Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Shakespeare Connection

Once upon a time--1609 to be precise--an adventurous young man set out from England on a trans-Atlantic voyage intended to take him to Jamestown in the New World. Little did he realize that his journey would lead to mutiny and the threat of execution, and inspire one of history's greatest literary minds.

My ancestor Stephen Hopkins, by most current accounts, was born about 1578, probably in Hampshire, England. By 1609, he was married with three children: Elizabeth, Constance and Giles. His family situation did not deter him from making the long voyage to America, specifically Jamestown in the Virginia Colony.

The wreck of the Sea Venture, as
depicted on Bermuda's coat of arms
At least, Jamestown was the intended destination. The ship Sea Venture encountered a storm that drove it off course toward Bermuda, where it ran aground. With their ship wrecked, the crew was stranded on the "Isle of Devils" for 10 months, subsisting on wild game. Six months into the ordeal, Hopkins declared the Virginia Governor held no power over a wrecked ship and earned a charge of mutiny for inciting others. He was tried and sentenced to death for the affront. Only by pleading on behalf of the family he left behind was he able to have the sentence overturned.

Hopkins and the others did eventually reach Jamestown after building a small ship from the wreckage. He remained for several years before returning to England. His wife Mary, unfortunately, had died during his absence. He remarried (to Elizabeth Fisher) in 1618 and had seven more children. The second child, a son named Oceanus, was born aboard the Mayflower during Hopkins' next--and more auspicious--journey to America in 1620.

Image and signature
of Stephen Hopkins

I first read of Hopkins' adventures in the back of a massive book titled The Freeman Families of Nova Scotia. The last place I expected to encounter his story again was in a Renaissance Literature class at university several years later. We were studying William Shakespeare's The Tempest that semester. As I read through the introductory text to the play, I came to a passage regarding the wreck of the Sea Venture and the crew's mutiny. The incident, according to my textbook, was widely regarded as Shakespeare's inspiration for writing The Tempest in 1610.

I knew the story was familiar, but I couldn't make the connection right away. None of the mutineers were named. I had to dig through several books and files before I found the Freeman Families reference again. The two accounts did indeed match.

Discovering stories like this is the true reward of genealogy. And this is just part of Stephen Hopkins' story. His life in Plymouth, Massachusetts, continued a pattern of ups and downs that could probably fill a book. Did he live happily ever after? That's a story for another day.

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