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Is This the Ship that Launched 17,000 Words?


The Prince Royal

Why the Prince Royal Did Not Inspire The Tempest

— Royal Shakespeare Company Artistic Director and Stratfordian, Gregory Doran, believes he has found the ship that might have inspired Shakespeare’s writing The Tempest, according to a recent article in The Times of London.

Doran, who is directing the play at RSC, identifies Prince Royal as the vessel that inspired Shakespeare, and well-known Shakespeare scholar, James Shapiro, validates his discovery.

Why does Doran believe Prince Royal was the ship that launched Shakespeare’s creativity? Doran, while conducting research for his production of The Tempest, was inspired when he saw Prince Royal and its shipbuilder, Phineas Pett, in a painting at the National Portrait Gallery. After reading Pett’s memoirs, Doran realized that there might be more to the impressive 55-gun ship than just a pretty picture.

According to Pett’s memoir, Prince Royal drew large crowds when it first floated into the Thames on September 25, 1610. Pett recorded various calamities that occurred the day of Prince Royal’s maiden voyage. First, trouble began when the king became trapped on the ship because too many people were aboard: an embarrassing moment for Pett. Next, adding to the crowd, winds were blowing against the tide, further deterring the ship’s launch.

Finally, Pett recalls that around midnight, a squall came into the Thames estuary with sound and fury. Pett believed the events of the day and especially the half-hour storm were caused by witchcraft.

Thus, Doran deduced that Shakespeare must have known about the current events regarding Prince Royal: its crowded reception involving the king and the violent storm that appeared seemingly out of nowhere, and, especially, that the Prince Royal shipbuilder cried witchcraft.

Longtime Oxfordian researcher, Nina Green, however, weighed in on Doran’s discovery, “If my analysis is correct, we need to get the word out about this before it becomes another Stratmyth set in stone by frequent repetition, as has happened with the wreck of the Sea Venture being the alleged source of The Tempest.”

Looking deeper into Pett’s memoir, Green noticed incongruities between Pett’s incident and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. ”[T]he only alleged similarities are between a violent storm which sinks the king’s ship in The Tempest and a half-hour squall in Pett’s account which doesn’t even actually delay the Prince Royal’s launching, and that the violent storm/half-hour squall were caused by an agent with supernatural powers on the one hand (Prospero in The Tempest) and suspected of being caused by an agent with supernatural powers on the other hand (Pett’s ‘enemies’ in his account).”

Green warranted Shaksper may have been aware that the squall had occurred, but he “certainly couldn’t have divined Pett’s innermost thoughts that night about the workings of his ‘enemies’,” because Pett’s account was written after the earliest known performance of The Tempest in 1611.

The largest section in Pett’s memoir was written in 1612 and includes the events that occurred on September 25, 1610.

“Pett’s manuscript…wasn’t even written down by Pett until 1612, after the first performance of The Tempest, so Shaksper […] couldn’t possibly have even seen a manuscript containing Pett’s private thoughts about the working of his enemies before The Tempest was written.  So the only remaining parallel between The Tempest and the Prince Royal is between a violent storm which sinks a ship and a half-hour squall which doesn’t even ultimately interfere with the launching of the ship, which is no parallel at all.”

Further reading:

For Pett’s account, see Perrin, W.G., The Autobiography of Phineas Pett (Navy Records Society, 1918), pp. 80-84.

Nina Green is the recipient of a 2016 Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship grant for further research in the College of Arms. She resides in Canada.

About Theresa Lauricella

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