small groups and shared their findings. We considered how Hariot’s narrative represents technological instruments as supernatural forces—“rather the works of gods than of men”—and potential parallels with the magical power that Prospero demonstrates throughout Shakespeare’s play.7

Map of Guiana, Nieuwe caerte van het Wonderbaer ende Goudrjcke Landt Guiana, by Jodocus Hondius (1598)

Students also identified connections between Caliban showing Prospero “all the qualities o’ the isle, / The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile” and Raleigh’s blazon of Guiana’s riches: “great quantities of brazil-wood, and divers berries . . . All places yield abundance of cotton, of silk, of balsamum . . . of all sorts of gums, of Indian pepper.” The passage’s direct language equipped students to recognize the violence implied in the exercise’s more diplomatic texts. The excerpt concludes with Raleigh’s description of Guiana as “a country that hath yet her maidenhead, never sacked, turned nor wrought . . . The graves have not been opened for gold, the mines not broken with sledges, nor their images pulled down out of their temples.” Students’ understandably surprised reaction to Raleigh’s rhetoric provided important reference point that made it impossible for us to ignore the implications of more idealized proposals.  

Following the Raleigh and Hariot excerpts, we then examined Hakluyt’s Discourse of Western Planting (1584) excerpted from the National Humanities Center online text. Maya Mathur suggests, “Reviewing a text like Hakluyt’s . . . generates awareness of the ease with which European characters asserted their authority over the natives they encountered and illustrates the dehumanizing nature of colonial contact.” In our case, Raleigh’s travel narrative provided our class with the tools we needed to evaluate the rhetoric in Hakluyt’s more idealistic argument. Students quickly critiqued Hakluyt’s promise to “use the natural people there with all humanity, courtesy, and freedom” and thereby win Indigenous people’s sympathies away from the Spanish crown in light of Raleigh’s account of earlier English colonial projects.89

Finally, I read aloud from a brief passage from a later seventeenth-century text that reports on an Indigenous narrative to expand our discussion beyond European perspectives alone. In a speech collected by the French cleric and historian Chrestien Le Clercq, a Mi’kmaq leader argues that each member of their community “consider[s] himself infinitely more happy and more powerful than the French” for the abundance they enjoyed before European contact. This speech asserts that justifications for European colonization betray a cultural lack rather than cultural superiority. In spite of its provenance as a secondhand account, this speech provided an important point of comparison.10 

Hearing the Mi’kmaq speech excerpt complemented our earlier travel narratives and further nuanced our discussion of both Caliban and Ariel’s role in The Tempest. I afterwards wished that I had carved out more time for our group to explore the speech in greater depth: in this case, I found myself reproducing the problem of suggesting ready-made connections rather than slowing down enough to facilitate students’ collaborative engagement with the text.  

After teaching this expanded set of travel narratives for the first time, I felt that the activity was generally successful: in our discussion of The Tempest, we were able to extend our discussion beyond the explicitly violent greed expressed by Stephano and Trinculo to consider the possibility that Prospero’s paternalism and argument for his moral right to dominance might manifest two faces of the same colonial logic. Allowing additional time to explore these narratives might also have allowed our class to articulate the limitations of studying intercultural contact without including a fuller set of perspectives. 

Ultimately, this activity shows how even a small-scale examination of travel literature can open doors for student engagement with the early modern world. 


  1. See for example the range of European and Indigenous contact texts (including Hariot and Eden) surveyed in Martin Butler, “The Tempest and the Literature of Wonder,” British Library, 15 March 2016, ↩︎
  2. Sarah Davis-Secord, “Teaching a Diverse and Inclusive Premodern World,” Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching 27, no. 2 (Fall 2020): 13, 14. ↩︎
  3. William Hamlin considers some of the potential downsides of framing texts from and about contact in the early modern Atlantic world as specifically colonial works without interrogating the meaning of that categorization. Hamlin acknowledges the impact of the “assimilative habits of thought and powerful cultural predispositions” that European writers carry with them, and he simultaneously challenges interpreters to consider moments of internal doubt, conflict, or disagreement in William M. Hamlin, “On Reading Early Accounts of the New World,” Connotations 6, no. 1 (January 1996): 50. While outside of the scope of this introductory activity, our class later discussed the possibility of The Tempest’s potential internal critique of or discomfort with colonization in light of Caliban and Ariel’s complaints against Prospero’s treatment. ↩︎
  4. On the dissemination, use, and re-use of Martyr’s text, see Michael G. Brennan, “The Texts of Peter Martyr’s De Orbe Novo Decades (1504-1628): A Response to Andrew Hadfield,” Connotations 6, no. 2 (May 1996): 227-245.  ↩︎
  5. Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, The Historie of the West Indies, trans. Michael Lok and Richard Eden (London, 1625), Versions of this often-revived document are available online such as Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, The History of Travayale in the West and East Indies (London, Richard Jugge, 1577; Ann Arbor: Text Creation Partnership, 2011), 1, 2. Here and in later period documents, I have silently modernized orthography and formatting in quotations from period documents for reading clarity. ↩︎
  6. Stritmatter and Kositsky draw potential lines of influence from Peter Martyr’s chronicle and from Ariosto’s epic Orlando Furioso to The Tempest in Roger Stritmatter and Lynne Kositsky, “‘O Brave New World’: ‘The Tempest’ and Peter Martyr’s ‘De Orbe Novo,’” Critical Survey 21, no. 2 (2009): 7–42. ↩︎
  7. Thomas Hariot, “Part III: On the Nature and Manners of the People,” in A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, ed. Paul Royster, Electronic Texts in American Studies 20 (London, 1588). ↩︎
  8. Maya Mathur, “When Students Recognize Gender but Not Race: Addressing the Othello-Caliban Conundrum,” in Teaching Race in the European Renaissance: A Classroom Guide, by Matthieu Chapman and Anna Wainwright (ACMRS Press, 2023), 22.↩︎
  9. Richard Hakluyt, from Discourse of Western Planting, ed. David B. Quinn and Allison M. Quinn (London, Hakluyt Society, 1993; repr. National Humanities Center, 2006). ↩︎
  10. Chrestien Le Clercq, New Relation of Gaspesia, with the Customs and Religion of the Gaspesian Indians, William F. Ganong, trans. and ed. (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1910), 103-06. History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web, American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning.