The Corfu Claim

My parents-in-law are going to the Greek Islands this fall.  Today my mother-in-law excitedly told me that they’d be going to Corfu!  When it did not register with me, she explained that this island was the setting for The Tempest.  I don’t want to say that I told her she was wrong, because I don’t know one way or the other, but I expect the claims were … dubious.  The island’s pretty safely a complete fiction, as far as I know.

But then I remembered that The Tempest is supposedly based on a true story, so I thought that maybe in the true story version, Corfu was the island in question. Thus somebody’s played connect the dots with the story and stuck Mr. Shakespeare’s name all over the tourist literature.

Googling around does indeed find me a bunch of references to the island of Corfu as the setting of The Tempest, but they are all “Greek tourist information” in nature, I can’t really find any Shakespeare references.

Getting home from the in-laws house, I consult Asimov.  If there was ever an encyclopedic tome of Shakespearean info to consult all between one set of covers, Mr. Asimov was it.  No help here.  All he tells us is that the island is not identifiable on any map, and at best it would be somewhere between Italy and Africa.  He does, by the way, go on to describe how and when all the moons of Uranus, so it’s safe to say that if he had the knowledge, he would have shared it.

Anybody got better research?  Does Corfu have any sort of meaningful claim to the title (such as a real-life backstory), or did maybe they say “Hey, we’re an island in between Italy and Africa, let’s brand ourselves as the Tempest island!”

(For the curious, what Asimov does say about the Tempest, without disclaimer, is that it is Shakespeare’s final work that he completed entirely by himself, unlike the Fletcher plays Henry VIII and Two Noble Kinsmen that he merely contributed to.  Funny how times have changed, no?)

9 thoughts on “The Corfu Claim

  1. True, which I've understood to be a supposed reference to Bermuda, and a connection to the Strachey shipwreck? But even if this were the inspiration it seems geographically probable that the island was between Italy and Africa.

  2. So, I have to ask: Asimov's Shakespeare book, is it worth the $25? I should note I've read no Asimov, indeed no sci-fi save for Douglas Adams (I'm currently skimming his pentalogy while waiting for three new Sh. plays in the mail).

  3. I have, in the past, posted such stories as "Why I still can't get through Asimov." It is not to my mind, end-to-end casual reading. However, it is still a work of genius. Imagine if a single man sat down at a typewriter and braindumped an encyclopedia of Shakespeare in one sitting. The man knew everything. It is a killer reference book. I'm glad I have it – a friend bought it for me, and it is a cherished gift. I consult it now when I have a specific piece of information I'm curious about, such as real-life wedding connection to Midsummer, or in the current example, whether Corfu has a claim to be the Tempest island.

    It has nothing at all to do with Asimov as a sci-fi author. You have to realize that the man published some 400+ books in his life, and his knowledge far exceeded robots. He wrote on many, many topics. Highly recommended to own, even if you never read the whole thing.

  4. Here is what the third Arden edition has to say (edited by Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T. Vaughan):
    "The play's most obvious African connection is the island's location: if plotted literally, it must have been within a hundred or so miles from a line between Naples and Tunis. Although its precise location is unspecified . . . several 19th century critics debated the most likely Mediterranean isle, based on the imaginary intersection point of a 'drifting carcass of a butt' (1.2.146) from the coast near Milan and, 12 years later, of a tempest-tossed ship en route from Tunis to Naples. . . . Whatever such sleuthing uncovers — Corfu, perhaps, or Pantalaria, or Lampedusa — it is . . . not very far from the African coast." (p.48)

  5. Now you've just made me want to read my copy of Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare again! 🙂

    . . . but yeah: within the diegesis of the story, it's an island in between Italy and Tunisia. Whatever its inspiration — Bermuda almost certainly played a part — it's the island it has to be, in the place it has to be, for the story to happen.

    (Personally, I think the Village where Number Six was imprisoned was built not far from Prospero's cell.)

  6. Very ingenious idea, Blake Stacey! I think you're onto something here. I read an article in Shakespeare Quarterly some time ago claiming that "Last Action Hero" was based on Hamlet. It is now obvious that "The Prisoner" was just a remake of "The Tempest." Number One is obviously the unseen Prospero, Number Two represents Ariel. Number Six is a variation on Miranda, obviously :). Just need to figure out who fits the role of Caliban. I am sure somehow I can make the facts fit my theory…

  7. Lawrence Durrell, older, literaru brother to Gerald Durrell, of My FAmily And Other Animals, wrote a brilliant little book about his time on Corfu, called Prospero's Cell. In it, there is lengthy debate between Durrell and his friends on the possibility that Corfu is indeed Prospero's isle…

  8. In the New Cambridge Edition of "As You Like It", editor Michael Hattaway, asserts (without a doubt) that the island is Bermuda. I think this is a bit bold. He does not even explain why it has to be Bermuda…

    In "Shakespeare after all", Marjorie Garber mentions that Shakespeare might also have had a British island in mind, which was well-known for its wilderness and uncivilized inhabitants, Ireland.^^

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